“Even if I have a really restrictive structure in my compositions, I always have some kind of freedom inside. Even if I don’t have improvisation in the composition, I am thinking like an improviser.” -Atefeh Einali
Atefeh Einali is an Iranian composer and santoor player currently based in Manchester, UK. Atefeh is currently one of Nonclassical’s Associate Composers of 2021-22; she is a previous winner of SIMF (ACIMIC / The Association of Iranian Contemporary Music Composers), and her music has been commissioned and performed by the International Guitar Foundation (IGF), Trio Atem, Contemporary Music for All, Ensemble Alternance, and Psappha, as well as a recent residency with Migrant Voices. As a santoor player, she has performed in the UK, Netherlands, and Iran, and forms one half of the Avazad Fusion Duo with flautist Eliorah Goodman. Atefeh is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester, and she spoke to PRXLUDES about her research in combining Iranian and Western musical practices, fusion, her practice as an improviser, cross-cultural collaboration, and more...
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Atefeh — hope you’ve been keeping well! You’ve recently started working on a PhD: tell me a bit about your area of expertise with your research?
My research is about interaction between Iranian classical repertoire, [and] contemporary Western music. As a santoor player, I have been trained for more than fifteen years to learn wholly the Iranian traditional repertoire — my Bachelor degree was also about the santoor, and traditional Iranian music — but when I finished my training, I went through my Master’s in Iran in composition. And when you are doing a music composition degree [in Iran], they are all teaching you compositional techniques which are based on Western practice; from Bach [and] Beethoven to things from the more contemporary [era]… John Cage, Berio. All Iranian repertoire was gone when I was doing my composition course. But I had that much information, and I wanted to use that! I couldn’t just say “okay, that was the other part of my life, and now this is my new life…” -laughs-
So since then, I just started to see how I can bring [into contemporary music] all my training about the modes, about the improvisation, about the texture, rhythm. There are a lot of specific rules in Iranian music about improvisation, about how to make combinations between modes, which modes work together: what kind of character, what kind of rhythm. You have to learn all this repertoire by ear, and you have to memorise it. I spent a lot of my life memorising all of that, so I decided “okay, how can I bring those materials through [to my] composition?” I’m an Iranian composer. I’m doing composition in a contemporary way. So how can I make that combination?
How has your compositional journey been shaped by this desire to make that combination?
I started to find a solution when I was a Master’s student in Iran. I then decided to go to Manchester and do another Master’s, because I realised I [had] to know more about the Western part. We had really good tutors in Iran — they taught us about [many] Western compositional techniques — but it wasn’t enough, because they were trying to say things which they had learned from books, or resources. But they hadn’t been in the “real” Western world to learn about that.
So I came to Manchester, I did my Master’s, and I was trying to find a solution for fusion. I’m saying “fusion”, or “challenge”, because I think that when you are bringing some material from different music genres, you have to be really careful [about] how to combine, and how to blend it. If you just bring it, and apply it to a new genre, it’s gonna be superficial, it’s gonna be a cliche. Background of strings and some Iranian melodies on top… I didn’t want to do that! -laughs-
Of course! Fusion is something that goes much deeper than pure aesthetics.
Exactly. I wanted to find a musical language that is a combination of this Iranian background, and Western technical composition. And then I finished my Master’s; and now, in my PhD, I’m working in the same area, but [there’s] a new aspect I added to this PhD research.
What would you say characterises the approach you’re undertaking now, in comparison to the approach you undertook during your Master’s?
Before the PhD — for example, in [my] piece ‘I am from nowhere’ — I was more focused on the modes from dastgah, and modes from Western culture. I got a lot of inspiration from Messiaen. I tried to find the similarities, the differences, and how to blend them together. But now, I added one more aspect, one more direction — and that’s improvisation. I’m working on that, because gradually, when I work with different ensembles, and had a different collaboration with different performers, I realised that: modes and dastgah is always part of my composition, and that’s nice, but it’s not enough. For making that connection, it’s not enough just bringing the modes, or bringing the rhythm.
