The Persian Melody Project began from a desire to make Persian music more accessible to classical singers and to bring Persian folksongs and melodies to the Western classical stage. Founder Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai is an Iranian American; throughout her life, she has witnessed the effect of borders being seen as a separation of people and cultures as opposed to merely serving as geographical markers where different cultures and customs exist. For 8 years, she observed the devastating affects of war and what happens when differences are made to divide rather than serving as something to be discovered. Her entire young adult life, she wondered what it would be like if those differences had been celebrated rather than demonized.
Raeeka wanted to create a way to erase those borders in order to bring the two very different cultures in which she has lived together, and she is doing so through the universal language of music. She wanted to represent a melding of these cultures by having Persian melodies arranged using Western compositional techniques. In order to achieve this, Raeeka purposely sought out an American composer with which to collaborate. The melodies are those of derived from Persian songs: some folksongs and some using the melodies found in Persian popular music. She found her collaborative partner in composer David Garner, and the two began work together on the project in 2007. Bringing the two musical styles together was not without its challenges; there were differences in opinion on how the works should be composed, but through those differences the collaboration grew as each learned the other’s musical language resulting in a beautiful, powerful collection.
The subject matter of the songs is simplistic; the texts speak of romance, unrequited love, and daily living. But the intention of these goes far beyond the scope of music itself: the pieces serve as a symbol of embracing our differences in background and culture and seeking to celebrate those differences rather than being afraid of the unknown. Although the customs and sounds of the two cultures may be quite different, the emotions experienced by both are one and the same.
The first performance of songs from the Persian Melody Project occurred in 2007 as part of the Brand Library Concert Series in Glendale, CA. The following year, the Oakland East Bay Symphony featured orchestrated arrangements of five of the pieces, giving the orchestrated arrangements their world premiere. Other orchestra engagements followed, including a performance with the Redwood Symphony and three performances in Los Angeles and New York with Maestro Loris Tjeknavorian. The project’s original pianist collaborator was Kristin Pankonin, who upon hearing the songs for the first time was eager to be involved with the project. Kristin, who had been Raeeka’s vocal coach since 2004, read the pieces as if she already knew them. She was already a long-time pianist of choice for David Garner, and so having her as part of the creative team was a natural, obvious choice. Kristin was named the official pianist of the Persian Melody Project. She worked closely with David and Raeeka, even after being diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer in 2009. Kristin and Raeeka were to perform many concerts together from 2008 on and recorded some of the songs in 2012. She worked closely with Raeeka and David on the project until her passing in 2014.
To date, 18 songs have been arranged for voice and piano, 9 for voice and orchestra, and 6 for chamber ensemble consisting of voice, piano, and cello, with the option of also using a daf, a large Persian frame drum. The project has been generously supported by philanthropist Bita Daryabari through the Unique Zan Foundation.
The first CD recording of the melodies is scheduled for June of 2016. The album will contain ten of the songs accompanied by piano. Kevin Korth accompanies Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai on all of the tracks except for ‘Mobarak baad’, which was recorded in 2012 with Kristin Pankonin before her passing. A printing of the songs with piano accompaniment, including translations and pronunciation guides, is also in progress in order for this unique fusion of musical styles – and thus cultures – to become more widely shared with performers and audiences alike.