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Impact Case Study: Disseminating Iranian musical culture in Britain 

Research Excellence Framework 2021

Key researcher: Professor Laudan Nooshin, City, University of London

The Phoenix of Persia Children’s Book Project

" In a bustling marketplace in Iran, a traditional storyteller regales her audience with the tale of Prince Zal and the Simorgh …

High up on the Mountain of Gems lives the Simorgh, a wise phoenix whose flapping wings disperse the seeds of life across the world. A king awaits the birth of his son but when the child is born with white hair, he is banished to the mountain to perish. But the baby is found by the Simorgh who raises him alongside her own chicks. She teaches him everything she knows. But when the king comes to regret his actions, Prince Zal will learn that the most important lesson of all is forgiveness.

A mythical tale of family, forgiveness and what it means to be truly wise."

The Background

The story of Prince Zal and the Simorgh is one of the most heart-warming and moving tales from the Shahnameh, the 10th-century epic poem by Iran’s national poet, Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1020 CE). The Shahnameh comprises more than 50,000 rhyming couplets that weave together myth and history, with stories of kings and queens, heroes and heroines, demons and magical creatures. The Shahnameh lies at the heart of Iranian culture and many people know long sections of it from memory. It also forms a central part of a tradition of oral storytelling that stretches back hundreds of years.

In 2011, Laudan Nooshin approached the Education and Community Department at the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a view to commissioning an orchestral piece based on one of the stories from the Shahnameh to be performed as part of the LPO’s BrightSparks series of concerts for young people. She had previously attended these concerts with her own children and had particularly enjoyed a piece based on a story from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, by composer Brendan Beales. Laudan had the idea that a similar piece based on the Shahnameh would be an excellent way of introducing British children to Iranian music and culture, and promoting a different and more positive image of Iran than children might otherwise receive through the mainstream media and elsewhere.

Laudan particularly loved the tale of Prince Zal and the Simorgh which she remembered her uncle telling her as a child. In this story, the young prince, born albino and abandoned as a baby, is found and raised by the magical and wise Simorgh bird; many years later he is reconciled with his family and returns triumphantly as the new king. With its many topical themes of understanding and valuing difference, and of the importance of forgiveness, this seemed an ideal story for a piece aimed at promoting greater cultural understanding. And indeed, the story proved a wonderfully rich source for use with British school children.

Discussions with the Education and Community Department at the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led at that time by Patrick Bailey, began in the summer of 2011. The LPO invited composer David Bruce to write the music and storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton to adapt the story for a modern audience. The initial musical ideas for the piece were developed through a series of school workshops with key stage 2 children in the autumn of 2011. Prince Zal and the Simorgh was premiered by the LPO at two BrightSparks concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London in May 2012. This project formed the core of one of City University Music Department’s REF2014 Impact Case Studies.

Find out more about the 2011-12 Shahnameh Project

The Phoenix of Persia

From the early stages of the Shahnameh Project, Laudan believed that this story and the music had the potential to reach a wider audience and in particular she envisioned an illustrated children’s book with accompanying music.

Following a performance of Prince Zal and the Simorgh by the Cornwall Youth Orchestra at the Youth Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, in November 2016, Laudan came back to the idea of a children’s book. In the summer of 2017, she started discussions with Deleram Ghanimifard, Karim Arghandehpour and Sophie Hallam at Tiny Owl Publishers, a relatively young company specialising in beautifully illustrated children’s books featuring stories from around the world. Tiny Owl turned out to be an ideal fit with the project and planning continued for several months, during which time Tiny Owl invited Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif to be the illustrator and Sally Pomme Clayton to adapt the story for the book. Tiny Owl secured funds from Arts Council England towards the project and partnered with HEC Global Learning Centre, Pop Up Projects CIC and Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services to produce educational resources and activities (see below). Laudan secured funding from Iran Heritage Foundation to support the project.

The Music

The original intention was to adapt the music from Prince Zal and the Simorgh, but it soon became clear that an orchestral score would not suit this project. Laudan also wanted to take the opportunity to introduce children to Iranian instruments and their sounds. She approached Soosan Lolavar, composer and PhD student at City, University of London, with a view to writing new music for the book, drawing on ideas from David Bruce’s piece. Following extensive discussion about the shape of the music and which instruments might be suitable, Laudan and Soosan decided that rather than having a single composer, it could be interesting to bring musicians together to workshop ideas and create the music collaboratively. It was important to choose the right musicians for the project and eventually four Iranian musicians were invited to take part: Arash Moradi, who had been part of the LPO project (tanbur – plucked lute); Nilufar Habibian (qanun - plucked dulcimer); Saedi Kord Mafi (santur – hammered dulcimer and daff ­– frame drum); and Amir Eslami (nei – end-blown flute).

