“To me, channeling inspiration is synonymous with channeling tradition… music doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes from generations of musicians who have laid the path before you.”Kian Ravaei
Kian Ravaei (b. 1999) is an Iranian-American composer currently based in Los Angeles, California. Kian is obsessed with notes, and the indescribable feelings they inspire within us, taking listeners on a spellbinding tour of humanity’s most deeply felt emotions. His work has been played by performers and ensembles such as Eliot Fisk, Bella Hristova, Salastina, and Juventas New Music Ensemble, among others; he was a Copland House CULTIVATE Fellow and LA Chamber Orchestra Teaching Artist Fellow 2021/22, and a Salastina Promising Composer 2020/21, and has won awards such as the New Music USA Creator Fund Award, Zodiac International Music Competition, and New York Youth Symphony First Music Chamber Music Award. Kian studied at UCLA with Richard Danielpour.
We sat down with Kian over Zoom, and talked about channeling musical heritage, tradition, interpreting cultural inspirations, EDM production, and much more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Kian! Thanks so much for joining me. Let’s start with a bit about your musical background — how did you get involved with composition, and what kinds of genres first impacted you musically?
Kian Ravaei: I grew up with a lot of Iranian music playing around the house. Not Iranian classical music, but Iranian pop music; though that also has a lot of influence from Iranian classical music. It often uses traditional instruments and microtonality.
My first introduction to music composition was EDM production. I grew up playing classical piano, but it never really occurred to me to write a piano piece, because I didn’t enjoy playing piano in the first place. -laughs- It was only when I heard EDM, when I was around 11, that I thought “this is the most amazing music I’ve ever heard, and you can make it with a computer? I wanna do that! It’s like playing video games!”
That’s so awesome. -laughs- Were there any particular producers or DJs that you gravitated towards, or grabbed your attention when you first heard them?
Deadmau5 and Skrillex. I guess that’s a cliché answer, but in 2010, Deadmau5 and Skrillex were blowing up. I remember hearing ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’, and most of my friends had this reaction of “this sounds like farts”… -laughs- But to me, it evoked this animal part of my being. I’d never heard something so heavy and visceral.
That’s amazing; and how did you develop your compositional voice from there?
In high school, I picked up guitar and I started to get interested in the craft of songwriting; the way that lyrics, melody, and chords come together to create this apex of meaning — this perfect union of poetry and music. Now, instead of producing EDM, I was multitracking my nylon string guitar, and producing demos of my singer-songwriter music. But even then, I was most interested in the songwriters that were on the fringe of experimentalism — the ones who were exploring avant-garde musical concepts within the framework of popular music.
I get that! You start listening to the bands who have interludes between their songs, and then you start listening more to the interludes…
That’s exactly what happened to me. -laughs- It was a gateway drug to purely acoustic instrumental music. As I started to get better at guitar, I began exploring jazz. I feel like musicians who play guitar, after a while, start to see jazz as this “pinnacle” of musicianship, and we want to strive for that — and that opened my eyes to acoustic instrumental music. My first notated composition was an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue Motel Room’ that I made for my high school jazz combo. So it wasn’t until my late teens that I started to explore the repertoire of Western classical music, which is the tradition I mainly compose in now.
I think the EDM and singer-songwriter music that I listened to figure more strongly into my work than my jazz background. I have a strong preference for music with a driving pulse and the sorts of chord progressions that could be played by a beginning guitarist. The kinds of intensity, colour, and buildup of resonance that you get from EDM, I will often try to recreate in an acoustic context.
You mentioned you grew up with a lot of Iranian music playing in the house; have you consciously utilised elements of Iranian music from your background in your compositions?
Well, it’s interesting that you say “utilise” your background. Even though I have Iranian heritage, I don’t think that my Iranian heritage gives me any special right to engage with Iranian classical music, or any special right to compose music inspired by that tradition. I think everybody should be able to engage with Iranian classical music, no matter their heritage.
