For centuries, the classical music “canon” has been dominated by European male figures. Times are changing, though, and many diverse voices are finally finding a foothold in the genre — and one need look no further than Davis.
Iranian musician Aida Shirazi came to the United States four years ago to pursue a Ph.D in composition at UC Davis. Lately, she’s been getting a lot of national attention not just for her music, but also for her role as a co-founder of the Iranian Female Composer's Association.
CapRadio spoke with Shirazi to discuss how music and her upbringing, and the secrets to a successful career.
On her family and her introduction to music
I was born in a middle class family in Iran. They were very much interested in art, literature, culture and music and music was always part of our life. None of my family members are professional musicians. I'm the only professional musician in the family. But my parents and my brother, they played music at some point when they were young. In the case of my brother, he used to play the piano and my mother had a piano at home because my mother used to play. The piano was basically my toy, I would play around with it a lot.
For a while we used to live with my grandfather. He was really talented. He had a wonderful musical ear and he used to play the Iranian traditional instrument called the tar. So my first memories of music really are as something that was done in front of me, of my grandfather improvising and also of my older brother practicing the piano and preparing for his piano lessons.
Her grandfather had fear of persecution
I never saw him playing the tar because he had to get rid of the instrument. My grandfather used to play it for a long time, but after the revolution he had to destroy the instrument because he was the CEO of a company and it was common for the government to survey and investigate those who worked for different organizations and companies. They would just storm to their houses spontaneously and search for any items that they would consider prohibited, such as alcoholic beverages, musical instruments or things like that. And if they could find anything, the person in possession of them would be prosecuted as a corrupt and anti-revolution individual. This fortunately didn’t happen to my grandfather, but he clearly didn't want to risk anything because his political views were very different from that of the regime and his views would make him an easy target.
How she decided to become a composer
When I was eight, I finally persuaded my parents that I wanted to learn music, that I wanted to play the piano and start taking piano lessons. And they did it, they found a wonderful teacher for me. And then when I was 11, I started playing Iranian classical music. I started playing an old instrument called the santur, which is basically a hammered dulcimer.
So pretty early on, I had covered both Western classical and Iranian classical music and I grew up learning and familiarizing myself with both of them at the same time. I would [also] improvise on the piano a lot. But for a very long time, actually, until the last year of college, I didn't really dare to write music.
When I started college, I realized that I love making music but maybe performance is not exactly the way that I want to express myself as a musician. But then at the same time, I was not really confident: I had this really mythical idea of a composer as a genius I had read about in music history books. So the whole idea of becoming a composer? I wasn't quite sure that it was for me, I wasn’t sure I have talent for it. But I was lucky because I started working with a wonderful piano teacher, Hooshyar Khayam. He is a composer and pianist, and became one of my great friends. He was the first person that I could witness having an active career as a composer. And so, he started realizing that I was in the middle of this kind of dilemma: I know I want to be a musician. I want to make music. I want it to be my career. But I am having a hard time figuring out what exactly the means of expressing myself as a musician would be. So he encouraged me to start writing music. And I said, well, I'm not sure if I can do it. And he said, if anyone can do it, it's you, you just need to sit at your instrument and get a pencil or paper.
Even as a woman in the Middle East, Shirazi has had an easier time following her dreams than might be expected
[Actually] There were mostly girls in our university and it was definitely safe to make music, whether it's playing or singing in a choir or writing music. But the main problem was that there are not enough resources either for men or for women. Now, women face discrimination because of the rule of law, cultural reasons and things like that. Those reasons are not really different from the reasons why women are being discriminated against nowadays in the rest of the world. They are pretty similar. But since the government is a religious government, things might look a little more different from outside.
But I also would like to clarify that as a woman myself, I don't think I or any of my Turkish female composer friends really faced any issues. So in terms of disparity, I think it's a global problem that we are all aware of. And more or less around the world, we're trying to solve and find solutions for it. But [in Iran] we had equal opportunity in terms of studying with teachers, going to master classes, going to concerts, to festivals.
Her greatest struggle in Iran was logistic
The lack of resources and lack of opportunity [makes it] very difficult to organize even a small concert. And you may run the risk of having your concert canceled: You need licenses and you need permission from different organizations. And it's a multi-step process that can go wrong at any point, and the reason why it can go wrong is beyond your control. So it's just difficult and complicated for everyone. Women, because of the additional discrimination, face more problems.
As a general rule, every concert, regardless of its genre, has to be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The guidelines defined by the ministry are very general. Therefore, each administration brings with itself the minister of culture, [who] interprets and executes those guidelines based on [its own] taste and preferences. If the administration is more “progressive,” they'll be more lenient about giving permissions for concerts and programs, and live musicians will execute their projects with less restrictions. That said, getting a permission for any concert does not guarantee that your concert is going to happen. It occurs a lot that concerts get canceled last minute without any proper reason or explanation.
But on the other hand, in the same country and under the same regime, concerts and festivals of old and new Western classical music, Iranian traditional music and electronic electronic music- they also happen. So just in general, as a musician, you always feel like you're walking on thin ice. There is so much politics involved in the process that it's almost impossible to predict what will happen to an event that you've spent a lot of time and energy organizing.
She was inspired to do something about the ongoing struggle. Once she arrived in the United States, she (along with two colleagues, Niloufar Nourbakhsh and Anahita Abbasi) founded an organization to support and mentor other Iranian women, called the Iranian Female Composers Association, or IFCA
The idea of starting the Iranian Female Composers Association [started with] one of my friends and co-founders Niloufar Nourbakhsh. She's a composer based in New York City and she was planning to put together a marathon concert of works by Iranian female composers. At first we thought that probably our list was going to be about maybe 10 composers or something like that. But we actually realized that there are [many] more female composers from Iran around the world, both based in Iran and outside of Iran. We are more than we think, but chances of knowing each other's work and music are very low because we are just spread around.
So IFCA is focused on promoting Iranian female composers living and working around the world. We find it vital to provide opportunities for our Iran-based composers because they have very limited access to performances and mentorship opportunities and things like that. And they definitely deserve much more. So we are committed to providing those opportunities for them. And there is nowhere that we can come together and know about each other and familiarize ourselves with each other's music. So why not have this association that not only brings us together, but connects us and becomes this kind of platform for promoting our work? We are based in the U.S. so we have access to so many resources, to so many musicians, etc. Why not create similar opportunities for those who are especially based in Iran where they do not necessarily have access to so many different opportunities to just perform and promote their work and themselves.
We established officially in November 2017. And in April 2018, we had our launch concert in New York at National Sawdust.
Her own music has been heard around the world including at the Lincoln and Kennedy Centers. Her compositions are an exploration, blending acoustic and electronic sounds, and spoken word. She says she takes much of her inspiration from literature.
I draw influence from different sources. I think that's the case with everyone who creates something. We just draw from our life experiences and from our environment, and that shapes us and makes us who we are. One thing that is very much present in my life is literature and poetry, Iranian Persian poetry and also English poetry, after I started speaking English and understanding it. So in general words, poetry, [and] prose have a very strong role in my creative process.
My background in Iranian classical music also plays a role. For example, I might use harmonies and modes or rhythms or some other concepts in my works that are derived from Iranian classical music. And a lot of times I don't. But it's part of me [and] I'm not sure if I can really isolate myself from that background.
As far as the secret to her success, she gives much of the credit to family and friends.
I feel so lucky and I'm very, very grateful to the composition department at UC Davis. They bring wonderful musicians. The environment is just so professional and friendly at the same time. I immediately felt at home.
I was [also] really lucky because my family at any point in my life supported me and my decision. When I talked about it with my parents, they said, OK, if that's what you really want to do, then we are here to support you and to provide any help, any kind of assistance that you need in order to achieve your goal. And I was lucky, really, to have so many supportive teachers and mentors in Iran, in Turkey and in the United States states. So I think it's such a luxury that not everyone has along the way. And I try not to take it for granted at all.
Even now I've been married for a few years. I have a wonderful husband who has been here for me. He has moved with me around the world, wherever I have gone to study and work. And he supports me. He just is there for me, whatever I want to do. So that's also wonderful.
You can listen to more of Aida Shirazi’s music at aidashirazi.com.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.