A Life Based on an Experiment (Siavash Amini)

September 3, 2020 | 00:47:18

Episode 21 presents a portrait of Iranian experimental composer Siavash Amini. His music, which moves seamlessly between contemplative ambience, menacing dissonance, and spacious melodicism, has been released on experimental imprints such as Umor Rex and Room40. His latest, A Mimesis of Nothingness, just came out on the Swiss label Hallow Ground.

Siavash tells host Mack Hagood that his entire life is based on an experiment and he doesn’t yet know what its outcome will be. This episode traces the contours of that story, from his boyhood as a metalhead in a small Iranian port town to his role in the development of Tehran’s lauded experimental music scene. Along the way, we drill down on the international and internal politics that add danger and difficulty to the life of this outspoken leftest composer.

Amini is forced to navigate not only the authoritarianism of Iranian government censorship, but also the authoritarianism of western tastemakers, who sometimes want him to make the “Middle Eastern music” they hear in their own heads. Steadfast in his individuality, Siavash makes sounds that resist these authorities–the defiant anthems of an imaginary land, population: one.

Most of the music in this episode is by Siavash Amini–listen to it again in this Spotify playlist and check out this great introduction to his music on Bandcamp.

This episode was edited by Mack Hagood.



Ethereal Voice: This…Is…Phantom Power

[Transitional Noises, Hammock Creeking]


Mack Hagood: Hey, everyone it’s Phantom Power. A podcast about sound in the arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood speaking to you from my hammock in my backyard in Cincinnati, Ohio.

As you’re certainly aware this Corona Virus Pandemic has produced a quiet of sorts. A hush that has fallen over things as normal daily activities have tapered off.

And for those of us who have the will and the privilege to self-isolate, there can be a kind of beauty in this strange calm. A moment for quiet reflection on how we’ve been living and how we got to this place.

Our guest is Siavash Amini, an experimental musician from Tiran who star is quickly rising.

And I had been wanting to talk with him about his music for quite some time. But by the time I started working on this episode, back in late February of 2020, world events pushed our conversations quite beyond music.

Tensions between our two countries were at a level not seen in decades. Donald Trump had pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and reinstated sanctions.

Then in January, Trump ordered an airstrike that killed top Iranian General, Qasem Soleimani. Iran retaliated with airstrikes that injured over 100 U.S. service people in Iraq.

At this point, Iranians, I follow on Twitter we’re in a full-blown panic, expecting war at any minute. People started leaving Tiran, headed for the safety of the countryside

And those weren’t the only stressors. A couple of months earlier, the Iranian government killed a number of protesters in the streets. And by the time I interviewed Siavash, Iran had joined China and Italy in the top three countries for coronavirus cases.

As we spoke, Siavash was sheltering in place and his country was at a quiet, anxious standstill. But of course, in a couple of months, conditions in the U S would be quite similar.

So, in today’s episode, a portrait of an experimental musician in Iran. One who uses his mostly instrumental music to help navigate treacherous landscapes that are global and local at once.

Throughout the show, you’ll be hearing his compositions, including one track from his latest release: A Mimesis of Nothingness, which just came out on August 28th on the Swiss label, Hallow Ground.

I’ll link to a playlist from this episode in the show notes.

[Calm Transitional Tones]


Mack: In the late 1990s, Siavash Amini was a kid growing up in Bandar Abbas, an Iranian port town just across the Persian Gulf from Dubai.

In comparison to Dubai, the financial and travel hub of The Middle East, Bandar Abbas was something of a backwater.

Siavash Amini: I grew up with a lot of time on my hands. At some points we lived in a village in the south near Bandar Abbas. Yeah that was nice really.

I was a book worm. I read a lot of books because I had a lot of time on my hands when I was in Bandar Abbas. It’s like, there’s nothing to do and there’s a huge library in the house. The first thing you do is open a book.

Mack: But life wasn’t entirely idyllic. By the time he was 10 years old, most of Siavash’s friends had moved to Tiran, over a thousand kilometers away, something his family couldn’t afford to do.

Boredom and anxiety became his companions.

Siavash: The thing is I really liked music and arts and there wasn’t a lot to do there in that field because there was not a bookshop, not a cinema. I was a film buff.