[Modes and dastgah] have to be in my music, they are my language — they are coming into my music really intuitively. It’s something that I don’t think about when I’m writing melody. But now, I’m looking instead at how I can get the freedom for performers, to make a space for them to bring their traditional repertoire or music training they have in my music. I’m still working on this research, but I’m guessing [that] if I try and make this freedom for performers, they’re gonna bring a lot of materials from their tradition, and then I bring that [from mine]. It’s a nice combination, because we both bring something from our traditional background; it seems like we have a dialogue with each other, musically. That’s the area I’m researching now.
That’s fascinating — it’s like, through collaboration you’re able to create a more authentic fusion. I think I understand now what you mean by the term.
Yeah, exactly. Also, these days, my research is going into a lot of new aspects, as well, as I’m getting interested in music from different cultures. I’m not just focused on Iranian [tradition]. I know the Iranian part really [well], and I’m bringing that really intuitively, but I want to learn about other cultures.
I did an art residency project called Migrant Voices. We did it in Manchester, it was amazing; it was ten days working with different musicians, all from different countries. In that residency, I learned a lot about African music — Africa is really big, so every country has a different musical [culture]… -laughs- But I’m planning on going and speaking with them again! I got really inspired by rhythm; I met a lot of drummers, and I met a singer from Morocco, and he sang a lot of modes. It was really near to my tradition, but it’s something different! We worked together to find what the difference is, and how we can blend that with the santoor.
Even in the UK — I played Irish music with a violinist, and it was amazing. So now, I have my Iranian repertoire in my music, but I’m gonna explore more about other cultures, and see what they are gonna do in my music. It can help me to find a better way of that fusion, and expand my musical language, as well.
To bring it back to your Iranian musical language — tell me a bit about how these elements have impacted your work, particularly in pieces for Western instruments such as ‘I am from nowhere’?
‘I am from nowhere’ has two movements. The first movement is just solo accordion, and I think that sometimes, people just listen to the second movement — which is for accordion and string [quartet] — but for my aspect, they are not really separate. When you are listening to ‘I am from nowhere’, you need to listen to [both] movements.
You are asking about how you bring those [elements], and the answer is that the first movement is really free. There are a lot of improvisatory parts in the solo accordion. It means that that movement, for me, is kind of preparation for bringing in the second movement. In the second movement, when the strings come in, I have a lot of quarter-tones in the string parts — but obviously, I can’t have that in the accordion — but because we have that kind of improvisation before, your ear gets ready for the quarter-tones, the glissandi textures, the different rhythms in the strings. I didn’t write the strings freely, but the glissandi [and] the quarter-tones make it a bit free, because when you ask the string players to play quarter-tones, they’re not gonna all play the same quarter-tones. It’s different — and that kind of difference between the strings was a freedom. That’s what I was thinking: bringing freedom in a very fixed composition. Sometimes you don’t need to remove the bar lines and say “play freely” — you just need to find which character, in that instrument, can bring freedom to the piece.
I started with a really free character and improvisatory part in the accordion, but then [when] the ensemble is coming, they are playing a strict rhythm. But inside that, they have a lot of freedom to work with the glissandi, quarter-tones, the sonorities. I think that is a good solution for combining the Iranian parts [with] Western instruments, and the accordion repertoire.
How much of a role does this freedom play in your more general notational practice?
That’s the way of my composition technique: even if I have a really restrictive structure in my compositions, I always have some kind of freedom inside. The way of thinking [about] organised form, or organised compositional techniques, is coming from the improvisation. Even if I don’t have improvisation in the composition, I am thinking like an improviser when writing the piece. That’s what you can see in the string parts; we have a lot of rhythmic patterns [alongside] flowing, free parts.
That’s coming from my improvisational rules in Iranian traditional music. It’s kind of like a map. -laughs- When I am thinking like that [in] composition… Even in rhythm, even when it’s strict, there is a freedom inside.
I’d love to hear an example of this — I remember you wrote a piece for Késia Decoté recently?
I’m developing the improvisational part in composition a lot. In ‘I am from nowhere’, it was [a] really hidden freedom, but for the next piece I did, called ‘Dard’ — with Nonclassical and Késia — for that, in the score, I only had five notes. But on top of that, that’s improvisation. In the programme note, I wrote a lot of different textures you can make with [those five notes] — seven textures — and when I’m saying about “texture”, I used a kind of graphic score. It’s not fixed. For example, for texture one, I drew some chords, but chords without showing the notes — the notes are completely free.
