On Saturday, October 15, the International Contemporary Ensemble presents “Peyvand (پیوند),” a program of works featuring the ensemble (currently celebrating its 20th anniversary). What began as a collaboration between IntCE with Composers Now and the Cheswatyr Foundation—which commissioned a work by Niloufar Nourbakhsh to honor the life and legacy of philanthropist Cece Wasserman—grew into a program of nine works by members of the Iranian Female Composers Association (which Nourbakhsh cofounded in 2017). The program’s title takes its name from the Persian word for “connectivity.” 

The idea of connection hits home after the last several weeks in Iran, where protests erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini while she was detained by the country’s morality police. Since then, global protests have continued in both the name of Amini and those who were killed during the demonstrations in Iran. While this wasn’t the initial reason that I wanted to speak with the composers featured on IntCE’s program, it was impossible to avoid the subject. During a Zoom roundtable, Nourbakhsh, fellow IFCA cofounders Anahita Abbasi and Aida Shirazi, and IFCA members Bahar Royaee and Niloufar Shiri spoke about approaching this concert in light of the latest news cycle, the common themes that run through their works, what it was like to pursue musical education as women in Iran, and how their identity shapes their music.

I. The composers

The upcoming IntCE/IFCA concert features nine composers. Here, we spoke with five (including composer-kamancheh player Niloufar Shiri, who will perform improvised interludes). They began by talking about their work overall and their pieces featured on the program. 

Anahita Abbasi was born in Shiraz in 1985. At 19, she moved to Graz, Austria, where she cofounded the Schallfeld Ensemble and studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts. She currently lives in California and is completing her PhD at UC San Diego. She is a cofounder of the Iranian Female Composers Association.

Anahita Abbasi: The way that I compose, it always comes from very close interactions and collaborations with musicians and performers. So we need to have this very close contact, and I kept doing that until the travel ban [to the U.S.] happened for people from Iran. In 2018, I started to work with the Scripps Oceanography Institute in San Diego, working with sounds that were recorded with hydrophones in the Arctic and different places. I was fascinated by life underwater and how we do not know that much about that world. I learned about the hadal and epi; the hadal is the point on the ocean that still no human being has been able to go to. The water pressure is so great, and also there’s no light; it’s impossible for the light to go through that deep. The epi is on top of that layer, [where we] can see light and there is not as much pressure. I was fascinated by how there are creatures that live there, under so much pressure. 

Aida Shirazi was born in 1987 in Tehran, where she received her BA in piano. She then moved to Ankara, Turkey to study music composition and theory at Bilkent University, and to California to receive her PhD in composition from UC Davis. She is a cofounder and artistic director of the Iranian Female Composers Association.

Aida Shirazi: I deal a lot with language and text. That is one of the main driving forces in my music. I take a lot of inspiration from different qualities of the language I really admire and spend a lot of time reading poetry in both Persian and English. This work, “Crystalline Trees,” is inspired by one of the most well-known poems by the 20th-century Iranian poet Mehdi Akhavan-Sales. I think everyone at least knows a few lines of this poem, if not the entire thing. It was written at a very special time. He was very political, and this poem, “Winter,” talks about the very dark, suppressive time that he experienced, using different metaphors of winter: the cold, the distance between people, the fear, the isolation and lack of trust. Because that was pretty much the case in Iran at that point. 

I was interested in creating sounds that were crisp and hollow and distant from each other. So there are so many moments in the piece where each instrument is doing their own thing, and there are some similarities, but also all these timbres are very distinct from each other, they stand apart, so that there’s a lot of space. 

Bahar Royaee was born and raised in Iran, where she initially studied electrical engineering. She then studied composition in Malaysia before moving to the United States. She received her MM from Boston Conservatory and currently lives in New York where she is pursuing a PhD from CUNY. 

Bahar Royaee: My music is very much related to the questions that I have about the world. I have a lot of questions and none of them have answers. This piece basically centers ornamentation as the primary focus of the music, and it shows rhythm as a body-movement phenomenon. I have become extremely interested in rhythm and time, the differences of time in different spaces, different bodies—how one defines herself and her body, or defines her existence in a space through the rhythm of that space. 

I started to write a diary, which I did not continue, but during the pandemic it helped me, and I wrote this and I think that would perhaps explain what I’m talking about being in sync with time:

The last sonic memory I have of her in her presence, and the sound of walking in the space, is in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport. So sharp, so loud, sometimes with scuffing, as though she was keeping time with me and playing a mutual rhythm. We stopped, and then she was deafeningly quiet. I walked away with my own walking rhythm, at my own pace. Then I turned around. I looked at my mother, who was standing in the middle of a claustrophobic yet agoraphobic place. How much of her inner rhythm changed as a result of that day? What did she think of herself in that situation? Our times never synchronized again.

Niloufar Shiri was born in Tehran in 1992. She studied at the city’s Music Conservatory, receiving a diploma on kamancheh performance, before moving to California, where she received her BA in Music Composition from UC San Diego and her MA in Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology from UC Irvine.

Niloufar Shiri: In my work and in this world, there’s so much anticipation and there’s so much reflection; there’s so much paradox. It fluctuates between brightness and darkness, between pain and happiness. These days, I feel so much pain. Physically, it hurts to go through with the news and what’s happening in our country. My music tries to capture all of these things; how my mind, my body is made through all of this craziness around the world, especially in my country. I try to play that and see how my instrument is going to resonate with all of these things that are going through me as a person. 

Niloufar Nourbakhsh was born in Karaj in 1992. She studied music and mathematics at the University of Oxford and piano performance and composition at Goucher College in Baltimore. She received her PhD from Stony Brook University in upstate New York. She is the third cofounder of Iranian Female Composers Association. 

Niloufar Nourbakhsh: My piece was inspired by Cece Wasserman, one of the first people who really understood what it means to support female composers before it was a thing. She was one of the main people who really started commissioning female composers; she supported the careers of women who became my mentors. As I studied her and gathered these memories about her, I realized how much of our new music scene is connected to her from this network of people who are in a way connected to one another through Cece. It became an interesting idea for me to make the physicality of that connection visible, and so for this piece, I collaborated with an artist, Roxanne Nesbitt—who is also a fantastic composer based in Vancouver—to design this kind of kinetic sculpture that connects these string instruments together and also goes through piano. 

We started with this connection, but also had to realize and investigate and understand all these different things that come with connection. Which of course is also a lot of limitation and responsibility. The musicians can’t just do whatever they want because they’re connected to one another, and so they have to be very careful with how they move their instruments because it also affects the other people. The piece goes through different phases of that and tries to explore the sonic possibilities with the sculpture. 

II. Speak, memory

A pair of themes that quickly emerged in our discussion were memory and poetry, two key items in a diaspora toolkit. 

Aida Shirazi: The connection that we have as Iranians with poetry is very close. People can be illiterate, but they know poetry. They know things by memory. [I’ve spent] more than 11 years now away from home, just going there to visit maybe for a week or two, or maximum a month. Since six years ago, I have not gone back [at all], and I really don’t know when I will be able to go back. And I’ve had this passion for poetry, for my language. I’ve never had any aspiration to become a poet or a writer, but just spending so much time with literature was always something really, really great. 

Bahar Royaee: We all share memories through poetry from centuries ago. [I’ve been thinking lately about what] the poet Hafez said: “نگارِ من که به مکتب نرفت و خط ننوشت

به غمزه مسئله‌آموزِ صد مُدَرِّس شد” Which means: “My dear, who did not go to school and didn’t study, just gave a lesson to all of the teachers.” 

Niloufar Shiri: I also deal with memory and poetry in my works a lot. It’s something that we grew up with—especially poetry. We see it everywhere. It’s on the streets, it’s on plastic bags; as kids, our parents recited it to us as a bedtime story. Every time you’re at the peak of your emotions, whether it’s pain or happiness, you try to come up with a line of poetry to express it.

Anahita Abbasi: When we go through so many different layers and so many different things in our lives—different stages, different places that we go—we start sort of a new life. We create a world for ourselves. But there is this one little thing, one very powerful thing: The distance between where I am standing, and all of that [where I came from] is stretching all the time, and it’s getting further and further. And, at the same time, it’s like a paradoxical feeling: It feels like I’m very, very close.… I think, for me, even the understanding of time, connection, and memory is something very physical. Maybe it’s the decay of memories. Because we need to relive them, to remember them. For me, the physicality of the sound, the physical experience of time, and memory and connectivity, they’re like this. [Clasps hands together.]

