A Conversation with Pedram Diba

Pedram Diba was born in Portland, Oregon, and then moved to Iran at 9 months of age, where he grew up. At 17, he came back to the United States to study music. He completed a degree in music composition at the University of Oregon in June 2017. in 2018-19 he is starting a masters degree in music composition at McGill University. He is already the recipient of a number of awards, and his work CheSeShooEsMah was the 3rd prize winner of our 2018 Microtonal Composition Competition. We talked to Pedram about his work.

UnTwelve: I’d like to begin talking about your beautifully expressive winning piece, CheSeShooEsMah, which I just listened to again. To me, this piece is all about slow transformation, exploring poignantly dissonant harmonies and slowly wandering (in the best sense of the word) melodic lines. I'm curious what the act of composing is like with a piece like this. Do you sing the lines to yourself? Do you sit with an instrument (or computer) to hear the harmonies?

Pedram Diba: Sometimes. Most times I try to create a sound that is constructed from different components, in which case I try to imagine and hear the sound in my head. However, if there is a part in the piece that is constructed of only a few instruments, I try to sing it while imagining the sound of the instruments and the electronics if there are any. Sometimes I sit at the piano, especially if I'm writing for the piano and I want to hear the resonance or, some sounds created by extended techniques. However, mostly I try to hear and imagine the sounds and harmonies in my head. Since I use microtones in my writing, it is not very practical to hear the harmonies at the piano.

UnTwelve: So it sounds like you mostly do not use a computer to hear things.

PD: Correct. I try to rely on imagination, experience, and inner ear. Sometimes, if I need to hum a microtone to help imagine and hear things better in my head, I play the closest note in relation to that tone on the piano and try to hum the microtone.

UnTwelve: That is old school, and great ear training!

PD: Yes. I grew up listening to a lot of traditional Persian music, which has microtones as one of the fundamental components of its aesthetics. As a result, a lot of the elements and fundamentals of Persian music, including microtones, became very natural and organic for me.

UnTwelve: How does this piece fit into the rest of your work?

PD: Most my works including this work are intercultural in nature. As a composer, I strive to develop my ideas in a way that engages the rich and extensive history of both Western music and Eastern music, or in the case of the latter, Persian music. Additionally, when I compose, I work towards creating unified bodies of sound that are created from different smaller components. This is also true in the case of this piece.

UnTwelve: I was thinking, also, of the slow tempo and sense of gradual transformation. Is that pretty much constant in your work? Or have you ever done a piece, for example, at a fast tempo, or a piece with sudden breaks, or rapid shifts of focus?

PD: The gradual transformation has not always been part of my compositions, but I have become very interested in it for the past year and a half. This is also the case for rapid shift of focus and sudden breaks. I have written pieces which are at a fast tempo. When writing a piece at a fast tempo I'm not very interested in writing a very prominent and constant pulse of the beat unless I have a very good reason for it. I am usually more interested in transforming and shifting a sound from one point to another. The activity that takes place within the sound during that time could be very quick. The sound could also accelerate in time, much like a rollercoaster going down.

UnTwelve: It would be great to link to some contrasting pieces, if you have any that can be listened to online.

PD: Here is one: Symbiosis for horn and piano.

UnTwelve: Where do you see(/hear) yourself taking your music in your next pieces?

PD: Currently, I am working on a piece for solo cello and live electronics and also a piece for wind symphony. For both these works I am using my background and experience to create music that is intercultural in nature while also being focused on the existence of different sounds, how they relate to each other, and how they develop in time.

UnTwelve: Solo cello sounds like an instrument very well suited to your work. Wind symphony could be a challenge. Will it be microtonal also? If so, what strategies/techniques would you use to make that happen? In both a practical (how will the instrumentalists produce the microtones) and aesthetic (what is your attitude/aesthetic view towards microtones . . . . similar to CheSeShooEsMah or something different?)

PD: I still have to meet with the conductor of the wind symphony to talk about the logistics, but most likely, it will be a microtonal piece. I think there are very few instruments that would not be able to play microtones, such as the piano, harp, the percussion, and etc. The double basses can play microtones easily and in the case of the woodwinds, most the instruments can produce microtones, either by bending the pitch or with a proper fingering.

As far as aesthetics, I am approaching this piece very differently from CheSeShooEsMah. I have gone to a lot of Wind Symphony concerts, but in most cases I have had a difficult time hearing the double bases even when they are very active. My idea for this piece, which might completely change since it's only an idea for now and I have not actually started composing the piece yet, is to record some sounds that are very unique to the double bass, and have have the spectra of those sounds as arrival points at different parts in the piece. The music will always be moving from one sound to the other. My hope is to not only orchestrate the music in a way that the double basses can be heard well, but also to have the sounds double basses as the building blocks of the piece.

UnTwelve: Sounds like incorporation of spectral techniques is in your future. Have you tried working with Just Intonation or some of the equal temperaments particularly suited to Persian music (e.g. 17, etc.)?

PD: I wish I had an elaborate answer to that question, but simply no. However, the idea sounds very interesting to me, and I will definitely be looking into the possibilities of writing music in that way.

UnTwelve: Thank you for talking with us, we look forward to hearing your future work!