This Saturday 18 May LSO Jerwood Composer+ Amir Konjani presents To Be Someone Else is a Battle at LSO St Luke's, his first event of the 16-month LSO Jerwood Composer+ Scheme. In this article, Amir shares his thoughts on art, artists and what we might expect from this immersive and contemporary experience.
Becoming part of the London Symphony Orchestra family is such a privilege. When I was a child in my home country of Iran, I used to close my eyes and conduct the LSO in my mind. A video of Sir George Solti conducting Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra changed everything for me. After watching that video (which I received as a birthday present), I promised myself that I’d attempt to become a musician.
It didn't take too long for me to understand that there was a competition in my mind between being a composer, playing the piano, conducting and what I’ll call ‘situation-making’. With only so much time available, I decided to focus, to stop my piano lessons and to focus on composition. That was the winning path for a long time. But when I became a student at Trinity Laban, my tutor Dominic Murcott changed everything, and I discovered the precept that has guided me since. I am not purely a musician, a composer or a conductor, I am a situation maker!
That is to say, that my focus is much broader. I design performances holistically. I compose, I conduct and I direct. This approach comes with challenges and dangers of course, one needs to dedicate a great deal of time to becoming fluent in every aspect. Now, the LSO are supporting me to explore this kind of path. It has many fears but they are allowing me to do my best and push the boundaries.
The Hungarian painter László Moholy-Nagy talks about the same thing, I think, in his concept of the ‘whole person’. This belief proposes that each person is able to do everything that any other person can do, but that circumstances often dictate that we become specialists rather than ‘whole people’.
The idea closely resembles what we might imagine early humans were. The primitive human, combined in one person hunter, craftsman, builder and so on, but yet today we concern ourselves only with one definite occupation, leaving unused all other faculties. Moholy-Nagy stresses that a contemporary artist today needs to be a ‘whole person’ and that’s what I’m striving for.
The last fifteen years of my life have been spend studying, working hard and learning – not just about art and music, but about the world. I believe that part of an artist's job is to be a mirror of their society and in so being, convert the dead, empty spaces of our concert halls and other venues from museums, even mausoleums, to living spaces.
The concepts which we’ll see this Saturday 18 May started in my mind two years ago. I began to question, was there anything I could change about contemporary classical music, and if so, what would it be?
About eight years ago, I tried to design performances and performance art using contemporary music as a foundation. Although these works had many social-political messages, the musical basis worked, and from that time I started to try new situations and seize new opportunities for creativity.
This performance is of the same sort. It is divided into two paths. The first is a musical path and the second, performance design. I compose music which quietly protests issues in concert music and other grand or official occasions. When the film for which I had written the score won an Oscar, I avoided the auspicious ceremony in protest of Donald Trump's travel ban, which barred entry to many from my home country of Iran.
The Soveida Harp
My previous work had already established a mechanism for what I call Shadowing. In this method, instruments are linked together using springs and so resonate in sympathy with one another. I had done this before with a cello and piano and I felt that it might be possible to utilise the same mechanism within a single instrument so that different parts of its body would resonate with others.
So I designed this, the soveida harp, which was inspired by images of lilies, rib cages and an ancient Persian form of the harp called a Chang. One advantage of this design was that I could make each string/lever separate notes meaning, one could play Bb and B natural at the same time in different octaves. The harp projects most of its notes through its wide tentacles, spatializing the field of sound so as to produce a kind of stereo.
I describe it as a performing sculpture, an idea which is related to, but very different from Nam June Paik’s ideas. For example, the bisbigliando technique for this Soveida harp instrument not only provides the usual special effect, but the audience can also hear the left-right stereophonic effect properly.
The Graphic Score
As you can see below, the musical score for this performance is represented graphically on a large carpet, laid out in the centre of the room. Each musician plays the section of music under their feet, as they step from one note to another, walking through the score.
There are four zones: Left: violin 2 Right: violin 1, Middle: viola
Behind the carpet: cello (‘Kraken Cello’).
While I indicate the dynamics specifically for each line in my score, the enunciation of each player’s part will be variable. Members of the audience will also receive different dynamics based on how far they are from the individual performers, and whether they are facing the audience or standing at an angle.
The Concept of Performing Sculpture
Gentleness, simultaneous acts, an audience free to move and an all-around presentation all formed part of this design. It works exactly like Alexander Calder’s work. Where he uses shadow and light, I use music. He describes his pieces a though they were like theatre in the round. and I convert the performers to ‘living sculptures’, viewable from each and every angle.
My Previous Work
Experience To Be Someone Else is a Battle at LSO St Luke's on Saturday 18 May at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. Entry is free, no ticket required. Find out more
This event is part of Sound Unbound, a free festival of unexpected music in unexpected places. Find out more
LSO Jerwood Composer+ is generously supported by Jerwood Arts.
This event is additionally supported by Abbasi Chang, Bow brand, UK Harp Association, Sam Scaffolding, Iran Heritage, Royal Northern College of Music, Frank Fakhim, Pegah Mazaheri and Ali Hosseinian