I wrote [these] seven textures, and then I asked Késia to develop her own improvisation for that part. It was completely free, actually… -laughs- She did several versions, and we recorded [them] in a studio. I chose one of them for the “final” version — but I would prefer to have all [of the] versions, actually. I think all versions had that specific kind of character she brought to the piece from her feelings, her emotions. But because it was for the album, I [had to] only choose one of them.
Do you see the version of ‘Dard’ you released on Nonclassical to be the “definitive” version of the piece?
With that experience… It was really interesting, and a bit of a shock for me. The live performance is entirely different from the studio version. Maybe I don’t like to bring all the versions we did into a studio, but I would like to have that piece performed in a live situation. The way I’m thinking about the improvisation — bringing the energy of the whole piece — is like, 60% fully notated, 40% improvisation. I don’t [see] the piece all [as] improvisation. I’m bringing some of myself, my background, and I give it to the performer, and I’m gonna ask the performer to feel the piece I wrote. It’s kind of the answer to me; a kind of call-and-response with my piece and the performer’s emotions. That kind of spontaneity is happening in the performance, not the studio. I’m gonna plan a live performance for that piece, to see how that improvisation could work in a real concert hall, in that moment.
Of course — it’s about feeling the energy from Késia, and feeling the energy from the audience. Do you have anything organised for that yet?
Not yet. In the future, I’m gonna do that, but I don’t know when. -laughs-
Tell me a bit about your background as a santoor player and improviser — how have you developed that side of your practice?
When I was 12 years old, I started to learn the santoor. Learning [a] traditional instrument in Iran also had very traditional teaching methods. They are really restricted to teaching you whatever they know about that tradition, that they learned from their former tutors. They want you [to] exactly copy and imitate what they say. We do have notation for santoor repertoire, but the notation doesn’t make any sense, because the notation can come from the Western [idiom], and it’s just rough ideas… You haven’t any dynamics, or character, or phrasing. In Radif — a part of Iranian repertoire — it’s almost free; we don’t have any time signatures, or strict metre, but you also need to learn how to be “free”. It’s not completely free to do whatever you want. Like a jazz improvisation; there are parts and rules inside, and you need to learn that by your ear, and from your tutors.
So I started music [by] learning santoor. At that time, when I was starting to learn music, I didn’t know anything about classical music — my whole information was based on the Iranian repertoire. When you are trying to learn that notation, [but also] play by ear… gradually, I realised my mind was reading notation in a different way. When I came to Manchester, I had that problem with performers: “why are you playing a dotted quaver like that? It doesn’t [go] like that…” -laughs-
It’s the cultural differences in how we perceive notation, right?
Yeah, exactly! But I learned the whole repertoire when I was in Iran, and when I tried to learn composition, I tried to switch of all I had learned from the Iranian part, and tried to focus on what the Western part [was] saying. I wanted to learn exactly what was [happening], to get to know Western composition really [well].
But when you learn Iranian repertoire, you need to study improvisation. You can’t be an Iranian santoor player and say “I don’t know improvisation” — you have to do improvisation. -laughs- The point is that, for improvisation, nobody teaches you how. You just need to listen to your tutors, and see how they improvise; and then you need to imitate the improvisation [to learn]. I did that a lot, but in that part of my life, whenever I did improvisation, they were like “no, that’s not correct” — and I think it wasn’t correct in their ears because I was learning Western composition, as well. And all the information from the Western part also had an affect on my improvisation, and the Iranian part. I couldn’t divide myself into two parts — and when I’m doing improvisation, say, switch off the Western part, and then when doing composition, switch off the Iranian part. It wasn’t possible, because composition is kind of like improvisation, as well.
So I continued to develop my improvisational side — because at the end of the day, I can’t go for all the things they are saying, because I have that other part and it’s been developing. I needed to get them together.
How did your practice develop once you left Iran?
When I came to Manchester, I worked with a lot of performers here, and that’s kind of [becoming] a compromise. I think compromise is a really good word when you’re having a collaboration with performers, because you can’t be a really strict Iranian musician when you are playing with a violinist, or someone from a [different] culture. So I was always trying to find a compromise to see how I can bring my material, be myself, but also try to accompany the other person.
