Sahba Aminikia

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sahba Aminikia is an Iranian American composer, musician and educator based in San Francisco whose own musical training spanned three continents. He first studied composition in the city of his birth, Tehran, and then relocated to Russia to attend the St. Petersburg State Conservatory. After emigrating as a refugee to San Francisco in 2006, Sahba then earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

His passion for blending genres and cultural influences in his work — he is as well-versed in traditional music from Iran and classical music from Europe as he is in the oeuvres of Pink Floyd and Queen — quickly garnered attention from musicians and ensembles all over the world. Among the performing groups to have commissioned him are Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Symphony Parnassus, and his compositions have been performed all over the world.

Sahba is also the founder and artistic director of the annual Flying Carpet Children Festival that since 2018 has been bringing circus arts and music — as well as world-class musicians — to the Turkish border city of Mardin to delight and engage refugee children from Iraq and Syria.

In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Sahba explains how his own experience as a refugee has informed his belief that music is a form of spiritual liberation with the unique ability to unite peoples and cultures across all borders.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: As you were studying to become a musician, what kind of career did you picture for yourself? Did you have a mission or goal at the time?

Sahba Aminikia: Not really. Even now, I don’t really. [He laughs.] The reality is that at the time I started learning the piano from a very young age, since I was nine, and I was always this kind of mischievous character. I was not a good pianist. I was horrible at my piano classes because I cannot concentrate the way pianists do on a Mozart piece or on a Bach piece. But I could improvise. I still can improvise for hours on piano. So that’s how I started. I started improvising on piano, and I had a small melodica also as a child. So that’s where my musicianship starts. 

But I was discovered by this incredible teacher in Iran, Mr. Mehran Rohani, who himself was a Baha’i professor. He was fired from the university, and he was teaching from his home in Tehran. He had a gigantic collection of records in his room. I went to him originally as a piano student, but he realized that I’m more talented on the composition side, so he started giving me composition lessons in that room.

Pier Carlo: My next question was going to be, “What would you say is your mission today, and what happened to change it?” But you say you still don’t have a mission.

I still look at music as a game, and I enjoy playing music and enjoy composing music. The next step I usually don’t think about, because I think good music is produced that way, when you are still enjoying the joy of music instead of looking at it as a career, as a job.

Sahba: I still look at music as a game, and I enjoy playing music and enjoy composing music. The next step I usually don’t think about, because I think good music is produced that way, when you are still enjoying the joy of music instead of looking at it as a career, as a job. And I’ve been lucky also throughout the way. I should mention this, that maybe this joy comes from privilege as well because I’ve been lucky that since I arrived in the U.S. and I started studying at the Conservatory of Music, I’ve been blessed with many commissions, I’ve been working, and my life has been provided basically through this job.

Pier Carlo: I want to go back to what you’re saying about how you think of music as a game and that you can’t think of it primarily as a career. How have you imparted that particular knowledge to the many students you’ve taught?

Sahba: [Laughing] I’m a very flexible teacher. I used to teach at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and after I started the Festival, I quit that job. I now just work as a freelance composer, but I also teach at the Baháʼí University now. I teach two classes on counterpoint and one orchestration. 

My classes are pretty flexible. We listen to music. I don’t grade students — and they love it — because I just hate giving numbers and alphabet letters to people and evaluate them that way. At the end of the day, I’m not providing much through the online means, but what I try to invoke in my teaching is just to be aware that at the end of the day, this is a way of living. It’s not the type of education that you can receive and immediately you graduate and you go find a job. The music solely should be enough; playing music and composing music in my opinion is a privilege.

Pier Carlo: Baháʼí University still takes place in people’s private homes in Tehran, is that correct?

Sahba: Actually for the last couple of years, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, now the university’s entirely online. They have several teachers from all around the world teaching, and I’ve been privileged enough to be teaching at this school and be in touch with such amazing students.

Pier Carlo: But Baháʼí students still can’t go get a higher education in Iran?

