Tone Glow: Your father, Hossein Alizadeh, is a renowned composer, musician, and teacher. You’ve performed alongside him in the Hamavayan Ensemble, which he leads. What would you say is the most important thing he's taught you about music?
Saba Alizadeh: As a member of Hamavayan since 2007, the most important thing I have learned from my father would be having and growing the ability to think outside the box. Since Iranian classical music stems from the Radif system, there is always the chance of getting stuck in a rigid mindset of only performing in—and preserving—the classical tradition. It's the other way around in my father's case since he uses the tradition as the number one source of inspiration to reach a more abstract and modern language that's rooted in the old tradition.
Besides your father, what other Persian classical music artists have had a large impact on your life and music?
I would have to say my kamancheh mentors: Saeed Farajpoury, Kayhan Kalhor, Hamidreza Khalatbari, and also the grand master Bahari who has passed away—I could only listen to his approach to the kamancheh via tapes and some old footage.
Can you give an example of a specific recording or video of Bahari that was particularly influential in the way you approached how to play the kamancheh?
There isn’t a specific video or audio recording; it’s his overall approach to playing the kamancheh which has influenced my own bowing and playing. It’s the ornamentations he uses that make him unique and, most importantly, the way he decorates his free tempo improvisations with silence, which in new generations of kamancheh players is hard to find.
Your debut album Scattered Memories is notable for featuring a blending of Persian classical music and electroacoustic practices. What was the initial inspiration for combining the two? Were there other musicians creating similar music at the time you started?
The initial inspiration goes a few decades back where old masters of Iranian classical music started to use the delay effect—or as they called it, echo—while recording for radio shows since it was the latest technology imported to radio stations. As those recordings became references for my generation, I took a closer look and saw how those maestros—who were the main figures of Iranian classical music—easily made this effect a part of their repertoire. My belief is that they were trying to bring back a acoustical/architectural quality that was no longer present due to the modern style of architecture. The element in architecture that I am talking about is the arced ceilings.
While I was studying at CalArts, I started to look closer into effects and electronics and overall sound, and I came across the philosophies of John Cage and other key figures who redefined musical composition.
At the end of the days, I was and still am interested in treating sound as an object whether coming from an instrument or a recording of a troop marching during World War II. I ended up making music with modular synthesizers, no-input mixers, effect pedals, circuits, and of course softwares. My debut album features almost all of these.
You performed an extended version of "Elegy for Water” in an underground water storage facility to highlight the drought epidemic happening in Iran. A lot of your art has similarly clear political intent. What would you say is your goal when creating these pieces of political art? How have they been received by fans and audiences in Iran?
I do not tend to use art as a political act, some of the sound material that I use have a historical background which are of course attached to a political event, but it's more of a reminder—I believe mankind is somehow losing its historical memory and sometimes we should be reminded of them.
Even the historical sounds that I use as material turn into a different color since there is so much processing involved in treating the sound. Let's say, for example, I use a recorded speech and at the end you cannot recognize the words in the speech.
For the "Elegy for Water" performance, which is created based on an 8 minute piece, I use a flagellation device called a zanjeer, which is used among Shia Muslims and I have seen mourning sessions on the streets of my hometown since I was a child. My first notion was to turn this device into an instrument that could produce actual frequencies, like it could sing. The reason for this was the still ongoing debate in my country about whether music is legal (Hallah) or illegal (Haram) from the eyes of some clerics of Islam.
And this question is never properly answered and meanwhile there is so much happening in the music scene at least in numbers of events that take place.
With that being said I made an instrument from the zanjeer and composed a repertoire to be performed in water reservoirs as a cry or prayer, if you will, for water. It's also interesting to note that zanjeers are used during the Moharram month, which is attached to a very important Islamic battle wherein the shortage of water plays a key role.
The pallete of sound that I use in that repertoire comes from my personal archive, which contains different waters around Iran, modular synths, and more. So far I have performed in three old water reservoirs in three different cities, and nearly 400 people witnessed the events. The feedback I got from the audience vary from amazement to them having a lot of questions, while some did not consider what they witnessed and heard to be music.
I'm curious about the track "Would You Remember Me." What are the different voices sourced from, and what are they saying?
They are speeches I recorded from a group of theatre actors who are mostly the same age. They’re saying: "Me," "Did you remember me?," and "What was my name?"
Do you find yourself getting inspiration for your music from theater performances? Have you ever incorporated (or wanted to incorporate) theatrical components to your live performances?
I do get inspired by a play or a movie once im composing for it. Some elements in the plot or the scenario or even in the imagery sometimes gives me an idea. In my very first experimental pieces, performance is really crucial. You can find two pieces already uploaded to YouTube. One is “An Iranian dismantling a nuclear bomb on US soil” and the other is “Bulletine”.
Your "Elegy of Water" performances were a part of Noise Works, a platform you run that curates live music and holds workshops. What was the reason you decided to start Noise Works back in 2014, and how has the experience of running it been thus far?
The idea behind Noiseworks is to define sound art in general through workshops and performances. So far it has been ok since I’ve really been spending most of my time composing or touring.
What plans do you have coming up? Are there any new pieces you're working on?
I have a couple of performances coming up in August, one of which is at Helsinki’s Flow Festival. I am also working on a project based on the silent parts of historic speeches. For this next project I would mostly be using samplers and a tape machine.