Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Some people have had a lasting influence on me, wherever I encountered them in person, or through their books, or their music. The list would be a long one if I want to mention them all. But I think the most significant one for me is my harmony, counterpoint, and composition teacher, Saeed Sharifian. He actually taught me how to be myself and how to find my own ways of thinking rather than his. Not just in music, but life in general.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Being a classical composer in Iran is already quite challenging since I have so many obstacles in my path and also so many uncertainties about my future, making it pretty hard to realize my artistic visions. Add the pandemic to that, and you’ve got a challenging time. I’m trying, to the best of my abilities, to maintain and grow my musical side and I’ve succeeded, but sometimes it’s daunting.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Firstly, I should say it’s an honour to receive a commission. The joy of being able to concentrate and research on a project that you know will be performed is quite something. The challenge for me, as I think for most composers as well, is composing a fresh and worthy work in a limited timeline.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles, or orchestras?
I have been very fortunate to work with the musicians I like to work with, so there are no extra challenges for me. I always value their suggestions for performing issues (for example, the choreography of hands in piano writing) or even musical suggestions regarding the composition. I was very fortunate to have been writing for many very nice and great musicians, including Jeffrey Biegel, Kotaro Fukuma, Catherine Carby, Daniel Grimwood, Robert Franz, and the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, among others.
Of which works are you most proud?
For me, it’s definitely two works so far, ‘The Road to Bach’ for piano solo and ‘The Legend of Bijan and Manijeg’ for piano, choir, and orchestra. I consider these two works to be a huge step towards reaching my personal style, especially with regards to the harmonic language
‘The Road to Bach’ was commissioned by great Japanese pianist Kotaro Fukuma for a concert of the same name in Suntory Hall, Tokyo on June 19. Approximately 3 to 4 months before being contacted by Kotaro Fukuma, I was studying Bach intensely and I was profoundly influenced by his dramatic use of harmonic and tonal language. So I’ve decided to write a piece which gains its movement primarily through its harmonies, but with modern harmonic language
Working with Kotaro is one of the most delightful experiences of my life, even though writing this piece was quite challenging for me, especially since it was one of the most difficult times in my personal life. We had so many useful discussions regarding the work and I even changed the piece based on a good suggestion from him. The piece is quite challenging, but after he sent a video of himself performing it considerably musically, I was jubilant beyond measure since I saw all of our challenges led to this moment. And after he suggested my work be published in Japan, the sense of triumph was even greatrr, since this is my first publication by a publisher so far.
‘The Legend of Bijan and Manijeh’ is a different challenge since it is my largest work to date, a single movement concertante symphonic poem for piano, choir, and orchestra lasting 20 minutes. The subject is the love story of Bijan and Manijeh from Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi. The subject occurred to me after Jeffrey Biegel (the great American pianist) and I discussed the details of the project. In the beginning, I was hesitant to use choir in the work, especially singing the original language, Farsi. But Jeffrey encouraged me to do it and I was delighted because setting Shahnameh‘s stories in different musical formats was one of my teenage dreams. Jeffrey was and still is very helpful in realizing this large project, especially for an emerging composer like me who has little experience with these sorts of projects.
In this piece, I’ve tried to achieve my way of organizing materials in a large-scale form. Sibelius is very influential for me in this regard, but I’ve tried to develop many ideas in my previous works, for example using a completely different theme for the last section of the piece, which normally recapitulates the old thematic materials.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I try not to think about it too much because I think it’s better for most of it to remain unconscious and also it’s evolving. I hope it’s not boring for others.
How do you work?
I work as a part-time community pharmacist for four hours a day as my day job for now ( I hope that I can quit it one day). I usually start thinking about composition early in the morning, before I go to my shift, so I can think about it in the drugstore when there are no customers. I usually envision the whole piece before starting the composition. There may be several days of wandering and thinking before setting out to write the piece, but after I get the initial ideas and the thematic materials, usually I can work pretty quickly. I always listen to my compositions to see if I simply like them and want to listen to them several times or not.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
For me, it is having the time, money, and peace of mind to compose the music which is important to me and being able to influence the community and musical world in general.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I’m not that comfortable advising other musicians right now, maybe I would be more comfortable when I’m older. But what I’ve learned through experience is that every composer should have a routine discipline for his/her creative endeavour. Otherwise, their self-critical knowledge will overcome their urge for creativity.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
That is a very hard question and I don’t know if I have the answer yet. I think the lazy journalistic attitude is either classical music shouldn’t be for everyone or, classical music is elitist and should be more “accessible”. I think the basic premise of these thoughts is actually the same, in that people are stupid and they should either be shunned or we should dumb down the music for them. It’s an insulting and rather dangerous thought to me since it reduces all human beings to just one class, the class of stupidity. I think one can compose serious and technically sophisticated pieces and have an impact on the audience as well – think about Britten, Shostakovich, Copland and Rachmaninov, four of the supreme examples of the more recent times
I try not to trap myself in these lazy journalistic arguments. What I try to do as a composer is to, as I’ve said above, compose music that I like to listen to several times and that has an emotional impact on me. Hopefully, it will be interesting for others.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I love living and working around the world since I think those experiences can enrich one’s life much further. So I would say being around the world, having a busy composition schedule, possibly a composer-in-residence in an orchestra and, being performed around the world.
The Road to Bach receives its world premiere by pianist Kotaro Fukuma in a concert at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, on 19 June. More information
Described by Simon Mundy, “knowledgeable, highly competent and a serious musical thinker, Farhad Poupel’s music is heard throughout the world.
His musical journey started at the age of nine when he began learning Persian Dulcimer (Santur) and later, piano and soon after, composing. He was studying Harmony, Counterpoint, and composition privately with the great Iranian composer, Saeed Sharifian. His op.1 got its performance in April 2019 by LADSO (Described by President orchestra as “Remarkable Iranian contemporary composer”) and had been performed ever since by performers such as Peter Jablonski and Kristýna Znamenáčková and orchestras such as Windsor symphony orchestra.
His music is in demand right now, including a co-commissioned project, The Legend of Bijan and Manijeh with the American pianist Jeffrey Biegel, and also The Road to Bach for the Japanese pianist, Kotaro Fukuma.