But because of my Persian identity, I think I have a natural disposition to the sound of Iranian classical music — like I said, I grew up with a lot of Iranian music playing in the house — but I still had to study Iranian music like a complete outsider. Just because I’m Iranian, doesn’t mean I was born singing tasnifs. Even before I began formally studying Iranian classical music, I was intuitively writing melodies that vaguely resembled Iranian melodies. I just needed to figure out how these ideas fit within the Iranian repertoire.
What was the first piece where you felt like you were able to realise those connections?
‘Family Photos’ was my first earnest attempt to write something that wasn’t just vaguely “Iranian” — or Iranian-sounding to a Western audience — but actually had its basis in the repertoire of Iranian classical music. At the same time, I didn’t want the music to be contrived; I wanted it to truly come from an inner singing, so to speak.
I started by writing down themes that came naturally to me. Then I brought them to my Iranian music teacher, and asked “do any of these themes resemble music from the Iranian repertoire?” and he would say, for example, “this melody sounds like gusheh-ye bidad from dastgah-e homayun” — for context, you can think of dastgah as a musical mode, and a gusheh as a subsection of that mode, that also includes characteristic shapes and melodic gestures. So then I would study that gusheh intensively; I would listen to recordings of master musicians, singing along, and I would transcribe their performances, trying to assimilate that gusheh into my intuition. Once I felt like I understood the essence of that gusheh, I would write it into my piece, often combining it with harmonies derived from Western classical music.
I’m not trying to write strictly in the tradition of Iranian classical music. I’m not an Iranian classical music composer; I’m a Western classical music composer taking influence from the tradition of Iranian classical music. I used to think that I had to learn the entire Iranian repertoire before I could incorporate it into my music in earnest, but real Iranian musicians spend their whole lives trying to master the repertoire! The best that I could do is to learn a small part of my repertoire very deeply, and use that to inspire my compositions. Over time, I can gradually build up my knowledge — though never to the point of those master musicians — and my pieces can serve as a kind of record of my learning.
When you’ve incorporated these things into your work, how have performers picked up on these themes? Has the collaboration tended to be intuitive?
When we worked on ‘Family Photos’ with Salastina, they had already been playing Derrick Skye’s music for many years. And Derrick is also a student of Persian classical music. So they were hip to all these rhythmic ideas and microtonal inflections. I didn’t have to say a lot for them to understand. Sometimes, I send performers recordings of actual Iranian musicians that inspired the piece, and that helps too.
But it’s often a challenge for musicians trained in this Western tradition to adapt to a different way of playing. Iranian classical music has a different makeup in terms of ornamentation, a different expressive character than music you would normally find in Western classical repertoire.
Tell me about the role of conceptual inspiration in your work…
To me, channeling inspiration is synonymous with channeling tradition. I don’t know if you’ve read Philip Glass’ autobiography — it’s one of my favourite reads. He tells this story about the time he asked Ravi Skankar, “Where does music come from?” And Ravi Shankar responded: “By the grace of my guru, the music has come through him to me.”
So, music doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes from generations of musicians who have laid the path before you. My composition teacher, Richard Danielpour, used to say: “Do you ever wish you could have a composition lesson with Bach?” — and then he would emphatically say, “well, you can! It’s all right there in the scores!” And he’s right! During the pandemic, I spent a year playing Bach’s 371 chorales, and writing my own chorales in response. And now, there’s a sense in which whenever I compose, Bach is sitting on my shoulder and guiding my voice-leading and harmony. I think that’s one kind of inspiration.
Often, what inspires me to compose a piece is to try to incite the same kind of feeling in a listener that another piece incited in me. I don’t mean a whole piece, necessarily — it could just be a moment that stood out to me. So my music ends up being a mosaic of my favourite musical moments that I’ve assimilated into my personal language. When I feel like I’m lacking inspiration, my solution tends to be to revisit something in the tradition that I love, take it to the piano, play it, and say to myself “oh, I didn’t notice that detail! That’s really extraordinary.” It not only gives me musical ideas, but it helps me connect with my greater sense of purpose — which is that I can contribute something to this intergenerational love letter to humanity that we call music.