And I had to come to Tiran to watch anything or buy CDs for myself, buy tapes for myself.

And at some point, I couldn’t find a guitar string, when I started playing guitars there.

So yeah, I had to fly a thousand kilometers to Tiran to buy a guitar string. That’s something.

Mack: In some ways, Siavash’s story is universal.  A sensitive kid into literature, film, and music, living in the kind of place where those passions make you an oddity.

He’s living for those rare trips to Tiran to buy CDs and music magazines and guitar strings.

And he’s recording what he can from other kids foreign music stashes.

Siavash: It was like, okay, this sounds cool. Let’s get this. Like, get as much tapes we can from this guy or CDs from that guy.

And there was this occasional thing that somebody had a really cool collection that has moved from abroad to Iran, so they let you browse through and maybe find something you like and rip it on to tape and listen to it later.

Mack: So, yeah, Siavash Amini is the classic budding young artist, out in the sticks, trying desperately to get his hands on the music he loves just before the internet flood gates open and make this a problem of the past.

But some of his story is specific to the fact that he’s a metal head.

[Electric Guitar Chord]

In Iran.

[Electric Guitar Chord]

Siavash: I really liked heavy metal.

[Eletric Guitar Chords]

Guns and Roses and Metallica and stuff.

Mack: And metal wasn’t outright banned in Iran, but it certainly wasn’t on your local Bandar Abbas radio station either. Siavash compares it to a secret code.

Siavash: It was cool for us, you know, it was really something really underground that we did.

It was like if you had a Metallica t-shirt and words under your shirt, that was like a uniform shirt and show it to people it’s was like, “Okay, yo, I know you’re in.”

Because there was a small group of people doing that and not a lot of people, so it was a big deal for us. It was cool when you wrote Metallica lyrics on your backpack or something, or even a song name. It was like, “Okay this guy is cool.”

Mack: But there’s another way that Siavash’s story is specific to Iran. You see the anxiety that he was dealing with, the anxiety that he’s struggled with his entire life, didn’t just come from being cut off from his friends or cut off from the culture that he loved, because always just behind the facade of everyday life, an existential threat loomed.

Take for example, a day in late 2001. Siavahs is 12 or 13 and he’s hoping to record some heavy metal music videos.

Siavash: You can actually get the signal from the other side, from Dubai, the television channels that they broadcast, we could get it on our television.

So, I was taping on VHS, it was the program called Album Chart, it was British, I think, from way back when, it was an old album chart show.

And I was recording it on a VHS and it cut, and it came to the towers.

Mack: It came to the towers.

He’s talking about the Twin Towers in New York City. The date was September 11th and the Dubai station was interrupting the music videos with footage of the world trade center attack in New York.

Siavash: And I called my dad and I said, “Was it us?”  “What did happen?” “Who did this?” It’s like, “Oh my fucking god, what is going to happen?”

Because there’s always this fear of war here. It’s like, it’s becoming a joke at some point that everything, any sign of something, it’s like, “okay, now we’re going to war with America. Now we’re going to war with America.”

I just felt like that for like 30 years, I think.

I remember the first day the Iraq war started. We were going to take a plane to Dubai to be on a vacation because it’s March and no rules, it was like our new year’s holiday.

We woke up and there was this huge war started and we watched television and decided not to go visit.

It might’ve been too dangerous.

[Sounds from Siavash Amini]


Mack: Today, Siavash Amini is 33 years old. Living in Tiran and composing beautiful dissonant music. Like what you’re hearing now.

In some ways Siavash is pinned between worlds. He’s not a fan of Iran’s theocratic government, which is what Siavash says western music journalists always want to ask him about.

But neither is he a fan of the Western governments that sanction his country and threaten its very existence.

As a musician he’s found respect and collaboration in a transnational world of ambient drone and instrumental music. Yet he deals with the issue that’s reflected in journalists, constant questions about censorship, the preconceived notions that Westerners bring to an Iranian artist.

I sometimes think you can hear this discomforting ambiguity and inbetweenness in Siavash Amimi’s music.

Universal yet idiosyncratic, unlocatable on any map. The defiant anthems of an imaginary land population: one.

