Sara Najafi (centre-right) organises a controversial concert in Iran.
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When singing is a revolutionary act: the women challenging Iran's fear of female creativity

No Land's Song, a new documentary by Ayat Najafi, follows her sister Sara's fight to put on a revolutionary concert. 

“How can we sing without the colour of the female voice?” This is the question at the heart of No Land’s Song, a new documentary by the Iranian director Ayat Najafi.

The film follows the director’s sister, Sara Najafi, a singer and composer who is attempting to host a concert of female singers in Tehran. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, solo performances by women have been banned. Women can appear as backing singers but never on their own. In the hope of changing the law, Sara gathers a group of musicians from Paris and Tehran, only to be drawn into negotiations with Iran’s ministry of culture and Islamic guidance.

The sanctions on female creativity are so harsh that it is a wonder that Sara, a woman born after 1979, became a musician at all.

“Limitations can, in a way, be a source of creativity,” she says.  One is reminded of a shot in which Sara stuffs a Dictaphone into her hijab so that she can tape her conversation at the ministry. And yet, there is a long-standing culture of resistance in Iran. We see Sara singing and talking about music with friends, one of whom, Sayeh Sodeyfi, laughs at the absurdity of her position as a music teacher who must pretend that she teaches theoretically – without ever singing in front of pupils at her school. “If your uvula shakes like this, you’re singing correctly,” she jokes.

An older singer, Parvin Namazi, remembers when, as a child, she sang on Iranian television. The conversation returns again and again to the female singers who flourished in Iran before the revolution and one in particular, Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri.

“Qamar was the person who first brought the female voice into the public arena,” Ayat explains.

When Sara and Parvin visit the site of Vaziri’s first public performance, which took place at the Tehran Grand Hotel in 1924, they are visibly moved by the experience.

Opposition to the ban isn’t exclusive to frustrated female singers in Iran. “My family always motivated and encouraged me,” Sara tells me.

At which point, her brother, Ayat, says, “There is something important that we need to address and that is that the majority of people in Iran do listen to the female voice. They don’t really care what the system says. They buy cassettes and albums on the black market, or watch [music videos] online or go to private concerts.” The film carefully unpicks the contradictions inherent in a society forced to denounce publicly the female creativity it privately consumes. Even the men interviewed in cafés and music shops in the film refer to “their system” – not “ours” – when speaking about the ban.

“Nothing changes when you host a private concert,” Ayat continues. “We wanted to use this to challenge that.”

An excerpt from the documentary, courtesy of the Gijon film festival.

When Sara meets Abdolnabi Jafarian, a religious scholar who attempts to offer her a theological explanation for the prohibition, she is told: “If you eat a simple cheese, that’s fine. But if you add more and more ingredients, the joy begins to harm you.”

“How is that connected to singing?” Sara replies.

“How can putting [the concert] on be considered a revolutionary act if you need to get permission from the government?” Sara is asked by Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer who agrees to take part. “When you get the government to agree with you [rather than staging it in secret], you are making a political statement: the regime has been publicly challenged,” Sara tells me.

As Sara makes her case at the ministry of culture, Ayat’s film shows nothing but a black screen. She comes close to failure, deciding to cancel the performance rather than proceed with the limitations imposed on it by the state. But the fear of criticism from abroad, amplified by the presence of French guests, forces the ministry’s hand and it ultimately gives her full control of the project.

When the long-awaited concert finally takes place, it is at once triumphant and a little sad. Earlier, Sodeyfi had complimented Sara’s music for its tonal depth, the qualities of “spring” and “winter” it contains: “Spring revives many things but it cannot make you forget everything.”

The performers in Tehran revel in the opportunity to sing but have been marked by the long silence. Asked if, after the concert, she is hopeful for the future of creative women in Iran, Sara replies: “No, not at all. There has been no positive change. In fact, things are getting worse.”

“What you need is hope,” says Ayat. “Unfortunately, there is little hope. With this movie, what I wanted to show was just, let’s say, the dream
of hope. The power of music is stronger than the power of their stupid systems.”

“No Land’s Song” screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, 20-22 March

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser