In 1979 Iran changed from a modern, pro-Western secular state to a spiritual dictatorship when Islamic leaders grabbed the power and enforced the sharia. From then on women had to be veiled, and music was forbidden as extremely sinful. Four decades later three women establish the Iranian Female Composers Association. – In America.
‘Music is like a drug, whoever engages in it can no longer devote themselves to important activities. […] We must eliminate music because it means betraying our country and our youth.’ Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced this condemnation straight after his take-over in 1979.
He promptly rewrote the constitution, banning all concerts and radio or television broadcasts of any kind of music, be it Persian or foreign. The Revolutionary Guard is even said to have organized raids to detect and destroy instruments, as Sara Soltani writes in The Power Within Music: Human Rights in the Context of Music. ‘It went even so far that Revolutionary Guards were reported to have organized raids to gather and destroy musical instruments.’
At the same time, Soltani observes that things turned out less bad than they seemed, simply because music has always been an important part of Persian culture. ‘Despite all the measures designed to combat it, there was no chance of an entire elimination’, she argues.
The Iranian approach displays surprising similarities with our Dutch ‘gedoogcultuur’ (tolerance culture). ‘Even if the State has control of the media, there is a great difference in Iran between what is theoretically allowed and what people actually do in private’, writes Soltani. Moreover, ‘the very intention of abolishing music in public life unexpectedly led to increasing practice of music within the family circle by the younger generation of all social classes.’ – In Iran, too, forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.
After Khomeini’s demise in 1989 a more liberal wind struck up, even though there are still considerable restrictions, and musical expression is subject to censorship. Although it is possible to study Western or Persian classical and folk music at various universities, those who really want to achieve something leave to go abroad. This also applies to the three founders of the Iranian Female Composers Association (IFCA) Niloufar Nourbakhsh (1992), Anahita Abbasi (1985) and Aida Shirazi (1987), who now live in the United States.
Even though she is the youngest, Niloufar Nourbakhsh is the linchpin. She grew up in Karaj, a town west of Tehran, in a family where she was surrounded by Persian classical music. ‘But I also listened to Western music, ranging from rock, pop and hip-hop to classical music, from evanescence to Beethoven sonatas’, she says. During her piano studies she decided to switch to composition, which was not stimulated by her surroundings, to say the least: ‘When I was sixteen, I composed my first piece, which I notated note by note without any outside help. When I played it to the most important person in my life, he said kindly but decided that composing was something for geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven. I didn’t write a single note for a year.’
Niloufar Nourbakhsh (c) Nosrat Tarighi
Nourbakhsh misses, in short, role models and leaves for the United States at the age of 18: ‘America was a dreamland for me and a relative of mine studied at Goucher College in Baltimore.’ With the help of a scholarship she enrols to study piano and composition there herself. America means a ‘culture shock’ she doesn’t want to go into any further, but she can make use of social media freely: ‘In Iran these are censored, with the exception of Instagram.’
Through Facebook she comes into contact with Anahita Abbasi and Aida Shirazi in 2016. It is an eye-opener that she is not the only female composer from Iran and she decides to organize a joint concert. ‘Thanks to the contacts of Anahita and Aida, our network grew to some twenty women, about one fifth of whom live in Iran. I put together an ensemble made up of befriended musicians and asked the composers to submit pieces; six of which turned out to fit the chosen line-up.’
Because of the profusion of entries, Nourbakhsh realizes that not all composers can be featured in one single concert. ‘During the planning I had experienced an enormous mutual solidarity, and so the idea grew that it should become more of an association, with the aim of creating a network of mutual support and solidarity. Because such an organization would be too encompassing for me alone, I asked Anahita and Aida for help. We consulted via Skype and in November 2017 we launched our Facebook page.’
Iranian Female Composers Association launched on April Fool’s Day 2018 – no joke
From here things start to snowball. National Sawdust, a renowned concert hall in New York, gives a considerable discount on the hiring fee. Through crowdfunding the other costs are covered, and on April 1, 2018 IFCA is launched officially. At this inaugural concert the three founders meet in person for the first time. Three composers from Iran are not allowed to enter the country because of the entry ban issued by President Trump, two ladies living in Germany can’t attend for other reasons.
Another shadow is cast by the reactions from the Iranian music world. Nourbakhsh: ‘We were accused of trying to attract attention by abusing our femininity and claiming the role of victim. Well, we all know where that kind of criticism is rooted. Moreover, this is never expressed straight in our faces, but always behind our backs.’
The concert is sold out and gets a positive response. Aida Shirazi: ‘We presented different composition styles, with a good balance between experimental and more traditional pieces, something for everyone. After the concert the Hypercube Quartet came up to us and proposed to organize a concert together.’
This coincided nicely with the invitation of the Kennedy Center to present IFCA during its Direct Current Festival in March 2019. ‘That timing was great, because it would allow us to celebrate our first anniversary. Thanks to the support of the Kennedy Center, we were even able to commission a piece from three of our members for this occasion and offer them a second performance in Roulette.’
The concert is appropriately christened ‘Another Birth’, after Abbasi’s piece of the same name. It is inspired by a poem of Forough Farrokhzad, a famous Iranian poet who lived from 1934-1967. Abbasi: ‘I wrote it in 2015 and the structure is based on fragments from the poem. We chose this title for our concerts with Hypercube because they meant a kind of rebirth, but above all because Forough was an iconoclast. In her poetry she pushed back frontiers and acted against the prevailing view of women. She was a role model for us.’
