One of three winners of National Sawdust’s 2019 Hildegard Competition for emerging trans, female, and non-binary composers, Niloufar Nourbakhsh has had her music commissioned and performed by Symphony Number One, the I-Park Foundation, PUBLIQuartet, the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, the Spark and Echo Project, Forward Music Project, the Cassatt String Quartet, and the Akropolis Reed Quintet, and presented at prestigious venues, institutions, and festivals around the world. A founding member and co-director of the Iranian Female Composers Association, Nilou is a strong advocate of music education and equal opportunities. In 2014, she worked as the site coordinator of the Brooklyn Middle School Jazz Academy, sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center. She currently is a Teaching Artist Associate for composition students of the New York Philharmonic Young Composers program, and teaches piano at the Brooklyn Music School..
Invited to choose her own interviewer for this National Sawdust Log profile, Nilou selected the prominent composer, performer, organizer, and advocate Missy Mazzoli—whose music had served as Nilou’s initial gateway into the world of contemporary composition. In a recent conversation, they discussed aspects of Nilou’s Hildegard composition, grappling with contemporary social and political events, and creating a more diverse and inclusive new-music scene.
MISSY MAZZOLI: I just was listening to your piano-and-electronics piece, F I X E D HbeaRt [pronounced “fixed heartbeat”], and it’s so beautiful. So I’m going to start this interview by suggesting that everyone reading this go to your website right now and listen to it. They can listen to it as they’re reading, and that would be amazing.
NILOUFAR NOURBAKHSH: [laughs] Thank you!
So, let’s just dive right in. I feel like there’s often a direct connection in your work to current events, politics, to the volatile world in which we find ourselves right now. And I love that you’re very open about that, in your descriptions of your work and in your titles. I was listening to Syria, a fractal of WE, and An Aria for the Executive Order. written in response to Trump’s Muslim ban. Can you just say a little bit about the process of translating these very recent events into music?
Yeah. I don’t actually go and find these things to write about. It sort of happens around me—I know about these situations, and I feel compelled to actually write about them. I wouldn’t want to call my music political; I’m just interested in investigating these political and social situations, where I can look into all these variables that are affecting us in different ways, and how to translate that into music. And the translation process can be in various forms. It can be the way that it informs the form of the piece. It can be about a particular sound of an event that would come into the piece. Or it can be about how I programmed the interaction between the electronic component and the instruments. In every piece, that component is different.
I love that: the idea that it would influence the form. Can you give us an example of how you would translate an event into a musical form or structure?
Actually, that’s a piece that I’m writing for Hildegard, where I would say the form is very much influenced by the topic. This piece is about a report that I heard on the radio from NPR, and then I went and found the report—it’s called Voices from Syria 2018. I feel compelled to write about a lot of things that are happening in Syria because I’m an Iranian citizen: my government is very much involved in Syria, and I feel compelled to speak about matters that are going on. I feel responsible.
I looked at the report, and it talked about the U.N. aid distributors that take advantage of their position to ask for sexual advantages in response to giving aid. They would ask for sexual advantages in exchange for distributing aid—and these are humanitarian aid workers that are going there to help. So I was shaken: how is this possible? But really, it can be possible when the structures are so chaotic in this world and everything is falling apart.
The way I wanted to translate this into music is, I tried to do a piece where three-fourths of the way it’s these very chaotic soundscapes. I used a lot of extended techniques, and tried to really challenge myself to use extreme sounds and timbres that I’d actually never used before, to depict a very unstable soundscape, for three quarters of the way. And then a tonal harmony comes out of it, in a way about survival experience. But arriving at that tonal harmony felt very different, coming out of that soundscape.
Amazing—I can’t wait to hear this. I often feel like composing anything is my way of processing data, my way of imposing an order upon a chaotic world. So with the Hildegard piece, you translated this horrific event into something that has order, that makes sense. Was the process of writing this therapeutic for you, or is it more a way of informing people about this? Or is it both?
