5 Questions to Soosan Lolavar (composer of ID, Please)

Soosan Lolavar wears many hats: she has degrees in composition, musicology, and social & political sciences; she composes both acoustic and electronic works within the realms of concert music, dance, theater, opera, and installation; she holds dual British and Iranian citizenship and has studied Iranian music extensively under a Fulbright fellowship. This year saw the premiere of Lolavar’s ID, Please at the Pittsburgh Opera; the opera premiered this past month at London’s Tête à Tête festival. ID, Please musicalizes contemporary issues of anti-immigration in order to speak more broadly to experiences of instability and alienation.

Your new opera ID, Please stages an opposition to xenophobia through the musicalization and theatricalization of experiences of borders and liminality. What do you hope audiences will take with them out of the concert hall after hearing this work, and more generally what do you think about art’s capacity to “resist”?

My aim in writing this opera was to encourage the audience to spend 45 minutes experiencing what it is to be a scared traveller at a hostile border. I’m aware that some people may never have had that feeling, especially those who only carry British or American passports–the holy grail in terms of travel. I suppose, overall, I wanted them to feel destabilised, unsure, nervous, and tense. To experience extreme liminality: that is, to be between states, disconnected, not quite existing anywhere at all. 

I feel the arts has a central mission to resist–for me, it’s the main reason for its existence. There can be an expectation for classical music to always be relaxing, which is something I find very disappointing. I think Classic FM has done a lot to promote this idea, and I find it such a complete waste of time to only listen to music that you can enjoy in the bath or that will help you drift off to sleep. Shouldn’t music represent the whole gamut of human emotions? And how much of our lives do we spend in a state of blissful relaxation? Music should excite, terrify, unsettle, and enthrall as much as it should calm and relax

How does your work as an ethnographer inform your approach to writing music? How does your research on Iranian compositional practices inform your own compositional process?

[Editorial note: The interviewee has opted to answer questions 2 and 3 simultaneously.]

My ethnographic research directly informs my composition in a very concerted way. Right now, I am researching contemporary composition practices in Iran, looking particularly at a number of composers who combine Iranian and Western musical techniques in their work. In my own composition work, I am also exploring the notion of drawing ideas from both Iranian and Western musics. For example, my approach to melodic writing as well as rhythmic structures in ID, Please both come directly from Iranian music. However, it’s very unlikely an audience members would ‘spot’ these techniques as Iranian because I do not use them in a clearly traceable way. Rather, I take an Iranian technique and refract it through my own training as a Western musician with the hope of creating something new.

At the same time as my research technically informing my work, it also plays a really important conceptual role. My ethnographic work is all about the notion of being between two worlds, drawing from two different places, and perhaps existing in a grey zone between the two. This is my life experience as someone who was born in London but travelled to Iran most summers to visit my family. From a young age, I had an acute sense of being slightly lost in the world. I was never quite sure where my identity lay or what my culture was. I now understand that this is because I was engaging in the process of making my own. There’s no blueprint for being British-Iranian, you have to comb through the minutiae of culture and choose which way you want to go for every single tiny decision you make in life. I think to a certain extent, we all engage in such processes, but perhaps if you have two parents from different countries with very different histories and customs, you are thrust into this process from an early age.

All of this is brought to bear on my music, much of which is about interrogating ideas of identity and culture through sound. Against this backdrop, I find myself continually returning to the idea of liminality in my music. I am constantly seeking a feeling of powerlessness, trying to get lost and encourage my audience to do the same. I think it’s interesting that this state that caused me so much distress growing up has now become the focus of nearly all my art work as an adult. Perhaps that’s all art really is, trying to find answers to the questions that concerned you at a formative age.

Soosan Lolavar's ID, Please--Photo by Claire Shovelton

Soosan Lolavar’s ID, Please–Photo by Claire Shovelton

Can you tell us a bit about your own experiences, both with Trump’s “Muslim ban” as well as growing up among two different cultures, informed the writing of the opera?

I was briefly caught up in the Muslim Ban in February. I was due to fly out to the US for rehearsals of the opera when the ban was instated and, for a short period, dual nationals were included (I hold both Iranian and UK passports). In the end, I was okay to fly because special dispensation for British citizens was negotiated, but in that intervening period, there was a fair amount of press focus on me as a way of talking about the ban. I understand the irony of my situation–the fact that I was flying out for rehearsals of an opera about immigration–made it a particularly juicy story, but to be honest, a lot of the focus made me quite uncomfortable. I am not a refugee, nor do I wear a hijab. I do not speak English with a foreign accent nor do I look much like anything other than a woman who lives in London. I felt that it was possible to focus on my situation and feel sympathy for my entanglement with the ban without actually interrogating the rising tide of racism or xenophobia that led to such a decision being enacted.

If I had looked or sounded different, would there have been as much sympathy for my situation? If I read as anything other than a white woman, would there have been as much interest? Obviously, I can’t know the answer to these questions, but it did cause me to wonder. Sayeeda Warsi said something about Islamophobia passing the ‘dinner party test’ and I absolutely agree. Casual racism towards Muslims has become so normalised that people barely notice it any more. From people asking me if my dad approves of me being a musician, to enquiries as to whether it’s safe for me as a Western women in Iran, to myriad subtle questions about my life and background. It’s disturbing how normalised suspicion of Islam and Muslims has become, and I think the Muslim Ban is a logical conclusion of this thinking.

You recently tweeted an open letter to an orchestra running a call for scores essentially asking composers to work for free. Can you discuss the suggestions you made for more ethical new music competitions, as well as the pushback you received from the organization, and do you have any anecdotes or words of advice for women and people of color navigating the sexism and racism of the contemporary music scene?

I am continually frustrated by how often composers are asked to work for free. I receive many ‘call for score’ emails with ridiculous requests, but this one was particularly irksome, asking for (in effect) at least four months worth of work for no pay at all. I decided to write a letter to the orchestra in question and posted it on twitter, not expecting much of a response. 500 or so interactions later, it was clear this struck a nerve with composers and musicians, and I was pleased to write a blog for Sound and Music on the response I received. Needless to say, the orchestra was dismissive, patronising, and totally unconstructive in their reply to me. I thought this was a real shame as this closed down a great opportunity for dialogue.

For people who represent minorities in the contemporary music scene, I would say find the people that support and enrich your work as an artist and hold on to them. Those are the relationships that will see you through the good and bad times, and working together you will represent a powerful force. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or pigeon hole you into doing one thing, take time to work out what drives you forward artistically and don’t be afraid to try (and fail) at a range of things. Also, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, you will build skills and improve the more you write so just keep going forward. For women composers, it will sometimes be assumed that you did not write the music or that if you did, you had some help, so be prepared for that and maybe practise putting those people in their place. Insist on taking your bow and don’t feel pressured into adopting the ‘maternal,’ ‘kindly,’ ‘selfless team player’ role that is so expected of women and much less of male composers. And never, ever say something apologetic or look sheepish before presenting your music to someone. Even if you feel totally unconfident inside, just pretend and they will believe you. And, everyone is scared all of time. If they’re not utterly terrified, they’re not doing it right.