5 Questions to Naeim Rahmani (guitarist)

Seattle-based artist Naeim Rahmani is known for his striking and highly engaging performances of the most difficult pieces in the guitar repertoire. His virtuosic playing highlights the technical facility needed to excel on a challenging instrument for performers and composers alike. Naeim often collaborates with composers and is an outspoken advocate for the creation of new works, ensuring that composers with little representation in the classical guitar repertoire have the opportunity to contribute.

Born in Isfahan, Iran, Naeim’s home inspires much of his work, and he has launched several projects that demonstrate his artistic and leadership capabilities away from the guitar. He is the founder and artistic director of the Seattle-Isfahan Project (SIP), where he serves as the conduit between this unlikely pair of cities, separated by thousands of miles, in order to create new and groundbreaking art. Formed in 2018, the artist collaborative provides a space for developing new ensemble works that feature classical and electric guitar.

SIP’s first project, titled “The Wheel,” presented new music based on poetry from the Rubā‘iyyāt of Omar Khayyam, a 12th century poet-astronomer. Their most recent project, “33,” addressed water scarcity across Iran, and in particular Isfahan, due to the ongoing climate crisis. The number 33 refers to the 33 arches of a famous Isfahan bridge that now spans a dried up riverbed. This past October, “33” was presented in concert and featured pieces by three Seattle composers (Huck Hodge, Yigit Kolat, and Jeff Bowen) and three Iranian women composers (Parisa Sabet, Anahita Abbasi, and Farzia Fallah) that integrate field recordings from Isfahan and the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri.

The guitar is an incredibly versatile instrument but is lacking in new repertoire compared to other instruments. Why did you decide to make commissioning a part of your artistic practice, and what advice would you offer to other classical guitarists who want to start commissioning?

One reason is that I was getting bored with the guitar repertoire I was playing. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the traditional repertoire, but I felt that I wasn’t experiencing much artistic growth with it. As a musician driven by sound more than anything else, I noticed a crucial absence in my artistic life as I started listening to a lot of solo and ensemble contemporary classical music. That’s when I began playing new works and commissioning pieces for the guitar, either solo or with an ensemble.

As for the second part of your question, I believe it’s important for classical guitarists to take it upon themselves to contribute new pieces to the guitar repertoire. My advice is to start by asking your composer friends to write for you and perform the pieces not just once, but multiple times in public. Often, performers commission pieces and premiere them once, never to play the piece again. I feel that pieces need to be performed continuously for them to grow. If commissioning from composers, the way I like to do it is to come up with a concept that I strongly connect with before approaching composers. I also begin searching for and writing grants to support my project. Once I have some funds in hand, I approach composers whose music I’ve listened to and would like to work with.

Why did you start the Seattle-Isfahan Project, and what motivated you to begin the project at that particular time?

Okay, let me go back and share a bit about my background. I’ll keep it brief, but I believe it’s an essential part of why I initiated this project. I was born and raised in Iran. As a teenager, I left Iran and was a refugee in Turkey for two and a half years before coming to the US. I didn’t have a musical background growing up; everything I’ve developed musically has been in the US.

As an Iranian musician in the US, I felt something was missing in my musical life. I wanted to connect with my roots and with other Iranian musicians. As I developed my interest in new music, I discovered that there are many outstanding Iranian musicians and composers doing exciting things in that scene. So, I started the project as a way to fill that gap for myself and to connect and collaborate with the up-and-coming Iranian composers and their counterparts in Seattle. As I was getting to know these Iranian composers I felt an urge to bring their music to a broader audience in Seattle and the Northwest. Creating the project was my way of making those connections and fostering collaboration.

Naeim Rahmani -- Photo by Mary Whitfield

Naeim Rahmani — Photo by Mary Whitfield

What makes the collaboration between Seattle and Isfahan work? What is special about these two cities and their people?

Just to clarify, the collaboration between Seattle and Isfahan is symbolic and personal. There is no diplomatic relationship between the two cities, not yet. What makes the collaboration work is my vision for the project and the great people I collaborate with for each project. I am very fortunate to have passionate musicians and composers who are deeply interested and invested in the project. It’s truly an honor for me to collaborate with composers like Huck Hodge, Farzia Fallah, and others who have shown great interest in and dedication to the project.

What’s special about these two cities? Well, Seattle was the city I came to after leaving Iran as a teenager. I’ve spent a significant part of my life in Seattle, but Isfahan is where I was born and grew up. These two cities are integral parts of my life and I am strongly connected to both of them. In 2018, I initiated the project and named it after these two cities.

In Seattle-Isfahan Project’s latest collaboration, all of the compositions addressed the growing climate crisis. What other topics are you hoping to address in future iterations of the project?

Next year, I will be premiering four new works for a guitar duo and live electronics that explore the theme of displacement. The project, titled “Displaced Voices,” specifically refers to the voices of individuals who are displaced both internally and across borders due to the impacts of environmental changes, particularly climate change, but also inequitable social and political systems. Similar to my previous projects, this new installment is deeply rooted in personal experiences, reflecting on my displacement as someone belonging to a religious minority in Iran. It captures the poignant manifestations of loss and gain associated with displacement.

How do you envision your artistic career evolving as you continue performing in intimate and often non-traditional musical spaces?

As a solo guitarist, I have always played in small and intimate venues; I guess that’s just the nature of that instrument, and I will continue doing that. However, venturing away from the traditional repertoire has given me lots of creative ideas about where to perform that repertoire. Speaking of non-traditional musical spaces, Seattle Symphony has shown interest in hosting my next project, “Displaced Voices,” at Octave 9. It’s a high-tech space with a captivating honeycomb ceiling, and surround video screen that can create 360-degree visuals inside the room. Huck Hodge is one of the composers I’ve commissioned for this project, and his piece will make use of the the video screen and the acoustic system inside the room. I am also exploring the idea of commissioning pieces and premiering them at the water tower at Volunteer Park in Seattle, where the tower becomes part of the piece. I like the idea of commissioning pieces for specific sites where the functionality of the space changes and becomes more than a place for people to visit and hang out.


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