New Perspectives: An Interview With Siavash Amini

Siavash Amini’s work often has a cinematic element to it. The Iranian artist combines disparate sounds into cohesive, expansive worlds. It’s music that can transport listeners to different dimensions, evoking images of colossal landscapes and wells of deep emotion. On his new album, A Trail of Laughters, Amini explores the darkness within his unconscious mind, digging through repetitive distressing dreams to find meaning and solace. It’s a work with considerable depth and murky vistas, often shrouded in a wash of aural fog. Exploring countless sonic layers and unfamiliar tunings, Amini’s creations are singularly his and distinctly memorable. 

A Trail of Laughters is out now on CD and digital formats from Room 40. This interview was conducted through email in May and June.

How has the past year been for you?

In short, it was very difficult but full of music. Like many people, I lost a lot: people in my life, my main source of income, any semblance of financial security plus I had a breakdown which wasn’t unusual given all that happened in my life pre/during the pandemic and being bipolar. But I also managed to work on music constantly, read a lot, keep my sobriety, and most important of all be there for my loved ones.

I always like to learn about musicians’ early experiences with sound and music. So, what are some of your earliest memories of sounds that stuck out to you and stayed with you? 

The earliest sounds are thunderstorms. I grew up in a town in southern Iran. It has very hot and humid weather, mostly sunny but when it starts to rain, there are fierce thunderstorms and a lot of rain in a short amount of time. I used to get sick from stress when it rained, I was really scared of it, always looking to the sky to see if we’re going to have rain or not, the way those sounds made me feel still haunt me. We were discussing it with friends recently and they thought it might have something to do with the bombardments(Iran-Iraq war) during the first two years of my life.

And along with that, what was some of the first music that made a big impression on you? 

Three summers come to my mind from 4th grade onwards:

First was the year we got a new hi-fi: we used to come to Tehran for (some) summers as it got too hot to do anything in the south and there were no summer activities for kids. I remember that was the time that satellite TV was becoming a thing in Iran (very much illegal though). A relative of ours had MTV. I was blown away by Metallica that summer. Also, my father got a CD of 19th-century music called “Greatest Composers of the 19th Century” or something by an Iranian label. It had Smetana, Ravel, Bizet, etc. He bought the soundtrack to Kozintsev’s Hamlet on tape as well. I loved them, especially the part where the ghost of the father visits Hamlet. I thought it was very metal. 

A year after that summer I watched the Delicate Sound of Thunder on laserdisc with my cousin and with sound coming out of a huge hi-fi, it felt like being there. To this day nothing beats the crisp sound of the music I heard that day. I still have the VHS rip of that laserdisc. I watched it a crazy amount of times. It always felt like a spaceship landed in our living room every time I put it on.

By the time I was in the 6th grade I was very much into prog, metal, hard rock and a lot of pop music, I thought I knew my shit until I played Silent Hill on Playstation, It was another world every track is etched in my mind, the sound design as well, I didn’t know this type of mysterious sadness existed up until then and when I found out about it I couldn’t let go, me and two of my friends used to measure everything in terms of “can it exist in Silent Hill?” I still do that.

How did those early experiences lead you to wanting/needing to create your own music and sound? 

Silent Hill had an impact along with a few books; Buñuel’s memoirs being the most important one. I still use his advice and techniques. I started writing first; I wanted to create worlds, bring images to paper, a lot of teenage angst went into it as well. I always wanted to be a screenwriter and a director. Making music came as an opportunity later when a music shop in our town brought a Yamaha eg112. I got very good grades that year and since I went to that shop’s window and stared at it for months, my parents bought it for me. Then slowly my interest shifted towards making music. 

Your new record, A Trail of Laughters, is a deep, heavy listen, which makes sense considering it’s about distressing dreams you were having. How difficult was it to make this record? I mean, in the sense of putting yourself in that headspace where you’re spending a lot of time with these difficult experiences and translating them to sound, I imagine that’s got to take a bit of a toll…

It does but it helps me deal with them in a non-destructive way. My music-making has always been about going through my thoughts and emotions without getting overloaded, too depressed, or paralyzed. I won’t say it’s therapy because it’s not, but it really helps. It’s me thinking, using parts of my mind that I feel safer with. I have had trouble dealing with some of my issues on their own; this is where music comes in. I can think, I can create structures, I can build imaginary places I can walk into and then face the difficult thoughts. 

I can create structures; I can build imaginary places I can walk into and then face the difficult thoughts

Did exploring these dreams in this way give you a new or different perspective on their meanings or anything like that? 

