contemporary music, athens
interview-editorial Beata Pincetic
I talked with the British-Iranian composer, artist, and turntablist Shiva Feshareki before her performance with the Ergon ensemble at the Nostos Festival with her recent piece Opus Infinity. Ms. Feshareki is widely recognized as a pioneer in contemporary classical and electronic music and has performed extensively across the world.
Is this your first concert live with the audience after the lockdown?
No, it’s not actually, I’ve had two other concerts, and they have both been for live electronics and turntables with choir. One was in a beautiful cathedral in the city called Worcester in England, followed directly by the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC singers. They were both amazing experiences as my first.
What was it like for you to be on the stage after so long?
I took it less for granted, I was so excited, I realized I was taking more risks on stage than before, because I didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities, to really go for it. It was really amazing to be back on stage with the new perspective.
How did you pass time during the lockdown? Many musicians were affected by the lockdown in a negative way, they felt obsolete, some were depressed, some even changed profession, but some used it as an opportunity to create, to work more, since they had more time and said, ok, this will pass, then people will need music and I’m going to be ready. How was it for you?
Well, I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings, mixed emotions about it. At first, it affected my creativity in a bad way because before the pandemic I had such an exciting life, playing with amazing musicians all the time, it was so exciting, and then suddenly for everything to stop and all my exciting concerts to be canceled. And then there’d be nothing. It was creatively really stifling for me, for about six months I just didn’t want to compose or do anything. But then I started......The thing I missed the most was actually playing with other musicians, more than anything else, more than performing on my own or composing. I realized just how important performing with like-minded musicians was for my composing. So, I had all this time to compose, but the inspiration wasn’t there and I realized how much of my inspiration comes from other musicians and the energy of playing with incredible like-minded artists. So, yeah... it was difficult but then it was a good moment to actually slow down, and reassess and reflect as well. It has helped me come back to my music with a new perspective and a new reflection on the world. So there have been positives that have come out of the standstill.
Can you tell me a bit about your musical beginnings...Do you come from a musical family, do you remember what triggered your musical curiosity, did your parents take you to the music school?
I’m actually one of the rare examples of someone that doesn’t come from a musical family. I was always the driving force of music in my family and since a really young age I’ve been really obsessed with making music and even before I knew what composing really was, I was composing music. Even at the age of 4 or 5, I still remember the pieces that I’d try on the keyboard. We had a family Casio keyboard that actually belonged to my brother, but I just spent morning to night playing on the keyboard and making compositions and then teaching it to the rest of my family, to my brother, to my mom and I’d ask them to participate. So I’ve always been obsessed with music. But then also I started to play violin when I was nine, I started to learn violin at school and then I immediately became really serious about it, and thought: “That’s it! I want to become a violinist when I grow up.” I was all set to want to do that.
Oh! Do you mean at the age of nine you knew you wanted to become a professional musician?
Well once I started to play the violin, I loved it so much and I was so passionate about it... that’s all I wanted to do, to make music on my violin because that was my first path in classical music, learning violin with the violin teacher and from there that’s how I started to compose more and understand more about classical music as well as play in orchestras and string quartets... Lots of my composing education comes from playing in orchestras as a teenager. But then, when I was doing my examinations for... in the UK we’ve got GCSEs, (General certificate of secondary education) which you take when you are 14 or 15. We had a module as a part of the music subjects which is to compose. And that was the first time that I actually properly composed for my exams. But then I was so obsessed with it, was learning about Schoenberg and serialism and I was just so excited by this more experimental way of making music and I just never looked back since then. And actually, I won a big award in the UK “The BBC Young Composer of the year” with the piece that I wrote for my exams. It was the first piece I’ve ever written. So I got a very big encouragement almost immediately from my first composition. It was a massive confidence boost, and from there I got to start working with professional musicians from quite an early age. Then I went to music college, The Royal College of Music, where I continued my composing studies.
OK, I’m listening to you now talking about the violin, classical music, classical education but then the turntable suddenly comes into perspective! Where did you discover turntables? How did you realize that this machine will invoke so much creativity in you and that it will match your artistic expression? When did that happen?
You know, when you just really love something... and you come across it for the first time, you just love it, whatever it is, like ice cream or favorite food, or favorite color... That’s how I felt when I first came across turntables. I think it was at a house party in my student years, someone was DJ-ing and I thought: “This is amazing, I want to use turntables in some of my compositions”. Then I just started to explore turntables independently. My friend had a pair of turntables, he’d let me come and mess around with them at his home when he’d go to work. And I would go to his flat and just mess around with it and compose music. From that moment I was just interested in the interaction of turntables with acoustic instruments and then from there, the journey began really, because it became this experimentation and exploration. I gradually, over the fifteen-year period developed my techniques, ‘cause even now I’m kinda developing new techniques for my turn-tabling. It’s a very gradual process and it comes from improvising and playing around, learning new things.....learning new things about myself through turntables, and kind of repurposing the technology for my expressive needs, desires, and curiosities.
So yeah, almost straight away when I started to compose it was always with turntables and trumpets, or turntables and string quartet... And from there the journey took flight. I started to learn about other cultures, dance music cultures, but also musique concréte and installation art, so I started to spend time with artists in London who are using turntables in weird and wonderful ways. I’d be invited to someone’s studio for example and see that they had turntables and they’d be preparing turntables the way that you could prepare pianos. Then you just think, oh wow there’s this niche... world of other people repurposing turntables.
Then I started DJ-ing as well, but that was later on, 6-7 years after I started turn-tabling, I became a radio DJ. Because I was DJ-ing for a radio station that did a lot of dance music, a lot of electronic music, that’s how I got into dance music. So turntables opened up so many different pathways for me.
