The Shadow of a Leaf in Water Photo credits: Qmars Kalami

The Shadow of a Leaf in Water

November 11, 20208-11 minutes read

Written by:

Aida Shirazi

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As an Iranian born to and brought up in a middle-class family, Persian poetry has been a consistent part of my daily life. In fact, this is the case with most Iranians; the everyday language is filled with poetic metaphors to describe not only the deepest, but sometimes the trivial incidents, emotions, and interactions. ‘Rose’ is a metaphor of love; ‘daffodil’ is the symbol of the eye; falling in love and being inebriated on wine are used interchangeably; the lips of the beloved are likened to spinel and ruby; and ‘jet’ stands for their black hair.

I remember my first encounter with Sohrab Sepehri's poetry. It was a hot, humid summer in the late 90s. I was 11, and we were on vacation in a small coastal town by the Caspian Sea. That year, we stayed at the home of a family friend with an impressive library of unique books. One day, after our daily stroll in the woods and swimming in the creek behind the house, while everyone else was having their siesta, I started shuffling through the library and came across an old paperback edition of a book entitled Hasht Ketaab, meaning ‘Eight Books’. It was a collection of works by the 20th-century poet and painter, Sohrab Sepehri. At first, it was disorienting to read the free, rhyme-less poems, influenced by the poetic style known as Nimaaee, coined by the renowned avant-garde Iranian poet, Nima Youshij. There was little to no trace of meter and rhyme as in Hafez, Rumi, Khayyam, Ferdowsi, Saadi's poetry. The recurring combinations of long and short syllables that give the reader a sense of stability and predictability, hence safety and soundness, were gone. I stumbled, limped, and sometimes slid through the lines, trying to latch on to "something", but it wasn't there…

Sepehri is known for his affinity with Eastern philosophy, which manifested itself as a seemingly simple but highly symbolic language that transcends every phrase and image to something beyond its immediate meaning and effect. Despite his socially introverted personality, his approach to art and poetry was quite bold and adventurous. Sepehri was a trailblazer in modern Persian poetry and revolutionized its language, themes, and aesthetics. While his poetry may be less known to non-Persian-speaking audiences, his paintings are known to international artists, collectors, and auctions. Sepehri’s poetry continues to endure the passing time and transient poetic trends.

That afternoon marked the addition of Sepehri to the list of the poets that I had known and read. Still, it took his work some years to grow on me. I had to mature enough to appreciate his pure, innocent, and deeply personal and poetic language. After more than twenty years since that day, I often read his works with astonishment and joy. Sepehri’s pictorial, multi-layered, and deep language continues to have an undeniably deep impact on my perspective on music-making.

Aida Shirazi; photo: Qmars Kalami
Aida Shirazi; photo: Qmars Kalami

The Role of Poetry in My Work: Evoking Without Describing

As I started composing in the last year of college, words began making their way into my music. At first, it was only about writing a few art songs with the piano accompaniment based on old and new Persian poetry. Soon enough, though, it became clear to me that language and poetry have a far more significant influence on my creative process, regardless of the genre and instrumentation of the music I write. It is not only about the imagery, concept, and affect of the text, but also the sonic and musical aspect of the words and phrases. To me, words possess a tactile quality that I find to be as evocative and inspiring as sound and music. Such tactility becomes a powerful driving force for generating melodic, harmonic ideas and timbral and textural combinations. I have created several pieces based on English and Persian poetry and continue to explore new possibilities for generating musical materials drawn from the text's sonic quality. Worth mentioning is that my objective is not to create musical representations of the text in most cases. Instead, I am interested in selecting excerpts of the text and creating musical ideas based on them. Then, I treat the ideas independent from the form, overall trajectory, and sometimes even the original text's denotation.

One example of such treatment of text and music is my work for chamber ensemble The Shadow of a Leaf in Water, composed in 2018, based on Sepehri's poem entitled Light, Water, Flower, and Me from his book of poems, The Green Mass. Throughout his life, Sepehri's fascination with nature was reflected in his poetry and paintings. It is worth noting that in his view, human and nature were not two independent entities. Influenced by the Zen Philosophy, he believed that human is part of nature and the two are in constant interaction with each other. In The Green Mass, published in 1967, this fascination reaches a point where nature is the book's central element and plays a crucial role in most of its poems. Of course, human characters appear in the book as well but they are, in many cases, part of the background, and their role is to highlight and underline the images of nature. In other words, The Green Mass is a tribute to nature and tackles some of the most profound existential subjects through symbols and metaphors. As an artist who is usually inspired by nature in her work, I find The Green Mass an extremely compelling collection.

Light, Water, Flower, and Me

Below is the English translation of Sepehri's poem:

There is no cloud.
There is no breeze.
I sit by the pool:
The fish swimming in circles, light, flowers, water, and me.
The purity of the cluster of life.
Mother picks basil.
Bread, basil, and cheese, a cloudless sky, misty petunias. Salvation so close, amongst flowers in the yard.
The light caresses a copper bowl
A ladder up against a high wall brings the morning down to the earth.
Everything is hidden behind a smile.
One can see my face through an orifice on the wall of time, 
There are things I do not know,
But I know if I uproot a plant, I would die.
I ascend to the pinnacle, for I am all feathers and wings,
I see my way through the dark, I am all lanterns,
I am all light and sand, all trees,
All paths, streams, bridges, waves,
I am the shadow of a leaf in water:
How lonely I am within.

