“Breath feels like such an important part of that process of performing, how you’re feeling when you’re performing, the sound that you make. The way you breathe informs how gradual, or direct, or stable or unstable, that sound is.”

Emily Hazrati

Emily Hazrati (b. 1998) is a composer and performer based in London. Her music is spacious, immersive, and environmental, with a focus on storytelling, dramaturgy, and global politics; she has worked on projects with the Royal Opera House, Psappha, BBC Singers, Oxford Philharmonic, The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and CHROMA Ensemble, among many others. Emily is currently a Junior Fellow at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she learns with Julian Philips and Hollie Harding, as well as a Britten-Pears Young Artist 2021-22 – with whom she is premiering her new opera TIDE this 23rd June at Snape Maltings with collaborator Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh. Emily spoke to PRXLUDES about her collaborative operatic process, the influence of her Iranian heritage, the characters, themes, and melodic concepts behind TIDE, and the impact of breath and environmentalism on her work.

Emily Hazrati, ‘RED LETTER DAY’ (2021). Text and narration by Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh. Premiere as part of Illuminated River.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Emily! Hope you’re doing well. So last year, you and Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh premiered your debut opera ‘Paradise Garden’ as part of Guildhall Opera Makers — tell me a bit about the concept behind the opera and its compositional process…

Emily Hazrati: Hi Zyggy! Yeah sure, I’d love that! When we were writing ‘Paradise Garden’, there was quite a lot of detail in it — everything wove together to create this bigger-picture thing. Whilst the title of the opera is an explicit reference to Iranian gardens of the same name, it’s not only an opera about Iranian culture; it’s an opera about what it means to love someone in an unconventional way. If you were to frame it really broadly, you’d call it an “unconventional love story”. There’s this love triangle that’s existing between three characters — two of [whom] had gone through a queer love affair together — and they’d just decided to leave it as friends. And then there’s also Maria de’ Medici and Shah Abbas of Iran — two very powerful figures of their time, from opposite sides of the world — falling in love with each other, but realising that they can’t be together because they’ve both got a duty to the broader cause of their people, and the global politics of the day. The main undercurrent happening in the premise Nazli and I set out is that there [was] a plague ravaging the land… Making a clear parallel to our own pandemic, at the moment. -laughs-

I feel like covid has ended up being a fixture in a lot of new opera recently. I can’t imagine why. -laughs- What would you say is the principal theme behind ‘Paradise Garden’?

The opera is setting out this idea [that] love isn’t always necessarily the case of how it’s traditionally presented, especially in [traditional] opera — “oh, you fall for someone because they’re beautiful and it’s all about a one-on-one connection”. That absolutely is a version of love, but I think another version of love can be [something] like a love for duty.

Still image from ‘Paradise Garden’ (2021). © Guildhall School / Matthew Ferguson (FG Studios) 2021

Since ‘Paradise Garden’ overtly references your own Iranian heritage — how much of a role would you say heritage plays in your work?

[My heritage] has been an influence in bits of my work — like in ‘Paradise Garden’ — although I guess the crucial thing about ‘Paradise Garden’ is that it was informed by my collaborator and I’s shared Iranian heritage. Nazli’s Iranian heritage has been a big part of her upbringing — so I guess that kind of had an impact on how I approached ideas of Iranian heritage in the opera; in that researched specific elements of Iranian influence which I wanted to include in the music, to complement Nazli’s collaging of references to Iranian art, culture and literature in libretto. I remember, the very first thing that I wrote in my sketchbook — when I was on the Guildhall Opera Makers Programme — was a copy of the seven dastgahs, which are traditional Persian modes. I didn’t necessarily use all of them, but certain aspects of the modes, and the degrees of the scale which are sharpened and flattened… They are permeated through the opera. It still felt authentic, in that way — I was not just doing it on my own. But if I was to start writing an instrumental piece, and made it all about my Iranian heritage, I’m not sure how I would feel about it. I feel like I’d be weirdly appropriating it — it is technically part of my heritage, but it’s not necessarily how I’ve been brought up, or socialised.

So you’ve been working with Nazli for a while now. Tell me a bit about your collaborative process and how it informs your approach to opera?