Sahba: They cannot, no. They still cannot. Since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Baháʼis have been systematically deprived of education and other social rights. The right to have a passport has been given to Baháʼís for the last 15 years or so. Before that, they were not able to even to get out of the country, and they had to be smuggled into the neighbor countries and then become refugees and come to the West. But now you can have a passport. Their marriages were not registered at that time; now they are registered. But the higher education situation still remains the same, and young people are systematically deprived of education.

Pier Carlo: Well, you mentioned the word refugee, which I think is a good segue into talking about your work on the Turkish border.

Sahba: Of course.

Pier Carlo: I wonder if you can describe how you came to the idea of the Flying Carpet Festival and how you developed it.

Sahba: All this started in 2018. Due to the political atmosphere in America at that time, I was feeling the need to do something more real than I was doing. That is relative, but at the time I was feeling that I was very much absorbed in the artistic community in the U.S., and I felt that a lot of that is out of touch with reality. I was just hearing about people losing their home — almost more than 20 million people have lost their home in Syria — and I was very much inspired to do something about this. I heard about this organization named Sirkhane or Her Yerde Sanat Derneği or Art Anywhere Association that was active in the southeast of Turkey.

During a trip that I took to Izmir when I was visiting my family in 2018, I took a one-day trip very hesitantly to this small city [Mardin]. It is in the Red Zone, and there are lots of conflicts happening because it’s a border city and it’s very close to the border of Syria and Turkey. The founders of the organization were kind enough to take this day off and showed me around the whole organization. They showed me the street centers they had at the time. This was a decision that was not really made by me at the time. It was inevitable actually to accept to do something I wanted to be part of.

They were originally looking for a music instructor, but when we met, they talked to me about this idea of a festival. They’d been running several festivals before — music festivals, circus festivals — and they wanted to combine that, consolidate that into one festival. On the same day, that night, with one of the founders of the organization, Pinar Demiral, we sat together and we wrote an application for a grant from the U.S. Consulate in Adana. This was a grant competition, and our Flying Carpet Festival won that competition, in fact, and we received the grant to initiate this project in the city of Mardin and the surrounding cities.

Pier Carlo: So this was in 2018. You’ve had how many festivals since?

Sahba: We’ve had three festivals. In 2020, due to the COVID restrictions, we were unable to have any public gathering in that part of the world. Basically the last year was 2021; I just came from it. It was in October, between October 1st and October 10th.

Pier Carlo: How do you think your artistry, your artist spirit, informs your philanthropic work? 

Sahba: In fact, I have to tell you that I don’t really call it philanthropic work. I call it social work, and I think in fact it is part of my artistry. My music is very much informed by political and social dilemmas in the world and conflicts all over, both in Iran and the other countries that I’ve encountered. 

Pier Carlo: Was this always the case?

Sahba: It was the case. Back in 2017, for example, I composed a piece, a 25-minute choral piece, for Kronos Quartet and San Francisco Girls Chorus. We collaborated with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music children’s choir. The Institute is the first music school ever founded in Afghanistan; it was founded in 2010. I also created other pieces regarding women’s voices in Iran because women are systematically deprived of singing in public. So I collaborated over three pieces. I collaborated with several singers in Iran, and either it was performed by Kronos Quartet or we performed with other ensembles.

This is something that I cannot separate myself from. I am a child of revolution. ... This is in fact not a choice but something that I am born with.

This is something that I cannot separate myself from. I am a child of revolution. I was raised right after the revolution in the 1980s, when Iranian society was as at its most ideological point in history. In the Baháʼí community in the political realm of Iran at that time, we were constantly exposed to incidents happening, and these incidents always informed my pieces and my music along the way. 

This is in fact not a choice but something that I am born with.

Pier Carlo: If you don’t mind me asking, what do you mean by incidents?

Sahba: Well, for example, coming from a Baháʼí family, many of my father’s friends, they’ve been either jailed or executed. I grew up with a large number of friends, family friends, that none of them had a father, and my father was a father to them because of the friendship that he had with their fathers. I grew up around them. So the pain they were enduring was part of my life as well. I remember as a child when we would go to their houses, my mother would advise me not to hug my father too much because all these children were deprived of that privilege that I had. So even as a child, I had to always be considerate and be sensitive to their emotions and what happened in their lives.