After a few weeks of working on them, I could revisit them from different perspectives, the most important for me was how communicating darkness, luminescence, and negation play an important role. For me, it was impossible to convey the darkness of the well without putting luminous objects of differing strength into view. Darkness works through negation in this album.

You also talk a bit about how you have always been interested in working outside systems suggested around 12 tone equal temperament and exploring other systems of tuning. Can you talk a little bit more about where your interest in working outside those systems comes from and how it worked within the context of this new album? 

I grew up (musically) in an environment of classical music rock, metal, jazz, and 20th-century minimalism which for the most part have strong roots in the 12 tone equal temperament, it gives things like harmonic movement or stasis meaning, as a consequence almost everything is predicated on the tuning system. It even affects orchestration and instrumentation techniques. 

I’ve always been interested in the works of people who stepped away from that system be it French spectralists or artists inspired by the folk music of different regions of the world which don’t use the 12 tone equal temperament. It is a big challenge for anyone who grows up in a tradition entirely based on this type of equal temperament.

I started reading about 12th century Islamic music theorists and their systems of tuning and composition in the last year of high school through a musicology and ethnomusicology journal in Farsi called Mahoor Music Quarterly and was fascinated by their mathematical precision and all-encompassing theories of music. At the time I had no way of experimenting with them to hear how they actually sounded. The real break came later, around 2005-06 I finally had software synthesizers that could load different tunings. Using scala and learning about the online community around it made it easier than ever to test out how each tuning sounded, Now the challenge was to extract bits and pieces of useful techniques for using each tuning, I wasn’t interested in the historic or ethnomusicological side of things for my own music I didn’t want to write entirely in a system from a certain culture, although reading about them in that light give things the much-needed context. 

I started developing personal techniques and making a tool kit of them. For this album I needed a certain resonance and muddiness in harmonies that happened naturally and was not made by sound processing, a kind of built-in murkiness, that’s how it started. I used a few old tetrachord divisions alongside very new ones (none of them by me by the way) . The trick was to get them to sound right together.

I like your description of using music as a vehicle to confront and deal with certain issues you are having and using music to create an imaginary space where you can work through those feelings and issues. It really ties into something I’ve thought a lot about recently and the power music and sound has to create these worlds, these moments that can not only be a form of escapism to take you somewhere new but also how it can do that for someone another world away and create connections that would never exist otherwise. With the new album, you were using your music to deal with these difficult dreams, but how do you hope listeners approach it and connect with it?

I hope, if it’s approached with enough patience, it can have the same function. I think listening carefully and composing have a lot in common especially on a level beyond technique. If you can commit yourself to carefully listening you might be able to think better about certain issues (no matter which, I don’t think artist’s beliefs about the subject come into play that much), or you’re able to construct certain worlds with much better clarity or at least a fresh perspective. I don’t think it would necessarily do that, but a lot of times that patience is rewarded. It happens to me when I listen to The Drift, for example, it conjures up so many feelings and images that I can’t bring up well on my own, those feelings put me in a certain headspace to think about issues that would have been grazed over if I was left to myself. My thoughts about those issues have had a lot of influence on me as a person each time. It’s about being open and patient. 

A totally different project you have coming out soon is a longform piece on Moving Furniture’s Orphax Reworked boxed set. How did you get involved in the project and what was it like working with the Orphax material to create a whole new piece?

I met Sietse at a very small but awesome show I played in a town called Heerlen. I loved how he curated his label before we met and he was a super nice person so we stayed in touch. He sent me the idea the next year, I loved it. I’m always for this collective takes on an individual’s work that is more thorough than remixes you know? 

It presented a challenge to me as I usually have some sort of harmonic material that I myself wrote and have a good idea how to develop, which didn’t exist here. I had to come up with a whole set of new ideas for it. This is one of the most technical of my works both in concept and execution. It’s architecture as music. 

What kind of community of artists and supports do you have where you are at?

I’m lucky enough to be a part of a collective of artists called SET. We also organize events and hold an annual festival. I also run SEDA (on hiatus for the time being because of COVID) – a sound art space/project with the wonderful folks of Emkan a gallery in Tehran, both the staff and the artists are among the most supportive people, we have collaborations often, like A Mimesis of Nothingness which was done on a suggestion by Behzad who runs Emkan, in collaboration with Nooshin, a fantastic photographer who is one of their mainstays.

What is next for you? 

I have some releases planned for the rest of 2021 and also 2022, a collaborative album with my friend SaffronKeira that’s coming on Denovali in late August.

For 2022 I have the most special plan, can’t reveal much but it’s 70+ minutes of music and it’s an interdisciplinary collaboration.

The rest are some commissions for dance, remixes, and an album I produced for a friend that will be released next year on Hallow Ground

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