Workshop sessions began with the musicians and storyteller in May 2018, the aim being to compose and shape the music around the story. Soosan was the Project Manager and Creative Producer (and later Assistant Editor), organising and leading the workshops and feeding back to musicians between sessions. It was decided early on that each instrument would represent a different character, in the manner of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the nei representing the Simorgh; the santur representing the Mountain of Gems where the Simorgh lives; the ganun representing Prince Zal; the tanbur representing the palace and the king and queen; and the daff representing the soldiers.

The music took shape around individual ‘chapters’ (equivalent to the book page spreads), with each chapter composed (and generally performed by) one musician, according to the storyline. In the early workshops, musicians brought their pre-composed ideas, and others would listen and offer suggestions. A certain amount of the creative process was therefore collaborative and it was interesting to see the music evolve organically and take shape in this way over a period of months. Being based in Vancouver, Amir collaborated from a distance, composing sections and sending them for feedback. The chapters were eventually ready for recording in the sound studies at City in late 2018, with editing, mastering and mixing taking place in January 2019. We were fortunate to be able to draw on our talented students at City for the recording and production of the music, in particular Julius Johansson who, together with Soosan Lolavar, edited the music files.

Caption: Laudan Nooshin, Saeid Kord Mafi, Nilufar Habibian, Sally Pomme Clayton, Arash Moradi, Soosan Lolavar (L-R)

Caption: Laudan Nooshin, Saeid Kord Mafi, Nilufar Habibian, Sally Pomme Clayton, Arash Moradi, Soosan Lolavar (L-R).

The Phoenix of Persia is published in May 2019. The official launch event will be at the British Library on Thursday 30th May 2019, 2.30pm, and will include a performance of the piece by Sally Pomme Clayton and the musicians.
The music is available to stream online using the QR code in the book

To listen to the soundtracks without narration visit: soundcloud.com/user-89102112/sets/the-phoenix-of-persia-music-composition

Watch a short film about the project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=105&v=hOH2DlnuI3s

Educational Activities and Resources

The educational ‘footprint’ of The Phoenix of Persia goes well beyond the book and the music. Tiny Owl have worked with HEC Global Learning Centre to produce a cross-curricular teacher resource pack exploring The Phoenix of Persia and the Shahnameh as part of a wider introduction to the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Iran with classroom activities focused on literacy, maths, art, drama, history, geography, RE and PSHE, as well as music. Together with Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services, they have produced the Shahnameh Box, a resource box available on free loan to schools across the UK. Tiny Owl are holding a series of events with Sally Pomme Clayton and Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif during the annual Pop Up Festival, a national children’s literature festival in schools, and Nilfar Habibian and Laudan Nooshin are leading a series of school music workshops in the London Boroughs of Islington, Tower Hamlets and Harrow.

Amir Eslami plays the nei which represents the sound of the majestic SimorghA ne (or ney) is an end-blown reed flute. It is used in Iranian classical music, but it has folk roots, most likely as a shepherd’s pipe. It is often associated with Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.

Amir was born in Esfahan, Iran, in 1971. He started studying nei when he was 15 years old and went on to graduate with a BA in Music and MA in Composition from Tehran Art University. Amir served as a faculty member at the same university, including as Head of the Iranian Music Department and Dean of Administration for the Music Faculty. In 2014, he published the oldest Persian music repertoire Montazem Al-Hokama’s Radif (published by Tehran Art University), for which he received faculty award for best research. His album All of You (published by Hermes Records in 2010) was a collaboration with the pianist Hooshyar Khayam and received a 4* review in Songlines, the world music magazine. Amir has won one national and three international composition prizes (Italy, Australia and Netherlands). Amir moved to Vancouver in 2015 and has since established the Vancouver Iranian Choir (Vanchoir) and HazarAva ensemble. He has released more than 10 albums, of which the latest – Rey in Fire and The Mystery of Nightingale’s Warbling – were released in Vancouver by Rumi Records. Amir’s work has been performed in Iran, Italy, Australia, The Netherlands, Canada and the US.

