It’s impossible to know the paths our lives will take that lead us to the spaces we end up inhabiting, but for Maryam Sirvan it’s been quite the journey. Born and raised in Iran, even though music was something she felt passionate about, it wasn’t considered a real option. After years of working as a lawyer, she left the profession to focus on her music. Along with her partner, Milad Bagheri (the two perform together as NUM), Sirvan recently relocated to Calgary and released her heftiest statement yet, Feast On My Body, on Flag Day Recordings.
This interview was conducted in October and November. Feast On My Body is out now.
So how have you been doing the last 18 months and what has been helping you get through these strange, sometimes bleak times?
It’s been a very difficult time for me mentally (I feel like something inside me has been broken after Covid and it’s not fixable that easily). As you might know, besides my solo projects I’m also one half of the duo NUM with my partner Milad. We’ve been making music together for many years. Before the pandemic, we had many shows and live performances we could rely on financially, but we just lost all of them after that like many other musicians. Also, moving to Canada and all the paperwork and the tough process of getting a visa (maybe not tough for other nationalities of course but not easy for us as Iranians!!) happened during the past 18 months, so honestly, it’s been mostly some extremely stressful days with some short relieving intervals with the help of music and our good friends!
Going way, way back… what are some of your earliest memories when it comes to sound? Whether it’s a song or album, or some environmental sound from when you were a child that has stuck with you and really made you notice sound in a different way…
Well, music has always been an inseparable part of my life. I used to sing along with everything that was playing in our home when I was a little kid. Mostly it was Iranian pop songs that my parents and brother used to listen to at the time.
My earliest memory is of myself sitting in a corner and singing a song quietly in a high-pitched voice. My first performances happened, kind of, in our family gatherings where I used to perform Iranian songs and was encouraged enough to start to think maybe that’s what I want to do with my life!
That’s great that you were encouraged with your singing and music at an early age. How did you start pursuing those interests early on, especially considering the restrictions on women and singing and everything in Iran?
Although I was encouraged with my singing in my family, unfortunately like in many other families, I was always told that music wouldn’t be an appropriate career for me money-wise, so I continued attending some private music and vocal courses besides having my regular studies in school and university (I’ve studied Law! in the university and I was a lawyer for years In Iran before I left it to focus only on music!). But mostly I consider myself a self-taught musician. All I have learned in music, so far, has been through experimenting and hard work.
Is your family still supportive of your work and creative practice?
To be honest, they really don’t know what I’m doing in music, and I guess my music sounds weird to them, but they still try to be supportive of my musical practices. I have this feeling that they still prefer to see me as a lawyer and not as someone who makes strange music!
You recently moved to Calgary, right? I think I read that a few days ago (and mistakenly said you were still Tbilisi-based in my review, whoops!). How’d you end up in Calgary? And how would you describe your connection to and experience in Tbilisi?
Yeah, I just moved to Calgary one and half months ago with my partner, Milad [Bagheri]. He’s studying for his master’s in music at the University of Calgary. I miss Tbilisi already. We lived there for nearly five years after leaving our home country in 2017. I never felt I was living far from home because it was only 800 km away from where I was living (North of Iran) and also culturally very similar. So it was like I was an expat and not an expat at the same time!
In what ways did Georgia shape and influence your creative practice through these last years?
The main reason we left our home country for Georgia was music. First of all, Milad was studying at the Tbilisi State Conservatory. More importantly, though, we wanted to have more freedom in what we were doing in music because of the so many ridiculous restrictions that exist for musicians, especially female musicians, in Iran. We had so many songs we couldn’t perform there simply because it is forbidden for women to sing there! (It is still mindblowing and surreal and of course sad that this is a part of the reality there)
Also, we couldn’t find many people with a similar musical taste as ours (I think the political and economic situation in Iran has left little-to-no space for art. Because of the tough living situations people have less and less time and energy for caring about art, and the Islamic regime doesn’t care about music and art at all and will do anything to not let you do that!), but living in Georgia gave us so many opportunities to perform and meet many great musicians we could collaborate with or just simply enjoy their music.
