City of Leaves Album Bridges Tehran to Tarzana
Sussan Deyhim’s bracing new album, ‘City of Leaves,’ is an amalgamation of all the vibrant phases of her life: her upbringing and musical training in an Iran that shifted from wide cultural embrace to closed and repressive. More than 27 years in the challenging art laboratory that is Manhattan. And recently from a vantage in the hills overlooking Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
Don’t laugh at the latter. Deyhim was skeptical when she and her partner, composer-musician-producer Richard Horowitz, moved there a few years ago. But she feels quite differently now.
“You hear so much of the Valley,” she says, recounting the dismissive attitudes she had absorbed. “‘Is this the Valley? Is this the end of our lives?’ But it’s wonderful. Access to so much. Not trendy. Multicultural. Armenian and Iranian and Chinese and Japanese restaurants. I don’t mind it at all!”
But then, like her once-restrictive perceptions of the Valley, Deyhim has found that views of her and her ambitious music have been opening up of late.
“There’s been a lot of great response from the world music scene,” she says of reaction to her recent work. “This is very interesting for me to be able to feel, ‘OK, maybe we can have a truce now, 30 years after.'”
The tussle she’s implying here was a two-way battle: Her interest in experiments involving elements of jazz, avant-garde, electronics and such have long made music traditionalists wary of her.
“A lot of people are interested in traditional music, and I can’t criticize them,” she says. “But some of those people run the scene and try to determine everyone else’s criteria.”
At the same time, she spent a lot of time consciously sidestepping associations with anything that might be considered “world music” – a term she considered “condescending” and meaning in usage “the-rest-of-the-world music.”
“It’s becoming a lot more interesting criteria than it used to be.” she says of the ever-loosening category.
And with that, she’s felt comfortable and confident enough to release an album that embraces the full range of her talents and interests – and that’s a wide range, evidenced by the fact that in conversation she references John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick, Miles Davis, Jackson Pollock and John Coltrane in describing her sensibilities as readily as she discusses such Iranian singers as Parisa and Sima Bina. ‘City of Leaves’ showcases Deyhim’s avant-garde, jazz and Persian classical vocal techniques alike, with contributors ranging from Turkish ney virtuoso Kudsi Enguner to experimental fusionist Bill Laswell to New York electronics-turntable-atmospherics innovator DJ Spooky – disparate on paper but unified in sound by Deyhim’s artistic vision and talents.
In that regard, the title song and album opener is a perfect tone-setter.
‘City of Leaves’ – which also served as the title and centerpiece of an eclectic show she did last Sept. 11 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif., – came after Iranian friends encouraged her to draw on traditional material from their culture. But, collaborating with Horowitz, she took her own course from that starting point.
“It has a great connection to the poetry of the great Sohrab Sepehri,” she says. “He is one of our most wonderful and incredibly interesting contemporary poets of Iran, and also a great visual artist. He was, and his poetry was, really deeply involved in Zen Buddhism, but his affinity was also for a lot of the Sufi frame of mind. But he found something in the Buddhist traditions – sometimes we need another culture to get into the frame of mind of our own. His poetry was very much of this nature, very cyclical in nature. The lyrics are based on the idea of the struggle is forever, but there is no beginning and no end.”
Simple truths, but intricate on examination. And that’s what happened with the construction of the song, too.
“It was a more intimate song, but as we started working on it, since Richard and I are both composers, we think it polyrhythms,” she says. “Sometimes a simple song grows to a piece we continue to like. We decided we could always do another, simpler version and asked our friend Gingger Shankar to play strings on it. The result is something upbeat and positive that I love.”
From there, the album flows through her personal journey, the various settings linked by her layered vocals, the album working as one whole. In truth, it’s a hodgepodge drawn from different sessions and projects. Some came from film soundtracks and art installations; ‘Searching for You,’ produced by Laswell and featuring Enguner, was done for a Laswell album. ‘Secret Garden’ originated as a commission for a teaming with European symphony orchestra, but when that didn’t come through she tapped old friend DJ Spooky (aka Paul Miller) to craft a setting for her stacked vocals.
And ‘Beshno Az Ney/Windfall’ is all about the stacked vocals, a stunning, affecting collage that showcases all of her skills and ambitions at once, all built on the solid foundation of her Persian classical technique and legacy.
“That’s just 30, 40 voices on that,” she says.
The song was, in fact, released before, on her and Horowitz’s 2008 album ‘Logic of Birds.’ But the song got global exposure two years ago she got a call from U2’s management, asking permission for the Irish rock superstars to use the song in a segment of the shows on the mega ‘360’ tour. Bono and the boys wanted to do something to honor Iran’s Green movement – the dissident calls for democracy, symbolized by green flags and attire, which had suffered in brutal clashes with the ruling forces.
“It was a couple days before the start of the tour, a few days after the election in Iran and all the turmoil of people being attacked by the government in a barbaric way. Got a phone call from their management – they wanted to dedicate their song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ in solidarity with the Green movement. Could they use a sample of my piece? This track I had done for a very evolved multimedia piece with a friend about a Sufi journey, an amazing book of poetry by [12th century mystic] Attar. This was at Lincoln Center [in New York] and several places in Europe. This song was part of the score. But when U2 used it, people asked about it. I decided to rerelease it for people who really wanted to hear the track in its entirety – I think they used about 35 seconds or something.”
That has new relevance, with the Green movement now reasserting itself in Tehran in the wake of the populist uprising that shook Egypt. Ironically, it’s the embrace by U2 that she thinks might help the traditional music fans fully accept her.
“I think it will make my world music fans realize I am a home girl. That style of singing, the Persian classical style, takes dedication. It’s not easy to sing that style. That is my dedication and respect to the incredible tradition of Persian classical singing, so sublime and beautiful, and so much work.”
And that, in turn, has renewed her sense of solidarity with the great female singers of Iran and the rich environment in which the arts once thrived there, something that has been stifled in that country by the current regime.
“It brings such sadness to me heart,” Deyhim says. “I grew up in Iran, and there was a festival in the ruins of Persepolis with the most progressive things from Europe and the US and the most traditional things from the Middle East and all over Asia. These were my roots. We had John Cage and Stockhausen and Merce Cunningham, and then Persian classical music and music from India. I was a ballet dancer at that point and we had passes to go to the festival. I would go and it was the most astounding experience to listen to Parisa outdoors in the ruins.
“One of the saddest things in the last 30 years is the censorship of the female voice there. For 20 years, they couldn’t even open their mouths to sing. Singing is a God-given talent, but you have to keep the technique and you have to really sustain it. As a result, some of the great singers, they’re not practicing. Parisa comes to mind.”
Now she’d like to be able to bring the nurturing talent of her old home to her new home.
“I really hope in the next years I’ll be able to produce a concert in Los Angeles where I can invite some of these women. Parisa, Sima Bina, a few other ones. Even if I have to produce it myself. Really have to make it happen. Persian classical music with gentlemen, wonderful to see them in L.A. But it makes me very, very sad not to have that platform given to the women singers. Occasionally you have Parisa coming, but more energy needs to go into that.”
That would complete the process of her own art, the very trek that ‘City of Leaves’ embodies.
“It’s a struggle to find the depths of your roots, the roots that matter,” Deyhim says. “Voodoo, trance music in Africa, these are serious, existing jewels. I can’t imagine anyone being conscious of the grace of these things and not wanting to be part of it. The struggle is important, and it’s important having a part in it, to be part of the discourse and try to be eloquent in it. Or be quiet and learn. What can I tell you that you don’t know?”
And that’s her vantage, overlooking the Valley. It’s quite the breathtaking view.