Exchanging culture: Iranian rhythm meets British sound

Sound artist Soosan Lolavar uses music to encourage a cultural collaboration between British and Iranian artists and audiences

I launched Stay Close because I wanted to foster an artistic exchange between Iran and the UK. The yearlong project will result in a new piece of music that considers ethnic identity through the lens of the British-Iranian community.

Stay Close began with my trip to Iran in July last year. I met with composers at Hermes Records, a Tehran-based label that releases cutting edge music by homegrown artists. During my time there, I learnt a great deal about the practicalities of Iranian music – for instance the use of fluctuating microtones, the role of melody types called ‘dastgah’, how rhythmic cycles are built and the important role of the soloist in the ensemble.

Soosan Lolavar
Soosan Lolavar

More broadly, I discovered a genre of sorts in which musicians regularly draw from both Iranian and Western classical music in their work, and in doing so, they consider and explore their identity as Iranians.

On my return to London, I led a series of workshops at IYDA (Iranian Youth Development Association), a community group for Iranian diaspora and migrant Farsi-speakers in South-East London.

Participants, ranging from four to 70 years old, were encouraged to consider their British-Iranian identity through sound, language and performance, using the Iranian children’s story The Little Black Fish as a starting point. Through these sessions it became clear that IYDA members were highly creative and had a strong affinity with music, as is common in Iran. However, in general they rarely attended mainstream arts events and were particularly disengaged with classical music in the UK.

These research periods were the starting point for a new work that would bring together Iranian and Western musical styles. I formed an ensemble of both Middle Eastern and Western classical musicians, including members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra Foyle Future Firsts Scheme, encouraging all performers to stretch the boundaries of their own musical practice.

Thus, the new piece written specifically for the Stay Close ensemble uses the Iranian system of modes as its tonal basis – requiring the Western musicians to navigate unfamiliar microtones – and employs typically Iranian rhythmic cycles in five, seven and nine which are unfamiliar to Western ears.

Stay Close ensemble
Stay Close ensemble

Conversely, while Iranian music is particularly characterised by unison or homophonic textures – particularly solo and accompaniment – the new work makes use of pointillist techniques that encourage musicians to consider their role in the ensemble beyond that of either soloist or accompaniment.

What I’ve aimed to do with Stay Close is promote real cultural exchange. By forming links between Iranian and Western musicians I hope to encourage future collaborations between artists from both traditions.

Moreover, by involving IYDA members in the production of a new piece that is funded by UK-based arts organisations, I hope to encourage them to have an enhanced engagement with British arts. Equally, I believe that a nuanced understanding of the art produced by a particular culture can only benefit the various political and cultural means of interacting with it.

Stay Close also aims to explore the notion of ethnic identity in general. We’ve made links between the connected processes of writing, playing and listening to music in relation to ethnic identities. Our goal is to aestheticise this experience, producing a piece that encourages participants to question the ethnic identities they inhabit.

The Stay Close ensemble will perform Lolavar’s new work on 11 April at the Victoria & Albert Museum.