[Sounds from Siavash Amini]


Male Voice: This picture tells it all. This flag was apparently taken from someone’s office inside the United States Embassy. It was burn Tuesday evening outside the embassy’s gates. To the Iranian demonstrators who set fire to it, this was a symbol of victory.

Two days earlier, several hundred young people, mainly students at Tiran University have taken over the embassy.

“We are not occupiers,” they said, “We have thrown out the occupiers.”

But instead of chasing all the Americans out of the compound, the Iranians imprisoned them in a building somewhere on these grounds.

They have been hostages ever since.

Mack: I was a teenager when Siavash was born. My earliest memories of Iran come from the TV news in the United States when I was a kid. Every night, for 444 days, we heard about

Male Voice: The hostages known in the American embassy compound

Mack: Taken in November of 1979. There was a scary looking bearded guy in a black turban named

Male Voice: The Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mack: There were images of burning American flags

Male Voice: This flag was apparently taken from someone’s office inside the United States Embassy.

Mack: And the sounds of chanting

[Chanting Voices]

Mack: Death to America was the translation provided. They hated us for treating their former leader, the Shah of Iran, for cancer in a U. S. hospital. That’s all I knew. It completely insane. What terrible people, what a terrifying place.

I didn’t understand that the people in Iran feared that the United States would reinstate the Shah and with good reason.

I didn’t know that Iranians had been having largely peaceful revolutions since 1905 and that they had established a constitution and a parliament in 1906.

Or that again and again, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States, hungry for oil had thwarted these moves towards democracy and help reinstate pliable monarchs.

I didn’t know that the 1979 revolution was powered by a diverse coalition of rural workers, urban intellectuals, women, Islamists, Marxist,s and constitutionalist liberals.

Siavash grew up in the Iran that resulted from this revolution, but after the revolution turns bloody, when the Islamists purged the leftists and liberals from their coalition and established a new theocracy.

But even within this new Islamic politics, there’s more debate than Westerners might think.

Siavash: Islamic Republic of Iran hasn’t been a monolith. There are factions among them, and there are layers among them that differ in how much they let’s say, enjoy the world.

Mack: Siavash came of age in the late 90s and early 2000s, under the presidency of Muhammad Khatami, who advocated more freedom of expression and better diplomatic relations.

Siavash: When it was a more open culture atmosphere at that time, after the Khatami election, people started translating lyrics of, for example, Metallica, Dio, or all these heavy metal bands and put them into books for a lot of introductions about the band and sell them

[Electric Guitar Chord]

as something legitimate.

[Electric Guitar Riff]

Mack: These books provide an opening for Siavash.

His father isn’t a hardcore religious conservative, but he listens to traditional Persian music and classical music. He’s very skeptical of Western capitalism.

In other words, he’s no metal fan.

Siavash: So, he was like, “Oh good this is America poisoning your mind and stuff.”

Mack: Siavash shares these metal lyrics books with his dad.

Siavash: I bought the books and we had discussions with my father that, okay, these are not like really bad guys. We tried to find a common ground like, okay, this is anti-war. This is for peace. This is good or something like that.

Mack: Coming from the United States where poetry doesn’t occupy a lot of cultural space his was really striking.

I asked Siavash if there were something distinctively Iranian about thinking of metal as poetry.

Siavash: Exactly and there’s this respect for poetry. It’s something that everybody agrees on.

For example, the first rock album that tried to come out of the underground used not their own lyrics but poems from Hafez so they could get a license to play rock music.

[Singing Voices and Guitar Riffs]

But at some point, I think with our generation, I think it was the last attempt of doing that type of conversation. It died with a social media type of organizing and talking and texting and stuff. The way people communicated just got very different.

Mack: The same channels of communication that would weaken poetry in everyday life, we’re also exposing Siavash to new resources and to new music.

Siavash: There were really great moments for me. For example, when I finally had internet connection in my house and I had like this limited dial up time for like an hour a day.

This was a 98, 99, something like that.

It was really good for me because I could get a lot of .txt tablature files for my guitar playing.

Mack: Thanks to a moment of increased cultural openness: magazines, tapes, and CDs, and the emerging worldwide web, Siavash learned about Prague rock, jazz, electronic music, and trip hop.

