Wednesday , July 17 2024
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Music Review: ‘Sirventès’ from the Iranian Female Composers Association

The cello is the fulcrum of this collection of music by six contemporary female composers from Iran. While all or nearly all have studied abroad or migrated, most of the music on Sirventès shares a focus on modality that suggests traditional – if not always Iranian – sounds.

These two commonalities – the cello (in solo, duo, trio or quartet settings) and the hewing to the notes of specific scales – grants the album a unity that’s rare in compilations. It plays almost like one long extended work, within which each composer expresses a distinct voice.

Drowning in vital energy

The strangely titled “And the Moses Drowned” by Mahdis Golzar Kashani is the most stirring selection. Dedicated to the youngest victims of the Syrian war, this contiguous four-movement string quartet begins with thin sighing strains centered on a scale that slips between major and minor modes. Punctuation arrives to announce a melodic theme which then splits into snippets, pulsing with tension. This potential vitality turns kinetic in the “Vivace, Con Brio” second movement, where spiky rhythms suggest a macabre dance.

A contemplative slow movement alternates keening melodies with questing staccato gestures before evolving into a new dance that feels a bit freer than the first, as if the souls of the young victims have achieved a kind of equanimity, if not relief, based purely on the energy of music.

Nina Barzegar’s “Vulnerable” fo solo cello plays out like a tragic short story, with episodes of pizzicato minimalism, frantic sawing, jumpy intervals and hints of rhythm all solidifying into a slow-burning narrative. It gripped me on first hearing and does so even more on subsequent listens.

The quivering “Growth” by Nasim Khorassani hovers over a tiny cell of just four notes, with violin, viola and cello layering their different timbres to create a kind of abstract monochrome that’s all tension, no release, lasting at seven minutes just long enough to creep under your skin without tipping into tedium.

The short three-movement string quartet “The Maze” by Niloufar Iravani stirs Western modernism into similar modalism. Iravani takes advantage of the harmonic possibilities of the four-instrument ensemble to create a complex but always followable language of excitement and fear amid togetherness.

The cello and beyond

Artful interplay of tonality and percussion characterize the title track, which includes the only sounds on the album not drawn from strings. Composer Anahita Abbasi uses noise and silence to build an adventure in abstraction.

Finally, Mina Arissian’s miniature Suite for Cello, written as a response to the experience of migration, moves from melancholy to hope to a sense of peace.

All the musicians contribute convincing performances to this music, released under the auspices of the Iranian Female Composes Association. But cellist Brian Thornton’s soulful, insightful playing, heard on four of the album’s six compositions, deserves special mention. As a musician and as executive producer he acts as an additional binding force, helping to make Sirventès an eloquent document of the driving creative spirit of female Iranian composers in a time of reckoning and exile.

Sirventès from Brian Thornton and the Iranian Female Composers Association is available now from New Focus Recordings.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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