Sound Affect is a conversation series which explores the various ways in which different artists, fans, creators and consumers affect each other and the Los Angeles music scene, deliberately and unconsciously.
Based in Los Angeles, Diana Arterian is the managing editor of a Ricochet press and poetry editor of Noemi Press. She holds an MFA in poetry from CalArts and is pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Arterian is currently working on the first English translation of Nadia Anjuman’s poems. dianaarterian.com
Reena Esmail is an Indian-American composer, pianist and vocalist working in both the Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical music idioms. After graduating Juilliard, Esmail earned her doctoral degree in composition from Yale, She is the composer in residence for the Pasadena Master Chorale and founder of the Indian/Western music collective, Shastra. reenaesmail.com
Nadia Anjuman (27 December 1980 – 4 November 2005) was a poet from Afghanistan. Her complete works were published in 2007 by the Iranian Burnt Books Foundation in “divâne sorudehâye Nadia Anjuman” (“The Book of Poems of Nadia Anjuman”). “The Book of Poems” is currently available only in the original Farsi.
Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran
Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran are the LA-based band The Singer and The Songwriter. Their debut album What a Difference a Melody Makes is available now. Find more information at thesingerandthesongwriter.com
Diana Arterian and Reena Esmail are both doctoral scholars of their respective crafts. Arterian is the managing editor of a press called Ricochet and is the poetry editor at Noemi Press based out of New Mexico. Esmail is the composer in residence for the Pasadena Master Chorale and founder of the Indian/Western music collective, Shastra.
Each exudes a grounded, intimate and relevant passion for their work, most recently collaborating on a translation and musical setting of Anjuman’s poetry. We spoke to them about the complex relationships between education and art, authors and subjects, words and music.
I: You are both doctoral scholars. How does the intensity of that kind of education affect you as an artist?
Diana Arterian: It is very rigorous. Oftentimes the scholarly work really compliments my creative work, even in ways that surprise me. It made me focus my creative time in a way that I wouldn’t normally. Especially at the beginning. You’re doing so much intensive coursework so you have so little free time. So that first semester, I was just sitting on my couch and reading 6 or 7 hours a day. I wasn’t setting an alarm, and I discovered that if I woke up at 8am, I couldn’t really read scholarly work after 8-8:30pm. That’s only 12 hours of work time—not enough. So I realized that I needed to be waking up at 6am to exercise and write, and then I could start my critical work. So it made me figure out when I work best and when my creativity is most keyed-in. I had no other option – I couldn’t really be lazy about when I was doing my creative work.
Reena Esmail: I totally agree. There’s kind of a culture of artists that they can stay up all night until they have a burst of inspiration. And that’s true, sometimes you do do that, but now there’s this research that proves that these rigorous schedules actually produce a lot of creativity. And that doctoral coursework teaches you not only how to schedule your time but how important that work actually is to you. Because if you don’t have the meat of why you’re doing it, like if I’m not writing music and I’m just reading articles about other people who write music, I feel totally empty if I myself am not creating. So then I have to really carve out that time to create. And also, after the fact, now being done with my coursework, it makes me so thankful for every second of my life that I can actually create music. Whereas before, I think I just wasted hours of my life everyday just doing whatever. Now I actually do value my time.
I depend on performers to perform my work. So being in the environment of having a doctoral degree—having to talk about your music to performers and having them relate to you and play your music—that is something specific to conservatory. Also, writing my dissertation about the kind of work that I do, which is specifically composers that do Indian/Western crossover music, really helped me to locate other people that do similar work and to build community. So rather than just approaching it as an artist, having an academic approach allowed me to see that other perspective.
I: Do you feel like you had to fight against your education to hold on to your sense of self?
RE: The thing that constricted me a lot was getting a doctorate in Western music. For instance, at Yale, there was no ethnomusicologist on faculty the year that I was there. It was stressful because, [on one hand] I had free reign. It was my word against anyone who didn’t know anything about Indian music. But on the other hand, you write [a piece of music], and no one really questions you [about it] in great detail. I know how much I still have to learn about Hindustani music, but to Westerners I am often a lone representative of Hindustani music to them. It’s stressful because you don’t want to mess up when you’re in that situation.
For a long time I was really aware that I didn’t quite fit into any stylistic camp. And I maybe wanted to and felt alienated in that way. But strangely, once I decided that I wanted to do Indian music, a) the fact that no one else around me was really doing it and b) that I was different from other people but embraced that difference and went for it, I actually received a lot of support. I think people did acknowledge that was my own voice, that it was instantly recognizable as such, and they wanted me to go in that direction. I definitely felt very free to create and explore what I wanted to.