But in some ways his world was still too small all the while he dreamed of leaving Bandar Abbas.

Then when he was 16, a breakthrough.

Siavash: I was really a very stubborn and shitty teenager as I remember it. And all I wanted to do was make music. And I nagged for like three years that we have to move to Tiran, so I can get a good classical guitar teacher, so I can enter the university to study classical music.

My parents were super generous doing this because they weren’t doing well financially, but they managed to do it after some time.

Mack: Finally, Siavash begins to flourish as a musician. For his last two years of high school he lives in Tiran, where he studies classical guitar and plays in a thrash metal covers band.

He takes the all-important college entrance exam and totally kills it. His family is elated. He can enter the industrial engineering program at Iran’s top university.

Financially, he’ll have it made.

But when it comes time to choose a major.

Siavash: On the sheet that I chose my field of studies, I just said music.

And that’s when everybody knew what an asshole I was. It was like, “Okay, this guy has just one string that he’s plucking.

[Spacey Ethereal Music]


[Electric Theme Music]

Mullock: Hey, what’s up guys? It’s Mullock, The Dark God of Information Capitalism. Mullock, whose eyes are a thousand blind windows. Mullock, whose soul is electricity and the [inaudible].

Just taking a quick break to remind you guys to rate Phantom Power on iTunes or Apple Podcasts and even better writing a review of the show.

That’s what we in the industry call: engagement, and it lets apple know that this podcast rocks.

Today’s five-star review comes from Crusoe X, who writes, “Wonderful podcast, provocative discussions of sound and great production value.” Thanks Crusoe.

So, remember, do Mack a solid and leave a review and who knows maybe you’ll get a shout out from yours truly: Mullock, the Dark God of Information Capitalism.

Now back to the show.

[Electric Music Fades Out]


Mack: So, it’s the mid 2000s. Siavash is studying music at the university of Tiran.

But within a year, he realizes it’s not really working for him. He doesn’t drop out

Siavash: Because my parents didn’t let me.

Mack: But he doesn’t really go to classes either.

Siavash: I didn’t go to class. It just went there and that’s where I met a lot of people in the scene now.

Mack: He’s hanging out and collaborating in what would come to be known as Iran’s experimental music scene.

[Experimental Iranian Music]

Mack: People, like his friends Hesam Ohadi, better known as Idlefon, and Nima Pourkarimi AKA Umchunga.

Other Iranian experimental acts include Sote, Tegh, DiePole, Porya Hatami, and Siavash’s good friends, Nima Aghiani and Sara Bigdeli Shamloo, who perform is the Paris based duo, 9T Antiope.

Right now, we’re listening to a collaboration between Siavash and 9T Antiope.

[Song by Siavash and 9T Antiope]

Mack: Today, Siavash, and many of these other performers, release records on prestigious, foreign experimental labels and attract media attention from venues like The Wire, Pitchfork, Vice, and Fact, but at the time…

Siavash: We were just people who cut class and like smoke joint and like drank.

Mack: Siavash’s exploring, experimenting, and once again, the internet and computer technology, play an important role.

Siavash: We were like computer nerds. from Russian torrent sites, we download a shit load of music that we called IDM, and we were on all music all the time, trying different moods and genres and similar artists.

We were listening to a lot of trip hop and at the same time, we listened to a lot of like industrial stuff like Nine Inch Nails.

We were trying to emulate that sound. It’s like, “Okay, how do these people make that sound?” And we weren’t that savvy. Our search engines weren’t that good.

So, we tried experimenting.

Mack: An important thing to remember about this moment in Iran is that it may be more culturally open, but the country is still under economic sanctions.

As a citizen of Iran, you can’t get a credit card. You can’t engage financially with the rest of the world.

This leads to one of the most distinctive aspects of creative life in Iran: the reliance on pirated and cracked software.

Siavash: All the software came keyed and cracked, and we had gazillion choices for making music.

It was like this huge mall that had a lot of CDs and you choose your software and you play with it to get the thing you wanted.

Mack: Siavash and his friends are researching music online and making music with cracked software, but they have one question:

How do people play this stuff live?

