"Breathing in the Shadows" - A conversation with composer Saman Shahi

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Photo by Reza Salsany - Fuzzy Tree Media

From driving instrumental backdrops to soaring vocal melodies, Saman Shahi’s debut album “Breathing in the Shadows” released by Leaf Music, is a powerful contribution to Canadian Art Song. An award-winning composer, conductor, and music educator, Shahi (MMus 2012, BMus 2010) is an internationally acclaimed composer as well as a champion for the Canadian music scene.

Shahi’s first album is a collection of three song cycles;“Breathing in the Shadows”, “Orbit”, and “Songs of A Wandering Soul”. Each piece grapples with themes of alienation, isolation, and belonging - told from the perspective of female poets from around the world and Shahi himself. To celebrate his debut release, first-year Master’s student Sami Anguaya sat down with Saman to hear more about the album’s history, his creative process, and his identity as an artist.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

I love the cover art you chose for “Breathing in the Shadows.” Could you tell me about the piece and why you chose it?

We commissioned it actually! The piece is by Heather Black, an incredible visual artist and singer. I’ve had my eye on her work for a long time, and while we were working on the album, I sent some pieces to my designer and producer saying “oh these are really cool, we should use one of these!” What I didn’t realize at the time is that she’s originally from Halifax. Leaf Music is also Halifax based, so there was another connection to Heather and using her work. After that, we decided to commission something new for the album.

What I love about this kind of painting is that it can speak to personal experiences. Anyone looking at the cover can take something different away from it. It even relates so well to the subject matter of the album - a lot of dark blues and purple. These colours evoke a certain feeling that are different from a colour like red- and I feel they fit perfectly with the themes of the music. I love how the actual intricacies of connecting the music to the cover art will be different for each person listening.

On your website, I noticed you mentioned “Breathing in the Shadows” deals with themes of belonging, alienation, and isolation. Can you talk a little bit more about connecting with these themes in your music, and their new context in our current distanced reality?

Well the connection with our current reality was very unintentional for sure! Well, being an immigrant, I’ve always had the experience asking myself “am I part of the larger community?” or “am I accepted as a legitimate artist?” These are the types of questions you ask yourself when you are not born and raised in the country you’re living in. You come into that situation (immigration) very cold, and you have to mold yourself to find a way to fit in. These are issues that I grapple with on a personal and professional level.

The main song cycle was commissioned by Maureen Batt (MMus 2009), by a creation grant from the Ontario Arts Council 3 years ago. We decided that we should do a song cycle based on the poetry of five women from around the world. Women are generally on the more oppressed side of the spectrum in various cultures, and this is something we wanted to explore. We had an Iranian poet, a Nigerian poet, a Chinese poet, and a Bulgarian poet and they all showcased various states of anxiety and apathetic existential dread in their work. It’s this sense of “I’m sitting here and I’m not doing anything, but there are these thoughts and feelings eating me from the inside.” So it really seemed like feelings of alienation were affecting all of these poets.

The second cycle that I did for Fabian Arciniegas (MMus 2012), came from the poetry of Jelena Ciric (BMus 2012). That cycle explores the murky areas of human relationships. So all three poems (in this set) are about uncertainty - for example, you’re in a new relationship and you don’t quite know what the other person is thinking or feeling. Was that smile real? Or was it just a political smile? All of these uncertainties and dynamic tensions in Ciric’s texts really spoke to me.

The third song cycle is an extremely personal one. I took certain lines from my diary back from 2004 when I first came to Canada, and thought “let’s set these to music.” Technically I’m the poet, but I wouldn’t even call them poems, they’re just little lines.

It’s fascinating that “Breathing in the Shadows” features poetry in many different languages. Can you tell me about how working with these languages and texts informs your creative process?

Language definitely plays a big role and can be really challenging. For example, one of the pieces is in Bulgarian, so we had to consult someone who could actually speak the text. We sat down with them and went over inflections, cultural contexts - and this stuff really matters in terms of how you create the music! Also from a purely sonic standpoint, the way Bulgarian sounds is completely different from a language like English or Spanish. It has different dissonant and consonant sounds as well as different inflections. One of the bigger challenges putting the cycle together was our singer had to do additional training to learn some Farsi and Bulgarian, which were the least familiar languages for her in the set. Overall, I really enjoyed working with these languages on the album. Even though the texts are predominantly English, it was so inspiring to have some variety in the poetry.

What does composing for voice mean to you?

From my earliest “serious” pieces I’ve always had a thing for voice. Voice and percussion have a very immediate and human quality that I love to explore. This hasn’t really been discussed publicly yet, but the album was originally going to be the “Breathing in the Shadows” cycle and a bunch of other chamber pieces. When I first laid out this original plan I thought “man, something is missing!” So I sat down with Jeremy who is the producer from Leaf Music and we discussed how the album should have an overarching theme. I already had the third song cycle recorded back in May of 2018, and when I showed it to Jeremy, we found commonalities with it and “Breathing in the Shadows.” After that meeting, we decided to make it a vocal album, which threads the works together nicely.

Another thing that interested me when I was reading up on your music was your rock band “The Circle Music Band”, which is described as fusion music. I wanted to ask, what role does musical fusion have in your work and on this album?

That is a very good question because for a long time, I’ve been trying to run away from the “fusion” identity. I feel that fusion can be uncharted and dangerous territory. One can easily put any two things together and call it “fusion music” without exploring the concept in a meaningful way. So I try hard not to identify myself as a fusion artist, but it can still come through in my work. I grew up listening to Iranian pop, Pink Floyd, Mozart, and Persian classical music, so I can’t help all of these influences bleeding into what I write. But how much of that fusion is intentional versus how much is just embedded in my musical language varies from project to project and what that particular piece actually needs.

The interesting thing about the “The Circle Music Band” is that it was my first experience performing Alternative Rock music. And because of it, I started listening to a lot more Rock, Psychedelic Rock, and Prog Rock which made their way into my music. This really comes through in my second song cycle, “Orbit”, which is all about Radiohead. I was so obsessed with the way that style of music transitions, its use of harmony, and all the different rhythmic relationships.

Going back to cultural fusion, how much Iranian music is in the album, I can’t really say much. There are moments in the third cycle where the protagonist is trying to find identity, so there are some references to folk songs there - but generally, I try to stay away from the idea of “fusion” because I want my music to have an identity of its own.

Article written by Sami Anguaya

Purchase and listen to "Breathing in the Shadows" here: https://www.leaf-music.ca/product/lm237/
Saman Shahi website: https://samanshahimusic.com/