Saturday 2 January 2021

Researching the mathematics of emotions: composer Arash Safaian on his recent fantasy about Beethoven's music, 'This is (Not) Beethoven'

Arash Safaian (Photo Gregor Hohenberg)
Arash Safaian (Photo Gregor Hohenberg)

Iranian-born German composer Arash Safaian has a new disc out. On Modern Recordings the provocatively titled This is (not) Beethoven is performed by pianist Sebastian Knauer and the Zürcher Kammerorchester. Writing in a somewhat neo-Classical style, Arash Safian's music encompasses orchestra, chamber, opera as well as film, whilst this latest disc is a concertante work for piano and orchestra inspired by themes from Beethoven's music. I caught up with Arash via Zoom to find out more.

Arash was born in Iran son of the Iranian artist Ali Akbar Safaian who emigrated to Germany when Arash was a child, and he grew up in Bayreuth. Arash studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nürnberg and showed his paintings in solo and group exhibitions, before moving to the Academy for Music and Theatre in Munich to study composition with Jan Müller-Wieland and Pascal Dusapin, and film music with Enjott Schneider. He won the ECHO:KLASSIK 2017 prize for his piano concerto cycle ÜberBach and the Bavarian Film Prize 2019 for Best Film Music for his music for the film Lara, directed by Jan-Ole Gerster.

This is (not) Beethoven takes the form of a 15-movement work for piano and orchestra. Arash describes it as a fantasy about Beethoven's music and likens the form to Mussorgsky's multi-movement Pictures at an Exhibition. The work uses themes from Beethoven's music and Arash regards it as a reflection on Beethoven of today's music. At its core is a set of 12 variations inspired by Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, interspersed with a cycle of other movements. The inspiration for these moves from Beethoven to other composers and images. In talking about the work, Arash refers to Beethoven as a planet with him constructing satellites around.

Arash Safaian: This is (not) Beethoven - recording session with Sebastian Knauer and the Zürcher Kammerorchester.
Arash Safaian: This is (not) Beethoven - recording session with Sebastian Knauer and the Zürcher Kammerorchester.

The work was a commission from the pianist Sebastian Knauer (with whom Arash worked on ÜberBach), and the key problem for Arash was how to combine his voice with Beethoven's music, given that Beethoven's music is so strong. In fact, Arash thought for nearly a year before accepting the commission. With ÜberBach, Arash used Bach's systems of construction and counterpoint to create new Bach-inspired modern pieces. But Beethoven's voice is so strong, so subjective that this was difficult. He came up with the idea of doing a set of variations, taking motifs out of Beethoven's music, and also creating a fantasy. Both variations and fantasy are forms that Beethoven used. Whilst there are ideas taken from Beethoven, the voice in the music is very much that of Arash Safaian, though everything develops out of Beethoven. The final movement Adagietto is the closest to Beethoven's music and Arash likens it to the Aria in Bach's Goldberg Variations, the movement on which the variations are based.

There is not only Beethoven in the work, Arash found that the theme from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 was close to Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, so there is an element of this in Arash's piece, and he also references Mozart, Shostakovich and others.

Both This is (not) Beethoven and ÜberBach were commissions, but Arash regards the links to the older composers as a way in for audiences who find it hard to understand that composers are still writing new music. With ÜberBach, Sebastian Knauer simply asked Arash to select a composer and transform the composer's work in a modern, artful way with the idea of writing music that speaks to everyone. Arash regards Bach as the most universal composer, his work not fixed in time, and Arash could adapt the music for himself and create his own forms. With This is (not) Beethoven, Knauer wanted a project to celebrate Beethoven 250, but Arash took a long time before agreeing, and he feels that this will be his last project based on the work of another composer for a considerable time.

Arash Safaian, Sebastian Knauer (Photo Gregor Hohenberg)
Arash Safaian, Sebastian Knauer (Photo Gregor Hohenberg)

In This is (not) Beethoven Arash aims to present his own music, but with a link to music by a composer that listeners know. He describes his style as less melodic than Beethoven's but accessible, Arash wants to write music that hooks into the audience, rather than distancing them. He refers to music as the mathematics of emotion, and in writing music he wants to create emotions otherwise, it makes no sense to him, and Arash refers to writing music as research about emotions. With no other language can you talk with multiple voices at the same time, and the most complex way of transporting someone is surely by emotion. 

Arash initially studied art and whilst he has not painted recently he feels that structurally there is a lot in common between art and music. Both are about structure, though he sees music as more abstract. He gets ideas both from modern art and architecture, and he describes constructing a piece as being like the dramaturgy of architectural rooms, as you move from one room to another.

Being born in Iran, the son of an Iranian artist, I wondered whether there was an Iranian aspect to Arash's music. He feels that his poetic side is perhaps the most Iranian. The core art in Iran is poetics and poetry, mystical poetry is in the blood of Iranians. But, Arash actually grew up in Bayreuth, the home of Richard Wagner's Bayreuth Festival and the young Arash saw many of Wagner's operas at the festival and these influenced him too. When young he played the piano, improvised and composed but did not think of composition as a career.

Arash Safaian: This is (not) Beethoven - Modern Recordings

Arash's father left Iran in the 1980s so that he could express himself in his art exactly as he wished. This is an attitude that Arash has inherited, as he feels that it is his duty as a composer to stand by the style of his music. Arash's music, with its neoclassical, accessible style, has gone against the prevailing norms of modernism, and he has always stood behind his language whether accepted or not.

He grew up in his father's atelier, surrounded by art and sculpture, and so his first impulse was to study art. But he found it too easy, too direct and decided he wanted something more mystical, less direct and so embarked on the bigger adventure of studying composition. Initially, he studied for a year with a teacher who had him simply writing in the style of Josquin, but Arash wanted to go further and enrolled at music school. At that time, his style was more experimental than it is now, but always his music has been accessible, direct to the emotions.

He identifies three key areas in his music. First, poetics (which comes from Iranian poetry), second, ecstasy and catharsis (inspired by Wagner), and third counterpoint inspired by Josquin. But he is also open to music around him, including rock and pop and regards everything in his head as relevant and all musics as equally important.

His work on the 2019 film Lara was a great experience. His job wasn't so much to write film music as to write a piano concerto which fitted to the character Viktor in the film so that it seemed as if Viktor wrote the concerto. Viktor is insecure, shy and emotional, and the actor who played him, Tom Schilling, thought he was more of a Schubert-style composer. So Arash's introduction to the piano concerto is more in the style of Schubert before the work develops greater freedom. The remainder of the music for the film was almost a character sketch of Viktor's mother, Lara (played by Corinna Harfouch). She is a character who is not comfortable in her skin, and Arash wanted to convey this. He wrote music for a wind quintet, airy and soft, yet quite dissonant, music which alternates between being comfortable and uncomfortable. Rather than being a background to the film, Arash regards this music as an off-stage voice in the film, commenting on the character of Lara.

Looking forward, he as plans for a new piano concerto and ideas for a concerto grosso, whilst he is also thinking of a solo piano disc. But he is also waiting to see what 2021 brings!

  • Arash Safaian: This is (Not) Beethoven - Sebastian Knauer, Zürcher Kammerorchester; Modern Recordings - available from Amazon,
  • Arash Safaian: Überbach - Sebastian Knauer, Zürcher Kammerorchester; Neue Meister - available from Amazon
  • Arash Safaian: Lara: motion picture soundtrack - Alice Sarah Ott, Deutsches Kammerorchester; Deutsche Grammophon - available from Amazon
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