It’s been developed just by working with people. I started with Eliorah Goodman — we made the Avazad Duo [together] — but at the same time, I was keeping collaborations with others in university. Now I’ve had the Migrant Voices residency, and recently I met a violinist, and we had a lot of gigs together. The next project is gonna be [my biggest] one, and it’s bringing [together] all these experiences in the UK and Iran…
Tell me about this big event you’re planning — how is it going to bring all of your experiences together?
I’m curating an event for Nonclassical! It’s going to be in Manchester, in November. In that event, I’m playing an improvisation for 45 minutes — that’s a long time for me. I’m going to explore three dastgah [through] the whole of the 45 minutes. It’s kind of a challenge, because transition and modulation between the dastgah is hard work. But I’m gonna find a solution for that for this event.
The main part is my improvisation, but I’m [also] gonna bring in video, as well. I’m gonna ask a poet to come, I’m going to ask a singer… but it’s still developing, and it’s not fixed. So we’ll see how it’s going. -laughs-
How are you bringing together the collaborative elements of this Nonclassical night?
For now, I’m thinking about asking the poet to improvise — that’s a part I’m going to explore. -laughs- But generally, I’m interested in bringing in improvisation in different areas. The improvisation shouldn’t just be for performers [and] instrumentalists; I’m thinking about dance, and movement. But it’s not fixed — I’m still developing [the idea].
Tell me a bit about the duo you’ve formed with Eliorah — how did the collaboration with Avazad start?
We started the duo in 2018 — when both of us were Master’s students at the University of Manchester. The starting point was [when] Eliorah told me she was interested in Iranian music; Eliorah is Jewish, we played a lot of klezmer music, [and] there’s a lot of similarities between that and Iranian music. We started jamming a lot. Sometimes, we didn’t have any particular mode, or piece in mind, and just played. When you want to [create] fusion, most of the speaking should be done with music: you can spend an hour speaking about your background, or your music, but if you haven’t done any playing, it’s not gonna help. We just started to play, play, play. Every week, we would have a rehearsal, and during the playing, you got that “Oh! That’s a similarity, what is that?” — and she would speak about [it], and I would try to imitate. And when I [was] imitating that klezmer tune, I was adding some of my Iranian tunes, as well — even the character. That’s how the fusion happened.
It was great before the pandemic; we had a lot of gigs, and performances. We played some Iranian folk music, I played some klezmer with Eliorah… We asked a lot people to join us, we had a drummer [and] cellist one time. But [when the] pandemic started, and it had an affect on our performances… -laughs- And now, we don’t have as many performances and gigs, because she’s based in Israel. But we are trying to keep the Avazad Composers Forum going.
You’ve been running the Avazad Composers Forum for quite a while now — what’s the ethos behind the initiative?
The idea of the Forum also came from the [idea] of fusion. When we had a lot of rehearsals, we realised that the way of thinking about composition is different [between] me and Eliorah. And that’s the point: composers from different parts of the world also think differently. If we can share that kind of difference of ways of thinking — the mindset — that would be really helpful for composers. When you are composing, you are with yourself all the time — you can’t imagine how other people [work] — but when you are sharing, it expands your mind and it expands your creativity. Maybe, specifically, the rehearsals or the music we play together — the tunes — didn’t have a [direct] effect on our composition, we didn’t use that kind of music in our compositions; but the way of thinking, how we make the collaboration, how we [both] develop the ideas, and how we find the transition between the tunes. Sharing the way of our compositional technique, or composition method — the mindset — that has really affected our compositional process, for both of us.
And then we started the Forum, as we found that experience really amazing — and we thought if we could share that with others, in the Forum, and if we can [ask] other composers what they think, what they are working on, how they are working, how they get their inspiration…
Do you see the projects you’ve built through Composers Forum expanding at any point?
Yes — at the moment, we are trying to apply for some funding resources, to put on an event for the composers from the Forum. Until now, it’s nice — everyone’s coming, showing themselves [and] their works — but we want to make a collaboration out of that forum… Asking the composers to write a piece for me, or for Eliorah, or maybe for other performers if we have the funding. Then, we can manage to have a festival to showcase the works of all the composers in the forum, in the real world. So that’s the plan, but let’s see how it’s going! -laughs-
That’s so exciting! I love that idea — now you’ve been able to build that community, you can find a way to showcase what they do. Would that be a Manchester-based initiative?