Yeah! It feels like there are lots of really lovely shared interests that came out of our collaboration. That’s just one part of it, as well; [there’s] things I thought I knew about myself, but I only got to embrace as a result of [our] collaboration. What’s really nice about it is that the art we’ve been creating recently feels quite liminal — which is a term I didn’t ever use before [working with Nazli]. That idea of in-between spaces is something I’m particularly interested in; they leave space for questions, words, and sounds which have a sort of open-endeness, which give space for multiple interpretations, and actually embrace collaboration for what it is — dialogue.

How do you see collaboration more generally, in relation to your practice?

For me, a collaboration isn’t a transactional thing. It’s a field where you can have all these shared ideas which then morph and change into something else. I think there’s something really beautiful about that — acknowledging that things aren’t in black and white. It’s something I get annoyed about in the culture we live in, which tries to impose this idea of “this is this, and [that] is that”. It also explains why when I was growing up, I was a very diplomatic person — I liked to see both sides of the argument — and I’m still like that now. But I felt like I was doing something wrong, sometimes, because I’d try and be the in-between person, and other people would get frustrated. -laughs- But I think that I’ve come to realise why I think like that, what that actually, and be able to frame it a little bit more.

“A collaboration isn’t a transactional thing. It’s a field where you can have all these shared ideas which then morph and change into something else.” Emily Hazrati, in conversation with PRXLUDES

You and Nazli are now in the process of preparing your incredibly exciting new opera ‘TIDE’ next week with Britten Pears Arts — what initially kicked off the writing process?

With this next opera I’m working on, ‘TIDE’… We’ve started with really broad brushstrokes. I went to Nazli and said “I’ve been in Snape Maltings for the beginning of my Britten-Pears Young Artist year [and] I’m finding it really intriguing”. It made me think a lot about what it means to come and go from a place, and what the idea of “belonging” to a place means. It made me think about coastal communities, in particular. That’s something really striking about Snape Maltings and the Aldeburgh area: the fact that there’s a lot of different people coming through it, but there’s also a strong and ancient community attached to it (even though compared to other towns and cities in the country and around the world, it’s not that old!) It’s got a feeling that there’s things about that area that have been unchanging. That really intrigued me. In those early stages of my residency, I was also lucky to spend time with the original manuscript for Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde, whilst at The Red House in Aldeburgh — this made me really interested in using participatory elements like hymns and children’s chorus as framing devices, and also made me think a lot about the weather and oceans… So, I went to Nazli with these broad ideas, and we talked about what narrative themes this was sparking for us; [and] these threads of displacement and diaspora started to emerge in a more detailed way.

How did the concept for ‘TIDE’ emerge from there?

I was interacting with three singers in Snape Maltings at the time — Katy Thomson, Siân Dicker, and Lotte Betts-Dean — and we were talking a lot about incremental collaboration. I really liked the idea of working with performers over the course of the year, very gradually generating and creating ideas together. That’s how the three female characters in our premise first emerged, I guess (we’ve ended up working with three different but equally wonderful singers in our cast!). Nazli and I were also really interested in how we define what “woman” is, and what that blurred space is. That got thrown into the mix, as well.

I guess as a result of that, it became an opera exploring trauma and recovery in relation to place: whether a place is a sanctuary for some people, whether for some it’s a portal to get somewhere else, [or] their sense of safety isn’t so much determined by place as by a state of being. Body changes and body adaptations became a big part of this mythical world we were starting to create as well. We’ve ended up setting it in the near future, at a time when tides are rising — so it’s become quite environmental, as well! -laughs- So it’s so many different things. That’s what I like about liminal space: it’s acknowledging that we live in this hybrid-world where it’s not just this thing, or it’s not just that thing — and in a way, if you push so much for just one thing, you miss the nuance of everything else. You get the same problem when you’re really zooming out of something; you miss the detail in things. Maybe this is part of Nazli’s influence, as well — because she’s a very intersectional thinker — but I do think that’s how I creatively work the best, when I’m thinking about broad things. That means that when I write the music… The music contributes its own very different narrative which the libretto has created the space for.

Emily Hazrati, ‘raindrops keep dancing…’ (2021), commissioned by Guildhall New Music Society. Performed by Julien Harman-Evans and Thomas Ang.

Let’s talk about the compositional process behind ‘TIDE’ — how did the collaborative process for this new opera differ from your initial outings with Nazli?

