Fall Arts Preview 2019: For both Kimia Koochakzadeh Yazdi and Jaelem Bhate, the path to music was unpredictable
Kimia Koochakzadeh Yazdi
Flute virtuoso, educator, and former Powell Street Festival artistic director Mark Takeshi McGregor has a talent scout’s ear for raw potential. So when he told me about a young composer whose work he was premiering last February, I took note—especially given that his endorsement was so unequivocal.
“When we read through the piece with her for the first time, the hair on my arms was standing up at the end,” McGregor said, talking about Kimia Koochakzadeh Yazdi and her composition for flute, clarinet, and electronics, Displacement II. “It’s unsettling,” he added, “and at the same time incredibly beautiful.”
McGregor is not the only one who’s been listening. David Pay, another programmer with impeccable antennae, has tapped Yazdi to be one of two “rising musicians” that Music on Main will spotlight in its Emerge on Main concert, which takes place in March of next year. (Percussionist and composer Aaron Graham is the other.)
It’s all rather surprising, given that Yazdi hadn’t composed a note of music until quite recently and that her new career came out of a small but significant disappointment. The Iranian-born musician’s original plan had been to move to Canada and pursue the life of a piano virtuoso, but she narrowly failed to win acceptance into UBC’s piano-performance program. Casting around for something that would keep her in Vancouver, she discovered SFU’s composition department, applied, and was accepted—despite never having heard electroacoustic music before.
“I’ve been playing piano since I was, like, five—but it was like all traditional, conventional classical music,” Yazdi explains in a telephone interview from her Yaletown apartment. “But then I started composition here. I wasn’t sure that this was what I was going to do, but now it’s something that I want to continue with.”
That’s good news for adventurous instrumentalists. At 21, Yazdi has a freakishly accomplished ear for texture, often extracting previously unexplored sounds from acoustic instruments and combining them with electronic processing so subtly that it’s hard to tell which is which.
“I’m so glad to hear that, because that’s my goal, to blur the lines,” she says. “I like the listener to be, like, ‘Is this an instrument or is it electronics?’ I don’t want to take anything away from the power of the instruments, but in the background I’ll be, like, literally dusting them with some sparkles. I like making things more shiny—or not shiny, exactly, but adding more flavour.”
Vancouverites may have a limited time to investigate Yazdi’s music firsthand: she’ll complete her degree in composition in June of 2020, having blazed through the four-year program in just three. “I am a workaholic,” she confesses, laughing. “I take a lot of courses, and I study a lot, and I compose really fast.” And although she admits that she’s a bit tired after premiering four pieces over the course of the summer, she intends to keep working, pursuing her PhD in composition somewhere, but not necessarily here.
In other words, don’t miss her Music on Main showcase—which will also be an opportunity to explore how part of her process involves developing the work in close conjunction with performers such as Graham.
“We’re talking about collaborating with each other on a piece for percussion,” Yazdi says. “Both of us think that working together will make sense, as we both have a collaborative aspect to what we do.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Jaelem Bhate is having an amazing year.
In April, he released the Jaelem Bhate Jazz Orchestra’s debut CD to widespread acclaim, cementing his emergence as a jazz bandleader and composer of Ellingtonian depth and subtlety; the band's next gig is December 4 at Frankie's Jazz Club. Next week, he’ll unveil his classical project, Symphony 21, which aims to present scores both old and new in a decidedly unconventional context. And in November, he’ll be on the Orpheum Theatre stage, leading the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra through a three-performance run of Vern Griffiths’s kids show, Wall to Wall Percussion.
Did we mention that he’s only 26? And that just seven years ago he couldn’t read music?
Ironically, the former rock ’n’ roll drummer credits his decision to get serious about sound to his realization that science would never be his calling. Initially, Bhate followed his older sister into a science program at UBC, but he quickly found out that the university’s music department was where his heart wanted to be.
“I didn’t continue with any of the rock bands that I was doing, but I wanted to keep music in my life in some form,” Bhate explains in a telephone interview from his Richmond home. “So I started playing in one of the school ensembles at UBC, in one of their jazz bands. That put me in the music building once a week, and as a side effect of that, you walk around that building and you hear a bunch of music coming from a bunch of different rooms—not just classical music but jazz and world music.”
Trying to make sense of it all, Bhate decided to audit some theory courses and found himself “totally lost, but also totally intrigued”. His confusion didn’t last long: he soon switched majors, starting courses in percussion performance before shifting his focus to conducting.
“Conducting is the perfect way for me to keep all my musical passions,” he notes. “You get to make music in a live setting, which is something I’m really passionate about. You get to be a theory geek, which I turned out to be, in that you get to sit for hours and stare at scores and figure out what’s going on. And, lastly, I get to wear my composer hat quite a lot. When you’re conducting, you kind of need to be a cocomposer, if you will, in that not everything in the music is on the page. The conductor is not just there to wave their arms but to create something out of the score, even though it’s within someone else’s framework.”
There’s one more passion Bhate hasn’t mentioned: his determination to share his enthusiasm for music. That’s the thinking behind Symphony 21, an ambitious project that will showcase emerging musicians and composers, survey the best of the historical repertoire, and present it all in often unusual spaces, like the “repurposed warehouse” at 191 Alexander Street that will host its debut on Saturday (September 14).
“It’s exposed brick, it’s cedar beams,” Bhate says of the room, noting that he wants to get away from the formality of more conventional classical-music settings. “There’s a craft-beer bar, there’s projected program notes, there’s a Twitter Q & A, so we’re encouraging you to be on your phone during the preconcert talk. And all these inventions are aimed at bringing classical music, as a concert experience, into a 21st-century setting.”
All that and Mozart too? For now, that’s the plan.