That is such a lovely sentiment. On both an aesthetic and conceptual level — everything you channel comes from somewhere. What different traditional inspirations have you channeled, either from personal or cultural understanding?
I can give a specific example of a way that tradition has found its way into my work. You know ‘Appalachian Spring’ by Aaron Copland? Whenever I listen to that part where the “simple gifts” melody comes in, in augmentation… It fills me with this overwhelming sense of awe, because it doesn’t feel like the melody is slower — it feels like time itself is slower. The melody has stayed the same; my experience of it has changed.
At the climax of my piece, ‘Unstoppable’ — this tune I wrote for the Music From Copland House ensemble — there’s a point that’s supposed to represent a triumphant overcoming of struggle. And that’s when I bring back the main theme in augmentation, to give the listener a feeling of slow-motion celebration. So that’s a very tangible way I was influenced by something in the tradition, and translated it into my own work.
Of course. It’s not quotation at all — it’s a contextual jumping-off point for yourself, like a recontextualisation.
Yeah, totally. This music makes me feel some kind of way; how can I make somebody else feel that kind of way with my own notes? The notes that come from my own body?
So how does this recontextualisation work with inspirations that aren’t necessarily musical? I’m reminded of how your piano album, Marvels of Creatures and Strange Things Existing, channels mythical creatures.
The original starting off point was Debussy’s piano preludes. I wanted to write my own set of piano preludes that built off his pianistic colour palette. But the idea of mythical creatures was what set me off, and made all the actual notes start to come out. And also when I thought that each mythical creature could be from a different cultural tradition — that didn’t come across in the notes, per se, but it came through in my imagination, when I was thinking about the particular instrumental colours that would be of focus in each moment.
How important is the extramusical point of inspiration to you — does the relationship between the aesthetic and extramusical elements feel natural to you in your work?
To be completely honest: sometimes the extramusical element is a concession for the listener to have a way in. For me, the notes are a wellspring of humanity and human emotion, and I don’t need anything else. The notes are enough for me. But I know they’re not enough for everybody. So I try to give audience members many different ways of approaching my works.
Like, a point of accessibility.
I would say so. Extramusical topics can also lead to musical ideas. But the point is never the extramusical thing — or even what my music says about the extramusical thing — but rather the emotions that are contained in the notes themselves. I would add that the extramusical element can serve as kindling for ideas; but it’s not an end in itself.
Whereabouts does your interest in EDM production fit into this — is production still something you approach in your work, and do you see that as separate from your compositions?
They’re not entirely separate for me. Because producing EDM was my first compositional experience, I think my brain is partitioned into the “producer” side and the “composer” side. I’m fascinated by the way that EDM producers think — especially those who don’t have rigorous training in Western music theory — because they have created this completely unique method of getting to the same end result of triads and syncopation, with a completely different vocabulary and means of getting there. So, part of what excites me about producing EDM is the idea that I can take the gnarliest innovations of rhythm and harmony from the 20th Century in Western classical music, and incorporate them into my electronic production.
Almost like a left brain, right brain thing. -laughs- So what happens when they come together?
My latest project, ‘Ecstasies’, is a piece for flute and electronics, which was commissioned by my friend and stellar flautist Ben Smolen. To answer your question: I think I was able to think about form in a fresh way… because of my bifurcated brain. If you imagine the form of your typical 3-minute EDM track: there’s an intro, a buildup — maybe a fakeout that goes into another buildup — a drop, a bridge, another buildup, and a second drop that’s even heavier than the first one. I knew that I would be writing a 10-minute piece, so I tried to expand this form horizontally to fit that duration.
At the same time, the piece is a shrunken version of a one-hour DJ set. In a DJ set, the DJ is mashing tracks together, switching between different subgenres of EDM, playing with the crowd’s expectation. My piece tends to have a feeling of whiplash because of the sudden shifts between different tempos and time signatures, which is not intuitive when you’re producing on a computer and you’re constrained to a grid. But if you have experience with notated music, you know that you don’t have to stay within that grid.