In a way, my compositional process for ‘TIDE’ was very informed by what came before — what I did for ‘Paradise Garden’ — [which] was a very environmental piece in a very different sense to ‘TIDE’. There were lots of different “garden sonorities” and sounds I was thinking about; there was lots of birdsong, and suspended overtones, and quick oscillating figures that were made to sound like waves, or ripples. I had all of these little fragments of material [in ‘Paradise Garden’], but it kind of meant that the characters didn’t stand out as much as I wanted to — or I wasn’t necessarily prioritising that. I’d written for them [all] in quite a similar, lyrical way, even though there were clear modal differences.

But [this] meant that I went into ‘TIDE’ thinking “okay, I need really strong characters for this” — especially when I saw Nazli’s libretto, which was very, very liminal, and didn’t have a linear narrative in the same way that ‘Paradise Garden’ did (to some extent). I started making these sketches quite early on; I think the first sketches I made were for the more non-lyrical character in the opera, Ina [Erin Gwyn Rossington]. Each of the three characters has a different place and instrumentation within the ensemble that they’re associated with, and in our premise, we specified that Ina’s home is soon to be in the mountains, and her instrument is the violin. She’s got a much more “direct” quality to her than the other two.

Tell me more about this idea of “character” in ‘TIDE’ with regards to the scoring — how did this idea develop?

Gradually, more and more emerged as the year went on. I had a really important conversation with Julian Philips at one point. I asked him where [to] start with the libretto, and he said “I feel like what you’ve got here [in the libretto] is a character who is at the core of the whole thing” — this is referring to Estèr [Georgia Mae Bishop], whose place is the tower by the eroding coastline where ‘TIDE’ is set — and sort of a quasi-religious figure (though that’s another point of contention in the opera!) She’s quite a spacious [and] timeless figure throughout the opera; she’s got an unchanging quality to her.

So what [I] did was approached that character’s sketches as if writing a stretched-out aria from the beginning to end of the opera, and then the other two characters’ more visceral interactions are another set of sketches — [those being] Ina and Amelia [Katherine McIndoe]. With the whole “bodies changing” concept, [Amelia] is referred to as “having scales”, and Ina is referred to as “having feathers” — so there is also a distinction between the two of them, but in terms of their musical content, it was clear that they both had to have a much more linear, fleeting sense of time than Estèr did. And so Julian said “okay, I think these [Estèr versus Amelia and Ina] are two separate things” — and that hugely informed what I did next.

What did you do next? What approach did you take for these sketches — and how did you portray these different facets for the characters within the instrumentation?

Essentially, my first sketches for Estèr were for what I knew the full ensemble was going to be — flute (doubling alto and piccolo), violin, and cello — and those sketches were quite drawn out, but with a circular feeling to them; this sense of something undulating, up and down. They [featured] lots of very spacious, drawn-out chords, [and] slow-changing harmonies. [That’s] something I’m really into in my compositional process — I’m interested in exploring the in-between area of something that’s static and changing, harmonically. Her vocal lines are influenced by plainchant, chorale, that sort of thing… [But] as I like to say about nuance and liminal space: Estèr is presented as someone with this sense of continuity, but there is this inner conflict in her. Nazli talks about this well, but Estèr’s thread of violence throughout this opera is really interesting; something that goes from being censored to more outright.

For the other two characters… for Amelia, I wanted something that was sort of “in the middle” of Estèr and Ina — Estèr’s [lines are] very drawn out, and Ina’s this anti-lyrical, very angular, chromatic [and] direct character. Amelia’s very fleeting; all of her gestures are very fast, and direct, but they’re also lyrical in the same way Estèr is. Her place is the sea, and her instrument is the flute — in terms of her pitch world, she inhabits something that feels modal, but has a slightly more obvious chromatic undercurrent than Estèr. That’s what my compositional process was.

Has there been any particular takeaway, compositionally, that you’ve learned or felt through penning these sketches?

It feels very stratified — which I feel has been really important — because when you sacrifice the clarity of one thing, you have to compensate for it in another area. In a way, what the music does is take the liminal space [from Nazli’s libretto], and create its own narrative in dialogue with that.

How did working at Snape Maltings and with Britten-Pears impact the writing process of ‘TIDE’?

