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Tahereh Nourani is a Vienna-based composer and sound artist focusing on electro-acoustic and experimental music. In her work, she explores the potential of slowness and silence as well as the connection between sound, text and video. Using free improvisation, extended playing techniques, amplified objects and minimal live electronics, she creates reduced, organic and archaic sound spaces that span an arc between ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Memory Response) and noise.

What have you been up to lately? 

I’m working on new compositions for my solo project, and I’m also collaborating with Michaela Nagyidaiova (a photographer and video artist) on an audiovisual installation for an exhibition in November as part of the QMA artist collective.

How long have you lived in Vienna? 

Since 2005.

Did you go there to study? Because you studied classical music in Tehran first.

I studied European classical flute in Tehran. Then in 2005, I got my bachelor’s there and immediately went to Vienna, where I studied at the university for music and performing arts. 

Was classical music your initial inspiration? 

It was the first thing that I did, actually. And then at some point, I took up a second direction of study, which was free improvisation. I started to improvise, and improvisation became really interesting to me. I was used to playing 40 pages of written compositions, and it was a challenge to play without any score. 

I remember that being able to improvise was a really big wish of mine. As a classical musician, my goal was to play in an orchestra, and that also changed. I think that at some point it was no longer interesting to play scores and compositions that had been composed by others down to the tiniest detail. 

And then there is the improvisation, which is in a way a break with all these kinds of prescribed techniques.  

Yes, if I were to compare, it was as if I was reading texts and books that other people wrote. And at some point, I became more interested in speaking myself, without any script.  

Your own voice. Looking back, how did you find your musical voice? What was your musical path like?

I think that for a long time I was really stuck in what I had learned. It took a lot of unlearning of what I had learned as a classical flautist. This critical voice in my head constantly criticised everything I did. It took me many, many years to let go of that. At the beginning, free improvisation and experimental improvisational music was very new to me. Many times it felt as if my ear was not used to what we were doing. I did a lot of projects where I played with different kinds of musicians, in different musical directions. I think that helped a lot. I started with jazz and a little bit of what is now called global music. 

It also takes a lot of  knowledge and learning to be able to improvise. It’s not like you just go and do whatever. You also have to have some sort of base to do it from.  

Yes. On the one hand, it was about learning to experiment with my instrument. That is what was really a challenge. During all those years of education, I learned a very specific way of playing the flute. And it felt like everything else was wrong. And to unlearn that and experiment and discover this instrument beyond all the rules I had learned, to get over a specific sound aesthetic, it all took me a while. 

In the beginning, for much of the time, free improvisation sounded like a lot of noise and doing random things.

On the other hand, improvising is similar to speaking with others. There are conversations where I connect and there are conversations where I do not understand the point or meaning of what is being said. 

In your experimental work, you also incorporate other mediums like text, and you work with the object. How did that develop your experimental practice? 

I think it was around 2016. Very accidentally, at a friend’s house, I started to play the electric bass,  and I immediately fell in love with it. And then, again very accidentally, another friend  lent me a bass. And so I kept playing it and at that time, I also quit my studies at the university because I had reached a point where I felt as if it wasn’t going anywhere. I was quite miserable, actually, as a musician; I was only being critical and nothing really inspiring was happening. And then I got to know the bass and it really opened a new world for me. The bass was the beginning of starting to explore other possibilities of making sound. And then later, during the lockdown, I started to experiment with stuff. Again accidentally, I heard something as I was walking in the woods. My thermos of tea kept hitting against my jacket. And it sounded so amazing. And I was like, Oh, I should take a look at that. And from there on, I realised that I could make sounds with anything. Again, a new world opened up!

You are a perceptive listener.

Before 2020, I was always listening to music, always with headphones on.  But I think around 2020, there was this silence during the first lockdown. It was such a new experience for me.

I think headphones were always a kind of protection against noise. And then all of a sudden, I was in the woods, or I was walking in the streets and there was no need for headphones. I started to not listen to music so much and I started to hear my surroundings more, and this reflected on me, on what I do. 

I stopped making pitched music and I discovered the world of unpitched sounds, which is where I still am, somehow.  

It’s interesting how the pandemic changed a lot for many people, even though we have almost forgotten this because it seems so distant somehow.

Because everything fell silent. The cities fell silent, the streets were empty and were more sensitive to a kind of isolated silence. 

You also work with ASMR and with subtle sounds and perceptions.  