Siavash: We searched online for how these people perform this stuff, and there’s talk of laptops.


[Banjo Plays]

Male Voice: We interrupt this story with some important cultural context from Indie Grandpa.

Mack: In the early 2000s, there had been a transformation in the experimental and indie music scenes.

You’d walk into a club and instead of seeing a full band on stage, you might just see one person hunched over a laptop and it was kind of controversial, no matter how good the music was, it wasn’t necessarily the most riveting performance style.

And you have to remember, this is way before pop EDM took the laptop into the musical mainstream.

[Transitional Noise]

So, Siavash and his friends discovered that laptops are how the musical acts they love play live. There’s just one problem.

Siavash: None of us had a laptop. We just had these huge PCs at home.

So, we said, “Okay, let’s get the next best thing and I could book a hall at university and have the PCs transferred there and play it and see what happens.

Mack: If guys on laptops had been getting mixed reviews from audiences in the U.S. and Europe, these guys, hidden behind giant, beige home computers, didn’t get a warmer reception from that first audience in Tiran.

Siavash: People booed us for like 20 minutes. Constant booing and cheering and throwing things, and this was a university, not some like a club or bar or something.

You can imagine if they were drunk how it would have ended.

I came backstage and the guy organizing the show was, like, “Okay, play something that they might like, I don’t know something.”

Mack: Luckily, Siavash had his guitar with him and his years of thrash metal wood shedding came to the rescue.

Siavash: I started playing some Slayer riffs I knew.

[Raining Blood by Slayer]

Siavash: And they were into it, they tuned in, and we started improvising on that.

It was a mess at the start.

[Raining Blood Fades Out]

[Slow, Pensive Transitional Sounds]

Mack: Siavash doesn’t let that disastrous first show dissuade him. He and his two collaborators, that’s Hesam Ohadi and Nima Pourkarimi.

They keep pushing forward. They spend a lot of time on IDM forums, learning new techniques, learning about new groups, new sounds, and they keep improving.

Eventually, they have a house show where they invite some of the biggest names in the Iranian music industry.

They land a contract with one of Iran’s top labels. In 2010, they put out a record called Spotty Surfaces and they start hearing from others in Iran who are doing the same kind of music as they are.

They thought they were alone, but a scene is starting to come together. More house shows and even festivals.

Siavash: A few communities came together through those events and that’s the nucleus. That’s the core membership of the community that now is called the “experimental scene of Iran.”

Mack: Again, something feels universal here. A confluence of media influence and grassroots creativity that you find in any local music scene from Prague to Lagos to Jakarta.

But the specific conditions in those scenes mean everything. They influence everything from the sound of the music, to the meanings attributed to it, to the lives of the participants, and in Iran, those specifics include real political danger.

Take the recent example of the Iranian metal band: Confess

Male News Anchor Voice: The band’s front man and guitarist, Nikan “Siyanor” Khosravi and DJ, Arash “Chemical” Ilkhani were arrested back in 2015 by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, who are basically the country’s morality cops.

The two faced multiple charges, including blasphemy, advertising against the system, and promoting satanic music.

The two were able to make bail with each having to pay $30,000 USD a piece.

While on bail, they fled Iran and made it to Norway, where they received asylum, but that didn’t stop the Iranian court from sentencing the two.

Khosravi was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison and 74 lashes. Ilkhani was initially sentenced to six years, but the sentence was reduced to two years.

Siavash: Some people have got the idea from what we talk about electronic music scene is that, “Okay, it’s free and it’s totally okay.”

No, it’s not, seriously.

If they knew where our ideas were from it wouldn’t sit well for them.

So, the way we got away from it doesn’t mean that there isn’t censorship here. There is, and it’s brutal.

It’s really, really brutal.

Mack: Censorship in Iran is an uneven terrain, and this is where those factions that Siavash mentioned come into play.

In the mid 2000s, the relative freedom of the Khatami administration gave way to the more conservative politics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Siavash: And when we have Ahmadinejad’s people taking over the things closed really badly, especially for certain types of music.

There was no hope for you if you played in a metal band, it’s like, “Okay, you have to stay in your basement [to play the music].”

So yeah, it was a very oppressive time.