As well as my interactions with Julian Philips, I had conversations at Snape Maltings with people like Laura Bowler. [She] had some really amazing advice about the characterisation. A lot of Ina’s qualities came from something she said about Ina being something “anti-lyrical”; I hadn’t thought about it explicitly in those terms until then, and it was really handy.

Later in the year, I had a quite formative session with Larry Goves, who was talking about character branding. -laughs- I showed him one of my earlier violin sketches, and he basically said [that] in some ways, there’s a lot going on in this, and in other ways it’s all the same. I guess what he was saying was that [the sketches] didn’t have an essence of the character yet, because I was trying to get a different kind of internal variety, which was distracting from that. That was really formative — because I actually went and made a ‘character branding’ table! I’d have each character, and a parameter at the top, and filled in lots and lots of details that were going on in my head.

That was also around the same time I started having mentorship from Hollie Harding, who is absolutely amazing. We talked a lot about the scaling of performance practice for the different characters: for Estèr, [the performance practice] is something quite subtle, whereas Ina has quite a few very specific instructions, in terms of how the violin part she’s associated with presents itself. For example, there’s bits of white noise and pointed sul ponticello, and mimicry of the human voice [in her part].

In terms of performance practice… another thing that was really formative about my conversations with Hollie was the idea of breath. It was something that had been on my mind from the early stages of working on ‘TIDE’, particularly after seeing Hannah Conway’s Sound Voice: Installation at the Festival of New, but Hollie really helped crystalise my thinking around breath in the later stages of writing. It’s a binding theme throughout the libretto, and so I thought “okay, this has to have some sort of bearing on my approach to the sound.”

That’s fascinating — playing with the subtleties of breath to further entrench the characters. How have you done that throughout the opera with each of the characters?

The breath is “scaled” to different extents in the characters. With Estèr, it’s something quite gradual and a very all-encompassing element of her sound; for example, the alto flute is instructed to play with an “airy non-vibrato” sound at the very beginning. Whereas with Amelia, rather than being something quite taught — in the way that Esther associates herself with breath — it’s something that she’s kind of fighting against, and eventually comes to terms with. That’s partly to do with place, and bodies — she doesn’t find the tower that they’ve found themselves in safe, and that has an impact on the continuity of her breath — whereas [when] we get to the end of the opera, the soundworld warms and there’s much more of a continuity to how she presents herself. Whereas with Ina… [while] breath is not as much of a direct feature, at the very end, the violin has this short passage right at the top of the A string, where basically you just get white noise. She [also] speaks in very short, fragmented sentences — so I guess there’s the fragmentary, angular musical gestures, and the notion of brevity and clarity of breath.

Emily Hazrati, ‘CLOUDSCAPES’ (2021), performed by Tom McKinney as part of Psappha’s Composing for Guitar scheme.

What drew you choose to focus on breath with these characters?

It feels like such a fundamental part of what it means to be living, right? We breathe. Every living organism breathes or respirates in some way. This opera is engaging [with] how we are interconnected to our natural environment… Things you wouldn’t necessarily think about on a day-to-day basis; connections made between things like snow and marine snow, [and] ideas of erosion and rebuild. There’s also an implication in the libretto that bodies changing is relating to [the] chemicals which we put into our environment, by nature of human intervention: we make chemicals, we use them, they filter into our environment. Those chemicals don’t only go back to every living thing in the sea, on the land, and in the air — they go through us. We are all very interconnected, and everything we put into our cycle of life will always come back to bite us. And breath provides a frame for that — for example, shortness of breath is linked to the stability of that cycle being broken.

Even if you think about musicians, and how they work: breath feels like such an important part of that process of performing, how you’re feeling when you’re performing, the sound that you make. The way you breathe informs how gradual, or direct, or stable or unstable, that sound is. It’s such a grey area that I love.

That’s such an interesting idea — that breath isn’t just something that relates to singing, but translates to every facet of performance.

