Interview with ICOT

ICOT was founded by five Toronto-based composers and musicians in 2011 with the mission of creating new works that bridge Canadian and Iranian culture through music and art.

Iranian-Canadian Composers of Toronto (ICOT) was founded by five Toronto-based composers and musicians in 2011 with the mission of creating new works that bridge Canadian and Iranian culture through music and art.
ICOT’s first project ,“Persian Piano Night”, was performed in Toronto, included 4 newly composed pieces by the members of the group, and a few pieces by other well-known Iranian composers. The extraordinary reception of this concert compelled ICOT to tour this concert to three more cities in Ontario and Quebec in 2012, and also to record and produce these pieces at the main recording studio at McGill University.
“New Poetry, New Music” – ICOT’s second professional activity in Toronto in 2013 – included new compositions based on Iranian contemporary poetry written for Ton Beau string quartet, voice and narrator. During this season, ICOT received a letter of appreciation from the Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture And Sport for its artistic and cultural endeavours and contributions to the community. ICOT appeared on the BBC Farsi’s “Maks” program in early 2013. This 20 minute program included interviews with members about the origins of the collective, as well as recordings of excerpts of the pieces in the concert.In summer 2013, ICOT was commissioned by Toronto Tirgan Festival for creation of the large scale multimedia project “Operatic Narration of Arash the Archer” which was performed as the opening ceremony of the festival on the Westjet stage at the Harbourfront Centre. ICOT was recipient of Toronto Arts Council Grant for this work and was well received by over 2500 audience present at the venue, plus over 2000 audience watching the performance through livestream globally. ICOT’s project “Five Tableaux from Khosro and Shirin”, a short ballet featuring YOU dance artists of the National Ballet of Canada and Cathedral Bluff Symphony Orchestra was, performed on May 24th, 2014 in Toronto.
ICOT’s recent project was presenting Secret of Solstice in December of 2014 in Toronto. This concert featured five new works written for ICOT orchestra and Toronto based soprano, Zorana Sadiq and accordion player, Michael Bridge. The concert was linking Iranian Yalda night to Christmas!
Since 2011, ICOT has been involved in a numerous festivals including the “ Toronto Nuit Blanche”, “Iranian Heritage Day” at the Royal Ontario Museum and “What Next?” as part of Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra New music Festival is continuing the creation of new works. ICOT was commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada again in 2014 for a Trio that was performed 17 times for various schools around Toronto. In June of 2015 ICOT was invited to perform a full program of Piano music at the Canadian Music Centre’s CMC on the 13th series.
ICOT will be taking part in Tirgan 2015 with their “Persian Piano Night” program.


From left: Pouya Hamidi-Technical Director, Composer | Afarin Mansouri- Artistic Director, Composer | Saman Shahi- Executive Manager, Composer | Keyan Emami- President, Composer | Maziar Heidari- Music Director, Composer | ICOT

ZH: Can you tell us about how did Iranian-Canadian Composers of Toronto meet & got united as ICOT?

ICOT: In 2011 we formed our collective to initiate our first tour, Persian Piano Night, around Ontario and Quebec, and in 2013 ICOT was officially registered as a not-for-profit organization in Canada. Pouya and Saman knew each other from University of Toronto, when Afarin started her studies there in 2008 and Keyan and Maziar joined later around 2010. So basically University of Toronto was the first place in which we all met or found each other.

ZH: You all came from different music backgrounds, yet as a team, ICOT is very untied and working in a perfect harmony. For instance, you have done projects that each of you composed a piece and even played each other pieces in some events.

What has ICOT experienced to create this amazing and collaborative work ethic among the team?

ICOT: ICOT is one of the rare composers groups who actively work together.  Throughout the history there are not so many composer collectives who are producing one artistic project together as often composers prefer to work in isolation. What makes it interesting for us to work is to have a real democratic group. Every one of us has the right to keep her/his style plus vote freely on different subjects may arise in our weekly meetings. The foundation of our team is based on trust and respect. We all have high goals and standards and the fact that there is a variety of background in our style and our experiences makes the group work more dynamic and exciting. We decide together on which project we should create next, and then after clarifying the big picture we go into details of composing and technical matters. For example, we may share some rhythmic or even melodic motives to connect the movements and make the production coherent. During the composition process we always share our artistic ideas and drafts with the group and we are open to hear feedbacks. We constantly reflect on each other works until the project is over. We are open and eager to learn from each other.

ZH: What is the most persuasive influence, which makes ICOT pieces iconic?

ICOT: ICOT mission is to bridge Iranian culture to Canadian through new music. What inspires us the most is our rich Iranian culture and background and we combine it with modern elements and techniques to create new works for this generation. For example, we have created works based on Persian poetry and tales; we have incorporated elements from Persian traditional modes or have used Iranian instruments in some of our ensembles.

