A Compilation of Iranian Artists

“Faced with the task of writing about artists from Iran it is tempting to oversimplify and go with the easiest way to address them – the way most western media has always treated art coming not just from Iran but from middle east in general. This approach places artists exclusively within the political context presented by the mainstream media, and only shows you the day-to-day politics of governments in the region. This biased approach means artists’ works are only interpreted in relation to a reduced conception of the political context. By seeing things this way you only have a handful of artists addressing certain issues with enough exaggeration to be newsworthy. It would be terrifyingly ignorant to think that day-to-day politics in Iran has no impact on artists, but on the other hand it is too simplistic to see the wide range of artistic practices of Iranians though this narrow context.” Writes Siavash Amini in his introductory essay for Absence.

Another danger comes into play when considering a “compilation of Iranian experimental music”. One might be tempted to look out for Iranian sounding markers in a way that wouldn’t apply to compilations of Canadian experimental music, for instance. The implication being that any country perceived as “exotic” needs to match any preconceived ideas one might have of what constitutes, in this case, a quintessential Persian sound, or at least traces of it. Obviously, this is not just nonsensical but also insidious. Who would expect, for instance, an album by the Italian Giuseppe Ielasi to marry tradition with experimentation? In a recent interview with Fact, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh of Jerusalem in My Heart tackles this subject when discussing Arabic music and the trap of viewing this as “Other” of “Ornamental”. “You have to ask yourself, as a Westerner, what that means to you when you are troubled by something ‘other’ or ‘ornamental’,” says Radwan, “That expectation comes from a place of discomfort in my opinion, and one has to confront themselves in asking why this discomfort exists.”

The fact that at least two of the artists included on this compilation, Sote and Pouya Ehsaei, have taken into account their Iranian artistic heritage in previous work, by incorporating Persian poetry (Eshaei) and Persian modal system (Sote), is otherwise not in evidence in the tracks included on Absence. Another “destabilizing” factor, subverting expectations and confounding “otherness” is that the only vocals present on the album (Venator by 9T Antiope), are in fact in English and yet, to muddy the waters they speak of naked nuns and killer whales inside a preacher’s head.

Kill it while it’s on the run / Lose a chance and then it’s gone

Let it hang hang while it leaches / Let it bleed

Drag it back into your cave / Let the river wash its name

Close your eyes before the preachers come / Put your eyes on its eyes and down where it bleeds

Inside the preacher’s head / Naked nuns and killer whale

Inside the preacher’s head / Naked nuns and killers

As Sara Bigdeli Shamloo (one half of 9T Antiope together with Nima Aghiani) explained to me in an email exchange, “This specific track, composition-wise, we can say it was inspired by the contemporary classical composers of the Baltic States! Nima was looking for a way to create contrast as much as he can, in a place where there is no harmony and no melody, we have the vocal as simple and as melodic as it is. Also this constant “repetition” which gets broken and forms again and breaks anew, is what gives life to this contrast and the closest thing to this is in schizophrenia. The lyrics for me, took shape as they usually do, in the form of a short story, and then I tell bits and pieces from it. The music had something very primitive and some very schizophrenic aspects to it, so my story started to form as if it’s inside a demon’s head.”

Venator is emblematic in the way much of the music on Absence refuses to submit to geographical coordinates

Siavash Amini sheds some further light on Absence, “The tracks collected for this compilation are a perfect example of art that is not “newsworthy”. And in this way they act as a gateway to the ignored and overlooked landscape of experimental electronic music in Iran. It is helpful to listen to all of the pieces in this compilation in contrast to the established language of what is now an Iranian musical mainstream. This Iranian mainstream is not that disconnected from the global mainstream, and the philosophy, politics and the lifestyle this manifests. The mainstream in Iran is not only what the government endorses but it also consists of very shallow imitations of various musical genres, cleared of any signs of cultural or political resistance, backed and released by private labels and companies. The artists presented here, including myself, are people who are constructing our musical language as part of our lives – a project, which is no less of an experiment than the music itself. We are the voices who choose to be absent from the news and the musical mainstream (and in some cases from the city of our birth) in order to express the complex range of emotions and ideas, which make up our lives, as honestly as we can. What is the good of this absence? An endless world of exploration and experimentation, a life of vast possibilities and new forms of cultural and political resistance.”

Thanks to the recent interest in Iranian artists shown by labels such as Flaming Pines, Hibernate and Future Sequence, most of the names included will be already familiar to listeners. Notwithstanding the diversity of approach, Arash Akbari’s curatorial hand guarantees cohesion and consistency to the proceedings. It all starts in a plaintive tone with Siavash Amini’s nostalgic Fading Shadows of Dusk. Layers of tape hiss and static gradually surrender to acoustic instruments that speak of longing and heartache. The ambient textures of Arash Akbari and Idlefon give way midthrough the album to the more digital concoctions of Bescolour and Sote, who create their own idiosyncratic worlds of blips and pulses. The disintegrating tape loops of Pouya Pour-Amin on Exterior Wash, a track originally composed for a short film by Jaber Ramrzani, reinstate a degree of lo-fi fragility while ambient textures return with Tegh after the restrained and brooding tones of Pouya Ehsaei’s Roc Rast #12. Parsa Jamshidi, one half of the electronic duo Eatingchildren, delivers an effective drone with nncdraG, that derails towards to the end, while the sadness generated by Shaahin Saba Dipole loops is undermined by buried beats. It is left to Umchunga to deliver the epic finale with the 10 minute long RS. Tellingly, it starts in a deceptively serene way only to acquire an increasingly abrasive tinge, suggesting that nothing is ever quite what is seems.

Even if Pouya Ehsaei and 9T Antiope, for instance, are currently based in London and Paris respectively, this is very much a snapshot of the experimental scene in Tehran with the Sanandaj based Porya Hatami, being the most notable omission on Absence. The emerge of the artist run label Bitrot and the international profile gained by the electronic music festival SET pinpoints Tehran as a natural hub for local talent. One can only hope that with the lifting of sanctions, the different voices heard on Absence will find further resonance and benefit from increased exposure.

Absence – V/A is out on Flaming Pines on Feb 8th


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