Between the Lines

written by Iman Habibi
2019 GLFCAM Lucy and Jacob Frank Fellow, Cycle 9

So, what does your music sound like?”

This is the most common question I am asked, by musicians and non-musicians alike and I doubt I am alone. I neither have an answer to this question, nor do I seek an answer to it. The reason is simple: the person asking the question is often looking to place me in relation to a familiar point of reference, and I find pre-determined labels and definitions to be limiting.

Since my early undergraduate years, I have frequently found myself battling labels, which others are quick to attribute to me. At first, it was a struggle to place myself somewhere between the pre-existing definitions of a pianist and a composer. One would think this should not be such a novel concept; classical music rests on the shoulders of many incredible composer-performers. Yet I was frequently asked, when applying to scholarships, whether I saw myself gravitating more towards composing or performing. The committees were not always to blame. They needed to put me in a box in order to determine which scholarships I qualified for. My response was that they both are vital parts of my life, and necessary outlets of expression. I remember vividly when one of the adjudicators shrugged at my answer and told me which way he felt I was heading. He had clearly made up his mind about me and my future, and didn’t see it possible for the two careers to work in conjunction with one another.

In my early 20s, as I began to compose more often, labels were thrown at me more frequently to describe my music. Sometimes they were phrased kindly. Other times, the labels were assertively-expressed opinions dictated by my seniors, which they felt I had to abide by. “You write well for the piano, and that is your thing! You are really a ‘piano composer.’ Nothing wrong with that! Look at Chopin…” is the earliest one I remember. As I began to experience success writing for choirs, many established composers started introducing me in public as a “choral composer.” Again, it is a label that may describe a small part of what I do, but can hardly encompass my compositional output.

Quite often, I found myself resisting these labels, and reacting to them by pursuing the exact opposite. I stopped accepting choral commissions for a few years, and focused on writing instrumental music. When possible, I avoided including the piano in my large ensemble or choral works. And I took frequent breaks from composing to focus on my performing career, touring and entering international competitions with my piano duo ensemble, Piano Pinnacle, which I formed with my wife in 2010. 

It wasn’t until I entered my DMA studies at the University of Michigan that I became aware of yet another label, one that had rarely been used on me in Canada: I was immediately identified as a person of colour. This label, unlike others, was not acquired; I was born with it. I was not aware, until then, that I had been resisting this label as well. After reading my biography, a notable composer of African-American heritage who was visiting the University of Michigan asked me why I do not mention my being Iranian in my biography. My response, again, was that I saw myself belonging to more than one culture. I was born and raised in Iran (from Azeri and Tabari ancestry among others), but I spent a significant part of my adult life in Canada, and have also lived in the United States and Turkey. I received most of my musical training in North America. While I certainly belong to some of these cultures more than others, they have each played a role in shaping my identity, and defining myself as belonging to only one, is again, quite restrictive. Seeing the importance of my role as a cultural ambassador, I have come to reconcile with some of these labels. My time at GLFCAM has certainly helped me with this, as I frequently get the chance to meet other composers struggling with similar problems. But not one of these labels can, by itself, define me. Neither can labels such as “classical music,” “new music,” or “world music,” truly describe the genre in which I write.

I have been writing music for orchestras, choirs, small and large chamber ensembles, soloists, as well as for film, live theater and opera. Each medium holds its unique appeal to me, allowing me to explore a different side of my musical character. Each caters to a different kind of audience, giving me the chance to write in different styles, and tap into my many varying aesthetic interests.

I feel the process of writing music is often one of self-discovery. In my search for the right sound, the appropriate gesture or texture, I learn something about myself. I notice my instinctive choices, I come to evaluate them against my acquired knowledge and training, and make clear choices to trust or abandon those instincts, or to mould them to fit the needs of the composition. The process takes me through a journey with numerous unexpected turns and challenges to overcome. It is an exciting adventure, which can often hold many surprises in its outcome. I love to stand back and watch the confluence of my musical interests, my heritage and my training manifest itself in my music.

This is why, I believe, we need to liberate ourselves from restrictive labels, and read between the lines. We need to respect the artistic choices of a composer and allow their musical interests to display themselves freely in their works. If you are reading this and you are hoping to collaborate with a composer, instead of looking to focus on a label, on any one aspect of the rich life they have lived, allow them to indulge you with the colourful array of lights they hold within. You will be pleasantly surprised!


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 Frank2019