“The process of clarifying my own feelings and my own thoughts has been shutting out the thoughts of what other people want me to be.”
— Reena Esmail
I:Can we talk about your collaboration on Nadia Anjuman’s piece, Gul-e Dodi (Dark Flower)? What was the process like in translating the piece and setting it to music?
DA: I had a guest this weekend who is a very proficient translator. She said, “My favorite part of translating is the ‘trot’,” and I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But it’s this thing particularly when you’re working in non-Roman languages where somebody has written out the poem literally, but it will include all of the potential different versions that a word could allow. I didn’t know about this at all. So when this woman is giving me literal translations, there are times when she’ll use the word “race” and I’m like, “Do you mean running, or do you mean heritage or a political race?” So there are so many layers of disjunct.
When [setting the poem to music], I gave Reena what I had, which was very little at the time. And I hadn’t heard [the final music] at all until one of the final rehearsals, and it was so amazing. It was cool because I felt like it was isolated, but then to have it come together was really beautiful. I did my thing and threw it to Reena, and she did her thing.
I:There’s a sense of oral tradition to the process. Diana’s English translation makes Nadia’s poetry available to an entirely new audience. Coupled with Reena’s music, it has potential to reach even further. How do you see each of your roles?
DA: Of course, my translation will be different than someone else’s, and I try to infuse it with my idea of poetry. But I aim to honor Nadia’s vision. I don’t really want to claim it too much mostly because this is a woman who had such an oppressed life that’s so inextricably tied to my country’s involvement in her country. So for me to claim it is a little troubling.
This is a thing that has troubled me a lot: I’m a white Western woman who came across her story in this weird way. When I was getting my Master’s, I was working on a different project about poets who had been oppressed by their governments. Particularly, Russian poets during the Soviet era. I was trying to find more poets to learn about, and I came across her story. The BBC News had published this story about her, and it was kind of this, “The Oppressed Muslim Woman Getting Killed By Her Husband”. I was like, this doesn’t really fit in with [the project], but the story was really captivating. Then I worked on some of the poems. [To me,] the fact that this was even a story in the BBC News sort of felt like exoticism click-bait. And what’s really creepy to me is how much people are attracted to the tragedy of her story, and it really freaks me out. I try so hard to not let that eclipse her powerful work.
I got to this point where I applied for this scholarship at USC. The application took forever to do, and I included this translation project. When I got called in for this interview, they did not ask me about anything other than Nadia. I felt really shaken afterwards. And I’m so glad I didn’t get the scholarship because if I had gotten it, it would have felt like I was somehow directly benefitting from her tragedy.
Mostly, I’m trying to provide a platform for her work that is powerful and timely, considering we’re still involved in Afghanistan. What the music really did was to give it back something that was lost in the translation or to kind of underscore its original power. So I was really grateful that Reena agreed to do it.
RE: When Diana sent me the email, I had been at the end of my Fulbright in India. It was the last month, and I was trying to grapple with how I have such a different world understanding. I realized how exoticized a lot of these things are. I remember this particular incident where I went into the market near where we lived in India, and I was speaking with this woman there in Hindi. She complimented my Hindi saying like, “I know you’re not Hindi by your accent, but you speak it really well – where are you from?” And I said “America. Where are you from?” She said she was from Afghanistan. And I realized I’d come face to face with a person who had fled the country with her family because of the war. I had such mixed feelings about it—what is [my country] doing to make her have to leave her country? When Diana emailed me, I knew there was something here. Like, this was maybe my answer to deal with this in a musical way.
I also feel like sometimes, because I look Indian or because I do certain things with Indian music, people want me to have a specific story, and they want it to be a story of rediscovering my roots. I think I resisted doing Indian and Eastern music for so long because I didn’t want to fall into what that was. I wanted to have a voice that I had cultivated and discovered. But even so, even in that year in India I found that I would do a lot of these TED-style talks where you would have to make your life story into a single thesis statement. And the thesis statement that the coaches would want was not the one I wanted. In a way, the process of clarifying my own feelings and my own thoughts has been shutting out how other people want me to format them.
In the same way, with something like Nadia Anjuman’s poetry, I have a chance to give a more personal take of what I feel. Because fundamentally, the connection I feel to her is that we’re almost the same age, and I thought, “What if she had been alive and in the world today?” Maybe we would have met each other. Who knows what would have happened. That struck me the most and was the most personal thing for me.