We felt less anxious than the time we were living in Iran and as a result of that, we could focus more and better on our compositions and performances. I composed my first electroacoustic piece after attending Reso Kiknadze’s (professor and ex-rector of Tbilisi State Conservatory) Electroacoustic Composition courses at Tbilisi State Conservatory. I am eternally grateful for his inspiring and fruitful classes and all the encouragement I received from him that changed my approach in composition and musical taste. It gave me the courage to explore the electroacoustic path more and more.
How much has the current environment influenced the sounds and compositions on Feast On My Body?
Well, Feast On My Body is completely recorded and produced in Georgia. I guess the main influential element of this record is the anxiety I’ve felt nearly all the time in my life which has been chasing me everywhere I go.
What is the story behind the album name? It’s such a visceral title that does an amazing job conveying the heavy feeling of the album, but I’m curious if there’s a more particular reason for the title.
As I said above I’ve always been dealing with a high level of anxiety in my life, and simply music is one of the ways I can pour out those feelings and look at them from outside. Feast On My Body has been made during the most extreme days of my life and the title comes from a part of the lyrics I wrote for the last track (“Feast On My Body”). I thought it would convey the extreme uneasiness I feel inside as if some sort of unknown dark forces are having their best time and are in full control of my body.
What is it about the Rilke quote that is included in the release description that you connect with and that connects with the album?
I’ve always felt a deep connection with Rilke’s works; I admire his profound and sensitive perception of life and the way he puts it into words. His book, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, has affected me so deeply. I hadn’t read anything like that in my life before. I deeply relate to his apprehensive approach present in every line of the book. For me, this book is the equivalent written version of what I tried to say musically about decay and death and fears on Feast On My Body.
I have only recently started to more deeply explore the world of NUM and am finding the more I hear, the more I want to hear. It’s a great project. What’s it like working on that project and in that creative space with your partner?
Well, music is one of the main reasons Milad and I are living together. It was the reason we met for the first time 14 years ago. We started to work on covering some of our favorite songs ( Mostly trip-pop/rock songs) together, and then we created our first songs (which are mainly trip-pop songs. A few are available on our Soundcloud, Trilogy for the Light on Bandcamp and lots of them still unreleased) and gradually we got more into the experimental and electroacoustic approach in music.
I am so lucky to have Milad by my side. I have learned so many things from him in music, and he’s helped me emotionally and technically through many situations. He’s been my only supporter during the hard and hopeless days when I wasn’t sure of myself. Surely if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have been where I am now in music!
One thing that stuck out to me on a couple different recordings… on Memory Machine you play flute and on False Awakening, Rezo Kiknadze plays saxophone. I’ve been in this zone recently where horns and woodwinds used in this kind of atmospheric / drone / ambient type work is really interesting to me (and something I’m hoping to find someone to work with to explore more at some point with my own works!). Anyway, I didn’t even realize you played flute – is that something that’s been part of your practice from an early age? And what is it about the different sonic textures that those instruments bring and add to these works, especially compared with synthesizers and electronics, that interest you all?
I only started to play flute a few years ago. I mainly prefer to use instruments only as a source of sound and not in their traditional way. I’m really into the acousmatic approach in creating music; to use an acoustic sound and transform it into something new where the source is unrecognizable by the means of digital processing and manipulation. In fact, the infinite possibilities you can have to create your own sounds and textures have always captivated me.
What is coming up next for NUM?
We have four unreleased works which we’re searching for some labels to release them but as you certainly know finding a label is a soul-sucking process and is a full-time job itself. Honestly, we’re so tired of dealing with labels and the competitive atmosphere which exists in the music scene, so we’re thinking to put them out as self-releases maybe in the near future.
We’re currently working on an audiovisual live set and also a collaborative interdisciplinary drama performance right now but everything is occurring at a slow pace due to the unstable pandemic situation and our moving to a completely new environment.
And what’s next for your solo work?
I’ve been currently struggling, mostly financially, to cope with the new life we’ve started in Calgary. So it’s been extremely challenging and difficult to focus on my projects as I was able to do so before here, but I’m gradually finding my own pace. I’m concentrating more on reading and learning these days than creating, I think there is so much to learn, and especially after releasing my last album which almost took two years to finish I really need time before I start to think about composing new works.