From what you’ve told me I gather that you get inspired by technology but also different aspects of art, like dance and conceptual art. Some composers are inspired by sound, often from their surroundings and they want to create something new with it. But many composers are not inspired by music, but by non-musical things, like a book, or a thought...
How is it for you?
Now that you were talking about it, I just realized how much the actual turntable has been the inspiration for me, learning about so many different types of things that have inspired my work, so for example the turntable and its kinetic motions and its actual physics-based mechanisms got me really interested in sculpture and motion and how physics is a vital role of creating sound. Also, the turn-table has drawn me to dance music and conceptual art and philosophy. The idea of manipulating sound from its original form, and creating so many different perspectives on one starting point. And then it shows just a kind of expansiveness of our nature and our perspective. Also, the circular motions that turntable discs spin in perfect circles, and you can change the circles’ motion speeds slowing it down, speeding it up, that’s also very metaphysical and is linked so much to the universe.....the idea of these circles and spherical sounds.
My inspiration is very broad, mathematics for example... my piece (Opus infinity) that we’re performing tonight is all based on geometry and the living energy of geometry and the interconnectedness of sound to geometry and to the universe.
Talking about geometry, I’d like to ask you a little bit about your ancestry. You are British obviously, but your ancestry is Iranian. I was wondering if you feel connected to Iranian culture and does it influence you as well in your art?
Yes, I’m so glad that you picked up on that because you know, I’ve been around geometry and Sacred geometry all my life, and the idea of geometry taking us to the place of trance...that’s very much due to the Persian culture and ancient Persian traditions and that’s always been around me. And again it’s that connecting this sort of religion and spirituality to maths. That’s definitely from my Persian heritage, I think it’s in my blood, definitely, as well as in my surroundings. I feel very Iranian, I feel my music is completely.... the heart of it is my Persian heritage. Even my spirituality and my creativity are not related to my country I live in, it’s related to my ancestry. So, it’s important to me.
Who are the composers in electronic music that affected you and influenced you, whom do you look up to?
For me, the biggest inspiration for my music has been the radical composers of the avant-garde era of the sixties, seventies, even fifties. There’s of course Daphne Oram, who was experimenting with new technologies before many people did, also Xenakis was one of my first influences, also Stockhausen. Then I started to look more to the left-field composers like James Tenney, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros... these were all composers that were living in this exciting moment in electronic music history when technology had just been invented and they were inventing ways of working with this technology. That’s why the music is so exciting because there are no rules yet, there’s no setting, so the music feels really exciting and free and rich. That’s my biggest inspiration by these pioneering composers, a lot of them working independently....composers like Eliane Radigue were working very independently in their own home studios, experimenting with their own way of making music and it happened to include electronics because it’s the only way you can compose independently and freely. All of those composers played a very large role in my inspiration.
I also read that you started preparing the pianos much before you have ever heard of John Cage. Is that true, were you drawn to distorting or accommodating the sound your way, rather than to have an original sound of the piano?
Yes, a lot of experimentation I was doing, especially in my late teens, was before I had any kind of education on the history of music. So yeah, I was preparing the pianos and adding elements... When I was at school, I’d go to the Design and technology department and build devices to then put them on the strings of the piano. And I remember I was always experimenting with sounds, from the very start, I never wrote any pastiche music. Even as a teenager, I was always experimenting with new horizons.
So was it then a disappointment when you discovered that Cage has done it already?
Hahaha... No, no I was more like” WOW, John CAGE has done it!” (laughs)
I’d like to read you a quote from one of your interviews and if you would please elaborate! “So much of music, especially in the disciplines of classical music is about archeology and preservation.” The context of this statement was that commerce pressures musicians to stay “safe“ and the same. I was going to ask you also if you ever felt this pressure, although from what you’ve told me by now I don’t think that that’s the case. (laughs) But, generally speaking, it is a bit of a problem, isn’t it?
Well, on one level it is. When it comes to classical music my perspective on this idea of preservation is... there are thousands of years of classical music that need to be preserved. Obviously, I don’t feel the pressure, I just see the beauty of it, like: “WOW we’ve got all this amazing music that we want to continue to give life to for generations to come”.
Obviously, other people might feel the pressure that forces them to feel captured by it. But that’s also OK. Classical music is an amazing thing. My issue is more with commercial music, that’s the problem. I really dislike the way that commercial music is structured on popularity and sales, something that you consume and that impacts people’s general perception of what music is and why it exists.
And what do you think about cancel culture?
I feel like all of these things come from social media, the overuse and overimportance of social media in our lives. I think it’s a black and white simplistic way of thinking about communication and connections. Again, it’s the human need to compartmentalize everything and put things in boxes. We are at a time when we need to free our minds and expand our minds, but we’re not able to do that because there are all these pressures...
Do you think it’s dangerous? Do you think it’s strong enough to be dangerous? Because they are saying things like “Bach (or Beethoven, or other great composers from the past) was a colonial composer, so he should be banned”. Talk about compartmentalizing... I think it’s awful.
Yeah, it’s one of the toxic elements of our times. It comes from restriction. There are loads of good things that have come out of the internet, and loads of bad things, and one is this need, this illusion that the internet is this expansive place, where actually it’s making us more and more narrow in our views. That illusion of expansiveness, when it’s just a narrowing thing, is a very big problem.
And now, could you tell me about your impressions of cooperation with the Ergon Ensemble? How did you find them?
Oh, it’s been really amazing! I honestly think they’re the best ensemble I’ve ever worked with. It’s been an absolutely unreal experience. Really really really unreal experience! You know, I’ve worked with so many really amazing ensembles and orchestras all over the world, but I’ve honestly never experienced anything quite like this before. It’s absolutely unreal and I do hope we get to work together again!