I think it’s both. I’m happy to bring a story and share it with people and inform everyone that this is happening. And also, I’ve known so many women that have had sexual assault experiences and had survived events like this, so it’s hard, writing about this subject, to not be thinking about them. But at the same time, there is also the joy of creation. So it’s joy mixed with trauma—but surviving it.
You mentioned you are an Iranian citizen, and you left in 2009, right?
And that was in the midst of a very turbulent time, a very turbulent election. You’ve actually written this really gorgeous opera about that moment, called We the Innumerable. Is that opera in progress, or is it done?
It’s in progress, and I’m going to have the full workshop of it with OPERA America in June 2020.
Amazing. It’s extraordinary to hear an opera not only about such recent events, but written by someone who was there. I think that that’s such a rare and incredible thing to experience. Can you just say a little bit more about the opera and the inspiration for it?
The Green movement that came out of the 2009 election was really influential, not just for me but for a lot of Iranians my age, because we feel like we really didn’t, as a country, come together and bridge that divide after 2009. We didn’t really address that divide and mistrust that happened between the regime and the people, and so everything has just been getting worse since then. I always knew that this was a really important event that I experienced. And I wanted to write about it, but I wasn’t quite sure how, in what context, what kind of story I wanted to tell.
I had this in mind for a couple of years, and gradually characters came out of it. And with the help of my librettist, Lisa Flanagan, we were able to come up with a story that’s about, essentially. the importance of protecting truths, and protecting our memory, and making sure that in such crazy situations and intense misinformation, we can be courageous enough to say the truth and stick with it—and how that can really affect our lives.
How much of the opera is your personal experience of those events?
I’ve never been interrogated by someone, but I know so many of my close friends who have been. One of my family members wasn’t killed in the street at a protest, but I’ve known people who were just like me, and got killed. But at the same time, there are all these subtle things in the opera, about the story of the family of the woman, that are somehow very similar to my own experience, and the difficulties that my family has gone through. The story of the family of the character is definitely inspired by my own family.
I can’t wait to hear it. I’m so excited it’s being done and expanded. I promise we won’t spend all of our time investigating politics in this interview. But I can’t help but think about that when I think of your work, because you’re able to talk about these things and express them through music in such an effective and beautiful way, that doesn’t feel preachy or heavy-handed. And I think that’s the real power of your work. When I write opera, I find myself digging deep into the psychology of every character, and really inhabiting their emotional state—sometimes to a degree that is unhealthy and extreme. Can you relate to that? Is it sometimes painful for you to live inside the mind of these characters?
I would say definitely more in writing for voice – and especially in this opera, for sure – I’m just thinking about how the story works, and what’s right, and what should happen. But now that I’m going to commit this whole year to writing this opera and finishing it, I’m thinking every day about what kind of soundscape each of these characters is going to have, what subset of the instrumentation that I have is going to work for them, to really bring what’s right for these characters. And, as I said, it’s painful especially doing a lot of research on these events, going back and finding videos, because I would like to use a lot of sound clips and actual, real footage in my opera. So going into that research and getting these materials is really painful, reliving the experience. But at the same time, I feel very alive doing it. So at the same time that it’s painful, I get a real joy out of doing it.
Even your work that’s not expressly political has a dramatic narrative. I’m thinking of your orchestra piece Knell—which I think is just an excerpt online, but it’s gorgeous. Is your process different when you’re writing music that is more abstract and maybe doesn’t have words?
Well, yeah… I think when there are words involved, the words dictate a sort of narrative and form that you don’t necessarily have with instrumental music. My process usually tends to be that I am at the piano and I come up with the harmonies, and then I try to find textures that can work with these harmonies for the specific instrumentation that I’m writing for. The instruments themselves are very influential. Maybe even the people who are playing or commissioning the piece, and what kind of music they’ve already done, can also be a part of the piece that I’m going to write for them. So in that sense, it’s different.
Who were some of the composers that have paved the way for you? Or maybe not “paved the way,” but who do you think about, or have inspired your way of thinking about music.
Aww! You didn’t have to say that—but it makes me very happy.