Of course. I can think of many composers who’ve combined both production and composition styles to that effect.
I know I’m not the first person to combine Western classical instruments with EDM, but I think part of what makes ‘Ecstasies’ different is the element of virtuosity. The flautist isn’t just playing whole notes; they’re really working hard. Their physical exertions match the breathless energy of the music. To me, the virtuosity of certain contemporary repertoire in Western classical music has a similar dionysian energy to a filthy EDM track. -laughs-
When you’re composing in this manner, what tends to come first? Does the form and structure come first, or the production, or the notation?
In a way, they’re not different things. The form has a major effect on how you feel as an audience member. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience of listening to really slow music, and then listening to really fast music — and the fast music sounds even more exciting.
I’ve had the opposite happen to me. One of my most memorable musical experiences (not in a good way) was listening to five 3-minute world premieres, followed immediately by Morton Feldman’s ‘Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello’… -laughs-
Exactly! So I want to build in these structures that make certain parts of the piece feel more exciting, and certain other parts of the piece feel like a release of tension. With ‘Outcry’ [for violin and electronics], I knew I wanted there to be a metric modulation, where we switch from a dubstep tempo to a drum and bass tempo. Metric modulation is a “formal” aspect of a piece of music, but it’s also an emotional aspect — when a DJ switches the beat on you, it has this exciting effect… That shit goes hard. -laughs-
So these connections between formal and emotional elements serve similar purposes?
Yeah, ideally. In a practical sense, I do start by designing the heaviest sounds that I can think of.
How do you see all of these different elements blending together in your future work? You’ve mentioned that even your pieces blending EDM have some musical elements relating to dastgah.
It’s one of my missions as a composer to find a seamless blend of Persian classical music and Western classical music. One of my gripes about ‘Family Photos’ is that the first movement is Western classical music, and then there’s the Persian movement, and then there’s more Western classical music — instead of these two traditions being holistically integrated into my musical language. That’s something I’m hoping to explore in the future.
At the same time: every music has a different function. Not every music does it for me all of the time. I don’t always want to listen to EDM; I don’t always want to listen for ‘Adagio for Strings’; I don’t always want to listen to setar improvisation. I couldn’t possibly hope to combine all of the emotions that are contained in all of these musics into a single piece, because they’re for different occasions. In a sense, I’m okay with keeping them separate and letting each of them fulfill their respective functions.
Of course — it’s like a colour palette, right? You can’t mix all of them at once…
It would be great to write an evening-length piece, where I got to take out all the crayons and create this emotional journey where it would make sense for them to sit side-by-side, because they’re not constrained to a 20-minute span. But I have not had the luxury of writing a piece longer than that. -laughs-
But the opportunity is there, if anyone reading is interested… -laughs- What projects do you have coming up?
I’m finishing up this piece called ‘Gulistan’, which I’m very excited about. It was commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest, for mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron. It’s a song cycle combining folk songs from my Western and Middle Eastern backgrounds — which is, in a way, fulfilling my mission of combining those two parts of my musical identity.
I attempted to achieve this fusion by literally putting folk songs from two traditions in dialogue with each other. The first half of the piece alternates stanzas between the American folk song ‘Wildwood Flower’ and the Azerbaijani folk song ‘Sarı Gelin’. Both of these folk songs are about longing for a distant lover; so when combined, it’s like a montage of two heartbroken lovers, not realising that the other still cares about them. The underlying music is neither strongly American nor strongly Azerbaijani, so it inhabits a sound world that can accommodate both folk idioms.
More about Kian’s work can be found at:
- Skrillex – ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ (2010)
- Joni Mitchell – ‘Blue Motel Room’ (1976)
- Philip Glass – Words Without Music: A Memoir (Liverlight, 2016)
- Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring (1944)
- Claude Debussy – Preludes, Books I and II (1909-13)
- Morton Feldman – Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (1987)
- Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings (1936)
- ‘Wildwood Flower’, performed by the Carter Family
- ‘Sarı Gelin’, performed by Alim Qasimov