Iranian Poet Forough Farrokhzad Inspires U.S. Composer Epstein

Three original choral works, inspired by one of Iran’s most celebrated contemporary poets, Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), and arranged by celebrated U.S. composer Marti Epstein, will have their world premiere in Boston, Massachusetts, early in the New Year.

Capella Clausura, a choral group dedicated to promoting music written by women, will host the event, on January 27th and 28th, 2018.

Music professor Marti Epstein

Ms Epstein, who wrote the three short pieces especially for the occasion, is Professor of Composition at the Berklee College of Music in the U.S. Her music has been performed by the San Francisco Symphony and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt, and in November 2015, she released Hypnagogia, a CD of her chamber music. Kayhan Life spoke to Professor Epstein ahead of the performances.

How did you learn about Forough Farrokhzad?

To tell you how I got to know Forough, I have to talk a little bit about how I came to study Farsi. A year and a half ago, a friend of mine was dating an Iranian man and she was studying Farsi. She asked me to join her, too. I completely fell in love with the language – especially the sound of it – and it felt, maybe not easy, but manageable. I took to it really quickly. I also have a lot of friends and students who are Persian. They were so excited that I was learning the language. It was like they adopted me and created a family around me.

Then last January – it was right after the first travel ban – there was a concert at Boston University, and Hamed Tabkhi wrote some pieces that were based on some Forough poems. I was reading about her and her poetry in the program, and I thought I have to know more about this person, because you never hear about Iranian women artists from that generation. There was something about her poetry that just drove itself straight into my heart.

Trailer of Forough Farokhzad’s 1963 documentary “The House is Black”

I watched every documentary, every interview, everything I could find on her. I started reading her poetry and all the books about her. Around the same time, I got a commission to write a piece for 12 a cappella voices [a chorus with 12 different parts.] I thought, ‘I’m going to set some Forough poems for this.’ I talked to the director of the chorus, and she said they’d had Farsi singings before. They welcomed the idea.

I picked three poems that I loved. They actually tell a sort of made-up narrative. They have connectors among them that string them together in ways that maybe even Forough didn’t know existed.

How would you describe Forough as a person and as a poet?

There are three or four books about her, and everybody describes her as “depressed” or “sad.” I watched an interview with her. In the interview, she is so radiant. When I say she’s beautiful, I don’t mean you walk down the street and say ‘Oh my God, there’s that beautiful woman.’ I think her poetry reflects this incredible inner light, and this incredible inner darkness as well, and the way those two things interact. And I try to find a way to achieve that musically. You hear in my pieces harmonies that you think are recognizable, but then you realize there are other things going on that not necessarily erase but go across purposes or are dissonant with those harmonies. So you’re not really a hundred percent sure what you’re hearing.

That’s how I see Forough and her poetry. I’m titling my piece “Forough’s Birds” because of the shared imagery of birds in all the three poems, but the title could also mean “Birds of Blaze.”

There are elements of sadness and depression in her poetry, but I think it’s much richer and more complex than that. She had an incredibly rich complex inner life, and that comes out in her poetry.

What makes you feel connected to Forough as a person?

I feel like if I had been born in the thirties in Iran, I would have been Forough Farokhzad, because I also have a son, and I’m also divorced. Her son was taken away from her due to the era in which she lived, and what it meant to be divorced at that time. My son was not taken away from me. Forough was so committed to her art that she did it in spite of everything. And when I started doing my work, there weren’t many women composers. I just feel like Forough is my kindred spirit.

Could you tell us a little bit about the project itself?

I’m setting her poetry, and I’m doing it in Farsi, but I’m not using any Persian musical elements, because I don’t know them and that doesn’t feel right or appropriate. [Still,] the intent of the poetry and the sound of Farsi is really important to me. The commission was to write really short pieces, so I chose three of her shorter poems: “The Bird was Only a Bird,” “The Gift,” and “My Heart is Crumpled.”

The space that the piece is going to be performed in is a church, and has a lot of room in the front [as well as] in the back. The choir director told me that she likes to do projects where she divides the chorus up, so that you won’t know where the sound is coming from. When she told me that, I immediately started to imagine things. The first poem is “My Heart is Crumpled,” for which we’ll have four trios in the front, right, back, and left. I’m hoping that, sitting in the middle of this sound, you hear notes coming from one place or another and you won’t know where exactly they’re coming from. The resulting harmony is very complicated, almost mysterious.

Why did you decide to do this project? What are you hoping to achieve?

When I first read Forough, I could hear a giant chordal sound in my head. I realized I had to tie that in and make that real. My goal is to make musical realizations of these poems. You read a poem and you get from it what you get from it depending on how you are reading it, but when it’s turned into a piece of music, you’re creating a whole separate thing. And I don’t think many people know of her.

Has Forough’s work refined or redefined you as a person or as an artist?

Yes, in many ways. One really interesting way has to do with me not as a musician, but as a Jewish person. There’s a film called “Night and Fog.” It’s a film that was made 10 years after the end of the World War II. The director of the film had taken original Nazi footage of the camps, and he’d taken the American footage, so they made it after they had liberated the camps. It’s a half-hour film, and I’d never been able to bring myself to watch it.

In my research on Forough, I read that she saw the film several times and was very moved and very affected by it. I thought, if she can do it, I can do it, too. So I watched the film, and I gained this even deeper understanding of this tragedy. I didn’t have any family there when the Holocaust happened, but I believe that Jews have a collective trauma about that. Any people share a collective trauma when their people are subjected to genocide. So Forough brought me to that.

Also, she talks a lot about how she doesn’t want to be known as a female poet, but wants to be known as a poet who is a woman. So she has a woman’s perspective and a woman’s voice, but that’s just who she is as a person. Her abilities are no different than a man’s.

Tickets for the performances – at 8PM Saturday January 27 in the Lindsey Chapel, Boston and at 4PM Sunday January 28 in the Eliot Church, Newton – can be purchased here.