Mack: But Iranian politics don’t just simply turn the page from one regime to the next.

Pockets of loyalists of an old faction still remain within the government of the new, and as an Iranian musician, you need to be able to understand this terrain and be able to navigate it.

Ever the computer nerd, Siavash compares the situation to a fragmented hard drive.

Siavash: They don’t do a lot of defragging under institutions. So, there’s a lot of sectors remained with the previous establishments ideas in it.

So, it’s this clusterfuck of ideas that you have to know in order to get around.

And there are certain things that you cannot get around that you’ll be flat out arrested [for doing].

Mack: This kind of censorship is so far outside of my personal experience that I had to ask Siavash to break it down for me.

Who does the censoring?

What’s the process like?

Siavash: There’s this huge bureaucracy that we have a culture ministry, which is in charge of everything that happens in arts and culture and humanities, everything.

If you want to publish a book, you go through their department of, I don’t know, publications.

They have committees that read or listen or watch your work, and they decide, “Okay, we don’t have problem with this one. This one is probiotic.”

And they give you a list. “Okay, fix this one and this one and this one, and you’re good to go.”

Mack: So, I’m just imagining some bureaucrat listening to some harsh noise you made with headphones on or something and taking notes.

Siavash: Yeah, exactly. Like, “Take it away, dude.”

He’s like, “Okay, take it away. I don’t want to listen to this. How many people are attending?”

If you say 10,000, he’s like, “Okay, wait, wait here until we find somebody who understands this.” but if you say it’s like 150, it’s like, “Fuck it. Go play sound effects for 150 people. I don’t care.”

[Ambient Noise Transition]

Mack: Noise. Ambient, drone, experimental, electronic. For me, these are just international genres with impassioned audiences around the world, but in Iran, these genres function as a kind of aesthetic camouflage.

Siavash: Because if we didn’t have lyrics the genre that they didn’t understand, and they thought it was just sound effects, they don’t call it music.

So, we got the license to perform sound effects, you know, fuck it. If they’re going to give the license, I don’t care what they call it. They’re not The Wire.

[Transition Noises]


Mack: Speaking with Siavash, really messed with my notions of experimental music as a transnational, cosmopolitan music genre.

I mean it is those things, and yet what Siavash does is so Iranian. The dissonance and harmony that reflect the anxiety and beauty of a life lived in Iran.

The Iranian love of poetry that leads him to sonic interpretations of T.S. Eliot, and collaborations with spoken word artists, Matt Finney.

And the political camouflage of noise, the ability to wordlessly express such sorrow and discontent.

The genre may be understood as transnational, but this is an Iranian artist making deeply Iranian music.

[Ethereal Transition Noise]

Mack: But this is where one of Siavash’s great frustrations comes into play. His music isn’t really recognized as Iranian music by his own government.

As we’ve heard, that’s one of the main reasons he can get away with playing it at all, but it’s not really recognized as Iranian and music by Westerners either.

Mack [To Siavash]: You have an international audience and you’ve spoken with journalists and I’ve gotten the sense that sometimes you feel frustrated by the way that you’re represented and perhaps Orientalized.

Could you talk a little bit about that, about how the questions and perceptions you get from Westerners, like me?

And maybe I’ve been doing it through this whole interview. I don’t know?

Siavash: No. Yeah. You’ve been great. You very cautiously asked me about the censorship.

Mack: So, is that something that people always want to talk about?

Siavash: Yeah because, it’s like “Haven’t we passed that thing?”

Okay, I’m a leftist, experimental musician in Iran. Can I just for once not do the whole thing? “Yeah. I hate censorship.”

And western journalists they’re so afraid that their stereotypes are going to tear apart in front of their face, that they are mostly are concerned with those stereotypes than what actually we have to say.

That’s frustrating.

Mack: Siavash says that far too often western journalists take the complexities of his Iranian identity and reduce it to this stereotype.

This dissident good guy fighting against the bad Iranian government.

Siavash: And just the part about politics. The part about music.

It’s worse. You have to perform your Middle Eastern for them, you know?

It’s so bad, so bad.

What I hear a lot is like, “Your music doesn’t sound like you come from Iran.”