Pier Carlo: How has working with and teaching refugee children at the Flying Carpet Music Festival impacted your art?

Sahba: In many ways, it brought me more to the performance side of music, which I love very much. Before that, I was mostly involved with creating music and creating PDF files and sending them to people, but now I’m very much performing in every Festival. 

Also, on a parallel level, I have basically created this school of thought in that festival around improvisation. This came out of need, because the artists that we bring there and the logistics and everything dictate that we don’t have much time in order to prepare for the festival. So performance should rely on improvisation a lot. I usually hold, for example, a two-day rehearsal in which we mostly meditate together and I teach improvisation to Western musicians who have extraordinary skills in performing but they cannot improvise that much. This is something that I vividly see that has impacted my work. 

I had also the privilege of meeting a lot of local musicians in the Mardin area. This area is one of the most ancient areas in the world. I’ve been privileged to be working with a lot of, for example, Dengbêj singers, who come from this Kurdish tradition of singing that is called Dengbêj. They’re basically troubadours. They travel from one part of the region to another, and they sing Kurdish songs which include stories inside of them.

Definitely this project has exposed me to a different array of musicians, and I’ve been privileged enough to be working with them, leading a chamber or orchestra with them. It’s funny; the local musicians we work with mostly perform by heart, and so it’s happened in the middle of the performance that the singer would start to sing a completely other song that we have never rehearsed and we have to adjust right in that moment and start playing with him. So this way of spontaneous response to music is something that I can tell you has been invoked by this festival and this project.

Pier Carlo: So a lot of the Western musicians who come to the Festival basically have to learn this skill, it sounds like.

Sahba: It does, but in fact it’s not a skill. I would call it more of a spiritual liberation. Because they’re already amazing performers; they already have a strong intuition, strong musicianship. They are simply afraid of improvisation. I release something in them so that they are then inclined to respond musically and by heart, so separating a little bit, taking a break a little bit from the music of the mind and bringing themselves back to music of the heart, which I think is a joyful event in any musician’s life.

Pier Carlo: That reminds me of what you said early on, that for you, music is inherently playful, that it has to be a game.

Sahba: Definitely.

Pier Carlo: And because Sirkhane is a circus school and inherently playful too, I love that you’ve fit your music within the structure of a circus.

Sahba: Absolutely. And that’s why I don’t actually see this activity as a philanthropic activity. I know that it has that kind of effect on the people that watch it from outside, but the fact is that I really, really enjoy working at Sirkhane and performing with them. So even after the Festival this year, they had 10 days of performing with their Galaxy Bus, which is a portable circus-performance bus that they take to the most remote villages, and I just improvised music with them. That’s also what I did in 2018 when I arrived in Mardin and we did around 90 performances at different schools in the most deprived part of the southeast of Turkey. Just the children’s joy and the way that they feel about the music and how they scream really feeds me spiritually. 

I’m also there for something, in fact. This brings a lot of joy into my own music, a lot of release into my own music, the ability to look at music beyond genre. That was definitely something that was provoked by this festival and by this circus school.

Pier Carlo: What are your hopes for the students you’re teaching at Baha’i University? What do you think is their prospects as Iranian musicians?

I think the musical education is in fact part of a spiritual education, and I feel these students, they should really strengthen that part of themselves, no matter where they’re going to end up.

Sahba: I’m not really huge about them leaving Iran and emigrating to another country, in spite of the fact that that’s something they’re constantly advised to do. I think that people should live a musical life, no matter what they end up with. Because even at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I can say a large percentage of the students after graduating, they’re not musicians anymore. They work in offices, and they work in administration. They have other jobs. I think the musical education is in fact part of a spiritual education, and I feel these students, they should really strengthen that part of themselves, no matter where they’re going to end up. 

Of course, if they want to study music further, they have to get out of Iran — that is an inevitable fact — but I don’t necessarily encourage them to do that. I still believe in this day and age, with the emergence of digital media and everything, anyone can be anywhere and they can still produce amazing material.

Pier Carlo: I love what you just said, that many of your students don’t go into music but their musical training gives them a spiritual footing in a way. Are there other teachers who share that teaching, or are you the only one? Because I feel like conservatories really train young students to be professionals and if they don’t "make it," they’re failures. It seems like there’s an alternative here.

Sahba: I think that’s a very American way of looking at music. In that sense, every music school in the country is a scam because there is no prospective job waiting for these students. The fact that such students with such skills come out of schools and they feel like failures, I think that’s something to be discussed academically, but institutions today, I don’t think they have the time to do that. They are mostly concerned about creating almost an imaginary image of a prospect and a career for students that really does not exist. Classical music is at a very vain point, and there are certain reasons for that. 

Flying Carpet was in fact partially for students who feel that way, the young people who come out of conservatories or music schools here in the U.S. and they feel that if they don’t get a job at some symphony that they might hate later, they are a failure. And that’s just not right to me. Because many of my friends who are employed and hired by these orchestras, they have to sit all day on a chair and play some music that they might not like, and they do that for decades, just because of the security. 

It’s also the same about academic jobs. I myself am not really interested in an academic career because of that, because I don’t think that a musician should come out of school and start teaching the same thing that he has been taught to other students immediately. I don’t think they’re ready for that. But it seems like the job market is going that way. As a composer, I was expected to get a DMA [Doctor of Musical Arts] and be immediately applying for academic jobs, and that’s something I was not interested in. I was just simply not interested in it. I love interacting with people, I love the impact that music has on normal people, and I wanted to observe that throughout my career.

Pier Carlo: In this podcast we really like to talk a lot about reinventing systems that no longer work in the arts. I think one system you brought up is an educational system that is teaching students to look forward to a career that may no longer exist. If you could create your own music school, let’s say a Flying Carpet School for gifted musical students here in America, what would it look like? What would it primarily teach other than music?

Sahba: First of all, I would love them to be exposed to every genre of music and music from other parts of the world. That is, I think, the first issue: that music schools mainly concentrate on the music from six Western European countries. That is an old phenomenon. It needs to change and will change at some point, but now doesn’t seem to be the time. But the fact is that the music coming from every culture should be as precious to them as is classical music to Western civilization. There are advantage points to every type of music that exists in the world right now.

For example, in classical music I teach counterpoint. I’m very aware that counterpoint has been always a skill that a classical Western musician can be proud of and the more efficient and the more proficient they become, the music sounds more elaborate. It’s an achievement for Western classical music. But in fact, this is just one perspective of looking at music out of thousands of ways.

I feel that music exists because of melodies and melodies are in fact stories from the past that are being passed to us. We are obligated to embed them and promote them because they are the stories of other people from the past. We are just part of that past.

For example, in Iranian classical music there is so much emphasis on melody-making and improvisation on melodies. I personally believe strongly in melodies. I feel that music exists because of melodies and melodies are in fact stories from the past that are being passed to us. We are obligated to embed them and promote them because they are the stories of other people from the past. We are just part of that past. So I feel that, for example, this is one way of looking at music. In Iranian music, there is so much emphasis on melodies, being able to improvise on a small motif or a small portion of a melody for hours. That is a skill that definitely doesn’t exist and is not encouraged in the classical-music scene or the classical-music school.

As a nation we are made out of several cultures, hundreds of cultures and hundreds of different ways of looking at music. Why are we so concerned about these five countries? This is something I still don’t understand. I think an American music school can be very different from a European music school, because they have a tradition to be told and they have a tradition to uphold. But the fact is that for us, we can continue and we can expand to other types of music. 

It’s an idealistic idea, but for example, why doesn’t a symphony where classical music is being performed include classical music from every country in the world? Why should it be just five European countries that we are so much focused on? I think these are just colonial effects that have remained from the old times and no one has thought of changing them because they are so strong. 

In a society like ours that is so diverse and there is so little support for music, for serious music, for art music, I think we should expand to the music of other nations. This would bring a lot of support from other communities that have lived and existed in this country for centuries, some of them.

Pier Carlo: You’ve been making music in the States for 15 years now? You moved here in 2006, is that right?

Sahba: Yes.

Pier Carlo: As you survey the musical landscape in America today — and you’re well versed in classical music since you collaborate with the Kronos Quartet and many other ensembles — what would you like to see change to ensure that musicians and composers like you can thrive here?

