Amin Amel Ebrahimi between Teheran and Tilburg

Door Maartje Goes

The Gaudeamus Music Week took place in september 2020. For this occasion the Iranian composer Amin Amel Ebrahimi was commissioned by Gaudeamus to write a song cycle for pianist Jabiz Hafizi and barition Arash Roozbehi. Maartje Goes spoke to Amin about Iran’s musical heritage and Western compositional practice and how the two come together in his work.

Amin was born in Mashhad, the second biggest city of Iran. He started his higher education in Iran, studying architecture. After the second year he changed to the conservatory, because music was definitely what he was passionate about.
‘I did one year of conservatory in Iran on Persian music and it was during that year that year that I developed much more interest in classical music and classical compositions. So I checked the conservatories in The Netherlands and I found my way to Fontys. Right now I’m studying in Tilburg with Antony Fiumara. I started with classical composition and I will also do a bachelor of conducting, so I will do two majors. I like Tilburg because I come from a really big city in Iran. Tilburg is really cozy.’

Why did you choose the Netherlands?
‘The Netherlands is the most tolerant to people from other nations. I’m studying here in English and this is not possible in many other countries in Europe. Here I could easily start my education and I could even live here speaking English. You don’t even really need to learn Dutch at all, although I’m trying to learn it now. Because I’m living here, I think it’s nice to learn the language to communicate with people in their own language and to respect somebody that is talking to me. But it is a bit difficult sometimes, because if somebody hears that you’re trying to speak in Dutch, but you can’t, they will turn into English immediately.’

Why did you want to become a composer? What is it that you like so much about composing?
‘Since I was very young and started with learning instruments I already discovered that I liked composing. There was a period when I was learning piano. I had a teacher that was really classical and he was teaching me a piece by Beethoven and I was adding all kinds of different things from myself and was changing it a little bit. He told me that I could not do this because it was Beethoven’s music, but I liked it that way. It was the first time that I knew that I wanted to write what I wanted to hear.

I then started to develop it through different genres. There was a time that I was composing for flamenco music, Persian music, pop projects and compositions. Then I started to take lessons with a classical teacher who could teach me about orchestration, voice leadings etc, because I was for instance using a string orchestra in my work, but I didn’t actually have the knowledge to do that. The more I learned, the more interested I became and now I’m studying classical music.’

How would you describe the music that you compose right now?
‘It is a mix between different genres and my biggest concern is to combine my background, so Persian content, with classical forms. Persian composition tradition is not necessarily notated. When you for instance play a piece with twelve musicians, It doesn’t always happen that you have a score. You just go there and start playing together and you find each other. Everyone composes a line meanwhile and to me that is beautiful. The content, the melody’s, the musical material is so finely polished and it has always been about that. But when you don’t notate music, you lose your overview about bigger structures, which will give you the opportunity to really go in depth with your melodic material. Persian music misses that overview.

When you look at western music it is completely the opposite. So when you listen to Beethoven No.5, his material is so simple, but the way he develops that material is stunning. From this nothingness that could be everything, a ping-pong ball falling on the floor or someone knocking on the door. But because his music is notated he could develop such structures out of that.

When I look at both of these worlds I think this one is missing the form and structure of the other one and the other one is missing the content. Of course there is also a lot of beautiful content in western classical music, I don’t want to question that, but my question is always what would happen if I bring all of this together. That’s what I’m mostly occupied with, to combine these two beautiful worlds with the Persian and classical tools that I have in hand. To create music that I would also like to listen to myself.’

Are there big differences in the musical practice of Iran and the Netherlands?
‘There are indeed several differences. For instance when I said I was studying at the conversatory, what you study there is totally different. First of all Persian music is modal music. About 200-300 years ago they made a collection of all different folk music of Iran and as you might know Iran is a really big country with many regions and they all have their own language and their own music. They made a collection of all this music in this book called ‘Radif’.

During your bachelor’s you learn all of this. You learn the structures by heart and you learn how all of these modes work, how they are related, how to modulate within them and how to improvise on them. Improvising is the most important thing, because most of the Persian music is improvise based. During your bachelor’s you learn that. This way of education also affects the concert and performance practice, so it happens a lot that you are invited for a concert with an ensemble and you didn’t have time to rehearse. Then you just go on stage and ask; what are we going to play? They name one of the structures in the book and then you just improvise on them. It is fascinating and the content is extremely rich, but I feel that the form is not as rich as it could be.’

Can you tell something about the song cycle you wrote for Gaudeamus?
‘The idea was proposed by my colleague Jabiz Hafizi, who is also a pianist in this project. She played a lot of song cycles and she felt it was a pity that there is no song cycle written by a Persian composer, although it is a very big population. This was the first matter and then there is the ‘seven valleys of love’, a concept in the texts of the Persien poet and philosopher Attar.

There is an old story that the poet Rumi during the process of writing his book ‘Masnavi’ went through these seven steps and achieved his love, which in case of Rumi is God. Attar gives a clear overview of these seven valleys of love in his book, but Rumi never directly spoke about it. So what I did is go through the book of Rumi and find all the verses that are about these subjects and then bring them all together and match them with the seven valleys of love. I polished them, left some things out and moved orders so that they made sense. These texts form the base and inspiration for the song cycle.’

If your are interested to know more about Amin you can take a look at his website

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