Sahba Aminikia was called by the San Francisco Chronicle “an artist singularly equipped to provide a soundtrack to these unsettling times". Aminikia lives in the United States, but his family is from Iran. Early this month, his work was part of a festival by the world-famous Kronos Quartet, for whom Aminikia is writer-in-residence. His mother, a U.S. green card holder who is in Tehran, was caught in the travel ban issued by President Trump, so she missed the early February festival at SFJazz that included her son’s music.
Aminikia’s compositions are haunting and ethereal and combine elements from both eastern and western musical traditions to create sounds that are as exotic as they are familiar.
Welum caught up with the 35- year-old composer to ask about his music and how beauty and ethics are taken into account in his artistic creations and in his life.
Do you consider yourself an Iranian composer or a composer who happens to be Iranian, or something else entirely?
I consider myself an Iranian-American composer and the only reason that I am insisting on both identities is because my life story and music has been shaped in both geographical locations and inevitably they both form a large portion of my stories. However, while taking no pride in being part of neither of them, I take pride in moments when either of them have been the home to bright and idealistic individuals throughout their histories.
What has been your greatest triumph so far?
Understanding that the ideals of every culture and nation connect and relate to one another more than the political hemispheres of those cultures do. I see myself as a connecting dot between two of those cultures who are symbolically hostile to one another. I feel very privileged and fortunate to be a boatman between the two.
What has been your biggest learning experience?
Studying humanities at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. It gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate, challenge and sometimes reject many of my previously-learned ethics and to seek a deeper connection with human beings beyond language and culture.
How do ethics play into your compositions and your life?
For me, ethics is on one side staying true to yourself despite all doubtful and scary moments and it is an ongoing process for me in my own life both professionally and personally. The true self is beautiful, and beauty is the key to the heart of every life form on this planet. So, on the other side, my ethics are based on beauty, passion and love. For example, someone struggling to accomplish a beautiful act is the most poetic and morally pleasing image in my mind and encourages me to respond to that beauty with creating another live being and passing on this tradition of creating life in form of a piece of art to the next listener.
What prompted you to become a composer?
I think music is one of the few surviving arts of magic, which are mostly extinct now. And by magic I mean shaping and transforming human emotions by using undecided science. I think this also takes us to the ancient story of Gilgamesh and what is in fact the deepest dilemma of human being; immortality. Stories and melodies are what remain of us. In addition to that, I was born into a culture where storytelling was a survival skill and people around me used and developed this skill in order to make the lives of their loved ones easier in difficult times. I hear music in my own head when I go through my own most difficult times in life. So I think for me it was not much of a difficult decision to make.
What are your goals for the near and distant future?
I believe in increasing the quality of the moment to the maximum potential and that's what creates a bright and worthy-of-living future. If I lose a moment of now, which is continuing what I am doing until my last breath, I feel that I have betrayed my own future both near and distant. I intend to create as much music as I possibly can.
What do you most hope listeners take away from your music?
A cathartic experience that haunts them, confirms, nourishes and amplifies their dark side and then as in exorcism, purifies them by fully immersing them in their own avoided emotions.
Sahba Aminikia composes music for solo projects, chamber music groups, ensembles, multimedia projects, vocalists and full orchestras. A complete listing of current projects and groups with whom he's working is on his website.