Almost a century ago, after a thousand years of Persian poetry, there was a major shift. It paralleled a seemingly global movement in which older artistic languages were transformed. In the West, this transformation can be seen in art (Kandinsky), music (Schoenberg), and literature (James Joyce). It happened in other parts for the world. In Persian poetry, maybe it was a cultural mutation, a literary development, or a seemingly abrupt change that was integrated into the fabric of life. But there were new voices in poetry, an art form that has been as important in Persia/Iran as philosophers were in ancient Greece, and as popular as pop stars are in America.
And one of them was the voice of Forough Farrokhzad, a woman estranged from her society, after writing profoundly new poetry in the 1940s and 1950s, during a second generation of new poetry. Now a trio of Iranian-American musicians has created an album based on her poem “I Pity the Garden (Green Memories).” Electronic musician and composer Shahrokh Yadegari says the poem significantly pre-dates Al Gore and other world leaders’ messages of impending environmental devastation and has sweeping implications for the way humans relate to each other and their world.
Farrokhzad’s words became a path for Yadegari toward a new way of making music and expressing the planet’s current crisis. Green Memories, a suite of structured improvisations, uses collaborative creative techniques and an instrument called Lila, an electronic program Yadegari invented that transforms the input of acoustic instruments to create a complex weave of melodies and textures. Through Lila, he forges a musical environment with Western and Persian classical violinist Keyavash Nourai and vocalist Azam Ali. Both Nourai and Azam Ali share Yadegari’s ability to move effortlessly between Western and Persian musical worlds.
Yadegari sees the Western divide between nature and culture as the troubling heart of today’s environmental problems. This relationship, evolving from the Enlightenment philosophers who saw individuals as independent of their environment, is reflected in misled popular readings of Darwin, which insist on competition and historical progress as the driving forces of both natural change and human civilization.
Yet today’s biologists are coming to understand that the line between an individual and the environment is profoundly blurry, a notion that Persian philosophers such as 10th-century mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam have discussed for centuries. “You read in Khayyam that we are nothing but the earth. ‘The clay cup you drink from,’” Yadegari paraphrases. “’When you are finished drinking the wine, be kind to this cup. You are holding your ancestors in your hand. Don’t break the cup. Soon, you will be a cup yourself.’” This perspective is echoed in the titles of the individual tracks on Green Memories, which draw on Sanskrit and Persian to express the oneness and cyclical nature of life.
The interconnection and interweaving of our lives and our surroundings had a deep impact on Yadegari’s approach to composition on Green Memories. Instead of creating sheet music for Azam Ali and Nourai, he defined modes and forms, in the same way that traditional Persian music spells out a faza or space, a structured context allowing for freedom of expression within. Yadegari also defined the musical gestures, emotional content, melodic contours, ornamentation, intensity, specific figures for openings, climaxes, and cadences, as well as performance techniques for each section.
“The music is not necessarily built with a compositional structure which defines all the actions of the performers. The musicians walk into a context, one I have worked on for many, many years. Lila creates a world for the musicians to be able to express themselves in a way that they wouldn’t normally.” By echoing and transforming the elegant, haunting lines invented by Azam Ali and Nourai, Yadegari forges a musical mirror of our interaction with the natural environment and the responsibility we bear in that relationship. Yadegari’s primary goal was to retain flexibility and freedom for the musicians while giving the pieces comprehensible contours and definition.
Azam Ali, Six Degrees recording artist and lead singer of the group Niyaz, was born in Tehran and raised in India. She discovered her vocal abilities while studying the Persian hammered dulcimer or santur as a young woman in Los Angeles. She uses her voice to move beyond culturally determined vocal techniques and even language. With the exception of the final track, Azam sings in her own improvised phonemes.
“It is not often in one’s career that you are presented with opportunities to be part of something truly meaningful and timeless,” says Azam Ali about the project. “It is within these rare moments that I have discovered the effortlessness of arriving at a moment of truth. Green Memories to me is a hopeful lament for a world slowly slipping away, yet completely within reach.”
Keyavash Nourai grew up playing both violin and the spike fiddle or kamanche in Tehran, until he arrived in the 1970s in the U.S. where he earned a graduate degree in classical violin. For Nourai, the improvisatory approaches of Persian classical music flow naturally into the classic and extended techniques of Western tradition.
The final destination for this collective musical exploration that ends in the only notated piece, “Mantra,” was the aching poetry of Forough Farrokhzad. “The poetry of Farrokhzad like any other great work of art taps into the collective unconscious and offers a shift in perception that can affect our experience of reality,” says Azam Ali. “During the recording of Green Memories, I felt this shift of perception myself; like the three of us were part of something greater than anything I could imagine.”
Almost as striking as her poems is the story of Farrokhzad’s short and extraordinary life. She wrote, painted, and directed documentary films, pursuing a path dedicated to art in a society wary of independent, openly sensual women. After marrying her childhood sweetheart, she eventually faced divorce and estrangement from her only son in order to continue writing poetry.
Her work earned her a place in a new canon of modern Persian poetry, the result of a 20th-century revolution that transformed centuries-old rules in a matter of a few years. Much as midcentury avant-garde composers did with tonal European music, modern Persian poets blew open the rhythmic and structural possibilities of ancient forms. Yet unlike Schoenberg’s innovations, this poetic revolution was embraced by ordinary Iranians and literary aficionados alike.
Farrokhzad’s impact came, in part, from her ability to make something profoundly personal from her social environment, whether her subject was women’s position in Iranian society or environmental challenges. The same connection lies at the heart of Green Memories, in which three individual musicians form a whole, without any differentiation into lead and accompaniment, background and foreground.
While Green Memories speaks of Forough’s message, it attempts to unify the message and medium, the sound and the music. It strives to be the sound of our ever-present context. “I wanted the piece to be the voice of the earth,” Yadegari explains. “And this is why the piece sometimes sounds ambient. Recent ecological changes are messages to us from the earth. We may be a little too late but… I think right now we really better listen.”