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Life & Work with Hesam Abedini

Today we’d like to introduce you to Hesam Abedini.

Hi Hesam, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran and my interest in music started to develop in my childhood when listening to classical Persian music caught my attention. The sound and vocal techniques used peaked my curiosity. I remember that I could imagine a colorful, vast and free landscape, which would take me to a different world whenever I listened to the music. When I was nine years old, I finally got the chance to take Persian vocal lessons. I was always interested to know how Persian music and vocal works, but I knew that I wanted to become a composer. At the age of 11, I attended the Tehran Music Conservatory as my middle and high school. That was the first time I saw and played a piano and listened to Western classical music. While I was only 11 years old, I was confident about my decision because I couldn’t imagine my future without music. This strong feeling and decision forced my parents to accept my wish while both my parents and I knew how complex and unpredictable this path could be. I spent six years in the Tehran Conservatory and received my diploma in piano performance and composition.

Meanwhile, my passion for Persian music was still quite strong and I wanted to find a way to bring the beauty of Persian music into the structure and freedom of Western music, thereby creating a new music style that offers the mixture of these two wonderful worlds full of possibilities and complexity. This was my motivation for creating an ensemble of Western and Persian instruments and composing for this genre. Two years before I graduated from Tehran Music Conservatory, I established the Sibarg Ensemble with my classmates and we had several concerts as the first world music ensemble created by students of the Conservatory. While I was in my last two years of studies at the Conservatory in Tehran, I was also studying piano performance with Dr. George Sarajian at the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan. This is how I started learning Armenian as my second language. Upon my graduation from the Tehran Music Conservatory, I moved to Yerevan to complete my bachelor’s degree, but in early 2010 I moved to the US, which was a turning point in my life and musical career. After taking English as a Second Language classes at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, I started studying composition with Dr. Norman Weston. I also had the privilege to start studying and researching on classical Persian music with Dr. Hossein Omoumi, a professor of music at UC Irvine and a great master of Persian music. In the fall of 2014 and after I was admitted to the UCSD music department, I moved to San Diego and lived there for three years.

During my time at UCSD, I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with renowned musicians and composers such as Prof. Lei Liang, Pro. Mark Dresser, Prof. Anthony Davis, and Prof. Chinary Ung to name a few. I also reformed Sibarg Ensemble by inviting new musicians who were also UCSD DMA music students at the time. Our collaboration led to several concerts in various festivals, cultural centers and universities and finally we published our first album “Cipher” in 2018. Since then Sibarg ensemble has been actively performing both in southern California and other cities. In 2017 and upon my graduation from UCSD, I moved back to Orange County and this time to the city of Irvine, where I am working on my PhD in Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology at UC Irvine. I have been continuously working with Prof. Hossein Omoumi and I directed a documentary movie about his life and teaching classical Persian music which was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “From Isfahan to Irvine” was screened in several different universities and also archived in the Library of the Congress. I have also been able to collaborate with various artists and produce and publish two new albums in 2020: “Kooch-e Khamân” with Del Sol String Quartet as a composer and producer, and “Ode to Love” with Namâd ensemble as a singer and producer.

Of course all of these were not possible with the support of the Jordan Center for Persian Studies at UC Irvine. I have had a wonderful time at UCI while entering the last year of my studies here which is made possible by the fellowship I have received from Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute for excellence in Persian studies in order to complete my PhD dissertation project. I am always thankful for the support I have been receiving from my mentor and advisor, Prof. Christopher Dobrian and all the UCI faculty members during the last four years. Since the fall of 2020 and with the support of my first composition teacher Dr. Norman Weston, who retired after over 30 years of teaching at Saddleback College, I have been teaching music theory and composition at Saddleback College, where I learned how to speak English at first. No matter where I end up in the next few years, I truly feel Saddleback is my home since it was the very first place for me as an immigrant where I started to establish my life in the US. Last but not least, I got to where I am today because I had the support of my wonderful parents who taught me how to love and enjoy my life. I got to where I am today because of the love and support I receive from my wife, Tootiya without whom the life is impossible.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Being a musician is always a challenge, especially for an immigrant. I was lucky to move to California when I was under 20 years old and had the chance to build my relations, but immigration is always challenging. I had to look for my family since I was very young and having so many responsibilities in those ages wasn’t easy. When you don’t have a strong financial background where you live, you are always worried about the future and how you can build your life starting from the ground level. I never led such worries turn to fears and stop me from pursuing my dreams but at times and no matter how strong I was, such issues hit my life. But since the first day of January 2021, when my mother left us forever at the age of 58, most of the difficulties I have had become nothing important compare to this loss. My mother was diagnosed with a high-grade brain tumor in August 2018 and the day she went to the hospital was indeed a turning point in my life. I realized how we tend to get deeply involved with many unnecessary actions in life and the speed of our lives stops us from thinking about how little time we have to give and receive love. I was lucky to have over two years to spend with my mother which indeed wasn’t enough. Since she left us, I have been seeing my father suffering from losing his best friend whom lived together for almost 40 years with passion and love. Indeed this was a lesson from me but it was given to me in the most difficult way.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I am a composer, vocalist and educator. My focus is on intercultural music collaboration and I enjoy creating music with other musicians based on our own unique stories. I am interested in using the music as a medium in which each person can express their own unique story through sounds. This is why I collaborate with various musicians in Sibarg ensemble and create improvised-based music. In my scholarly work, I try to address the issue of diversity and equity by examining various intercultural music practices and also by challenging the current system used in academia. I believe diversity is a very important concept, yet we need fundamental changes in administrative levels in order to create a true diverse society. Unfortunately, a lot of times diversity is used as a cover up for the corruptions. We are lucky to live in a society in which we can have such conversations as in many other part of the world, such discussions don’t even exist. This is why I have dedicated my research and music to addressing these issues.

What matters most to you?
As an educator and someone who values education, I do my best to encourage each individual to search in themselves and figure out who they are and what they truly want. Indeed this search must be accompanied with learning about others and respecting and caring about other cultures. I believe this is the first step towards creating a diverse community and we need to teach the younger generation to value learning and respecting other views. I also believe that “intention” is very important and we should be more aware of our intentions. I see many students deciding on their majors without truly understanding their own intention—which is not an easy task. On the other hand, we tend to forget about our intention while working towards achieving our goals. This is why I do my best to always rethink and evaluate myself more frequently.

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