The text's key lines are the last two: "I am the shadow of a leaf in water: How lonely I am." These lines inform the essence of my work and shape its character. After meditating on the text for a few weeks, and trying to navigate its delicate, nuanced descriptions, I was convinced that The Shadow… is going to be about solitude; something that Sepehri was accustomed to, cherished and thrived on during his life. The first effect brought forth by the image of the shadow of a leaf on the surface of the water is the separation of the leaf from its origin. Capturing this state of detachment and being untethered became the main focus of my work.

At this point, the sound-world and atmosphere of the piece were evident to me. I worked towards capturing a fraction of the endlessness in the text and creating a deep, immersive experience for myself and the audience. The Shadow… was going to be a ten-minute long work that hovers in time and space, as if it existed before its initial and after its final audible moments. It has neither a starting nor an ending point, and we only find our way in and out of it and experience it.

Sohrab Sepehri; Wikimedia Commons
Sohrab Sepehri; Wikimedia Commons

The Shadow of a Leaf in Water

The work's texture was going to be generally dark, opaque, and heavy with melodic fragments that emerge from and disappear into it, like sparks. I decided that contrasts of any sort be anything but dramatic, like a massive creature respiring slowly. Rather than a conventional climax, I chose that there should be moments of slight tension in harmonic, textural, and timbral levels that gradually emerge from the texture and fade out into it. Silence contributes significantly to the buildup and release of tension. I gave silences a structural and dramatic role by carefully positioning them in specific sections of the piece.

The same idea was applied to the harmonic plan of the work. Chord progressions unfold in a glacial rate, and each chord is only slightly different from the previous one by sharing some common tones and moving the rest to close intervals above or below them. The piece is scored for the flute (bass flute doubling), clarinet (bass clarinet doubling), two percussion players (bass drum, tam-tam, marimba, vibraphone, crotales, suspended cymbal, and triangle), harp, cello, and double bass. Although the instrumentation was predetermined by Ensemble Dal Niente that premiered the piece, it worked perfectly with my concept. It provided a versatile pallet of colors and sonorities that matched my intended sound world for the work. The Shadow of a Leaf in Water was premiered under the baton of Christian Baldini in November 2018 at the University of California, Davis as part of my graduate composition portfolio.

Compositional Process

Next, I’ll describe my compositional process for the work. This process has become the model for several compositions for ensemble and orchestra that I have composed from 2018 onwards. After creating a concept for my work and taking detailed notes about the timbral and textural ideas that reflect it, I spend a long time at the piano, improvising and creating a preliminary harmonic plan. Using this plan, I generate some raw, melodic fragments that will find a shape and go through timbral, rhythmic, or slight harmonic transformations.

I received formal training in Western and Iranian classical music, and my process and aesthetics are influenced by both traditions equally. In this piece, I rely on different modal harmonies from Western and Iranian music and embrace a hybrid of sonorities that can belong to either of the traditions. I also try to break free from the norms of both practices and construct a harmonic world that reflects my encounters and experience with musics that I have learned and grown up with. In my process, intuition and memory go hand in hand to capture a quality of in-betweenness. I usually avoid using functional harmony, which is standard in Western music. My background in Iranian classical music remotely inspires some of my melodic gestures and harmonies. That said, I would consider my work a somewhat ambiguous and symbolic interpretation of this musical tradition.

The piece, about ten minutes long, is divided into five main sections. The opening sneaks in and lays out the general atmosphere of the composition. Long phrases and ebbs and flows in the dynamic level let the piece breathe between the tremolos, prolonged notes, and some punctuated fragments. Minute 1':45" marks the beginning of the second section. Melodic fragments appear more frequently and become longer. Instruments start a dialogue by actively sharing the melodic line that rotates and transforms timbrally. Around 2':30", an abrasive attack in the harp seemingly interrupts the dialogue, but soon after that, the flute and the clarinet resume the melody, and others join them. At 3':10", a call and response in the high register of the flute and clarinet starts, while other instruments accompany them. Compared to the intertwine, this section relies on more focused timbres to convey the melodic lines more clearly.

At 4', the third section begins. We are back in the realm of delicate noises produced through air sound in the winds and strings, and scraping a brush on the surface of the tam-tam and suspended cymbal. This time around, the breathing is more intense. At 4':40", a high pitched pulsating figure in the harp penetrates into the texture and lays the ground for a hocket-like section between the harp and percussion I.

In the fourth section, 7':05", a sweeping and swelling melody in the bass clarinet slowly emerges, and other instruments highlight it in a fragmented and rotating manner. The coda starting at 8':25" takes us back to the breathing ebb and flows similar to the beginning of the work. While sharing parts of its timbral and gestural character with the introduction, the coda can be considered as the extended, exaggerated, and evolved descendant of the opening.

The Shadow of a Leaf in Water has become a milestone in my work with regard to literature and language. Since writing this work, I have written several other pieces based on or inspired by texts in English and Persian. In each work, I try to dig deeper into my impression of the words and phrases, and their sonic quality. I generate timbral, harmonic, and melodic ideas informed by these sonic qualities and create musical narratives that are self-contained and can live and communicate independently from the text.

-- *This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Aida Shirazi

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Aida Shirazi is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music.

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