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Aida Shirazi: I have uncles and cousins all over the U.S., but my immediate family, none of them live here. And also it’s about leaving behind friends. With some, you continue to remain friends, but some of them you just drift apart and all you’re left with are your memories. Sometimes I feel like the only connection that I have, the only thing that I can really grab and keep for myself is my language, is the literary heritage that I can carry with me either in the form of books or some of the things that I memorized a very, very long time ago. Some of those bits and pieces, these artifacts, they happened in a very special context. They happen at a gathering, at a party, maybe in a museum, at a gallery opening, an afterparty of a concert or something like that. Because I keep asking myself: “Why am I going back to this material? What is it? What is in it? What takes me back, and what am I trying to say? Am I just recycling a set of ideas and concepts, or is there any way that I can go deeper and create a stronger connection with those ideas and with those concepts?” It’s my last resort, pretty much, for holding onto something that would otherwise just fall apart and go away.

Niloufar Shiri: It makes me feel better, it makes my brain more calm, if I play or if I gather my thoughts around my memories: the lullabies I heard, the first thing that I learned as a musician in Iran. Those tunes connect me to my roots. 

Bahar Royaee: I’m very much concerned about memory. Over the past 13 years, during which I’ve never been back to Iran, the memories that I have are decaying in my mind. They are becoming nothing, as if I have something on the horizon and I’m trying to catch it. But the more I try, [the more] it gets broken…it becomes like sand and it moves from my hands. I’m extremely concerned about this process of decay of memory; how the more that you’re trying to reproduce it, the more you repeat it, it is not the same thing as it was before. I’m trying to capture that in my music. 

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III. Not happening out of nowhere

This weekend’s program was planned long before the current news cycle, but it’s hard to separate the two events. I asked the composers if these recent developments affected the way they see their works or the concert as a whole.

Niloufar Nourbakhsh: That’s interesting, right? That this big movement happens and then we have a concert with all-female composers. [But] things don’t just happen out of nowhere. There’s this whole evolution of how things are connected and then erupt, such as the movement that we’re seeing in Iran right now. 

Anahita Abbasi: Now is an extreme time, but we all have lived under really hard, unbearable circumstances in many stages of our lives. [My piece] has to do with everything that’s happening now. But it’s not about that. It’s about the fundamentals of experience that we—our bodies, our hearts, everything—go through because of these things. 

Aida Shirazi: I really don’t write political music. I have a really hard time bringing political subjects into my work. I still have to figure out how I can handle it; how the music can stand for itself and give that message without any sort of confusion or understanding. As contemporary classical composers, we are in a very small bubble. And this bubble consists of very like-minded people. So we tend to create these very small echo chambers, and we agree on so many things, and we keep saying those same things over and over and over again, and agreeing with each other and not really challenging ourselves to think outside of what is accepted and what we believe. So my intention for [“Crystalline Trees”] was to really disengage myself from the political aspect of the piece. 

Niloufar Shiri: I don’t know if “difficult” is the right word, but I cannot think of anything else. Every time I’m practicing, or trying to gather my thoughts to think about the performance—whatever I’m doing with the plan I had, it’s changing with all of the things that I’m hearing these days. I don’t have a pre-composed piece for this performance, [but] whatever I do, there’s gonna be some of these reflections of what’s going on in my head. It’s going to get processed through my instrument.

Niloufar Nourbakhsh: In a way, I see IFCA as a kind of evolutionary manifestation of this movement, too. We saw what was missing and what we needed to have, and we made that happen. Not to overemphasize what IFCA does, but in a way, we stopped being afraid and just did it. I see that as a step forward from a generation before us that didn’t make that happen. There were islands of female composers that were never in connection with each other. Even though they were extremely powerful [and] their music was extremely powerful, they never were celebrated as much as they should have been.

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Anahita Abbasi: In 2016, I started to teach for the first time in Iran. It was a master class for composition, and I really felt like, “I would love to do this and there are so many talented people, and we can maybe give them something.” We founded IFCA to create this opportunity and platform for all the Iranian women composers all around the world; to have community, to have a space to be somewhere together. 

