Rojin Sharafi is a sound artist and composer of acoustic, electro-acoustic, and electronic music. Her music crosses borders of different genres and keenly grabs from many musical buckets such as noise, folk, ambient, metal, and contemporary music. She was awarded the 2018 Austrian female Composers prize at the Wien Modern Festival. Rojin Sharafi is academically pursuing her Masters degree in sound engineering and composition at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna where she is delving deeper into the research of digital music performance.
How have you been in the last two months during this strange time that we’ve been experiencing?
Part of me was gratified to have more free time, to be at ease with finishing work, to have short to-do lists, and fewer deadlines.
I was happy that I could go deep into my thoughts and resurface old ideas, spend time with myself, enjoy music and start new collaborations. I had missed the feeling of spending quality time with myself.
The other part of me was disappointed that lots of gigs and projects got cancelled or postponed. I also missed my friends and family.
People experience pandemic differently depending on the countries they live in, their socioeconomic class, race, etc. As we know, freelancers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the society. That’s why I think it’s important to find sustainable and long-term approaches to support our music ecosystem and to prepare ourselves for situations like this one.
You left Tehran for Vienna to study music at the age of 17. What led to this decision and what sort of milieu/community were you growing up in?
I was fascinated by the abstraction of music as a kid, which is why I decided to study music in Vienna. I was also interested in cinema, literature and theatre. I found it intriguing to make narrative music, which is still abstract and has a detailed composition in its form and texture. I started to experiment and improvise with different musical instruments, and to elaborate on their sounds, performance techniques etc. It was a period of awakening. I also started to compose and improvise experimental acoustic music. I used to listen to rock, metal, jazz and contemporary classical music regularly, whereas electronic music entered my life later. When I was 17 and living in Vienna, I started to go to techno clubs and danced to techno music. I remember I was fascinated by details of the sound and techno’s delicate transitions. I started to search for a more experimental techno music, and I automatically entered the world of electronic music.
I’m very interested in a work that engages different senses, interacts with the audience, changes strategies, and is very unpredictable. I like to build textures out of unusual layers. I like to combine different elements to build a sound that is very detailed and complex, yet is easy to connect with and to process; you don’t know where it’s going to lead you.
You are studying both composition and sound engineering at a music academy in Vienna. One is presumed to be a rather artistic, creative field, the other more technical. How do these two disciplines intertwine in your work?
Interestingly, I find the intertwine of these two disciplines very fascinating. For example, you can make a concept for a multichannel sound system in a space and perform your music controlled by a motion sensor simultaneously.
I learnt a lot from both studies. Sometimes I think I could develop two different sensitive ears: one which is focused on the quality of sounds, timbre, frequencies, intonation, and rhythm, and the other which is more focused on the form, texture and layers of sound.
I think they both helped me to have a better understanding of space, acoustics and instruments. In sound engineering, you learn, for example, how to develop concepts for recording an orchestra, analyse different interpretations of a piece, or to set up live sound for a band. I could use this knowledge for my own music to work on very fine details of sound.
Additionally, for sound engineering, you need to know a wide variety of music from different genres and eras to be able to record and mix them. I can see those influences on my music.
It helped me to fearlessly experiment with electronics, gear, and analogue and digital devices. I built my own speaker and amplifier as I started to study sound engineering. I enjoy both the technical and the programming side of music, as well as the creative and the performance aspects of it.
How important is interdisciplinarity in your work – a rapport with other artistic fields like cinema, performance, art?
Many of my works are based on approaches in other artistic fields. For example, I try to elaborate on the form of a film and see how is it possible to compose a shorter piece using a similar form, or I try to use the montage techniques in making music. Similarly, I ask myself how can I use the concept of breaking the fourth wall in a music piece! I find these bridges between different disciplines intriguing. Concurrently, I’m a very visual person, and images stay long in my memory. At some point, I would like to hear those images, so I start to imagine myself in specific locations and try to reach what I like to hear there!
I’m very interested in collaborating with other artists. I find the dialogues that arise during the process of making a specific piece very inspiring. I’ve learnt a lot from entering the worlds of other artists or letting them enter my world.
I try to have the same approach to my live performances. They are about experiencing a concept together. I work as much on the concept as I do on the composition of the music; they develop side by side.
I like to reverse and focus the spotlight from the artist to the audience. Each audience has their own perception of what’s happening on stage, and I like to leave the doors open for different interpretations and observations. In my opinion, a big part of reality (if I’m allowed to use this word) is not happening on stage, but in the way it is perceived by different individuals. In this context I see myself as audience, too. Additionally, I’m very interested in the idea of a ‘show.’ I really like to create a specific space and to invent a unique path of time with my music.
Your sound is abstract, but you also use traditional samples (though processed and contextualised). Apparently you used to collect ancient and folk music from different regions, especially from Iran. Could you talk about your relationship with Iranian music as such?
Cultures are like stones; they contain time, variety and change. They are complex. I find especially cultures that are underrepresented in the mainstream musical milieu and rituals and traditions that are old, raw, and unspoken fascinating. I think in each country both traditional and folk music exist together. In my opinion, folk music is much more interesting because it’s very contemporary and intuitive.
I am amazed by how different are the music scales and systems in each region in Iran. Sometimes these microtonal scales and complex rhythms and melodies are very surprising. I try to write them down and use them in an appropriate context.
Your last album Urns Waiting To Be Fed appeared on Zabte Sote, a label curated by Ata Ebtekar (Sote) that focuses on contemporary Iranian experimental electronic scene. How do you view this scene (from distance) and was there perhaps a momentum that led to the growth of this scene?
I think the scene is growing everyday, and it’s very important to have platforms that present and reflect the movements and innovations of the scene. Besides that, due to the sanctions against Iran and government laws, it is very difficult to establish a label.
Zabte Sote was an absolute necessity, and I’m very glad that Ata Sote Ebtekar started this label. Equally, SET experimental art events is an amazing organisation, which I admire for their curation.
I find Iranian electronic music community creative, capable, and diverse. It feels like a family to me.
Urns Waiting To Be Fed. What does the title of your record mean?
I was inspired by long-form literature – Shahnameh – and formalistic cinema of Tati, Carax and Dumont. Folklore elements and micro-tonality of traditional instruments mingle with synthesizers and electronic defamiliarised sounds; electronic elements which sound acoustic and acoustic elements, which sound electronic. The origin of sounds varies, but the sounds form their own village and history together.
Are the urns going to be fed with water, bones and ashes? Where are the ashes? Ashes of myths and humans and water of the stream. Does it have a symbolic image of filling the urn from the river? While Barrel of Monkeys is floating on the stream? What an image! We shake our hands saying Sayonara to them. They laugh and turn into Darwinian Demons.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’m working on a new music video, two sound design projects, and two albums that are almost finished. One of them is electronic music with poems written and narrated by me, and the other is a concept album, which is more rhythmic and harmonic compared to my debut. I can’t wait to release them! I’m also working on a multi-channel music piece that is planned to be performed at Dom In Berg in Graz at Musikprotokoll festival.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Igor Ripak