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To Evoke and Live the Vibration
In Conversation with Sussan Deyhim

By Richard di Santo
28 October 2001

I first heard Sussan Deyhim's voice about ten years ago. She contributed to two of the most striking tracks on Sahara Blue, Hector Zazou's homage to poet Arthur Rimbaud, released in 1991 on Crammed Discs. From that moment on, I have been captivated by Deyhim's uncanny voice and experimental fervour, and have been following her career with wonder and admiration. Having collaborated and performed with the likes of Heiner Goebbels, Bobby McFerrin, Richard Horowitz, Ornette Coleman, Praxis and Bill Laswell, Deyhim has certainly had a varied career to date, and with many new and challenging projects currently on the go, there is no threat of her becoming stagnant or silent.

With her voice Sussan Deyhim is able to achieve miraculous feats of tone, vibration and timbre; and yet these are not mere acrobatics. The term "sussantics", dubbed by members of Loop Guru to describe her incredible vocal range and innovative techniques, hardly does her work justice. Much more than antics or vocal gymnastics, her vocalizations reflect her uncompromising spirit of experimentalism, of working from within various traditions in order to push them further into new musical forms.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Sussan Deyhim, and we talked about various points in her career, her motivations and her ideas about futurism, traditionalism and the avant-garde.

Born in Tehran, Sussan Deyhim began her performing career in dance, with Pars National Ballet, affiliated with Persian National Television, between 1971 and 1975. In 1976 she received a scholarship to attend MUDRA, Maurice Béjart's School of Performing Arts, and subsequently performed with Béjart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century. It was these early experiences that exposed her to the possibilities of a meeting place between traditionalism and the avant-garde. Her choreographer at Pars National Ballet would combine the works of Stockhausen and Bartok, for example, with traditional and folk Persian music from the various regions of Iran.

From Iran to Europe, and from Europe to New York, Deyhim has always been immersed in the avant-garde. In the past 15 years she has been involved in numerous projects firmly grounded in performance art and often in collaboration with an impressive roster of artists. These include two records with Richard Horowitz, Desert Equations (Crammed) and Majoun (Sony Classical); collaborations with Heiner Goebbels on Shadow/Landscape with Argonauts (ECM), Bobby McFerrin on Circlesongs (Sony Classical) and numerous other appearances on a variety of releases and in live performances. Her contributions are unmistakable; her vocal innovations give her works a sense of overwhelming intimacy, a strange bridge between futurism and traditionalism that manages to transcend both in a single breath.

It was with the release of Madman of God last year on Crammed Discs that the poles of traditionalism and futurism, as two forces that are at once opposing and complimentary, are best reconciled. The pieces on this record, subtitled "Divine Love Songs of the Persian Sufi Masters", derive from traditional Persian melodies and poems by Rumi, Saadi, and other Sufi writers from the 11th to 19th centuries. These songs are not traditional arrangements, however: Deyhim takes these traditions and experiments with their forms, amplifies their emotions, and makes them entirely her own. In working with this material, she says: "I have sought to evoke and live the vibration, for I believe the vibration is the essence of the Sufi way of travelling through time, in cosmic space, which transcends all other parameters."

This project seemed to be a long time in coming; she explained how friends of hers often wondered why she had never really worked with Iranian music or poetry in her creative projects. The timing of this project in her personal and artistic development seemed perfect:

I've always sneaked out of that whole idea of being from a single place, a tradition, a thing or a particular frame of mind, often to the point where many people don't even know that I am Iranian. But I love quite a lot of things from Iranian culture - especially the music and the poetry, so sublime and so interesting - and so Madman of God is a sort of homage to my culture that I understand better than any other.

I approached this material because I am also very much involved in my spirituality in the Sufi tradition, not as a practitioner or anything like that, but I think it's just a fantastic philosophy. That I could go back to this Sufi poetry written so long ago and actually understand it, because most of this poetry was written in Farsi, was very intriguing for me.