For now, yeah — because I’m based in Manchester, I know people here [and] can have help from the university. But we’re inviting people from around the world. It won’t just be for musicians here.
We’ve had a break, and we’re starting again now… The point is that we want to find composers who are curious to write a piece for me — for santoor — or for flute, [or] for both of them. We will have a composer for each forum [to] present, but it should be in some ways to develop the idea of composition for these two instruments, and getting help from the forum to expand that part of the compositional process. We are trying to find an educational part of the forum, by doing some real compositional workshops, at the same time as we are learning about the other composers. But we have to plan it really clearly.
In terms of your own performance, or other people writing for you — do you prefer to work with conventional Western notation, or do you prefer something that’s more free, or graphically notated?
I actually have a piece for santoor, vibraphone, and flute — ‘My tongue has been cut off’. I did that piece for my Master’s. And the santoor part is completely notated — but there are a lot of boxes in [the notation]. I use a lot of boxes, to explain in detail what I want; and [explain] the freedom in rhythm, as well. I haven’t done any graphic score for that piece, but if I want to do [something similar] in the future, I would use graphics, as well. In my previous works, I’d written 90% fully notated, maybe 10% improvisation… But now, I’m going the way of 60% fully notated, 40% improvisation. -laughs- But in that improvisation, I’m going to use a lot of graphic score — but at the same time, I would have a boxed explanation. The box is really helpful to say what I want.
Because of the flexibility of this kind of notation, it kind of creates this freedom to pursue the ideal of fusion that we’ve been talking about, right?
Yeah. I’m interested in the kind of fusion which is feeling the perspectives of others. I believe that when you have two different things, and you want to add them together, you have to change both sides. Even the Iranian part, when I bring it [to a piece], should be changed. You can’t say “that’s from my tradition, I’m not gonna change that.” But you also have Western collaborators, Western performers, and they also have to change. And when you change both sides, they can blend.
That’s why I’m saying that improvisation could help in changing both sides. When you ask a Western performer to improvise, it’s a big change — I know there are a lot of Western performers that are really good improvisers — but classically, they are not trained as improvisers. You have to follow the rules of classical traditional repertoire. So even asking [performers] to improvise is a change for them. And on my part — the Iranian part — rhythm, [and] writing the notes, making that 60%, 70% restrictions in the notation is a change for me. So now, there is a compromise between [us]; both parts have to come from us.
Some people say to me that if you ask [for] improvisation from performers who haven’t done [improvisation] before, they are going to bring some cliche. For example, if you have an ascending line, they are gonna play a scale, and I’m saying: okay, they’re playing a scale, but that scale is coming from their training, and their traditional repertoire. In my experience, the amount of time you are giving for improvisation is really important. You have to know how much time you give a performer. If you say “okay, thirty seconds improvisation”, they’re gonna play a scale; even sometimes one minute is not that good. Also, the direction you are giving with graphic scores is going to help them get out of their training, [and] out of the things they have in their mind.
Through the Nonclassical scheme, I wrote a piece called ‘Departure’ for CoMA. That piece has a lot of improvisatory parts, and free parts. It was interesting. The piece is around 8 minutes, because CoMA Manchester played it in 8 minutes and I was like “okay, that’s a good time for that!” — but it’s completely free, you can make it longer. If you need time, take your time to bring your ideas, to get over those scales. And the London Sinfonietta played it, and it was 15 minutes… oh my god, it was amazing! I listened to the piece several times, and I could see the performers’ improvisation — the first time, the cliche of scales, but the second and third time, I could see them bring really innovative material!
Of course — once you get performers comfortable, they’re more open to bringing more of themselves into the music.
Yeah, exactly. As a composer, I have to find a way to make the performers relax, how to direct them, how to lead them. That’s fusion for me.
Check out more about Atefeh and her work at the links below:
Atefeh’s ‘Dard’ is now available on Nonclassical’s Outside the Lines, Vol. 5 – check out the album below, including a piece by Emily Abdy:
Details about Atefeh’s curated event with Nonclassical will be available soon – check the following link for more information: