Atefeh Einali- An Iranian Santoor Player and Composer finding her voice through musical fusion
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Atefeh Einali is a composer, santoor player and improvisor. She was born in Tehran, Iran, but moved to Manchester two years ago to complete a Masters in Instrumental and Vocal Composition at the University of Manchester. After graduating in 2019, she is now composing and teaching music in the city.
"When I decided to study abroad, I applied for a lot of universities, but the first one that I loved [was] Manchester. It’s this really multicultural city, and my job in composition, and also [my] santoor performance is fusion. I like fusion music."
Atefeh's Musical Life Story
Growing up in Iran, Atefeh began learning to play the santoor at age 12. Initially, her musical practice started and ended as a performer of traditional Iranian repertoire, but her musical experience at university was a formative moment in her identity as a musician.
"I started learning [the santoor] when I was 12 years old. And in that time I just tried to imitate the musicians, I just learned [from] them, but then I decided to go University, to Art University in Tehran. I decided to take a composition course. And that was my life, was the highlight, because after I learned a lot of things about the traditional music and classical music, I started to find my voice."
Whilst completing her Bachelors and Masters degree, Atefeh developed a growing interest in the combination and fusion of Iranian music with other musical traditions and cultures. As she continued her musical development and practice, she began to search further afield.
"When I finished my course, again after three years working and composing, I found, “okay I want to know more and more about other music and more about the content of foreign music.” Because we had a lot of studies, like courses about contemporary music in the Arts University, but it wasn't enough for me. So I decided to study abroad and came to Manchester."
Music-Making in Manchester
As a composer in both Tehran and Manchester, Atefeh found that the process of creating her music rarely differed between Iran and the UK. There was, however, far more variation in relation to playing her music, particularly as a female performer.
"There are specific restrictions for women to perform on stage in some cities, not all cities. For example, in Tehran it’s completely ok, but in other cities, no, they are not allowed to perform. And also women singers are not allowed to sing in all cities. But even in Tehran, where we have more freedom, it seems there are hidden restrictions. So, we have to cover everywhere, but when you are going to a performance, you have to- how do I say this- you have to cover even more."
Atefeh found that performing in Tehran, there were many connections and opportunities there, and the restrictions she faced as a female musician were more implicit than in other places in Iran- but they still impacted the momentum of her music-making.
"When I started learning music and composing and performing in Iran, I had lots of amazing teachers, I learnt a lot, I had lots of really amazing friends to make a band- I had a band in Iran. But the disappointing part was that there was a lot of restrictions for women, and that was really bad. I fought a lot to get my voice, I had performances, I studied, I did everything, but it was tiring, because for every concert, for every performance, you had to negotiate with other people, just because you are a woman. That’s really restricted. But here, I can use my energy for just improving my knowledge- I don’t need to fight to get my right for performing, you know what I mean? That’s the biggest difference between these two countries. Otherwise, I think courses, teachers are amazing there- They are working really hard to try to improve music there, but there are lot of barriers, especially for women."
Atefeh also found the variety and diversity of Manchester’s music scene enabled her development and exploration of fusion music. She often considers the role of fusion music versus traditional performance practices, and wonders about the impact of technology and the nature of living in 2020.
"My problem was that I couldn’t find more musicians in different genres. In Iran, we don’t have a lot of diversity, that is one of our problems. Iranian musicians are really good, but they’re mostly playing Iranian instruments or Western instruments, and the Iranian instruments are much more than the Western part. So you can’t find more opportunities to collaborate with different music genres, that was one of my problems there."
"I think that doing exactly the tradition doesn’t work now, in this year 2020… Maybe in the past it worked, but not now. Because now we are really engaged with technology- the tradition is better for that kind of life without technology, if you know what I mean. So with this kind of technology, virtual life, faster speed of life, that’s why it doesn’t work!" [laughs]
Finding a Voice Through Musical Fusion
Atefeh has forged connections in Manchester with players from a variety of musical cultures, and has found opportunities to develop her compositional styles that she may feels she may not have found in other cities. She finds that her collaborative musical interests are not limited to any particular musical genre.
"I think “OK, this is a really good area to find other musicians with other backgrounds”, because I'm interested in learning other music genres and then trying to combine them together with my background. So, when I came here to Manchester, I tried to find and collaborate with the other musicians, with other culture and that's a really good point in Manchester. I found Indian musicians, Jewish, British, and that diversity is amazing."
"Ah, I'm trying to expand and learn any music genres. For example, I had the opportunity to write for sitar- Indian music- last six months. And then also I had the opportunity to play with electronic sounds- that one was really interesting for me! I'm not looking for a specific music. I'm trying to use my tradition, my background, to have a new voice and collaborate with new artists, new musicians to have a unique atmosphere."
Atefeh sees her composition and performance as a vehicle for self-expression, and as a method for sharing her voice with her audiences. For her, fusion music plays an important role in connecting with collaborators, musicians and audiences alike.
"My main purpose is to turn my thoughts and feelings to people by music. This is the first purpose but maybe even when I started the music. Sometimes I feel that words cannot be really helpful to say my feelings, so music is really helpful. And also, I'm really interested in connection between people, to spread kindness, love, and that's why I think fusion is really helpful."
Teaching Iranian Music in Manchester
In addition to her own composition and performance, Atefeh also teaches in a variety of musical forms; she began teaching music in Iran, and has continued in Manchester in an Iranian music academy in the Southeast of the city. She teaches both Iranian santoor performance and music theory, as well as piano and theory in the Western Classical tradition, and in this correspondence between the two, Atefeh has encountered more challenges in teaching Iranian musical styles to pupils in the UK:
"The first thing is because I am also a music teacher, and I spent like ten years learning oral tradition of classical music in Iran…. [I teach] music composition, chords, music theory, piano, an intermediate part. Yeah, I have this kind of teaching as well. But I’ve found teaching Iranian traditions much more hard."
"I can understand how it can be really hard to just listen to the teacher and copy and imitate everything that we have. Especially in this kind of music, because we have a notation but we learn a lot of things by ear. So it takes a lot of time and effort to learn that. And I can see the young generation, maybe are not really patient [laughs] to learn all those. And as a musician, as a teacher, as a composer, I'm really interested to make these kinds of music a bit interesting for them."
As a seasoned reader and performer of Iranian notation, Atefeh is quick to point out the challenges that her British pupils and collaborators face due to its complexity of metre, tempo and phrasing:
"…You know I have a band, a duo with my friend who plays flute- we try to play a lot of Iranian music, and I gave her the notation, but it was confusing for her. She couldn’t find the rhythm, or even the sonority, or the phrase with the notation."
"So we write this kind of music with Western notation, and we use quaver, crotchet, semiquaver, but that quaver, crotchet, it doesn’t make sense in that concept, because there is no metre, no tempo. It’s completely free. We just use crotchets to show this note should be a bit longer, or we have a semiquaver for showing that this note is really fast, but how much, how long, is not clear. We have to listen to traditional music, and how long, for example, they stay on this chord change, and try to copy that. But after a while, you get used to that notation, but when someone else out of this concept wants to read this notation, it’s going to be really hard for them. I think if you write a letter description, maybe in a programme note or even underneath, it could be helpful. Because we even don’t have a dynamic gesture for our phrases, but we play with dynamics a lot when we improvise. So I think we need more words to solve this problem [laughs]".
Atefeh’s immersion in fusion music also extends to her teaching- she feels that fusion and collaboration bring a form of accessibility to these challenges of Iranian musical learning.
"I have a student here - he was born in Manchester but he has an Iranian mother and father, but he doesn't know anything about this tradition. He is interested in santoor because I tried to introduce this instrument in a new way. That's why I try to experiment everything with santoor, and make it a bit amazing, a bit new, to give them more attention from the young generation. Because it's so sad- they are not gonna continue this way just because this is really old or this is really hard. I want to tell them, ‘No, it's not that kind of picture. We can change it.’ "
Atefeh's Hopes for the Future
Fusion music, and the fusion of performance artforms, are endemic to Atefeh’s musical visions for the future. Her musical aspirations span many different genres, as do her interests in the presentation and performances of her music, and she hopes that she will be able to reach as many different audiences as possible:
"I’m really interested in doing a performance with santoor and live electronics, I’m exploring these new things. So live electronics, or if I could find some people to do visual art… Yeah, I’m really thinking of [collaborating with] some other artists, some visual artists in this kind of performance. It’s going to be really helpful to show this tradition more clearly, I think. For example a painter, or a dancer... If I can find more performance venues, different venues with different audiences, it might be helpful to find to find more audiences I think."
"I would prefer to have my music for all people- I really like to have more and more audiences in other genres in music, for them to just listen to my music even for one time, to see what I want to say. I’m not looking for a particular audience… But for the future, I think we should go a bit further, and make more fusion [laughs] to get more audience."
Atefeh feels that she has begun the process of finding her voice through her musical practices in the city, and is excited to develop her musical career further in Manchester.
"Yes, I think I have a voice. Especially after graduation, I think I found other musicians and other collaborations. I’m optimistic to find my voice in future! [laughs]"
"I want to stay in [Manchester, the UK]- until the end of my life maybe!"
Improvisation for Left Hand (see video)
As part of her compositional and improvisational practice, Atefeh experiments with new techniques for santoor. In this Improvisation for Left Hand, she explores a new technique she has developed that she has named ‘Sticky Left Hand’, which can be seen particularly approx. two minutes into the video; here, she keeps her left hand stable and beating one string as a pedal note, whilst her right hand moves around the santoor, sometimes crossing her hands over in a technique that is not typically seen within santoor performance.
"Personally I also try to invent new extended techniques, and try to [create a] combination between all genres. [Laughs] I couldn't find the same as me!"
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Atefeh Einali- An Iranian Santoor Player and Composer finding her voice through musical fusion
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