Turmoil in the Homeland Inspires Beautiful Music

September 26, 2017

By Frank Horvat

In 2009, Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran protesting the irregularities in their national election. Opposition leaders claimed massive corruption and many citizens were in agreement. The “Green Movement” as it became known, was relatively peaceful, but this did not stop Iranian police and paramilitary troops from cracking down on protestors with an iron fist: thousands were rounded-up, tortured, and killed.

The 2009 Iranian presidential election protests were unique in how the rest of the world found out about them. Conventional news outlets, in particular those in the west, did not have direct access so protestors used Twitter and YouTube instead to share the atrocities and broadcast violations of their basic human rights to an international audience.

One such viewer who was moved by the spirit of defiance and hope that was being expressed was CMC Associate Composer Iman Habibi. In my discussions with Iman, he expressed that while the events of that year did not result in radical reforms to Iran’s democratic institutions, they led to a social and political awakening in Iran, and served as an inspiration for the Arab Spring Movement as pro-democracy organizing would extend through North African and Middle Eastern countries in the years that followed.

In response to what he was seeing in 2009, Habibi composed a stirring composition for SSAATTBB choir with tenor soloist entitled Colour of Freedom, premiered by the Vancouver Peace Choir. Silent Dawn, the publisher of the piece, includes a powerful recording on their page.

An excerpt from Iman Habibi's Colour of Freedom featuring a solo passage. The score is available through Silent Dawn Publishing.

When I first heard this piece in a recording by the DaCapo Chamber Choir, the expressive singing of the soloist Amir Haghighi, performing in a traditional Persian style, immediately drew me in. Interspersed were the ensemble sections, featuring English text, imbued with poignant harmonies and interplay between the voices.

It has been common in music and art-making to combine “Western” and “Eastern” elements within a composition. Politically, and artistically, this method often results in failed efforts, and unintended conceptual dissonances. By comparison, I feel Habibi’s writing in this piece is highly effective.

An excerpt from Iman Habibi's Colour of Freedom. The score is available through Silent Dawn Publishing.

Habibi was born and raised in Iran but immigrated to Vancouver along with his family when he was 17 years old. It is worth pointing out that Habibi is part of a growing community of Iranian composers who have migrated to Canada, and elsewhere—the Iranian Canadian Composers of Toronto is one such example. These artists often began their training in Iran, and bring that worldview with them into faculties that have little or no expertise in traditional or contemporary Middle Eastern music. Compositionally, Habibi’s intuition doesn’t result in a forced amalgamation of distinct elements. Those elements hand off back and forth, to and from each other, and morph nicely in transitions to create a unified sound. There is a beautiful, dulcet accompaniment from the ensemble while the soloist chants and emotes—easily the most impactful feature of the piece!

The texts used are also impactful. The soloist is singing in Persian to verse by the 11th Century poet, Baba Taher—whose “sweet and colloquial writing style” appealed to Iman. The poet for the English parts, Marina Nemat, is an internationally renowned best-selling author, who lives in the Toronto area. For me, what emerges from this piece is the marrying of the ancient and modern worlds, east and west, and the universal yearning of what makes us whole and free regardless of who we are, what religion we practice, and where we live.

Given his personal history it is not surprising that Habibi’s musical response to the Green Movement was so riveting. However, along with the direct cultural and personal connection to the events he was witnessing from afar, Habibi was equally moved by millions across the world participating in the solidarity movement with the Iranian people. I think this is what motivated him to work with this dual platform of performance forces and languages within the piece.

The text of Nemat’s poem draws attention to the extra-musical achievement of the piece:

I know that hope will grow
Into an eternal ocean,
And it will dance in Tehran
In the pink clouds of sunrise, Its life the symphony of our voices
Witnessing the birth of a magnificent light.

What is beautiful about the story of Iman’s piece, is how the process extended beyond the composition and performance—the text of Nemat’s poem, and its call to action, becoming operational. With Nemat’s help, the DaCapo audience provided hundreds of signatures for Amnesty International in 2012, calling for the release of two Iranian political prisoners on death row—one of whom, Hamid Ghasemi-Shall, has been pardoned. The performance and audience responses were made more meaningful by the presence of Hamid’s wife, Antonella Mega, at the concert. I find this part of the story quite invigorating as a choir of singers grows into a chorus of audience members taking a first step and vocalizing their concern.

As a composer whose compositions are often inspired by injustice, I wonder whether or not the performances of these pieces bring about positive change. Many reassure me that art increases awareness and motivates people to consider solutions to these problems. While I might feel a sense of helplessness, it is heartwarming to me that Habibi saw himself as a composer of a larger movement, and that this further step is part of the practice of his art.

If there has ever been a composition deserving of repeat performances, it is Colour of Freedom. This work shows the spirit that transcends the 2009 movement, just as the influence of the Green Movement lingers in the slogans chanted at rallies and in soccer stadiums in Iran. The piece is also a rallying cry and reminder that injustices persist and can be found everywhere, and that we must stand together and through a “symphony of our voices” defend fundamental and universal human rights.

Colour of Freedom is being performed on November 11 and 12 by the DaCapo Chamber Choir in Kitchener and Waterloo. Frank Horvat is one of several contributors who has taken part in the CMC Library Residency program, which profiles works from the CMC collection. Visit the community page on the CMC website regularly for new features in the series. You can view and purchase the full score for Iman Habibi's Colour of Freedom through the Silent Dawn Publishing site.

Photo Credit: David Grimmett