How is a moving image captured in music? How does a melody evoke falling rain or the rustle of leaves in the wind? As a composer, I strive to paint a visual and emotional landscape with my music. Every musical choice—from writing a melody to selecting instruments, to establishing a rhythmic pattern—helps to tell a story or illuminate a picture, adding shading, color, and depth. To demonstrate how I transform moving imagery into a sonic language, I will share an excerpt from my opera-in-progress, entitled So Donia Speaks. With a libretto by the playwright Nahal Navidar, the opera is set in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where journalists, artists, and activists are incarcerated without trial or legal recourse. The protagonist, Donia Moradi, is an Iranian-American travel writer falsely accused of espionage.
Below is an excerpt from Nahal’s libretto. In this aria, entitled “Footsteps,” Donia is in solitary confinement. She dreams of the home she left behind:
Rain falls pitter patter
In my hometown
Mama’s footsteps soft
Like warm winter slippers
Moss and earth and leaves
Billows of soft, white cotton
Dance, dance, dance around my open window
The wooden floorboard creaks
Fire crackling, soot soothing my senses to sleep
Father’s footsteps carry the weight of history
Pacing, pacing, book in hand
The creak creak creak of my house
Tells me the same familiar story.
Footsteps pitter patter
Across the floorboards.
Nahal’s imagery is visceral and evocative: the natural elements reflect Donia’s internal world. My task is to capture not only the sound of raindrops pitter-pattering but also the sense of loss suggested by Nahal’s metaphors. The juxtaposition of warmth from the fire with darkness from the creaking floorboards, the softness of Mama’s slippers versus the stern pacing of Father’s shoes, the rush of the wind and the billowing curtains against a steady descent of rainfall, the scent of the earth and the air before a storm: all of these sounds, smells, and sights must be portrayed musically. Ideally, a listener could hear my music without the words and imagine an emotional world very close to the one depicted in Nahal’s narrative. Then, there is the final layer of meaning: all of these sensations are only a memory, imagined in the depths of prison, far from home.
In addition to expressing Donia’s internal landscape, it is important for me to convey the context of her cultural identity. Donia travels to Iran after her father’s death and possesses a romanticized view of her heritage, a view that is shattered upon her arrest. In prison, Donia meets Roya, a photographer incarcerated by the Islamic regime for her controversial depiction of women, and Mona, a devout Muslim and political prisoner who challenges Donia’s Westernized concept of Islam. It is through her relationships with her fellow inmates that Donia learns the true Iranian spirit that has been so elusive throughout her life in America. In my composition, I evoke Persian classical music as well as Western classical and folk music in order to capture Donia’s multicultural identity, one in between two cultures and two sound worlds.
My first task as the composer is to select the instrumentation. In a traditional Persian ensemble, there are bowed and plucked string instruments, wind instruments, and drums. For this reason, I chose a harp, viola, and daf, a Persian frame drum, to accompany Donia. In Western music, the harp is associated with dreams, the supernatural, angels, and heavenly peace. Donia craves comfort and peace in her prison cell, and the harp answers her call. The harp beautifully captures the sound of a raindrop: there is an initial plucking sound as the musician pulls the string and a resonant sustain as the string is released. Together, these sounds suggest the raindrop hitting a surface and then its dispersion as flowing water. The color of the harp gives the plucking sound a sense of magic and mystery so that the sound of the raindrop is not a literal one but rather one imbued with character and emotion.
The viola is a lyrical instrument closely associated with the human voice. In Donia’s aria, it serves as a companion, echoing her thoughts and dreams, repeating her music and following her melody. The sound of the viola is warmer and darker than that of a violin but not as rich as that of a cello. Historically, it is a neglected instrument because it cannot project its sound as loudly or powerfully as either the violin or cello. The viola possesses a fragile beauty, capturing Donia’s vulnerability and longing for home.
Donia sings her first line, “Rain falls pitter patter,” in a descending scale; the melody reflects the falling rain. The rhythm of the words pitter patter repeats throughout the aria, in the drum part. The drum’s reoccurring rhythm connects the sound of the raindrops with the sound of footsteps, adding another dimension to Donia’s memory. With the introduction of “Moss and earth and leaves” swirling in the wind, the tempo increases. The harp, viola, and drum play rapidly to sonically capture the billowing curtains, and Donia imitates their character on the word dance. Her vocal line ascends to a higher pitch as she becomes more enthralled with her memory.
The mood shifts with the libretto’s images of fire and soot; Donia’s melody shoots upwards like a flame. The harp no longer plays sweeping arpeggios but rather single chords. The violist plucks the string in short, quick bursts, evoking the noise of the crackling fire. This gesture continues under the line, “Soot soothing my senses to sleep, Father’s footsteps carry the weight of history.” The dark harmonies create a sense of urgency, increasing the tension while suggesting burdened and heavy footsteps. All of the instruments arrive together at the aria’s climax, “The creak creak creak of my house,” and Donia reaches her highest note. The word creak is sung across two pitches, evoking the sound of something creaking.
Just before the aria ends, Donia hums her original melody. Her humming suggests not only that dreaming of home puts her at ease but also that her emotions are too overwhelming for words. Donia’s melody occurs once more in the viola. Such a high register is not comfortable for the viola, and thus it sounds slightly strained or out of place. This reflects Donia’s pain and discomfort. The harp plays very quietly in the background, adding a dreamy quality. After Donia concludes her song, the harp ends on its lowest note possible, casting a musical shadow and returning the listener to the stark atmosphere of Donia’s reality.
Collaborating with Nahal has granted me insight into a new artistic discipline, and studying how playwrights communicate character, emotion, and story is inspiring. It is such a joy for me to set her words because they are so musical; they possess internal rhymes and rhythm, and her imagery ebbs and flows. Movement is music, and moving images lend themselves to musical expression.