All Classical Radio James Depreist

Enjoying ‘The Little Things’: Kian Ravaei at CMNW

A conversation with the Protégé Project composer.

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Kian Ravaei at The Armory Lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Kian Ravaei at The Armory Lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Kian Ravaei, 24, wrote a composition that moved Chamber Music Northwest Festival concert-goers to stand up and applaud for minutes — not once, but twice. The seven-movement 20-minute piece–The Little Things, based on Emily Dickenson’s poetry–was played twice by the Viano Quartet, once at a July 25 recital at Lincoln Recital Hall and again, July 26, at the New@Night Proteges United concert at the Armory. 

The lyrical miniatures followed nature’s morning-to-night cyclic journey, inspired by such Dickenson verses as “Two Butterflies Went out at Noon,” “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” “A Spider Sewed at Night,” “The Moon Was but a Chin of Gold,” and finally, “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking.” Ravaei told the audience that the last movement’s title was his “mantra,” if not everyone in the world loved his music. Then he flashed his quick smile, and asked the audience to enjoy “the little things.”

Kian Ravaei and Viano Quartet in The Armory Lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Kian Ravaei and Viano Quartet in The Armory Lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Kian (pronounced “Kee-on,” rhymes with neon) Ravaei (pronounced “Ruh-vah-ee, a bit like Hawaii,” he says) was one of CMNW’s Protégé Project artists during the five-week summer festival in June and July. The “protégé” designation is a coveted one, and it often launches professional careers. These elite emerging artists are the crème de la crème, and for a long time CMNW co-artistic director Soovin Kim had Ravaei on his radar. “We knew about him for a while,” Kim said. “People talk. And everything is on the Internet. I’d heard his music.”

The son of immigrant Iranian parents who settled in Los Angeles, Ravaei was pushed by his mother, Marjan Azimi, to play piano at 4 years old. Though a pharmacist, she had aspirations to be a pianist, he said, and “she wanted to give me the joy of music. I would throw tantrums because I hated practicing, but my mom forced me to stick to it, and eventually I practiced just for the sheer love of it.”

Ravaei has since graduated from UCLA as a music composition major after he switched from studying philosophy. He is now a Masters student at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and anticipates he will continue to call LA his home after finishing that degree. His American-Iranian and musical community draws him there.

“There’s some truth in the joke that Iranian parents give their children three career options: medicine, law or engineering,“ he said in a July interview with Oregon ArtsWatch. “But I’m grateful that my parents have consistently supported my dream of being a composer.”

Being a second-generation Iranian-American has, admittedly, put pressure on him to succeed. His parents immigrated to the U.S. following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. His dad, Behrouz Ravaei, a civil engineer, came first, and his mother arrived years later. “They worked hard to establish themselves in a new country so that my sister and I could have a comfortable life. Still, it’s a risk for me to pursue a career in the arts. There’s no safety net for me to fall back on. So I feel some pressure to be a leader in my field, hoping that it will bring stability.”

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An avid reader and “amateur” skateboarder, he plays guitar and piano, though he says not in public, and recently took up the setar, an Iranian long-necked lute. He listens to a ton of music, and has written Electronic Dance Music (EDM) for deejays since he was 11 after he realized he could compose it on the computer. 

His musical tastes are varied, vast and eclectic. Though he listens to “plenty” of Western classical music, especially pieces from the Baroque and Classical eras, he’s a fan of such singer-songwriters as Joni Mitchell. Included in the mix of music he appreciates, he says, is “some jazz — I used to be an avid jazz guitarist. Lots of EDM (Electronic Dance Music) — particularly the heavier sub-genres broadly known as `bass music.’ I also listen to the masters of Iranian classical music, like Hossein Alizadeh and Mohammad-Reza Shajarian.”

But not all of his favorite people, or “favorite humanitarians,” as he calls them, are musicians. If he had a dinner party with only five people, he’d invite Martin Luther King Jr., J.S. Bach, Joni Mitchell, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jesus. “I’m not sure how naturally the conversation would flow.”

Kian Ravaei at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Kian Ravaei at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Oregon ArtsWatch asked Ravaei to talk about his musical influences and his music performed at Chamber Music Northwest summer festival throughout July.

