It was the evening after filming an interview in Paris with the Next Big Thing who turned out to be the Next Big Flop that I first came across Sussan Deyhim. Mooching in a record shop on the Champs Elysées, I chanced upon the Deyhim/Bill Laswell release Shy Angels. Familiarity with Laswell’s work was enough to prompt a purchase, and it didn’t disappoint. Floating over the desolate, dubby moonscape of Laswell’s drones and bass and Karsh Kale’s percussion was an instantly arresting sound: Deyhim’s fluttering voice, slipping mercurially from a sob that forswears sobriety to a whoop that inspires the making of whoopee. Shy Angels is Laswell’s “reconstruction and mix translation” of Deyhim’s 2000 CD Madman Of God. It sent me running to the original. Strange, hallucinatory and mystical, Madman Of God re-invents poems by Sufi mystics Rumi, Hafez and others. Although it was recorded in 1999 in New York and released on the Belgian Crammed Discs label, it has only recently found a US distributor. Until now a secret delight, this oriental but not Oriental, ancient but modern record is finally available. With acoustic Iranian instrumentation and vocals layered like leaves on a Japanese maple, Deyhim’s voice squeaks, burbles, soars and gasps in mystical intoxication.
Deyhim was born into an aristocratic Tehran family, and describes her time in the Shah’s Iran as a fairytale, but not because of recollections of soft-focus summers playing under pomegranate trees. Rather, she fondly recalls the stimulation of the international cultural delights laid on by the annual Shiraz festival. For over a decade, Shiraz was a meeting-place and an engine-room for the international avant-garde, ending only with the Iranian revolution in 1979. The young Deyhim reveled in the feast. “I think that Iran is actually responsible for the survival of the avant-garde in the ’70s,” she recalls, over coffee a couple of days before her performance in the London Jazz Festival. “All the people like Stockhausen, like John Cage, the Living Theater, Merce Cunningham—all these people were supported year after year by that festival. They were paid an enormous amount of money to bring new creations. So they were basically being commissioned by Iran, by the festival of Shiraz.”
With such a grounding, Deyhim, who began her career as a dancer with Iran’s Pars National Ballet company, is naturally unafraid of challenging her audience. “Being an experimental singer,” she explains, “I’ve been studying for the last 25 years so many astounding vocal traditions in the world that you would not believe that the human voice could produce. Once that becomes your journey, you’re basically not thinking about whether you are either intimidating an audience or if you’re being cutting-edge. You’re just inside a landscape that has been carved, you know, been sculpted and has existed for five thousand years.”
Deyhim returns frequently to the metaphor of a landscape, perhaps because it evokes the broad sweep of her music and also her painterly interest in texture and abstraction. That musical abstraction has found expression in installations, notably with visual artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat. Their work together includes the video Turbulent, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Bienniale, and the multimedia performance Logic Of The Birds, based on Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th Century poem. Installations allow Deyhim to journey farther into abstraction than the conventions of the concert hall will allow. “Everyone is in a tradition,” she explains, “Whether you’re in Western classical music, or this thing called New Music or Serial Music, everything is very, very rigidly institutionalized, and there’s no way someone can come in, and out of the imaginary landscape, just say ‘This is what I’m doing.’ You may do it, but it doesn’t have an outlet. Audiences can’t experience it.”
Deyhim’s London show is