Niloufar Nourbakhsh: It’s hard to talk about artistic things, sometimes it becomes meaningless. All of us have come from this place that is now on fire, quite literally. I guess, relating to my piece, connection comes with more responsibility. As our world has become more global, we are responsible for each other…It has to be understood that the West has the power and privilege—whether they like it or not—and so once they are aware of the situation, just being able to openly talk about it and have that on the news media can have so much power in deterring violence from happening inside the streets of my country.

IV. Occupational hazards

On being an Iranian woman who wants to study music. 

Aida Shirazi: I was among the lucky kids who had the full support of her parents when I seriously started considering music as a career and as a path for my education. I started really considering this when I was about 14, right before going to high school. I would practice for hours and hours and hours, both the piano and the santur. I couldn’t really think of anything else. When I brought it up with my parents, we had a long conversation for a while—for a couple of months—but it was really because they wanted to make sure I was deliberately going on this path…It was about giving me the full awareness of the career. Music was very present in our household. My parents were not professional artists, but they played musical instruments, so they had some idea of how the life of an artist would look. 

Anahita Abbasi: Iranians are engineers and doctors. This is the mentality: Being a musician is not a “real thing” or a job. Everyone admires it and respects it, but it’s not that. But my parents both supported me on this. I myself went through a lot of different stages: Do I still want to be a composer? Why am I a composer? So many other amazing people on the planet are composers… And every time, after going through a lot of existential questions again and again, I came back to the same thing: It’s built into who I am, how I think, everything. 

Bahar Royaee: I studied electrical engineering back in Iran. I hated it so much that the last year of it, I was like, “I can’t, I have to study music!” So I went to Malaysia in 2009 to study composition.

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Niloufar Nourbakhsh: My parents were very confused that I wanted to be a musician. [Laughs.] My dad was a math professor and he wanted me to continue and study math, and I love math, but they never forced me. They were kind of discouraged that I was going to study music, but nonetheless supported me. But the funny thing is, I was going through a lot of doubt myself as well: to make this decision, to actually change my major to art and take my entrance exam. At that time, Aida was a student at Tehran University of Art. We weren’t friends on Facebook, but for some reason Facebook would show me her profile as someone that might be interesting to me. I had all these doubts and I was like, “Well, she seems really happy!” [Laughs.] So I was like, “Yeah! I’m gonna study art and music!” 

Aida Shirazi: One of the reservations of my parents was: If you want to pursue this, you most probably don’t want to stay in Iran. There are many female musicians in Iran, no doubt. But at least for education, you’d better leave. As difficult as it is in general, just be aware that it can even be more difficult. There are all these layers of identity that can make it exponentially easier or more difficult to navigate your path and function as the person you want to be.

Niloufar Shiri: I’m sure we all have many of these experiences, but I remember when I was in music conservatory, my kamancheh teacher used to tell me: “Practice a lot so that one day you can play like a man.” It was so funny that we were in music conservatory—for female musicians—and the teacher was saying “try to sound like a man.” There wasn’t this place or environment where they’d train us to have our own voices or bring our soul, our feminine tangibility to the music. It was: You have to be as good so you can fight with men, because they are always ahead of you. 

Bahar Royaee: Is it still like that!?

Niloufar Shiri: I’m sure it’s changing, but it’s not fully there. 

Aida Shirazi: Just to give you the gist of where we are, Niloufar Nourbakhsh and I had a very interesting conversation with one of our male colleagues in Iran on Twitter over the political climate. It was interesting to see someone who belongs to the younger generation and is a teacher—he has several students, including female students—how his point-of-view can still be kind of disappointing, which makes what we’re doing even more critical. 

I was going through some of the stuff I had in Turkey at my sister-in-law’s apartment, and I came across this CD of one of the most renowned male composers in Iran (who shall remain nameless). I went to the release party of this CD, and he signed it for me. For some reason, this had been wiped from my memory and there’s no way I would have remembered it if I had not seen the dedication. For reference, one of our other contemporary poets, Ahmad Shamlou, had a wife whose name was also Aida. So this beloved composer had said something along the lines of: “To my dear Aida: I hope one day you will find someone and be their Aida, just like how Aida was to Ahmad Shamlou.” I was like… [Laughs in disbelief.

