From Nomad to Cultural Ambassador

written by Iman Habibi
2018 GLFCAM Lucy and Jacob Frank Fellow, Cycle 4

It may have begun as a search, a quest to find or explore a familiar unknown. Unlike most other children who came to know music through nursery rhymes and dance, my childhood was filled with nationalistic music that celebrated the Islamic revolution and glorified the war. I discovered the enormous moving power of music at a very young age.

Having been born and raised in Iran, I had to attend schools in which religious studies, and what I can now easily identify as propaganda, dominated the curricula and was rigorously enforced. The propaganda did not only manifest itself in education, it subtly made its way into every form of art, including music. And while the Islamic government frowned upon music, discouraged music education, and banned broadcasting performers in the act of playing their instruments on TV, it used patriotic music as a tool (often in the form of nationalistic anthems or surud) to encourage its youth (including my 24-year-old uncle) to sacrifice their lives in the war: to die for something greater than themselves.

And while I have had an unsteady relationship with organized religion, a sense of belonging to someone or something greater than myself, which is at the heart of most religions, always prevailed in me. Perhaps because this sense of belonging extended beyond the more easily discardable religious and political propaganda I was exposed to as a child. It lives at the heart of Persian philosophy. Persian poetry, which boasts the likes of Rumi, Hafiz, Attar and Khayyam, can be summarized as a long elaborate lamentation on sehnsucht, and at times, the exaltation of arriving, of becoming one with the great unknown, and feeling the eternal intoxication. It was not until recently, I discovered that this yearning, the need to unravel a small corner of the veil that covers life’s greatest mystery, has always ultimately informed my compositional process.

I was born in the midst of the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. While my memories of the Iran-Iraq war may be few, its impact rippled through my childhood and teenage years. Throughout the war and for many years after, life was primarily about survival.

I had my first music lessons at age ten, perhaps eleven, seven years after the war came to an end. The small 40-key Casio keyboard that decorated the corner of our Tehran apartment was nothing more than a toy, but a toy that with each passing day I became more fond of. Perhaps my parents grew tired of my senseless noodling, or maybe they were genuine in saying that they sensed some talent in my (quite literally) playing. Either way, they went against all cultural norms and wise counsel to hire me a private piano teacher. Never did they imagine that I would one day choose music as a career path in a binary culture that produces and values two professions only: medical doctors and engineers. And had they foreseen that, perhaps they would have thought twice about it. About a year later, I was seen moving my fingers on my desk at my religiously-conservative school; I was imagining a piece I had recently memorized and miming its fingering. My teacher threatened to expel me if I did not give up piano lessons. In short, I was asked to choose between school and piano lessons, and for several years after, I had to continue my music studies in secret.

Most teenagers are looking for an escape and music became mine. The fact that I was pursuing it secretly made it ever more exciting. Western classical music offered a fresh alternative to the Persian pop and traditional music with which I was constantly bombarded. More importantly, it was my music; I felt that few around me understood Chopin, Schubert, Bach, Brahms or Tchaikovsky, and I loved living with music that I felt belonged exclusively to me, and discovering it one composer at a time. But after my family's immigration to Canada at age 17, as piano slowly transformed from a hobby to a career, I started having to showcase publicly the personal relationship I had long shared with my instrument. I felt my approach to music gradually changing as well. The relationship could no longer remain a private and closeted one. It had to frequently be put on display and judged. As such, it became more self-aware, more cautious, conservative and mannered. My musical knowledge, I felt, began to confine me more than it liberated me.

While music can still be an escape for me, it is more readily an instrument with which I feel I can face, explore, and bring to light the harshest or friendliest aspects of life. As such, my compositions are often informed by recent social movements. Erroneous Kudos (2008) and Colour of Freedom (both choral works) were my first attempts at activism. Choral music felt like a natural choice in reaction to the nationalistic patriotic music I heard as a child in the form of Surud. Erroneous Kudos questions the glorification of war, and had me relive the sound of war sirens. Color of Freedom was a raw reaction to the uprising in Iran, following the controversial 2009 Iranian elections that saw hundreds of peaceful protesters killed. It brings together musical influences from several different stages of my musical journey.

I have spent most of my adult life searching. It’s not that I have never felt at home, but I have always believed that a greater land must exist beyond the endless waters. Having experienced a revolution, a war, and an eventful immigration across the world, my family had to live a nomadic life, frequently moving from one location to another. I have learned to not get attached to any belongings and to cope in environments where I do not feel I belong. Working as a non-resident alien of middle-Eastern background in the United States at a time of heightened political sensitivity, and with a musical background quite different than that of my peers, I frequently struggle to define myself and find a path forward.  Yet I believe my role as a cultural ambassador to be an extremely important one.

This brings me to Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music (GLFCAM), why I feel honoured to be a part of it, and why I believe wholeheartedly in its mission. GLFCAM is that isolated cottage in the distance that offers refuge from the cold to wanderers like myself, who are braving natural elements in search of something. It gathers us around the fire, reminds us that we are not alone, and allows us to find our common goal in music. 


Iman Habibi, D.M.A. (Michigan), is an Iranian-Canadian composer and pianist, and a founding member of the piano duo ensemble, Piano Pinnacle. He has collaborated with noted ensembles and performers such as The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, The Standing Wave Ensemble, JACK Quartet, among many others. Find out more on Iman's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank