Saturday 22 October 2022

Persian inspirations: UK-based Iranian composer Farhad Poupel talks about drawing on rich Persian culture for his music

Farhad Poupel
Farhad Poupel
Farhad Poupel is a young Iranian composer who has recently moved to the UK via the global talent visa, and his works have already been commissioned and performed internationally by artists such as pianists Peter Jablonski, Kotaro Fukuma, Jeffrey Biegel, and Margaret Fingerhut, and mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby. Born in Isfahan, Iran, he began his musical education by studying the Persian dulcimer (santur) and piano. He was mentored in harmony, counterpoint, and composition by the great Iranian composer Saeed Sharifian. Sharifian studied in the UK but returned to Iran in 1990 where he wrote scores inspired by Persian music and culture to develop further the Iranian musical language.

Farhad writes music in the Western classical tradition, and I was interested to find out how Iranian he considered his music to be. He does not write music using traditional improvisation and quarter-tone scales, but that is to give a rather limited definition of Iranian music. There is a rich Persian culture to draw on and he feels that his music is Iranian in the sense that when he plays his music for Iranians, to them it sounds Iranian. He uses structural elements from Iranian music, his cadences often have an Iranian style to them, he uses the major third rather a lot and writes cadences based on the submediant (sixth degree) rather than the dominant (fifth degree). But he tries to be himself when he writes music, and he mostly listens to Western classical music.

Farhad grew up in quite a diverse musical environment. His childhood memories of music all come from the cinema, American music, and from Persian pop music. After the Revolution, most Persian pop artists went to the USA and their music was shared in Iran via cassettes recorded in the USA. Farhad studied Persian classical music, whilst his mother played the piano and had lots of recordings. Farhad grew up open to everything. 

His 2019 work, Childhood Memories (Persian Suite) which premieres in 2022 in the USA, is based on Persian folklore. He has always been interested in Persian literature, and he mentions Matthew Arnold's poem, Sohrab and Rustum which is based on a story from the Persian Book of Kings. The book preserves Persian culture after the rise of Islam, preserving the Persian identity. And after the recent political upheavals in the country, people used characters from the Book of Kings as symbols. Farhad's 2020 work for piano and orchestra, the Legend of Bijan and Manijeh, which premieres in Canada in November 2022, uses a lot of characters from the Book of Kings. Another of Farhad's recent works, Kaveh the Blacksmith, is based on another character from the book who shows resistance to tyranny. His new piano concerto, with Peter Jablonski as soloist, The Seven Labours of Rustam is also based on characters from the Book of Kings. But Farhad is also planning a children's opera based on a Swedish story.

In Iran, his underlying passion was for Western classical music, and he studied composition for five years, even though this required a journey of six hours in each direction. But the Iranian government is very anti-art and classical music needs to be propagandist and popular, dumbed down. There is a Western classical orchestra and many performers, but the government works against it, and it is difficult with one professional orchestra and just one or two venues. All this makes for a very complicated background, but he has never tried to break his contacts with the country.

He has never used traditional instruments, but he is open to using them though his main interest is Western classical music. His music often takes a story as inspiration, and even when it doesn't the story can be there. He wrote a work for violin and piano for Bradley Creswick and Margaret Fingerhut (to be performed in November 2022) which Farhad was going to call it a sonata for violin and piano, but in the end, he decided on the title, Dance of the Butterfly and Flame. Fingerhut commented that his work has a narrative sense to it, and he usually sees music with an underlying narrative structure.

Farhad Poupel and pianist Peter Jablonski
Farhad Poupel and pianist Peter Jablonski

He became a composer because he simply could not stop writing music. A memorable moment was when he heard Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 16 when he was around 13 and it blew his mind. He wrote a classical rondo after this and though he studied the piano, he continued composing. However, this was not his main focus of study, he has a Pharm D in pharmaceutical science. When he was 23, whilst he was studying pharmaceutical science, he went to Saeed Sharifian's class, and it just clicked; he realised he wanted to be a composer. Whilst in Iran, he needed to make an income from something other than music and he was a part-time pharmacist (few if any composers in Iran make a living from composition). He also studied by himself, he had internet access to scores and read books, either in the original language or translated into Persian from Russian and French.  

When I ask about influences, he comments that if I had asked the question two years ago his answer would have been Ralph Vaughan Williams, but now his influences spread wider including Ravel, Sibelius, John Adams and Jonathan Dove. English music has always been a big influence on him, though this is gradually becoming less. Saeed Sharifian was, of course, very influential when Farhad was studying, especially Sharifian's free attitude to Persian music, and his not trying to be Persian. Farhad and Sharifian had lots of disagreements, but Farhad feels that this shows how good a teacher Sharifian was, encouraging Farhad to be independent. Older composers who are heroes include Dvorak, for the sense that you don't have to be miserable to be a great composer, and Britten, for his attitude, independence and high standards whilst trying to reach both ordinary people and connoisseurs. And Farhad adds that the distinction between these is very idiotic.

He is looking forward to the premieres of Kaveh the Blacksmith for brass and percussion, and Persian Love for mezzo-soprano and piano, and he is writing a new piano trio, Prelude and Demonic Waltz.

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