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Anahita Abbasi: My main music teacher was one of those who sacrifices a lot for his students. I learned a lot from him and I owe a lot to him. [But] when I told him that I want to become a composer, that I am a composer, I remember his voice: “You’re strong like a man, so I think you can make it. Not in general, women cannot.” I was a child when he told me that; I was ten or 11 years old. I don’t even know what I felt. But I am proud of those fragile, sensitive, feminine parts that I have. Men have these parts, too. And those are the vulnerable places that make [the music] more special. 

Niloufar Shiri: It’s really sad and crushing that we all remember [being told]: “In order to be good, you have to be a man,” or “You have to follow those footsteps to reach those higher places.” I’m glad we are not there anymore. 

V: “This interval is home”

On making—and not making—“Iranian” music.

Niloufar Shiri: I’ve been through so many of my personal life crises with Iranian classical music, so it plays a lot into who I am as a musician. And it plays a lot into my music. But it’s not that I use it in the obvious way. Sometimes it’s just hidden layers in my music, maybe as a structure, or I’m reflecting on something—making my music based on my reflections of that music. 

Anahita Abbasi: One very pivotal point for me that made me the composer that I am today was when I was in Austria. I think it was 2011, I went to Amsterdam for this academy, the Atlas Lab at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Musicians from every corner of the world were there, and the idea of the person who created the orchestra was: Why, for example, does a string quartet need to be violin, viola, cello—why could it not be an erhu, kamancheh, or these things? I went there at one of those existential times—if I am a composer, why am I composing? And there, I met musicians from India, Azerbaijan… Until then, I was a composition student who was lost in wanting to create music, but not feeling like it was something that was coming from me. And something happened there while being with these masters. The whole way I compose now is based on the realization I had there: Geographically, of course, regions exist. But musically, I don’t see that at all. I don’t categorize by country or region; it’s about the sound and the energy and quality that sound carries. How, in the combination of different circumstances, the sound lives. 

Niloufar Shiri: The call-and-response that exists in our music, sometimes I use it. Maybe not at those intervals, not coding those specific melodies, but that gesture exists in my music. Recreating those moments: the suspension, the repetition, working with very little material and pitches, comes from my practice in classical Persian music. 

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Aida Shirazi: The economy of materials, repetition, ornamentation, and just the variation of the material itself based on how the ornaments around it work. And the idea of fragmentation, when you augment something and make it quite large, or grab a cell of that bigger material and work with that, spread it around the space and echo it. 

Niloufar Nourbakhsh: It’s definitely in my ears. In working on the third movement for “C Ce See,” I got to a point where I was like, “This is something Iranian. I have no idea what it is, but I know this interval is home.” Sometimes I very actively try to engage it in my music. Sometimes I don’t and it just comes. 

Aida Shirazi: Even when I don’t use anything deliberately or borrow anything [from traditional Iranian music], there is still something with the sonority that people come and say, “Oh, this sounds very Iranian.” I really like it when it’s on a more subconscious level. It leaves something for the audience to hold onto, to interpret, to connect with your music in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily think of. But I also have a difficult relationship with this, because sometimes, with everything else that’s happening in the work, people put their finger on that certain quality, I feel like I wish I could bring something more [to their understanding of it].

What happens if you don’t even know who the composer of this piece is, and what would your interpretation be like? It’s that kind of relationship with identity, and how that identity can be liberating or reductive when it comes to the reception and interpretation and appreciation of the work. It’s something I tend to think about a lot. 

Anahita Abbasi: Space is something that we can build and create. How it’s going to feel depends on how we construct it. For me, in a musical sense, space always plays a very big role [in my compositions]. I specifically put musicians in different places in order to change the perception of the space. I see myself as an architect who designs different kinds of things: the sounds, their positions, and how they come together. Having said that, and coming back to everything else, we can also build the space—the world—in a different way. If people want to, and they understand that everyone has something. It’s about all women’s rights, for example. Space is something that has fluidity. So we can shape it and make it fit. ¶

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