5 Questions to Niloufar Nourbakhsh (Founder, Iranian Female Composers Association)

Niloufar Nourbakhsh is a versatile composer and pianist who has collaborated with Symphony Number One, Spark and Echo Project, Women Composers Festival of Hartford, and many others. She has written for string quartet and orchestra, as well as for fixed media and voice, including her composition “An Aria for the Executive Order,” which is a response to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban. Aside from composing and performing, Nilou keeps busy as founder and organizer of the Iranian Female Composers Association (IFCA), which endeavors to bring together and promote the work of female-identifying composers, both from and living in Iran. The IFCA had a launch event in April at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust; this concert featured compositions by Nilou, Anahita Abbasi, Niloufar Shiri, Mahdis Golzar Kashani, Aida Shirazi, Gity Razaz, Niloufar Karimi, Farzia Fallah, and Aftab Darvishi..

Can you first talk a bit about the IFCA–its beginnings as well as plans for the future?

Sure! Iranian Female Composers Association formed a little over a year ago in collaboration with my co-founders: Anahita Abbasi and Aida Shirazi. Growing up in Iran, I was actively discouraged from pursuing composition, and I never got to know a female composer as a mentor. Someone that I could look up to and say, “One day I would like to become like you, a composer!” While studying in the United States, I got the chance to find other female Iranian composers around my age on social media who are active all around the world. Once I realized there are so many of us out there, I started thinking about building a platform that could bring us all together. In the immediate future, IFCA will collaborate with the Artistic Freedom Initiative for a concert in Washington D.C. and will be working with the International Contemporary Ensemble to create a library of scores by IFCA composers. Thinking about long term goals, we would like to build a mentorship program for young female composers in Iran and Afghanistan as well as curate a concert series that features Iranian Female Composers in collaboration with artists of any medium and nationality.

You’ve described one of the goals of the IFCA as mentoring female composers “fighting against all odds to become contemporary classical composers in 21st century Iran.” What do you see as some of the most significant obstacles still faced by female composers, whether in Iran or elsewhere in the world? And what do you think are the most effective first steps in defeating those odds?

Well! Let’s start with obstacles faced by women in general who are living and working in Iran. Of course, there has been progress in the past 40 years, but misogyny still persists. It is present at many homes, present in the gaze of people in the streets, present in schools, present in the laws, etc. In extreme cases, women may begin to question their truth and their own abilities. They may start to believe that they are a less capable person because of their gender. This lack of confidence will ultimately stop them from trying and moving forward.

I believe the first step is it to create a safe space that allows people to be themselves. The second step is to provide tools that are necessary for these composers to elevate to their next goal, whatever it would be for them as an artist.

Niloufar Nourbakhsh and pianist Erika Dohi

Niloufar Nourbakhsh and pianist Erika Dohi

Do you have advice (as far as time management etc.) for composers and musicians who, like you, are endeavoring to nurture their own artistic objectives as well as those of others?

Being a composer itself requires versatility in different roles of a creator, administrator, curator, etc. Adding a whole other dimension to this lifestyle is not very easy. It is important to prioritize with respect to deadlines and keep the focus on the work and its impact, because other people may not believe in your goals or your capability in delivering those goals; therefore, it is important that one is not only realistic but also confident.

As a composer working on your PhD, how do you feel about the so-called divide between academic and non-academic composers?

Honestly, I do not really see a divide. As long as people from either side are composers, there is not much that differentiate the two. Both ways of pursuing the path of a composer has its pros and cons in a way that does not make any better or worse than the other.

You have composed music, such as “An Aria for the Executive Order,” that responds directly to political injustices & oppression. Can you tell us about your approach to contemporary classical music and its possibilities (or limitations) in engaging with activism or resistance movements?

A lot of people mention that I have tendencies toward “political music,” but I would like to think of it differently. What is inspiring to me is exploring the stories that are affected by political situations as opposed to having a fixed critical approach to a particular political system or a person. I think specifically, contemporary opera has immense potential in engaging with particular political situations that can create broader questions about the essence of who we are as human beings.