Yeah. I definitely agree with that. I suppose a good example of that from my portfolio is the piece I wrote for guitarist Tom McKinney‘CLOUDSCAPES’ — which was my first significant attempt at incorporating elements of improvisation into my scoring. The piece is very inspired by the long stretches of time I’d go for walks during lockdown, and gaze at the clouds. I often walk in areas which are quite flat, and you get a really amazing view of clouds and sunsets in those areas. I don’t know what it is, but there is something about sitting there, watching the clouds really slowly rolling by, which feels therapeutic, but also quite transcendental. I was thinking of ideas for this piece, and I was thinking “how can I approach writing for the guitar, and also push myself to do something slightly different in this piece?” It led me to score these gradually unfolding chords in quite an openly-scored way — and in that context, breath feels quite important because it’s so subjective to the person, and to the moment. What Tom McKinney did in his recording of that piece is very specific to [him], and to that time.

Is breath something you think about consciously in your more instrumentally-focused work?

Not generally. I guess I wasn’t thinking about it like that at that time. But now that I think back to it, and the very slow, ritualistic breathing that I personally associate with cloudgazing… It [does] definitely feed into what I was feeling when I was translating these abstract ideas in my head into some form of pitch, and notation.

Another different example would be ‘raindrops keep dancing…’ — [a] piece for voice flute. It was inspired by this short fragment of text by the Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri, about a lost soul counting raindrops in the cracks between bricks: an image which I felt really absorbed by at the time. I feel like that piece feels a lot more bubbly, and fleeting — and the breath is something much more specific. Obviously, there is an extent to which it is subjective, specific to my performers Julien [Harman-Evans] and Thomas [Ang] — they’re both amazing, such open and kind collaborators — but generally the breath in ‘raindrops keep dancing…’ is something much more predetermined and rhythmic. Like punctuation, in a way. Again, I wasn’t thinking about [breath] so much at the time of writing. Working on ‘TIDE’ has really made me interested in it on a much deeper level.

Is there anything else about breath that turned it into a focal point of your practice?

The other reason I’m interested in breath is that it’s something, I think, quite ritualistic. I’m really interested in anything that’s ritual-focused. As a person, I like routine. -laughs- I like the comfort of something that constantly repeats itself, no matter what. I sing every Sunday morning, I eat the same seven meals at home in the same order every week… -laughs- That kind of feeds into it.

If I was to find a really brief way of saying “why is it I’m interested in breath”, I guess you’d first talk about the intersectional, liminal side of it, and the relationship and bearing in holds on what it means to be alive. But there’s also the ritual side of it. For me — ideas of ritual tie into so many of my artistic inclinations. Ritual ties into my interest in spirituality but also in minimalist soundworlds and figures… The idea of looping material around and around in a way that doesn’t necessarily have a clear cultural connotation.

Emily Hazrati, ‘Sweeter Than Honey’ (2019), commissioned by The Korrigan Consort for ‘A Blue True Dream of Sky: A Celebration of Queer Poetry’. Performed at University College Chapel, Oxford, UK.

The voice is such an integral part of your practice — what is it that draws you to writing for voice?

It’s a really good question! I think that’s how I started composing. The very first pieces I wrote were for choirs, with text I’d often written myself, as well. I started composing for voices and text, and was very lucky to hear that work performed live, by a choir, when I was quite young. Not many people have that experience, and it makes me quite sad that it’s not necessarily “easy” or “normal” in this world to have that experience in education. It was life-changing.

So [voice] is what I know — it’s where everything started. I am a singer, as well — a mezzo-soprano — it’s probably my main practice as a musician, after being a composer. And so there’s something very personal about it to me in that way, as well. It means that whenever I’m engaging with voice, I am thinking from within in a very focused way. Even when it’s not for me, I’ll often sing to create vocal lines — but also when I’m making material, or responding to a text. My voice, and how my body responds to music, feel quite present and important to me when I’m composing.

I get that — like, voice is your medium of engaging with music as a whole.

In a broader sense, what attracts me to working with voice is that it is just part of you. When you’ve got an instrument — people talk about the violin as an extension of the body — there’s still some sort of mechanism between your inner self and the sound that comes out. I think it’s so special that whenever you’re working with a voice, there’s just no barrier. There’s minimal barriers for expression. As someone who likes to write in a very emotive way, it’s really attractive; especially when it’s in combination with text. It doesn’t have to be for vocal music, but for me it definitely is, a lot of the time — both before and after I’ve been collaborating with a writer. I guess that’s what interests me and draws me to it the most.

Emily’s two upcoming performances of ‘TIDE’ on 23 June are currently sold out – join the waiting list for tickets at:

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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.

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