Yeah, because you haven’t been listening, you have been creating an imaginative construct in your head and transferring it to us. It’s like projecting your ideas about how sad life in The Orient is, or sometimes how sexy life in The Orient is, on us and then try to put us, like squeeze us in [a box].

Mack: Siavash is so serious about not allowing his music to get squeezed into that box, that he removes anything, anything at all, that might sound “Middle Eastern” to Westerners.

Siavash: I’m going to make it hard for them because my expression of my personality wasn’t that easy.

I’m building a life based on an experiment that hasn’t ended and I don’t know what it is.

If I give you very specific signals of a way of thinking that goes well, which are stereotypes of me, you wouldn’t listen to what I have to say, you just keep on making that stereotype stronger in your head and make every analysis based on that stereotype.

Mack: But just like defying the dictates of the Iranian government, refusing to meet the expectations of Western tastemakers comes at a cost.

Siavash: Because these Orientalist beliefs sell.

And sooner or later, when you better know you get to be asked to play those roles and be given a shit ton of money.

I refused to do a very, very big budget project by a very well-known label that wanted me to do piano with [an] oud.

[Oud Chords]

Based on some Sufi poetry and I said, “No, dude, why would I do [that]?” “Do you think I don’t have a piano and an oud and I don’t know Sufi poetry?”

“Do you actually think that?” There’s a reason I’ve been avoiding those things.

And you have to listen deeply.

Mack: I didn’t need you to come up with that idea and curate it for me.

Siavash: Exactly.

Mack: That is really insulting.

Siavash: It is

Mack: I’m sorry to laugh

Siavash: It’s okay. It’s fucking funny.

[Both laugh]

Mack: Oh, why didn’t I think of that? Oh, look, I see you have an oud laying around right here. I just never thought to put it on an album.

[Oud Music]


Mack: Western prejudice is really another kind of authoritarianism. It doesn’t have the power to imprison Siavash, but it can try to disappear him just the same.

We desire to hear the sound of “the other,” but only as we’ve already defined it, we ended up hearing only a figment of our own imagination.

Siavash: Serotypes are fucking useless.

You cannot understand these people with the stereotypes, you get all the nuance out of everyone’s life.

And what is alarming about that is that then you feel superior to people who you may do stereotypes from.

It’s like, “Okay, these are people who are still, you know, dealing with the shit that we have so successfully overcoming in the Western civilization.”

And that’s not true at all as well.

Mack: For all of our stereotypes about closed Islamic cultures, Siavash knows far more about my world than I’ll ever know about his.

Unlike Siavash, the nation that invented the internet, rarely uses it to look outward and learn from the successes and mistakes of others.

But we should.

I think back to the situation in Iran, when I first interviewed Siavash in January of 2020. All the anxiety.

The protesters being shot in the street, Corona Virus shutting down Iran social life and its economy.

And now I look at life in the United States today. The worst Corona Virus outbreak in the world, social life and economy laid low. Black Lives Matter Protesters shot in the street, not only with rubber bullets, but thanks to vigilantes with live ammunition.

A president who openly admires dictators and muses about delaying our democratic election and just staying in power.

For all of our smug stereotypes about Iran, it hasn’t been showing us something out of the past.

If anything, it’s been showing us our future.

[Ethereal Music]

Mack: And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Huge thanks to Siavash.

The vast majority of the music you heard today was by Siavash Amini. There’s a Spotify playlist in the show notes containing most of the music you heard in this episode.

And his releases on labels, such as Opal Tapes, Hallow Ground, and Room 40 can all be found on Bandcamp.

By the way, speaking of Room 40, if you liked this episode, you’ll also enjoy our interview with its founder, the renowned sound artist, Lawrence English.

You can find that episode, as well as transcripts and links to some of the things we heard and talked about today, at phantompod.org.

You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you would rate and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook or give us a shout out on Twitter @phantompod.

Today’s show was edited by me, Mack Hagood. Thanks to Craig Eley, Daniel Fishkin, and Bridget Hagood for the feedback.

Phantom Power is made possible through the generosity of the Miami University Humanity Center. The Robert H and Nancy J Blaney Endowment and The National Endowment for the Humanities.

[Fade Out]