When Azam Ali and her husband Loga Ramin Torkian realized they needed a new creative challenge for their musical project NIYAZ, they chose to pursue staging a multimedia experience. At the time, they weren’t exactly sure what that meant, but it evolved into a multi-sensory performance built around advanced projection/body-mapping techniques. The show is based around Niyaz’s 2015 album The Fourth Light, which was inspired by Rabia Al Basri, the 8th-century poet and first female Sufi mystic.
Both Ali and Torkian were born in Iran and moved to America as children. Their music combines Eastern and Western influences, as well as traditional acoustic instruments and electronics. With The Fourth Light Project (An Immersive Multimedia Experience), they take these concepts to a new level with high-tech theatrical techniques. NIYAZ was in the midst of a series of US performances when COVID-19 led to cancellations (according to their Facebook page, the next scheduled performance is Oct 16 in Montreal.) In a phone interview, Torkian discussed the show.
Could you discuss how the multimedia show came about?
Loga Ramin Torkian: In 2009, Azam and I decided to move to Montreal from Los Angeles. We were totally disenchanted with our lives here, and our son was born, so we wanted to try something different. The night we arrived in Montreal, after lots of preparation, she and I sat and said, “Okay, what’s next?” It was very interesting that we both felt what we needed to do was some sort of a multimedia project. We didn’t have a very clear conception of what that meant to us or how we were going to go about it or what it would entail, but we knew we needed to do something new.
World music is becoming very marginalized as it is becoming just a sibling of jazz in many ways.
It will never lose its audience, but it was not moving along in the direction that we wanted to. So it just seemed natural to do and multimedia project. It took us several years to find and realize what our idea was and what that meant, even to ourselves. And finally, we found an incredibly creative visual artist, Jerome Delapierre in Montreal. That was in one of the nice things; honestly, we could not have done this project anywhere else but Montreal because the city and the government are so supportive of digital art in general. So, there we met him, and we decided to collaborate together. Once we did the Fourth Light project as an album based on Rabia [Al Basri]’s life, who was the first Sufi poet and mystic, we took that idea and created the multimedia project on stage.
At that point, what were your goals?
Loga: We had certain ideas that we wanted to do. We wanted to make sure it was not going to be just a series of psychedelic visuals; the content of the show had to make sense and be related to the music itself and where we had come from, and it had to have a proper context—both the music and the visuals. So for that reason, so much of it was digital art, but everything was based on Persian calligraphy, arches, and sacred geometry—things that are very integral to our tradition and culture and literature. It was very important to get aspiration from those things and then manifest them in a very modern context.
How did things evolve once you got into working on the project?
Loga Ramin Torkian: They evolved a lot. The nice thing about the project was that we wanted it to be very integrated. We wanted to make sure everything interacted, and Jerome Delapierre obviously was the right person to go to. We started trying to apply for many grants to try to create a project, and we kept getting rejected right and left. People would say, no, maybe or we cannot see how this is going to really manifest itself. We got so many rejections that at the end, we actually decided to get a loan against our house to do it and to move the project forward, because we were not going to give up. It was so clear that this was what we had to do. But until the very, very end, once the project was manifested, and for the debut of the show itself, we finally were able to get a very small grant to bring it to bring the first show on stage, in Canada.
Has the show changed since the initial performances?
Loga Ramin Torkian: Yes. We did it in 2016 in Montreal. Immediately within the first three or four shows, it was very clear that certain things needed to be modified. We continued to improve it, even from the technical perspective, not just artistically. We have improved the show as we have gone along. For example, it’s a very 3D show. You have multiple curtains that are translucent, that kind of capture the images, but it creates a very 3D environment. Even in terms of the curtains, we were constantly changing the materials, getting something that was better to make it more stunning and to be able to adapt it to various environments.
Is there direct interaction between the music and the visuals?
Loga Ramin Torkian: Absolutely. That’s the nice thing about this. The visual is not just really responding to bass, which is how it is in a lot of other stuff that you see. This is actually a very complex program. If somebody does a solo at a certain point, then suddenly you might see something rising from the ground in the visuals. So, you will become very much aware of your environment and how you’re influencing your environment visually, not just through the sonic spectrum. It kind of adds a new level of responsibility as a musician because what you do is going to be captured in a visual context as well. And then suddenly, you become more than just a single musician on stage; you become a part of a bigger thing and that changes the whole way you express yourself.
Is it all programmed, or is there live manipulation of the visuals?
Loga Ramin Torkian: It’s both. It’s program so that it interacts or it reacts to movements on stage when we have the whirling Sufi dancer with us. When she moves or if Azam moves at certain times in the show, then all the visuals react to them. There are moments when they react to the music, but those are predetermined. And then there’s also a visual artist who travels with us and has a certain level of liberty. And you know, he can kind of decide to do many collective visuals at that moment in time just as much. It’s all of them together.
Particularly when you’re performing at venues like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’re bound to get people coming specifically because of the visuals, who might not know the music. What are your thoughts on that?
Loga Ramin Torkian: We are living in such a visual time. People are experiencing music mostly on YouTube nowadays, and that means there’s already a visual in front of you when you are experiencing music. And to us, that’s a gateway. There are so many ways you can connect to a piece of art, and they are all legitimate catalysts. I don’t think it makes the music less or more just because you got first intrigued by the visual and decided, you know what, that is intriguing enough that I want to walk into that space. So for me, it’s no different than wanting to go see a movie. You might want to go see a movie because you liked the actor, or you might go see the movie because you like the story, or you might go see it because the director is your favorite director. All of those are entry points to the same artistic expression, and they are all legitimate.
I previously did an interview with Azam where she discussed her background; could you talk a bit about yours?
Loga Ramin Torkian: Well, I’m by birth from Iran, and I grew up in Iran until I was 14, and then I moved to the United States. Eventually, I set up in Los Angeles and went to UCLA. I studied mathematics and music while I was at UCLA. That’s how I began my professional musician career. First, I worked as a mathematician for three years, but I couldn’t sit in a cubicle. Then I decided, you know what? I’m going to change careers and go in a different direction. I played a unique instrument. I call it Kamanj?. It’s basically from the family of viola da gamba. It’s a bowed instrument. It’s like a bowed guitar essentially, but it’s an electric, and it is customized so that I can do Middle Eastern music on it with all the Middle Eastern intervals.
Do you think studying math impacted your work as a musician?
Loga Ramin Torkian: Absolutely. Actually, the interesting thing is that very few people think of mathematics as art, but in fact, you get a bachelor of art in mathematics because it is a form of art. It’s a language; it’s literature. So, the way you think and you learn to kind of communicate not so much in terms of just all the combinatorial occurrences that happen in music and in, in as well as the math in terms of chords, formation and all of that. Just in terms of thinking a little bit more, in a broader sense, of the concept and what that means, I really say that studying mathematics helped me with my composition and the way I express.
For more info, visit niyazmusic.com. Be sure to also check out our interview with Azam Ali about her Phantoms solo album.