OAW: Was your piece composed specifically to be played by the Vianos?

KR: Since the piece is a co-commission among Chamber Music Northwest, Seattle Chamber Music Society and Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, I knew from the outset that three different quartets would be playing the piece. So I didn’t write with any specific musicians in mind. I did, however, try to write a piece that could have different interpretations. Maury Okun, the executive director of Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, attended all three performances, and he said they sounded to him like three different pieces. That’s probably an exaggeration, but it’s true that each quartet brought out different expressive nuances.

OAW: Your piece went perfectly with CMNW’s theme of Poetry in Music. Did you have that in mind when you composed it?

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KR: Actually, I suggested the idea of writing miniature tone poems for string quartet before I knew about the festival theme. At that time I didn’t have a specific poet in mind yet, but Emily Dickinson turned out to be the perfect choice. It was a lucky coincidence.

OAW: Are you a poetry fan? Emily Dickinson is essential to American poetry! Any other favorite poets?

KR: I’m absolutely a poetry nerd. I was the president of the Poetry Club in high school. Some of my other favorite poets are Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, and Dante.

OAW: Who and what are your musical influences?

KR: I’m certainly influenced by many Western classical composers. Bach is perhaps my most consistently inspiring influence. Also Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Ravel, and Stravinsky to name a few. Twentieth-century American composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. I’m greatly inspired by the music of my mentor Richard Danielpour, who at one point studied with Bernstein. I am often influenced by the visceral energy of electronic dance music, which I listened to throughout my adolescence. The Iranian classical music of my ancestral heritage has also been an influence in much of my recent work.

OAW: How do you compose — on the piano, with software, pen and paper, etc.?

KR: I mainly compose at the piano with a pencil and large sheets of manuscript paper. For this piece, I developed the seven-movement structure before writing a single note. From there, I frantically scribbled ideas for each movement, and then one-by-one hashed them out into complete movements. I ended up writing the first movement last, since I needed to know what happens in the rest of the piece in order to set it up properly. After writing the first draft, I spent about three months revising the piece, workshopping excerpts with string players to make sure the music fits under the fingers.

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OAW: Are there other pieces in your repertoire you love as much as The Little Things, and why?

KR: I’m particularly fond of the other piece I wrote for Chamber Music Northwest this summer. It’s called Gulistan (for mezzo-soprano, cello, and piano) and it combines traditional songs from my Western and Middle Eastern heritage. The piece is close to my heart because it combines all the languages I heard growing up — Persian, Azerbaijani and English — into a seamless whole, reflecting the dialogue between different cultures that characterized my upbringing.

OAW: You are prolific already! Is it hard to get your pieces played and heard, and what has that journey entailed for you?

KR: Thank you! It’s difficult for any living composer to get their pieces performed. We live in a musical culture that glorifies the classics. But living composers are uniquely positioned to express what it means to be human in the 21st century. There have been a small handful of influential mentors who have championed my music. The classical music industry is small; everybody talks. When a musician is excited about a young composer, they tell their friends, and a sort of butterfly effect ensues. So over time, my music is being played for more and more audiences. I really owe it to my mentors for believing in me and in my art.

OAW: How have your Iranian roots influenced your music?

KR: Because of my Iranian identity, I have a natural disposition to the sound of Iranian classical music. I grew up with a lot of Iranian pop music playing around the house, which is often inspired by the classical Iranian repertoire. I started studying Iranian classical music in earnest almost three years ago — UCLA had an Iranian music program and I took some of their classes. I’ve since been studying privately with an Iranian musician. Some of my music incorporates the melodic ideas, rhythmic forms, and expressive characters inspired by the Iranian music I’ve studied, combined with my favorite aspects of Western classical music. I didn’t incorporate any Iranian classical music into The Little Things— at least not consciously.

OAW: What are your future plans?

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KR: I’m collaborating with choreographer Annie Kahane on a piece for solo violin and solo dancer that responds to seasonal rituals from our respective Persian and Jewish cultures. As part of this project, I’m studying intensively with a Jewish music expert, and Annie is learning Persian folkloric dance. Like some of my other work, the goal is to create an artistic dialogue between different cultures. I’m also working on new pieces for Icarus Quartet and Salastina, two chamber music ensembles I admire greatly.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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