Composition student from Iran wins major Australian new music prize

31 August 2023
Shervin Mirzeinali wins top Art Music award
Iranian-Australian student Shervin Mirzeinali has won the prestigious APRA AMCOS award for Work of the Year (Dramatic) for his composition Panbe Zan. The work explores the traditional Iranian craft of cotton beating. Mirzeinali is enrolled in Doctor of Musical Arts.

Shervin Mirzeinali, 30, a doctoral student at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, has won one of the most prestigious music awards in the Australian music industry, Work of the Year (Dramatic) from APRA AMCOS. His award-winning composition, Panbe Zan, was the centrepiece of his doctoral portfolio supervised by composer Damien Ricketson, who said he’d “never seen anything like it in my time at the Con”.

Panbe Zan is a Persian opera combining spectral music influences and traditional Iranian instruments. Mirzeinali invited Iranian musicians from around Sydney to help create the work which theatrically depicts the feeling and atmosphere of the cotton beater visiting a family home to fluff up their futon bedding. The audience sat on cushions on the floor to capture the feeling of family and friends gathering in the backyard as the cotton beater gets to work on their bedding.

“It’s from a time in my childhood in Tehran that I remember as a really happy time when the family came together,” Mirzeinali said. “The cotton beater would come to my grandmother’s house with a special instrument to fluff up the cotton – the Panbe Zan – to make our bedding. We would all sit in the backyard playing and the adults would be talking and laughing while it gets done. The whole piece became a symbol of that togetherness.”

“It is such an honour to win this award, it was the best moment of my life,” Mirzeinali said. “I am so thankful to my supervisor Damien Ricketson who encouraged me to connect with my Iranian culture and its music.”

Studying music

Mirzeinali has an extraordinary personal story of connection and loss of contact with the culture of his homeland. Born and raised in Tehran, his parents enrolled him in a kindergarten that focused on music education. He continued his music education, and was later enrolled in a primary school strong in mathematics and a swim school. “My parents’ philosophy was the music was food for my soul, the swimming was food for my body and the mathematics was food for my brain,” said Mirzeinali, who excelled in all three.

“At seven, we had to choose an instrument to specialise in and I chose flamenco guitar,” he says. “I played it really well and at 11 or 12 I was playing gigs and concerts around the city with a flamenco band and I was the soloist. Then I started learning piano and Western classical music, as well.”

At 14, Mirzeinali’s parents encouraged their son to leave Tehran to pursue an education in music. He went to high school in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and was accepted into University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (MDW) but his visa was declined.

Instead, he studied music at Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan before taking a Masters degree in Georgia at Tbilisi State Conservatorium and Finland at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and travelled to Vienna for workshops and festivals.

Inspired by composers Beat Furrer in Austria and Kaija Saariaho in Finland, Mirzeinali embraced spectral music and searched the world for a composing supervisor who could guide him through his doctorate. He found Associate Professor Damien Ricketson at Sydney Conservatorium of Music and moved to Australia to study in 2019, aged 26.

Iranian music and spectral sounds

Associate Professor Ricketson remembers the moment his new student landed on his idea for the work that would eventually become his award-winning composition Panbe Zan. “We were a stuck about the direction of Shervin's doctoral project when, in a supervision session, he played an incredible audio clip from an Iranian vocalist,” he said.

“I asked if he had ever considered trying to integrate elements of traditional Iranian music with his Western musical education. It was like a lightbulb clicked, and over the coming years he immersed himself in engineering a new kind of music that beautifully captures qualities from both traditions.”

“Shervin’s unique tapestry of Western, Persian and electronic sounds creates a rich musical language that is infinitely complex and detailed in its texture, but simple and direct in its expressive beauty,” Associate Professor Ricketson said.

Creating Panbe Zan

Panbe Zan performed at Sydney Con in 2022. Photo: Mehrdad Ziaee Nejad

Composing Panbe Zan was life-changing for Mirzeinali. “I left Iran at 14 so I felt very disconnected from my own culture.”

“When Damien asked me if I had ever played Iranian music, I realised in that moment that I had neglected my own culture. How could I have done that?”

Mirzeinali then read every scholarly article he could find on Iranian traditional music and connected with the big Iranian community in Sydney. “I just wanted to hang out with Iranian musicians to understand the mindset and the culture,” he says. “And I wanted to remember my own childhood and to imagine how an Iranian musician might compose a new music concept.”

Over the next year, Mirzeinali single-handedly conceived, composed and produced a large-scale performance of Panbe Zan, activating the Iranian diaspora in Sydney. “First I had to teach the Iranian musicians to forget about melody and rhythm in order to understand spectral music, which is more about colour,” he says. “And in Iranian music, there is no notation, a master would pass the music on from generation to generation. So I didn’t want them to learn the piece from notation. I wanted them to feel it in their soul.”

It was also important to Mirzeinali that the performance didn’t feel like a concert,” he says. “We were basically trying to recreate that feeling of creating new bedding for the family and everyone feeling free and relaxed in the space.”

Community music

Mirzeinali is now artistic director of CozyStage where he directs, coordinates, and curates concerts and artistic projects for the Iranian diaspora on their cultural heritage and to reintroduce a new vision and form of listening. “I have a choir that includes 50 members and I teach music to the Iranian community in Sydney,” he says. “I am still composing and open to all kinds of new work.”

Art Music Awards

Associate Professor Damien Ricketson, Shervin Mirzeinali and Professor Liza Lim.

Sydney Conservatorium of Music staff, students and alumna were honoured in a number of categories at the Art Music Awards 2023. Composition staff Professor Liza Lim and casual academic and composer Ella Macens were both finalists in Work of the Year (Large Ensemble), postgraduate composer Liam Mulligan was a finalist in Work of the Year (Electroacoustic/Sound Art), postgraduate composer May Lyon was a finalist in Work of the Year (Dramatic) and another former student of Damien Ricketson, Liz Jigalin, together with alumna Laura Andrew, received the award for Excellence in Music Education.

Top production photo: Mehrdad Ziaee Nejad


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