Sahba: I think first of all, it’s a change of mentality. I think the change comes from academia, first of all. We cannot expect students who come out of the current academia to think diversely about music. The fact is that the conservatory I went to, they didn’t even have a jazz program at the time. Jazz is solely an American type of music, and it was not taught in that school.

Pier Carlo: That’s true. It is American classical music, I think.

Sahba: It is, in fact. The fact is that anything American is connected to some weird social phenomenon and is avoided to some extent, and then we end up with European music that has very little to do with us. I think the change should come from academia. The students should be able to be curious. That’s something that should be encouraged, instead of being so much focused on details that even the composers didn’t pay attention to at the time when they were writing the music.

I think this extra attention can be diverted to other types of music, and they should not be looked at as foreign or as something that is not part of our cultural tapestry, because they are part of it. We have people from the Middle East living in this country, some of them for decades. I think their music should be celebrated and enjoyed. I’m not about just empowering and celebrating but also about enjoying music.

I personally think that many of the issues that exist today and people kind of divert towards social and political issues in music are in fact just curation decisions that have gone wrong. I think the fact that many of orchestras and symphonies are going bankrupt is due to these decisions. There’s this strong community that supports its own art, but they’re not even appreciated by normal people who are coming from that culture. 

I think by just expanding to different types of music and by starting to enjoy the aesthetics of other types of music … . For example, what are the theatrical forms behind opera that exist in the world? I know Iran has a long, long history. These are the cultures that we are talking about, and we consider them foreign. Some of them are thousands of years old. There is definitely something there to learn from, and there is definitely something interesting there. In terms of curation, I feel that every musical institution should be more diverse, should be paying more attention to other aesthetics rather than just classical music.

In fact, you mentioned Kronos Quartet, but I don’t think David Harrington of any of the members of Kronos Quartet would consider themselves as classical musicians.

Pier Carlo: Right. [Laughing] I take it back, I take it back!

Sahba: [Laughing] Exactly. And that’s what I love about them. I’ve enjoyed working with them so much, because the way they look at music, the way they look at Indian music or Iranian music or Schubert, is in fact very equal. It’s not because they’re politically correct, but it’s just because they pay attention to details and they try to keep their souls and their mind open to something new and something refreshing. What I’m trying to say here is that it has nothing to do with politics or social phenomenons that have been happening the last couple of years; I’m just saying that we should expand and experience more refreshing, diverse music.

Pier Carlo: Have you ever been tempted to curate your own event or even head your own institution here?

Sahba: I’ve been thinking about it recently. [He laughs.]

Pier Carlo: You have? Tell me!

Sahba: I can tell you, the Festival has been taking a lot of time, but the last four years I’ve been trying to establish something here. But we have to realize also that these institutions run mostly on endowments and large investments that have been made. It is first of all difficult to compete or bring anything to this pot for what I’m trying to create here, but I’ve been thinking about it.

I’ve been thinking how to first of all start from where people enjoy the music, that it should be something that appeals to the masses, that everyone would enjoy. I’m thinking of social programs. I’m thinking of how to curate my own type of music here, but this kind of endeavor needs support from existing institutions because they have almost all the means necessary to create such event.

Instead of curating, I’ve been composing the music that I love to hear. [He laughs.] It’s kind of narcissistic to say, but I think it’s true about every composer that they write the type of music they want to hear. I’ve been trying to do this. I’ve been trying to break any stereotypes that exist about an Iranian immigrant musician here. I’ve been trying to embed the [Iranian] culture more inside of the American culture and what already exists here.

I’m working on a long, long piece right now, almost 50 minutes, about Rumi. The piece is commissioned by a choir, Verdigris Ensemble in Dallas. I took that as an amazing opportunity because we are working in a part of the country that is in need of this kind of diversity and culture and I’m trying to bring both the English translation and the original words of Rumi into this area. I think poetry is the way to reconcile and bring people together and gather them around an individual idea.

Pier Carlo: I was going to ask you what upcoming project you’re most excited about, but I think I just heard it!

Sahba: You got it. [He laughs.]

January 03, 2022