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Unity and the Musical Language of Birds

By Jeffrey Day

Iranian-born and San Francisco-based composer, pianist, and educator Sahba Aminikia will use his five-month residency at 836M to work on his newest project, The Language of the Birds, a political rendition of 12th-century poetry by Farid ud-din Attar, a mystic from Iran (Persia) and a teacher of Rumi. 

Sahba Aminikia believes in the power of art to unify. For the composer’s contemporary interpretation of a 12th-century epic poem, that means gathering artists of various sorts to develop a creation of artistic and universal accord that will be passed on to those who experience it.

Reimagining "The Language of the Birds," by the mystic Attar of Nishapur required many minds. For the work, commissioned by 836M and including a five-month residency, Aminikia is collaborating with writer and translator Zara Houshmand, singer Marjan Vahdat, media artist John Sanborn, the musical duo Living Earth Show and the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus. The project will include exhibitions, open jam sessions, and other events over the next three months, culminating in two full performances May 31 and June 1. Aminikia, who is Iranian-American, is the first composer to receive a residency through 836M, a nonprofit arts organization and gallery space in North Beach.

The poem’s title and theme come from the Qur'an verse: “O mankind! Lo! we have been taught the language of the birds and have been given abundance of all things.” The performance will take the performers and audience through the birds’ journeys through seven valleys, each with its own story. The poem, also known as “The Conference of the Birds,” is among the most treasured Sufi writings.

For Aminikia, the collaboration among musicians, writers, visual artists and others reflects his idealistic belief in the power of the arts to break down walls on many levels. With “The Language of the Birds,” he wants to create a multidisciplinary, contemporary piece that embraces and preserves the original beauty and intent of the poetic masterpiece and also reveals how it reflects on and addresses contemporary concerns. In Attar of Nishapur’s poem, and similar literature from many cultures over hundreds of years, the language of the birds is considered universal and divine.

“The piece is about unity,” said Aminikia, who grew up in Iran in the years following the Islamic revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war. “We are far more connected than we are divided. My main goal is to engage with the heart and bring together people completely opposed to one another.”

Considering the wide political and social divide in the U.S. and conflicts around the globe, he said, now is the time for a unifying art. Unification is also part of his process.

The Iranian-born, San Francisco-based composer Sahba Aminika is developing his latest project, "The Language of the Birds" in association with 836M and several Bay Area arts organizations

Aminikia previously collaborated with Houshmand, the Girls Chorus and the Living Earth Show. He studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music alongside LES guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. He has teamed up with a wide variety of artists, from the Kronos Quartet to dozens of artists from around the globe for The Flying Carpet festival in Turkey, an event he founded and directs for children in conflict zones. “I’m very used to this kind of collaboration,” said Aminikia, who was a refugee in Russia and Turkey before being granted asylum in the U.S. in 2006. “These are people I like to have around me who trust me and trust my vision.”

The first step for the project has been creating text that sometimes draws directly from the 4,700 stanza poem, but obviously can only use a tiny portion.

“I’m trying to capture the essential spirit of the original in a form that works both musically and dramatically, and speaks directly to our time,” said Houshmand.  I’m looking for the gems of poetry, the images that stop you in your tracks and make you say ‘Wow!’” 

Media artist John Sanborn is creating visuals that will depict a world “in a constant state of flux,” he said. “I’ll be using artificial intelligence techniques to abstract various realities, such as dancers, location recordings and birds, and project orchestrated videos on the walls, the performers and the audience - dissolving the boundaries between storyteller, story and listeners.” 

Céline Ricci, 836M programming director, first collaborated with Aminikia in 2020 when she was a faculty member with the Girls Chorus. During her first years at 836M, the organization focused on the local, and wanted to expand to a more international and interdisciplinary project. Aminikia’s ideas fit that goal perfectly.

“We invite every kind of artist to have expression here,” said Ricci, who is also founder and executive artistic director of Ars Minerva which mounts innovative productions of Baroque operas. “The story of the birds is universal and beautiful. I think all humanity can relate." Along with two full performances of the finished piece, the team will use the facilities for creation and rehearsal and the public can watch the process, with at least two public rehearsals.

“Witnessing the creative process is one of our biggest goals,” said Jade Fogle, 836M associate curator and manager.

One event connected to the residency and perfomance will be a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year, on March 20, with a poetry reading and a multi-musician jam session. All events are free. Aminikia hopes to have a high level of audience engagement and may even expand outside the confines of the building onto the streets of the neighborhood.

For Aminikia, the residency is a rare and important opportunity. “There are not many places like this in the U.S.,” he said. They were very excited and encouraging to me. They gave me the ultimate freedom.”


The Language of the Birds - Exhibition Dates 01/15/24-06/01/24
More at 836m

Jeffrey Day
Jeffrey Day
Jeffrey Day recently retired after 10 years as an arts and humanities writer at UC Davis after a long career as an arts writer and critic for newspapers in the Southeastern United States.
Jeffrey Day recently retired after 10 years as an arts and humanities writer at UC Davis after a long career as an arts writer and critic for newspapers in the Southeastern United States.
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