ICE Showcases the Iranian Female Composers Association at Mostly Mozart

The Iranian Female Composers Association was founded in 2017 by Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Anahita Abbasi, and Aida Shirazi as a global platform to support, promote, and celebrate Iranian women composers. Their sold-out concert was August 5th, 2019, curated with the International Contemporary Ensemble and presented at the New York Library for Performing Arts as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. It was the first time the women were together in person after years of virtual friendship and collaboration, and the program presented a video portrait of each founder followed by their featured composition plus pieces by IFCA members Farnaz Modarresifar, Shiva Feshareki, Bahar Royaee, and Farzia Fallah. 

Farnaz Modarresifar’s opening Polaris for solo piano was an accurate symbol of the evening: by combining sustained echoes of aggressive pedaling and clusters of direct, extreme pitches, Modarresifar succeeded in creating a timbre of both north star brightness and the dusty, expanding edges of space. VENUS/ZOHREH  by Shiva Feshareki followed, a masterclass in dynamics and a beautiful example of music infused with scientific pursuit rather than merely tinkering with tools. Her mother’s Persian name, “Zohreh,” translates to “Venus,” and Feshareki modeled her compositional process on the scientific study method that extrapolates information about Venus through what is known about Earth. Feshareki wrote “one exponential crescendo in volume, intensity, speed, and pitch exposure” for string quartet, and she translated the energy of scientific and spiritual journeys into a breathtaking trajectory of unabashed glory.

Shiva Feshareki at Spitalfields Festival's Ringside Symphony--Photo courtesy of Spitalfields Festival

Shiva Feshareki at Spitalfields Festival’s Ringside Symphony–Photo courtesy of Spitalfields Festival

Iranian Female Composers Association founder Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s Firing Squad uses a reed quartet to illustrate the instant before death. In her introduction of the piece, which was inspired and structured by the opening line of Gabriel GARCIA Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Nourbakhsh asked the audience to imagine what they would remember if they were facing a firing squad and hold this memory throughout the piece. Her work succeeded at transforming one literary and live concert moment: although I began the piece holding a memory, the distinct narrative textures of animated quintet voicing, Rebekah Heller on soloistic bassoon, and pulsating electronics distracted me until the final dynamic section triggered the original scenario and recalled my memory.

Niloufar Nourbakhsh--Photo by Michael Yu

Niloufar Nourbakhsh–Photo by Michael Yu

If the near death of Firing Squad provoked awareness of life, Bahar Royaee considered how listening evolves our awareness of death. Tombstone for solo viola assembled a vast emotional terrain through recycled subtleties, delicately balanced materials, and dramatic staging. The stage and house were dark except for one light that kept Kyle Armbrust in partial shadow during evolving sequences of vaguely familiar sounds. Armbrust played as a performer to be trusted with both sound and stage: when he relaxed his taut final silence, the audience burst into applause; he accepted it for several seconds before the lights burst on and he dove into the second movement. It is a testament to Royaee’s craft that the first movement felt wholly satisfying before the twist and naturally incomplete after it, flowing into the rest of the piece which fused the vibrant second and third acts and died with aplomb. 

Aida Shirazi composed longing for a distant memory from the fragmentary material of a forgotten tune that had morphed in her memory. Whereas Royaee’s solo string composition is economical and expansive, Shirazi’s work is a sharply graded and demanding exploration of violin timbre and technique. It is an explosive representation of forgetfulness, and the IFCA founder’s work points to the commandeering character of imagination rather than being lost. In a similar vein, Farzia Fallah composed …und dann befreit… to fight out of feeling lost in life and work. The piece felt constricted by its jumbled materials, but the effort Fallah invested to overcome her frustrations was reproduced in Josh Modney’s impressively fluid control. 

Aida Shirazi--Photo by Kiou Kalami

Aida Shirazi–Photo by Kiou Kalami

The program was punctuated by interviews and video portraits of each founder. The portrait series, co-produced by Bridgid Bergin, Merve Kayan and Monica Duncan and hosted in the DigitICE online archive, will continue to document the Iranian Female Composers Association’s work and champions long overdue recognition and bias correction for exoticized Iranian women musicians.

The final piece of the evening, Seven Impressions, was a musical pilgrimage for voice and percussion based on the seven ritual ceremonies in Mithraism. It confirmed Anahita Abbasi’ creativity in collaboration; the piece was originally commissioned by an improvisational jazz vocalist who didn’t read notated music, so Abbasi created 180 clips demonstrating the kaleidoscope of sounds the singer needed to produce. Alice Teyssier vocalized a number of sounds both human and cartoon. She sang, yelled, choked, wailed, cried, and hyperventilated. She mimicked creaking doors, growling stomachs, and a squeaky animated animal alongside fragmentary melodies. Many of the vocalizations were sounds the human body produces under duress, and the piece was more unsettling than many other pieces I’ve seen with explicit or violent content. Still, the expression of Abbasi’ ferociously creative mind outlasted discomfort. And this embodied the night with Iranian Female Composers Association: an organization that tackles any idea from any angle with musicianship that gleams.