ZH: ICOT has done an amazing job since it was founded in 2011. During last couple of years, ICOT composed pieces for different performances such as Canadian Ballet, Symphonies, Operas, and a few different music performances (the most recent was A Journey Inwards for Canadian Music Centre on the 13th concert series). They all carry very strong subject matters with the essence of Persian culture and literature. We picked 3 of those projects to discuss here:

 In the Secret of Solstice, ICOT created an amazing diverse emotional ambiance through out each piece. Could you tell us more about the Secret of Solstice and what were the main emotions and feelings, which ICOT hoped to convey with that work?

ICOT: The most important part was finding the links between Yalda and Christmas after a research was done.  This link inspired us to create works reflecting unity beyond religion or language. Yalda and Christmas are both metaphorically celebration of Birth of light versus darkness, they are about arising and moving toward perfects self. This is not a simple philosophical idea and it incorporates complex emotions, from negative to positive, from despair to hope. We tried to incorporate these feelings while creating our pieces, or selecting the texts from old Latin to English or Farsi poetry. Also specifically for this concert we used two musical instruments: accordion, which linked vocal parts together as well as harp for its captivating exotic magical sound.

ZH:In Arash the Archer (an Operatic Narration Performance), each of you composed a piece, which is indulging & unique in this industry. How was the experience of working 5 composers side by side on one project? 

ICOT: We worked from September to July constantly to create this production. Arash is unique for us because it was not only our first major commissioned work for opening of Tirgan 2013, but also first multimedia ICOT production and we had to work with so many other great artists such as visual artists as well as actors. Everything was done by ICOT, from choosing the topic, to composing and then hiring performers for our orchestra, planning and running rehearsals, printing scores and parts for more than 40 performers, arranging choir rehearsals and teaching them Farsi pronunciation of the words.

We needed to compose five operatic arias based on five different Persian contemporary poems. This work also has a prelude, postlude and some instrumental interlude parts, which accompanied the narrators and actors to depict a specific feeling such as anger or fear. On that basis, each one of us five composers was to compose almost 10 minutes of music including an aria and short instrumental middle sections. The total duration of our project was to be almost an hour.

During a meeting in January 2013, each composer selected his or her own favourite poem to start the composition. Each of us had several meetings with Siavash Shabanpour, director and dramaturge, and we discussed feelings for each poem and its correlation with each music composition. We had to connect on a very deep level in order to understand the true nature of the feelings and visions embedded in those poems.  We also had video of artwork produced by Touka Neyestani, which was projected on a very large screen during the performance.

From January to June, when we finally extracted the music parts and had the scores ready for rehearsals, we spent many hours to compose and to share our creative process with our peers, talking about the musical motifs and all the musical and non-musical elements- a process that could make our work a coherent production. We listened to one another compositions, studied one another scores and exchanged suggestions, critics and ideas.

The music included five main arias, prelude, short interludes used in Naqqali parts. After composing the arias, we used the musical material also in the prelude, postlude and interludes to generate coherence and unity. Prelude and Fifth Aria was composed after the other fourth were made. It basically uses all the main motifs of other arias.

ZH:In Persian Piano night, ICOT broke many classic rules of playing a piano. ICOT used the entire piano, even the inside hardware of the instrument in addition to the keyboard to get all of you involved with the project. Even 3 of you started to play on the same keyboard simultaneously. What were you trying to convey rather than doing something new?

ICOT: Applying new or extended techniques or using the instruments in an unconventional way is something that has been applied by different composers during the history of Western music for more than a century now. Many artists – especially those who have modern style or are seeking experimenting with sound- incorporate these techniques. In our Persian Piano Night concert, Pouya Hamidi, who wrote a composition for piano six hands, specifically liked to create this wonderful piece “Journey Inward” as a challenge for himself to explore using the wide range of the piano keyboard. But generally speaking in Persian Piano Night concert series, ICOT decided to introduce these techniques and effects to Persian audience whom might be less familiar with them.

ZH: What is ICOT dream as the group of talented composers whom are bringing eastern and western tunes together?

ICOT: Artists never stop dreaming! And there are five of us now! We like to expand ICOT as an organization, having more members and staff to help us creating new works. As a part of pioneer group of Iranian diaspora composers, we would love to collaborate with the last and also new established generation of artists inside and outside of Canada all over the world. We also like to create more opportunities for other composers to premiere their pieces.

ZH: If you want to give some advice to aspiring musicians, what would you tell them?

ICOT: Never give up, appreciate teamwork, and create new works as many as you could to learn or learn as much as you could to create.

ZH: Are there any upcoming projects that you’d like to share here?

ICOT: In 2015 we have so many programs and concert series. Among them will be collaborating with Toronto Tirgan Festival, AUG 21-23rd, 2015. You can visit our website for additional information.


Interview by Medea Mahmoudian, Ali Shahrokhi