ICE Celebrates Gifts Of Iranian Female Composers

Composers Aida Shirazi, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, and Anahita Abbasi worked with the International Contemporary Ensemble to present a rich array of compositions by Iranian female composers. (Niloofar Agah)
By Xenia Hanusiak

NEW YORK — The chance to hear a concert of Iranian contemporary compositions is rare. The opportunity to hear a complete program written by Iranian female composers is exceptional. There are few female mentors to lead the present generation of composers. For many Iranian women artists, the prospect of promoting their music in their home country is bleak. But thanks to the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which is enjoying its twelfth residency with the Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, New York audiences experienced, for free, the work of six living female Iranian voices on Aug. 5.

In the standing-room-only Bruno Walter Auditorium, ICE (as part of its Ensemble’s OpenICE series) collaborated with the recently formed Iranian Female Composers Association (IFCA) and the New York Public Library to present a 90-minute program of chamber music. Led by composers Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Anahita Abbasi, and Aida Shirazi, IFCA seeks to support and celebrate Iranian women through concerts, public performances, installations, interdisciplinary collaborations, and workshops. Most of the women represented in the concert are now based outside Iran, either in the U.S. or elsewhere across the globe. While some are studying for post-graduate degrees, others are building impressive commissioning credentials from major festivals and venues including France’s IRCAM and Canada’s Banff. The common goal of these pioneering women is to dedicate their careers to composition.

Each of the compositions at this concert was performed on Western instruments, combining 20th-century Western compositional techniques with modal influences from traditional, folkloric, and spiritual Persian music together with inspirations from the nuances of Persian instruments such as the chang (harp) and the santur, a hammered dulcimer.

Farnaz Modarresifar’s ‘North Star Polaris’ brought into focus the silence of the night sky.

The program opened with Farnaz Modarresifar’s solo piano work Polaris, dramatically performed by Cory Smythe. In this miniature, Modarresifar recreates the lone position of the North Star Polaris — the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor. Modarresifar represents Polaris with a single high-pitched note. Through a series of dialogues between this solitary note and silences, suspensions and clusters, the composer paints the magnetic, scintillating, and isolated qualities of the star. Smythe used the sustaining pedal to create a percussive effect that brought into focus the silence of the night sky. The pianist remained standing throughout, lending the piece an aura of edgy drama.

The planetary influences were also heard in Shiva Fesharaki’s Venus/Zohre. Without scores, the ICE string quartet evoked the harmony of the spheres and Fesharaki’s impression of Venus through a series of improvisations on open strings. The work begins in silence. The players mime bowing movements across the strings. This calm choreography gathers to a cumulative energy, with various musical gestures providing a sometimes mesmerizing and often simple expression of the planet.

Unaccompanied works formed the concert’s central focus: solos for viola and violin by younger composers Bahar Royaee, Aida Shirazi, and Farzia Fallah. Each composition concentrated on timbre and texture. Royaee’s Tombstone is inspired by a poem in the cycle Seventy Tombstones written by her uncle, Yadollah Royaee, a prominent Iranian poet. The 70 poems are haiku-like tombstone inscriptions. As a program note explained, the verses talk about death as a child who runs away from herself. Royaee’s score is a sophisticated and well-balanced composition that is reminiscent of the mystic writing of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh.

Aida Shirazi’s ‘longing for a distant memory’ explored the receding past. (Kiou Kalami)

The virtuosic four-part work, performed in a series of brightly lit and darkened settings and capably delivered by violist Kyle Armbrust, recalls the strumming sounds of traditional Persian instruments. The extremely demanding music succeeded as a poetic incantation, brimming with ideas and colors. In other solo works, the influence of the Persian instrument harp (chang) and the santur were equally pronounced. Shirazi’s longing for a distant memory dissects the notion of how we recall our receding experiences. The unaccompanied solo for violin (Josh Modney) explores the qualities of sound produced by varying the weight of the bow on the string. Shirazi’s writing makes excellent use of pizzicato effects as a way of interrupting and punctuating sustained passages for dramatic effect.

Composer Anahita Abbasi wrote ‘Seven Impressions,’ a vivacious work for voice and percussion.

The concert ended with Abbasi ‘s Seven Impressions performed by Alice Teyssier (voice) and Ross Karre (percussion). Based on the Rainer Maria Rilke poem The only journey is one within, the energetic work features amplified voice using extended vocal techniques (think of Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody) with an accompaniment of drums, bowed cymbals, crotales, and gongs. Commissioned and first performed by a jazz singer, Seven Impressions uses a pictorial score for the vocalist and a notated score for the percussionist. That combination produced a performance that was both elastic and vivacious.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.