As an Iranian composer based in Tehran, Siavash Amini may just surprise you. Prolific in his outputs (a catalogue of releases which spans over a decade) he’s revered globally for his multidimensional sonic sequencing, the sounds of which he’s been refining since high school. His compositions embody both eastern and western philosophies and communicating around his technique and integrity for his craft is his principal focus, choosing not to dwell on his country’s political circumstance. His life force feels to be a mixture of musicianship and storytelling but according to Amini, that’s not entirely his intention.
“Although I’ve been told that my music has a narrative quality which I think mostly comes from the way I apply tension and release in certain structures, I try to guide the listener through certain parts of the structure and throughout the piece with sound design and mixing so it could bring out a different type of image or trigger a sequence of images for the listener.
“But, [Amini continues] it’s a two-way street. The listener’s willingness to give in to the music plays an important part. I have no control on what they imagine and can put only suggestions through sound. I try to set the setting for it rather than tell it.”
Take his soon to be released EP A Trail of Laughters. It presents four tracks that blend to form a breathtaking, detailed and textured soundscape, reminiscent of an intergalactic space adventure. The curiosity one has for it while listening commences long before the music lands in your ears.
When asked where the title for the EP originates from? Amini himself writes that he borrowed it from a section /story in a years old (ancient) text: The Book of Marvels authored by an Arabic writer: Muhammad ibn Mahmoud Hamadâni. “…And to behold a lake covered by stone, lying under mountain folds, and birds living in pure darkness, is wondrous.”
“The section in The Book of Marvels became very important to me because of the way it describes darkness and luminescence, it has been a preoccupation of mine, how luminescence brings out darkness and vice versa. For me music is a mode of thought so naturally concepts play the most important role, without them music sounds like a sketch to me, it sounds incomplete. But that’s for my own music. I really enjoy listening to what people call ‘absolute music’ on a daily basis, although not sure about the term but let’s stay with it for the lack of a better one.”
When in a deep discovery phase for lesser known genres and styles of music the lens Amini applies is fascinating. An example of his journey seeking via aural avenues is evident on the 2018 collaboration: The Brightest Winter Sun which he authored with Umchunga and according to Amini explores the sonic aftermath of listening to piano music of the 19th century from a certain perspective. These sonic missions are woven together by an embellished thread, historic literature.
“I find exploring extreme mental and emotional states through interaction with literature very inspiring, especially what Schubert does. I always felt that music’s impact can be more than doubled with literature as a starting point, be it in form of lyrics like in Lieder or the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt or sonic interpretations of Parmegiani like Enfer or many many other possible interplays, Amini offers.
The heard industrial and synthesised murmurs that comprise A Trail of Laughters represent the edges to the surface of Amini’s abilities. The deeper layers, those beyond the classical and lyrical storytelling level can be further analysed via the techniques he applies to structure of his compositions. For instance his approach while making the EP was to challenge himself through introduction and employment of a particular musical style, or rather, anti-employment. He strived with these pieces to step outside the bounds a 12 tone equal temperament offers.
Growing up his exposure to musical genres was far reaching. Amini explains, it spanned rock, metal and jazz but that he was also strongly influenced by the environment of classical music and 20th century minimalism. A commonality between the genres he observes is that they are all strongly rooted in the 12 tone equal temperament which he suggests lends to harmonic movement and stasis.
“As a consequence almost everything is predicated on the tuning system. It even affects orchestration and instrumentation techniques.”
“I’ve always been interested in works of people who stepped away from that system be it French Spectralists or artists inspired by the folk music of different regions of the world which don’t use the 12 tone equal temperament. It is a big challenge for anyone who grows up in a tradition entirely based on this type of equal temperament. It was a big challenge for me as well. I had access to a wealth of knowledge and theories about different systems of tunings from both Islamic world’s theorists as well as western traditions. The theorists I mentioned were in the earliest of days influenced by Hellenistic way of thinking but came up with their own theories and tuning systems after some time.”
Amini fuelled his discovery for these types of insights via an ethnomusicology journal he accessed: Mahoor Music Quarterly, through his formative secondary school years. The Farsi publication gave him exposure to the concepts but at that time there was no way of experimenting with the methods to hear how they actually sounded.
“The real break came later, around 2005-6 I finally had software synthesizers that could load different tunings. Using Scala and learning about the online community around it made it easier than ever to test out how each tuning sounded. Now the challenge was to extract bits and pieces of useful techniques for using each tuning – I wasn’t interested in historic or ethnomusicological side of things for my own music. I didn’t want to write entirely in a system from a certain culture, although reading about them in that light give things the much needed context.”
The bending and manipulation of the 12 tone temperament structure, is considered by Amini to be best exemplified to date via the A Trail of Laughters EP and he confides there have been multiple attempts to achieve success with the ‘treasure trove of tunings and composition systems’.
“Since my first failed attempts at the beginning (see the track ‘Corners’ on my first split EP Spotty Surfaces) until recently, my focus has been on achieving a certain degree of control over sound design and electroacoustic techniques so I can experiment with these tunings little by little over time and see how the they affect everything from texture to structure.”
Amini learned the benefits of pioneering and innovation by carrying out these kinds experiments. Instead of dividing the octave with only one system for each timbre he broadened his focus to incorporate another kind of division.
“I could use tetrachord division from different systems and combine two or more existing tetrachord divisions for different parts of a texture.
For example using one division for the bass pattern and using a different one for the higher registers and mostly using patterns that move within a fourth. This meant that I needed a modular environment that could run different patterns, each with its own tuning and register and at different tempos and time signatures. The other idea was morphing two patterns with different tunings into each other without it sounding awful and until you get a evolving texture, I would record dozens of minutes of those textures and cut out interesting bits for sampling and use them as the basis for a new composition.”
Amini’s methods to making his music now unearthed, Cyclic asked one further illuminating question – what does it mean to him to make music?
“It’s a very tough question, I might have different answers for various situations, in the case of my recent solo music it’s a way of processing my thoughts in a more visceral way, a way of creating a structure in a physical sense that I can explore in different ways. I find the process very calming although the results are most of the time a bit discomforting to listen to at the surface.”
To learn more on what makes Siavash Amini the artist he is today, Cyclic encourages listening to the Phantom Power podcast episode where he touches on his family of origin and early influences and musical education and interviewer Mack Hackgood delves deeper into the Iranian musical landscape Amini presides in.