Alan Wenham-Prosser
Tradition-Bearer of a Sufi Music-Making tradition that goes back to Rumi
Alan Wenham-Prosser is a tradition-bearer of Sufi music, passed down through a tradition of rigorous apprenticeship and training. He studied for many years with master musicians in Turkey, and in the sema (whirling ceremony) tradition that goes back to the greatest mystic of all Sufis, Rumi himself.

Alan's first training in music was informal. It involved singing along to songs heard on the radio with his mother. At secondary school, his natural talent evolved when he was chosen to join a local boys' choir, where he developed his keen aural sense of pitch.

During a visit to Florence in his early twenties, he had a revelation. As he recalls in his book, The Music of Rumi (hereinafter MoR), "There were times that I could hardly see the inside of a church because I was so overwhelmed with the beauty ... my eyes flowed with tears." (p 6) The revelatory experience compelled him to the link between art and human creativity further. Professionally, he became a building control surveyor. Vocationally, he followed where music led him ...

Sidney Clerici—an English mystic and (former) disciple of Brahmananda Saraswati was Alan's first spiritual teacher. It was music that brought them together. Alan clearly remembers a particular day when Sid played him a recording of an instrumentalist playing a single unaccompanied melodic musical line. Alan was 22 at the time. 'Before we listened he instructed us to "listen to the space (silence) between the notes." ... Each note of the music arose from an ocean of silence. This was ether, the space between the notes, on which he focussed our attention. Each note was like a beautiful dolphin, suddenly appearing from the deep and gracefully leaping high into the air. Each had a life which seemed to be an eternity. Then it would descend smoothly and disappear into the ocean as if it had never existed. After a space, which seemed endless, the next note would appear and as we listened, it seemed to be timeless, although I could say, in the normal experience of time, each note was only in this world for part of a second. The world into which we were transported was the world of timeless eternity, from which the music was being born in the mind of the composer.' (MoR, 153)

It was that experience, especially, that brought home to Alan the potential that music has to affect the soul and sent him on a quest which took him to unexpected places, ultimately to seek out the oral traditions which fed into and were inspired by it the Advaita (non-dualist) Vedanta school of philosophy – the oral tradition of Vedanta in India, and particularly the oral Sufi Tradition of the Mevlevi in Turkey.

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Numerous trips to Turkey (at least 43 trips) and India (at least 13 trips) over a period of over 30 years followed. (MoR, 7) It was not easy to find people working in an unbroken oral tradition. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s brought with it a ban on Mevlevi spiritual practices, and the organisational structure that held the movement together was fragmented and almost destroyed. (MoR, 56) A tradition which had been widespread gradually became Europeanised, through a wish to preserve and document it in Western notation using Western methods inadequate to capture its subtleties and individualities. Religious, political, and commercial biases played a further part in diluting the tradition's perennial values and practices and the integrated quality of the tradition was severed - or more accurately, almost severed.

Alan was lucky enough to be able to study with a few of the master musicians working outside the Turkish mainstream who maintained a robust, unbroken tradition of music making in an otherwise relatively fragmented cultural environment. Through Turkish masters Necdet Yaşar, Nezih Uzel, and others, he learned the principles of the modes or makams, drumming techniques and rhythmic patterns (usuls) used in playing the drums (kudums), the secrets of selecting, creating, tuning and playing bamboo flutes (neys), traditional vocal singing techniques, techniques of playing the Tanbur and Ud, the long- and short-necked stringed instruments, and the compositions (ayins) used in the traditional rites of the Mevlevi dervishes. He also received spiritual and practical guidance on the traditional ways of integrating live music in way which is true to the unbroken sema tradition—the tradition of the devotional Mevlevi whirling ceremony, performed not as a commercial attraction, but as an act of supreme devotion—from Mevlevi Sheikh Resuhi Baykara, and others who were direct descendents of Rumi, 'the last of the Mevlevis who were able to transmit the deeper emotions, related to the music directly' (MoR, 57), whose traditional semas in the Yenikapi Tekke in Istanbul before its closure by the Rupublic of Turkey were considered to be 100% true to the tradition which had a history of over 700 years of unbroken practice. It is this tradition of Mevlevi Music-making that Alan continues to live and practise.

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Alan's quest led him—via the work of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, among others who had also come in contact with a living tradition of Sufi practice (MoR, 59/60)—to see the universal practices that Huxley and others refer to as 'Perennial Philosophy' as common to all genuine living traditions, and that the lineage of the musical tradition he was engaging with could be traced back through India and the classical tradition, through Byzantium to Greece, back to Pythagorean practice, in turn, it would seem, inspired by aspects of Ancient Egyptian philosophy and ritual. (MoR, 60/1)

The link might seem tenuous, but as Alan explains, 'The Pythagorean melodic system is built from naturally occurring intervals known as the just intonation or natural harmonic series. These can easily be derived with the use of a long pipe or reed flute. The other way of obtaining them is with a long necked lute type instrument as shown on the Egyptian wall painting dating from around 1,400 BCE. The oral tradition has kept the melodic system alive.' The intervals derived from the Pythagorean melodic system are naturally occurring, and have qualitative mathematical properties that are so markedly different to the modern equal temperament system, and serve such a different purpose that the masterful engagement with them and preservation in this tradition is universally significant. The system serves to balance reason and emotion, intellect and intuition, physical and metaphysical, as symbolised perfectly in the figure of Saraswati.

As Algis Uždavinys writes, in The Golden Chain, 'The rediscovery of this ancient Hellenic wisdom allows us to see the crucial importance of the Neoplatonic doctrines for the formation of traditional Christian, Jewish and Islamic thought. If freed from modern misreadings—which, unfortunately, even had an effect on some contemporary Traditionalist writers—the ancient Pythagorean and Platonic tradition can be regarded as one of the main intellectual pillars of the sophia perennis.' (p xxviii)

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Alan became a mürid (aspirant) of Sheikh Resuhi Baykara in 1977 and was initiated into the Mevlevi order in 1978. After the Sheikh's death in 1989, Alan spent over 20 years as a disciple of Swami Satyananda in India, seeing clear links between the philosophy behind the Mevlevi practices he had been initiated into and Advaita (non-dualist) Vedanta philosophy, and the importance of connecting to a living source of knowledge from an oral tradition. He was initiated as a Krishna Bhakta (devotee) in 1991. He continues to hold weekly semas in West Sutton, England, to which those who are serious may be invited.

Alan can be contacted via The LifeLore Institute or the Saraswati Society

While the following books will prove useful to those wishing to read about the tradition, there is no substitute for experiencing its effects in person.

Danielou, A, Music and the Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1995.

Godwin, Joscelyn, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: Mysticism in Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Godwin, Joscelyn, The Harmony of the Spheres: A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music, 1993.

Helmholtz, Hermann Van (Author), Ellis, Alexander John (Trans.), On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, London: Longmans, Green, 1875.

Huxley, Aldous, The Perennial Philosophy, London: Harper, 1945.

Uždavinys, Algis, The Golden Chain, Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004.

Wenham-Prosser, Alan, The Music of Rumi, Sutton, Surrey UK: Saraswati Society, 2012.

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