In college, definitely, getting to know your work through playing one of your piano pieces, Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos, for my sophomore recital. That was my first interaction with new music, ever…
Yes! So it really opened up a whole world of understanding what is the new music scene, because before that, I was just constantly practicing piano. So knowing that those kinds of sounds are also new, and it’s okay to have triads and harmony that I like. So that really started me thinking seriously about composing.
Throughout college, my piano teacher, Lisa Weiss, was very influential. Even in our piano lessons, she was always talking about the approach of the composer, and also connecting me to a lot of musicians outside of school, and really believing in me. She wouldn’t be easy on me [laughs], but it was an amazing four years with her. And my main teachers, Laura Kaminsky and Sheila Silver, have both really done everything they could in making me find my voice as a composer, but also to find my way in the music world, and find a platform for myself to do what I can to present my music.
It seems like you’ve had a lot of really great female mentors—which is rare, actually. So I want to ask: the contemporary-music world remains largely male, largely white. Just based on your own experience, what do you think are the biggest roadblocks to a more diverse community?
One of the big ones is music education—having access to music education, or having access to a new-music scene. Also, I think something that all of us have to acknowledge and address is having more diversity. It’s not like it’s going to limit other people to be in it; it’s actually going to make it be more prosperous, because when you bring someone from a different background that wasn’t in our scene before, they’re actually bringing a whole other community into the classical-music world that wasn’t there before. And so I think it should be a mission and goal for all of us to not only have all these different people for representation, but that it actually means getting more diverse stories and more diverse art and more people involved generally in our music world.
I love that. I always get so frustrated when I hear orchestras or people who run ensembles or even opera companies saying, “Oh, we’re losing our audience,” and then their programming is the same as it’s always been – it’s so not diverse – and they don’t see the connection between the two. And they actually think that it’s a risk to program women or composers who aren’t white. And I’m like, how is this a risk? This would, as you say, access a whole new world. It’s always so frustrating for me that presenters don’t see that. Hopefully they will start to, more and more. I agree also, if we don’t change the educational system, we’re not going to get very far. I feel like we need to raise a whole new crop of female composers, who are now in their teens, and really raise them in a place that fosters community instead of competition or exclusion. How does this connect to your work? You started a collective for female Iranian composers; can you say a little bit about that?
It really started from my own experience of not having this myself when I was growing up in Iran. I had a lot of teachers and musicians who would tell me I should not compose, and I’m better at piano. And at a point, I just stopped showing it to anybody, and I started to stop doing it. So I thought, there could be someone in Iran right now who might need this, and we should be for them. Another reason also for it was that I found a lot of actually amazing female composers around the world who are doing amazing work and are active writing music, and I just felt like, why are we so disconnected?
So it really started from the idea of just doing a concert, putting together Iranian female composers. But then as I got to talk more with my two cofounders, Aida Shirazi and Anahita Abbasi, it became an established organization with a much bigger goal of being welcoming of all Iranian female compressors. No matter what stage they’re at and whatever they need, we’ll try to support them, and provide for them, at that stage, whatever they need. And also try to put concerts every year: two to three concerts that showcase these composers, and also showcase their work alongside our work and sort of advocate for them.
So if people reading this want to find out more about female Iranian composers,, do you guys have a website? Or is there a way to access that?
We’re still working on our website. We have a Facebook page, and all of that information and contract is there. And we also have Instagram.
I love it. It’s been so great talking to you—and not only that, but watching your trajectory over the last couple of years has been astonishing. I feel like you have grown so much in such a short amount of time, and you’re doing so well. Congratulations on everything: it’s amazing to watch. Is there anything else you want to say about the piece, or about what you’re thinking about now, musically, before we wrap up?
Just that I feel so lucky to have friends and ensembles and organizers who are interested in my music and want to collaborated with me. I just feel really lucky.
Well, may it continue forever so. Thank you so much, and best of luck on the concert.
Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s music will be featured in the Hildegard Competition Concert at National Sawdust on June 4 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org