Nilufar Habibian plays the qanun – a sweet, rippling sound that represents Prince Zal. A qanun is a horizontal zither with strings in rows which are plucked with a plectrum.

Nilufar is an award-winning Iranian qanun player, composer and improviser based in London, UK. She studied under supervision of renowned qanun player, Ms Maliheh Saeidi and received her diploma in music (qanun performance) from Tehran Music Conservatoire. She also attended masterclasses held by Goksel Baktagir the renowned Turkish qanun player. Nilufar studied Persian classical music in Iran under the supervision of the most prominent Iranian maestros, including Mohammad Reza Lotfi and Majid Derakhshani. She pursued higher education and studied French literature in Tehran. She received her Bachelor in Music degree from Royal Holloway, University of London and her MA in Composition from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She has performed as a soloist and member of various ensembles in prestigious venues and concert halls in Iran and the UK. She has also participated in several live and recording musical projects. She performs a variety of musical styles ranging from Persian classical and Middle-Eastern music to avant-garde and experimental contemporary Western music.

Saied Kord Mafi plays the santur – a glittering sound that represents the Mountain of Gems. A santur is a trapezium-shaped dulcimer played with delicate hammers which are covered with felt. Saeid also plays the daff frame drum which has small metal rings that brings to life the landscape and wild animals of Iran. A daff is a large, wooden frame drum, covered with a skin or synthetic head. The drum is played with the hand and fingers. It has small metal rings on the inside of the frame that jingle loudly when the drum is shaken! Like the tanbur, the daff originally comes from the Kurdish region of western Iran. Saeid Kord Mafi is one of Iran’s talented santur players. Learning Iranian music from a number of distinguished musicians, he has explored various styles of performing Iranian classical music. As a composer and santur player, he has participated in numerous concerts, festivals and workshops in the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and the United States, and has so far released four albums in Iran. Saeid is currently a PhD candidate in the Music Department at SOAS, University of London.

Arash Moradi plays the tanbur – a sound which evokes the royal palace of ancient Iran and represents the King Sam and Queen Aram. The tanbur is a long-necked lute with three strings which are plucked and strummed. The tanbur originally comes from the Kurdish region of western Iran. It is often used in religious rituals in Kurdistan where many regard it as a sacred instrument.

Arash was born in the Kurdish city of Kermanshah in western Iran. He is the oldest son of Iran’s leading tanbur player, Ali Akbar Moradi. Arash started learning tanbur at an early age from his father who he later on accompanied in numerous concerts and festivals throughout Iran, Europe and North America. Arash worked with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2006 as a guest musician and in 2012 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. More recently, Arash and his younger brother Kourosh have appeared as the Yarsan Ensemble, introducing Kurdish music and culture to audiences in the US. Arash lives in London where he teaches tanbur, runs workshops on Persian and Kurdish music and also cooperates with different musicians from around the world.

Laudan Nooshin conceived and initiated The Phoenix of Persia project following a successful collaboration with the Community and Education Department at the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bridge Project in 2011-12. Laudan Nooshin is a Professor and Head of the Music Department at City, University of London. She has been researching and writing about Iranian classical and popular music for more than 30 years. Laudan is committed to promoting knowledge and understanding of Iranian music in the UK and regularly writes CD reviews and articles for the popular music press.

Soosan Lolavar is the Creative Producer and Assistant Editor for The Phoenix of Persia soundtrack. Soosan is a British-Iranian composer and ethnomusicologist whose music has been performed across the UK, as well as in the USA, Canada, Iran, UAE, Japan, Chile and Australia. Her work has been broadcast on BBC television in both the UK and Iran as well as several times on BBC Radio 3 and 4. She has worked with ensembles including the London Sinfonietta, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra. Soosan holds degrees in Social and Political Sciences (University of Cambridge), Musicology (University of Oxford) and Composition (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), as well as an Advanced Music Certificate (Carnegie Mellon University). She is currently pursuing a PhD in Music (City, University of London) researching contemporary composition practices in Iran, while also teaching composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

The music was mixed, mastered and edited by Julius Johansson and other students at City, University of London (Malhar Kawre, Mara Miron, Olivia Cepress-Mclean). Julius Johansson is a London based freelancing sound engineer and musician who has worked on a wide range of music and audiovisual projects.