Yes, I didn’t know that such a thing existed, and it’s called ASMR. I made myself a piezo microphone at a friend’s and then put it on a wooden board and then started to make sound with this piece of wood, using it as an amplifier. 

And I realised that I could amplify the sound of the touch just by caressing this wood. And then I started to get interested in really, really subtle sounds. I also started to incorporate text because I’m quite shy about speaking or singing on stage, but I really enjoyed whispering. It sounded a little bit witchy, which I also liked. So I started experimenting with very subtle, soft sounds and whispering. 

There is a big ASMR scene on YouTube. Lots of people got into it at a certain point. 

I’ve watched some of the videos and there are really fascinating sounds that people make, and the objects people use are really interesting, and how these objects sound. 

You also collaborate with video and filmmakers yourself. 

I started in 2020. I made music for a video by Thomas Radlwimmer, an Austrian photographer and filmmaker.  And I really enjoyed it. In 2022 I was approached by another video artist, Naomi Rincón-Gallardo, to do a sound performance for the performative screening of her film “Verses of Filth” at Belveder21 in Vienna. Last year, I worked with another filmmaker, Elena Pardo. She did something really quite interesting for me. She was working with film, and she was putting the films into, I think, three or four projectors, live. You  could say, she was improvising the film to some extent, to which I was improvising live sound. Currently, I am working on an audiovisual project with Michaela (mentioned at the beginning of our conversation) about the topic of “home” and “sense of belonging”, with the goal of challenging conventional notions of identity and belonging tethered to nationality and place of birth. 

I want to maybe switch back to this whole concept of silence and also slowness, and how sound is perceived. Could you talk about these concepts and how they relate to your sound practice? 

I don’t remember when I became aware of it for the first time, but at some point, I realised I had been under stress for my whole life, and I had been forced to move faster than I wanted to. For a while now, it has been one of my priorities to live slower.  For the first album that I composed, which is very different from what I do now, I remember I just put in these repetitive patterns, like weaving a carpet, and took my time to improvise. I think that is how I started to really feel comfortable enough to improvise, by taking my time.

It really became clear to me that I needed time to start speaking my own musical language, without having to rush. 

Through this slowness I want to reach a depth. I am not interested in merely scratching the surface. I want to experience depth and that requires taking time over what I am doing. Taking time with the sound at hand. 

It is challenging, though, not to rush, because I constantly feel the pressure of the surroundings and of the world to push me to be faster and louder. And sometimes on the stage, I worry, am I doing this too long? Is this getting boring? This voice keeps coming back, pushing me to do something “spectacular”, to do something more, to do something.

And then I have to tell myself:  No, stay true to your tempo and let the sound decide when it´s time to move on to the next thing.  

You have to resist because it’s imposed by everyone, by the whole world, this productivity and fastness and shortness of span.  

Yes, it demands a lot of resistance. 

Could you talk about your background and what led you  to study music in the first place?

I have to thank my wonderful family for that because they somehow brought me to it.  I grew up with three aunts and two uncles. They took me to all kinds of activities. I think I was six or seven when I started music lessons. One of my uncles was a music teacher for children. He had this children’s orchestra. We were 40 kids from 7 to 14 years old. I grew up in that orchestra for over 10 years or even longer. I had this soprano recorder. It was like my favourite toy. I really enjoyed playing it and with it. And then at some point, I guess I realised that I was really good at it. And everyone was like, wow. And I got a lot of attention and appreciation from grown-ups, which was probably also a motivation. And somehow, I stuck with it. A couple of years later, when I was around 12, I started playing the flute. With a lot of joy at the beginning, but at some point when I was at university, it became very pointless. I couldn’t remember why I was doing it.  

Do you still play the flute nowadays?

Oh yes. I feel that the bass was the bridge that brought me back to my flute and music in general. It’s like the piece of the puzzle that was missing for many, many years. It gave me a fresh outlook, as if a new world had opened up before me.

I realise that I’m very good at playing the flute. The difference with the bass is that the flute is my mother tongue, and the bass is a new language that I’m learning. 

And what is your favourite thing to do right now in terms of your creative practice?

To be honest, I’m in a shift phase right now. I’m working on new stuff, but I’m not quite sure where I’m going. I’m at the very beginning. Every composition starts with a lot of playing around with no idea of what the product will look like in the end. I spend a lot of time with my bass. I hope my next album will be for solo bass. 

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Photo by Abiona Esther Ojo

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