The album is almost entirely acoustic, with contributions from an incredible group of master musicians; Glen Velez, Reza Derakhshani, Dawn Bukholtz Andrews and Reggi Workman among others. The results are stunning, and Madman of God is one of her finest achievements to date. The music is so overwhelming and real, the rhythms are both complex and powerful, and the voice comes through as being a breath of pure inspiration, pure vibration.

Not surprisingly, the response to this project has been overwhelmingly positive, even within Persian communities, where, she explains, "there is more of a heavy handed mess about experimenting with classical music." In light of this, she makes an important distinction "messing" with tradition and "experimenting" with it, and recognizes that her record is "a good example of the fact that you can do something very deep and personal that doesn't bastardize any tradition, but basically says that I am living it through my own understanding and experience."

In recent years, Deyhim has also been collaborating with Shirin Neshat, an Iranian born visual artist living and working in New York. They met 15 years ago, and they have been collaborating for the past 5 years. Deyhim produced the soundtracks for various video installations by Neshat: Fervor, Soliloquy, Rapture and Turbulent (the latter was the winner of the Golden Lion Award, Venice Biennale 1999). Neshat's works often address issues of feminism and social difficulties in Islamic communities, but always with a strangely ambiguous point of view, provoking a more honest and creative response from her audience.

Deyhim describes the working dynamic between herself and Neshat as natural and intuitive. During their collaborations they found that they hardly ever needed words to communicate their ideas and intentions to each other. Having a shared cultural background and a common "ambiguous perspective" in their works, as Deyhim describes it, their collaborations have resulted in multimedia pieces with an incredible and complimentary dynamic. Neshat describes how Deyhim comprehends her concepts "on the most intuitive and intellectual levels," having "consistently delivered compositions that each time astonish me in how perfectly they accompany and strengthen the film." These soundtracks have been released on CD by Eyestorm under the title Turbulent.

In the liner notes to Turbulent, Deyhim writes: "Music has initiated me and my perception of the world into a state of surrender. A transcendental space of an alchemical nature, deeply felt and far from linear logic." This idea of alchemy ties in with the idea of the annihilation of self, "a moment that embraces the void of ego", a central concept in Deyhim's thinking, creative, and performative processes. We spoke about the interaction between the performer and the audience, how it is neither the performer nor the audience who make that relationship but rather the third element between them, "the alchemical interaction between the performer and the audience, facilitated by the vibration that takes over the performer." She elaborated this point still further:

You start with words and it transcends to truth, to moments in time that have to do with human experience from a very artistic, profound, creative, personal, poetic entity, that is so ungraspable, it is the journey of someone's soulful perception. That is alchemy.

In describing her work, her creative process, the breath of inspiration, Sussan Deyhim is very articulate but at the same time admits that she is at a loss of words to adequately describe that alchemical process that takes place within her. Similarly, I too, as I receive these works, find that I am often at a loss to describe my impressions adequately. The romantics in the early 19th century spoke at great length of the Sublime, of that moment when you are suddenly overwhelmed by something larger than life, larger than nature and the world around you, as if you are suddenly face to face with the infinite cosmos and are completely at a loss for words. The word "sublime", together with this idea of alchemy, encapsulate what I have found most indescribable, rewarding and praiseworthy in Deyhim's work.

Deyhim is currently working with Shirin Neshat on a new multimedia performance piece titled The Logic of the Birds, based on Farid ud-Din Attar's mystical poem of the same title (Manteq at-Tair, commonly rendered in English as "The Conference of the Birds", written in the latter half of the 12th century). The poem is an allegorical rendering of the basic principles of Sufism, and consists of a group of stories told within the framework of a pilgrimage of birds who are travelling to find their king, the Simorgh. At the end of Attar's poem, the idea of the Simorgh unfolds in a fascinating way: only thirty birds (si = thirty, morgh = birds) are left at the end of the journey; they converge into one, and "there in the Simorgh's face they discover themselves." How Neshat and Deyhim will work with this mystical journey promises to be as exciting and exhilarating as any of their collaborations.