A collaboration also arises with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Anahita Abbasi: ‘I had already written an orchestral work for them, a joint assignment with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. It went so well that we developed a relationship of trust. I told Ross Kare, one of their artistic leaders, about IFCA. He was very interested and came to our inaugural concert in National Sawdust’.
‘Afterwards we brainstormed over long-term plans over a drink. These ranged from simply promoting IFCA at various festivals and performing music by our members, to making documentaries and setting up an online library of works by female Iranian composers. That same evening, I introduced him to Nilou and Aida and since then, ICE has become one of our most important advocates and friends.’
Anahita Abbasi (c) Niloufar Shiri
In August 2019, ICE stages a portrait concert during the famous ‘Mostly Mozart Festival’ at the Lincoln Center. Abbasi: ‘The auditorium was packed, there were even people sitting on the floor. Apart from the music the first three documentaries were screened, others are still in the making.’ Since then, they have organized several concerts in The States and in Europe, while The New York Times dedicated an elaborate article to them.
Abbasi: ‘But the most memorable thing for us was the Meet-up via a video connection with our members last May. For the first time we were all together in the same “space” and were able to see each other. Until then, many of us had only had email contact. It was great to finally meet each other “in person”.’
It has not yet been possible to arrange concerts in Iran itself. ‘There are still too many obstacles’, says Abbasi. We are talking to music teachers and the Tehran Contemporary Music Festival, founded in 2016, to create a platform for female composers. We want to act as a mentor for up-and-coming talents and will organize master classes and meetings to explore and discuss each other’s music. We also want to make the online library more accessible. For internet may be much better and faster now than it was when I was young, but still not everyone has access to it.’
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Abbasi remembers how she hungered for information as a student: ‘There were no concerts with modern music at all. Occasionally, the German or Austrian Cultural Institute invited an ensemble, and a teacher of mine started a small concert series with a pianist. He composed in the style of Schoenberg. Occasionally I heard names such as John Cage and Morton Feldman, but I couldn’t find any information about them. The internet was so slow! Moreover, there was only one shop throughout Tehran where you could buy CDs and scores. Furthermore, you had to rely on acquaintances who had a copy of a copy of the score, which you were then allowed to borrow.’
Nourbakhsh: ‘I very rarely visited concerts, because it would mean travelling to the capital and that was not allowed without accompaniment. What I remember most are a few performances of Persian classical music and a solo flute recital with jazz-fusion.’ Shirazi heard a lot of music at home. ‘Both my parents had played an instrument but had stopped when they got children. There was a piano in the house, however, and my grandfather was a passionate amateur musician. He played the tar, a Persian long-necked lute, and often improvised on our piano. There was always music, Western classical, Persian classical and folk, but also Western pop music.’
Aida Shirazi (c) Qmars Kalami
Composing is a craft
Shirazi feels strongly attracted to the piano, but during her studies at the University of the Arts in Tehran, her composer-vein starts to tickle: ‘I often played chamber music with my friends and that was fantastic, but something was missing. Just being a performer wasn’t satisfactory to me, but it didn’t occur to me that I could become a composer. I had the romanticised idea that you had to showcase an exceptional talent at a very young age and that didn’t apply to me.’
‘Moreover, I did not know a single living composer and the subject of composition did not exist. Fortunately, after my sophomore year I got a new teacher, who was both a pianist and a composer. He stimulated me to work out my improvisations and to think outside the box. Thanks to him I realized that composing is a process, rather than a miracle that befalls you. One might need some talent, but it’s a craft that needs sensitivity, hard work, and patience to cultivate and improve.’
Away from Iran
All three composers left their homeland to study abroad. Nourbakhsh moved to the United States. ‘It was there that I first heard music by Missy Mazzolli, a revelation. She simply uses chords, while during the lessons in music theory I had learned that these were taboo in the 20th century avant-garde. In the States I was able to study composition seriously for the first time. For that matter, the position for women is much better there, but unfortunately it’s still not ideal yet, either.’
Shirazi chose Ankara, where she studied at Bilkent University, a private institute. ‘I felt I needed a fresh start in a new environment. Bilkent’s programme is very strong and the tuition is in English. All my teachers were active as composers, they were in close contact with big names from the world of new music and had studied in America. Because I had always planned to go to the US, this was an ideal intermediate step.’
Abbasi went to Graz, Austria: ‘The level of education in Iran is very low. I grew up in Shiraz, but the only university you could go to as a woman was in Tehran. After high school I went there to get a taste of the atmosphere and the composition teachers were all old men. They were impressed by my work, but I didn’t feel at ease. That I chose Graz is because from a Persian perspective, Austria (or Germany) is the place to study music. The evening before I started my studies I visited a concert in Graz. In Iran I had never got beyond Schoenberg and now I heard sounds that I simply couldn’t understand. My ears were ringing!’
At the time, she could not have imagined that one day she would establish a union for female Iranian composers along with Nourbakhsh and Shirazi. But together they form a close-knit team, eager to face the future. Abbasi: ‘We really want to provide a home for Iranian female composers worldwide, we feel a strong underlying solidarity.’
IFCA on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MUSIFCA Website: https://niloufarnourbakhsh.com/ifca/ Twitter: @MUSIFCA
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I played Intertwined Distances by Anahita Abbasi in my programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ on Concertzender on 6 September 2020. Listen back here.