In 1980 a new wall went up between two worlds, and although it wasn't a physical barrier like the one splitting Berlin in half, it has over the years just as successfully cut the West off from Iran as if it were an actual presence. The fall of the American backed Shah of Iran, the take over of the American Embassy in that country, and the subsequent severing of all relations between the new regime and North American governments has had the result of turning those on either side of the wall into a one dimensional enemy whose every work and deed are to be denounced.
Mistrust between the Muslim world and the West is nothing new of course, but in the past there has at least been times when there has been mutual recognition and appreciation of cultural achievements. Now, however, we live in a culture of such absolutes that for the majority of us the other is nothing more than a faceless enemy incapable of doing anything of value. While its true that the poetry of Rumi, the great Sufi mystic of the middle ages, enjoyed a burst of popularity in the West in the nineties, little or nothing is known of poetry from the last hundred years. It's like we have tarred all of modern Iran with the same brush, and even those who predate the current theocracy can't escape that censor.
But even the tightest seal can develop leaks, and thanks largely to the efforts of expatriate Iranians, occasional glimpses are to be had of some truly unique talents. A new offering from Iranian-American composer Shahrokah Yadegari, Green Memories, on the Lila Sound label, does just that by offering American audiences an introduction to the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad. Combining the structure of classical Iranian music with computer software that transforms acoustic instruments into melodies and textures, Yadegari has collaborated with fellow expatriates, vocalist Azam Ali and violinist Keyavash Nourai, to create a series of ambient soundscapes that reflect the emotional texture of one of Farrokhzad's most powerful poems, "I Pity The Garden (Green Memories)".
Forugh Farrokhzad was born in 1935 and was well on her way to establishing herself as a major poet when her life was cut short in 1967 by a car accident. During her short life she published five collections of poetry, produced a documentary film about a leper colony, and was the subject of two documentary films. Yadegari sees her poem, "I Pity The Garden (Green Memories)", as an example of the difference between Western and Islamic thought when it comes to our relationship with the environment around us. Where as ever since the 19th century the West has steered a path that preaches the separation of man and nature, Islamic thought has expressed the interconnection and interweaving of the two.
To that end he, and his two collaborators, have taken for their inspiration lines such as "No one thinks of the flowers/No one thinks of the fish/No one wants to believe that the garden is dying/its heart swollen under the sun..." from Farrokhzad's poem to try and express the emotions of desperation and hope expressed in it. Although the poem's original intent was not to describe our current global environmental conditions - it was after all written in the 1950's - the fact that Farrokhzad often used personal images to express universal concerns lends legitimacy to Yadegari, Ali, and Nourai's interpretation.
Classical Persian music is structured such that it gives the musicians a context within which to create individual reactions to an overall theme. It was with this in mind that Yadegari employed his computer program to create a structure based on themes created by the other two musicians, within which they could then improvise. In this way, while the content may be reflecting specific emotional aspects of the poem, the structure is simultaneously reflecting the interconnection of humankind with its environment. The result is both beautiful and haunting as layers of sound have been woven together to form an overall ambience while still maintaining their individual characteristics. It's like looking at a woven tapestry and being able to see both the individual coloured threads and the picture they form as two distinct objects and a single entity at the same time.
Save for the last track, "Mantra", where Azam Ali sings the words of the poem in English, each composition is an impressionistic expression reflecting the emotions expressed in the poem. While each piece is a distinct entity they are all designed to build towards "Matra", preparing us to feel as much of the emotional depth as possible buried beneath the surface of the words. Again this is not something that you are aware of happening until you arrive at the penultimate moment when Ali sings on the final track. The progression is so natural, and the build so gentle, that it's only on reflection that you understand what the musicians have accomplished. They have successfully created the perfect context for the poem; the environment where it comes fully alive so that as listeners we can appreciate its beauty to the fullest.
Ambient music is deceptive in its abilities to affect the listener. If its done well it should work almost subliminally, but without being manipulative, as it creates an aural environment that not only carries a message, but is the message. In some ways it is a true marriage of form and content as they both reflect the theme of the piece. In their interpretation of Forugh Farrokhzad's haunting poem "I Pity The Garden (Green Memories)" Shahrokah Yadegari, Azam Ali, and Keyavash Nourai have been have accomplished that and created a piece of surprising emotional depth and passion.
Green Memories is not only an intriguing and compelling piece of music, it also provides a rare glimpse behind the wall of fear and mistrust that has been erected between ourselves and the Muslim world. We know far too little about the poets and artists who have been creating wonderful works on the other side of the planet for the past hundred years. Hopefully this disc will inspire more people to investigate the work of Forugh Farrokhzad in more depth, and maybe other poets as well. No people or culture speak with one voice and it's important to listen to as many voices as possible in order to truly know them and Green Memories is a great place to start.
(Originally posted October 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.