Echoes of Iran: The Music and Art of Sussan Deyhim

Susan Deyhim , "Wind Up Doll #1," 2012-2014.

Most people have not heard of the late existentialist Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, who died tragically in a car accident in Tehran at the age of 32 in 1967. But Sussan Deyhim, herself a composer, vocalist, performance artist and activist born in Iran and living in exile for 30 years, the last eight in L.A., is intent upon changing that.

Deyhim's performance installation at Shulamit Gallery, "Dawn of the Cold Season," which was inspired by Farrokhzad's poetry, recently closed, but her upcoming CAP UCLA performance at Royce Hall on January 23, "The House is Black," promises to bring both women center stage.

Chatting with Deyhim recently at her Encino home, one filled with Persian artifacts, recording equipment and testaments to a rich career, the multi-faceted Deyhim is a woman unafraid to speak her mind. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed cited her as "...one of Iran's most potent voices in exile...the sound of the soul in translation."

But why Farrokhzad and why now?

Explained Deyhim: "It was my desire to do something with a sophisticated contemporary Iranian artist in literature. I also wanted someone who shatters every pre-fabricated idea of what that means, like someone who is a provocateur, someone who is a true activist and humanist, someone who is abstract-minded, dark and a nihilist.

Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black"
Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black."

"And," Deyhim added in no uncertain terms, her mellifluous voice rising to make a point, "someone who is funky and street smart, who has something to say to those people hiding behind tradition, as if tradition is stagnant and stays like that for eternity and we have to be so faithful to it that we stop thinking of any kind of future. I'm working with her because I want to take this idea that's been kept hostage by the Eastern tradition."

The artist, never at a loss for words, continued, "Also because they don't like women and modernity, progressive stuff and by the western society which has created a little niche for itself called exotica."

Deyhim is a deep thinker and powerful performer, her art manifesting itself in numerous ways: At 13, she was part of the national ballet company in Iran, traveling across that country studying with master folk musicians and dancers. In 1976, she joined the prestigious Béjart Ballet in Europe, after receiving a scholarship to attend the famed choreographer's performance art school, Mudra. Leaving Tehran in 1980, Deyhim moved to New York, where she dove headfirst into the worlds of music, dance, theater, media and film.

Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black"
Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black."

Her musical collaborations have been legendary, including working with Ornette Coleman, Bobby McFerrin, Peter Gabriel, Rufus Wainwright and Joe Jackson, with whom she sang "Caravan" in Farsi. Deyhim, who, over the course of her career had been signed to Sony Classical and continues to record for her own label, Venus Rising, even worked with, well, The Blue Man Group.

More bold-faced names include U2, the band making use of Deyhim's composition, "Windfall/Beshno Az Ney," as part of its 360 tour; while her distinct vocals can also be heard on the Oscar-winning film, "Argo."

But it's Deyhim's work with Farrokhzad that has been her primary concern over the last several years.

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"This collaboration between Forough and I is something we owe to the contemporary Iranian culture and metaphorically, the ethnic and intellectual culture, as well. If you come from Cuba it's the same; Morocco it's the same. Except for the art world now, because of the money, everything has been kept very, very closed.

So who, exactly, was Forough Farrokhzad, a literary figure likened to the late American poet, Sylvia Plath, and how will the CAP UCLA performance, which will involve some 40 people, including Deyhim's partner of 30 years, composer, keyboardist and electronica wizard, Richard Horowitz, impact theater goers, music and art lovers and Los Angeles' large Iranian community?

Deyhim has called Farrokhzad Iran's Simone de Beauvoir, Frida Kahlo, Maya Deren and Patti Smith all rolled into one.

Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black"
Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black."

"We were aware of her in high school," Deyhim recalled, "and I loved the fact that she existed. She was a rebel. She was a model and very fashionable. And she was anti-tradition, but an absolute lover of tradition, the same way that I am.

"Plath was more of a depressive," she continued, "but Forough had a nervous breakdown when she lost the custody of her child. They published a poem called "Sin," and her husband -- he was like a second cousin -- used it against her.

"This poem was published when Forough was 18 or 20. She was that kind of writer, like I am a certain kind of singer. It is something that comes with the genes, your blood, whatever it was that God gave you."

God happened to give Deyhim an astonishing set of pipes, one that art writer Peter Frank said creates a "unique sonic and vocal language imbued with a sense of ritual and aura of mystery." Deyhim has also collaborated with visual artists, including Lita Albuquerque, Sophie Calle and Shirin Neshat. And as Farrokhzad had made a documentary film, "The House is Black," shot at a leper colony, Deyhim, too, will make use of video and static visual images for her Royce Hall concert.

Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black"
Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black."

Deyhim, who was in residence for a month last year at Florida's Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, made prints from videos she had storyboarded and filmed with a green screen, all drawn from different Farrokhzad poems, many of which were at Shulamit Gallery, including a series of skewed self-portraits, courtesy of a sheet of Mylar.

Recalled Deyhim: "We shot this journey coming from a clean place to this completely distorted place in the Mylar, returning in a white dress, wiping her lips. This poem, "Dawn of the Cold Season," is ultimately about the dying of the times. It's about winter coming. What's good about winter at the end, it brings the snow and snow irrigates the soil, so it has that idea of the realization of youth, and being older, being in touch with death, destruction, the winter, then coming back in a white dress, [when I'm] wiping the lipstick."

The UCLA show, directed by well-known theater helmer Robert Egan, will feature Deyhim weaving together a series of nonlinear tableaux inspired by Farrokhzad's best-known poems, with archival images and footage, including the poet's 1965 interview with Bernardo Bertolucci in Tehran. The score, by Deyhim and Horowitz, who lived in Morocco for many years and snagged a Golden Globe with Ryûichi Sakamoto for the music to Bertolucci's 1990 film, "The Sheltering Sky," will, of course, feature Deyhim's extraordinary vocals.

As for the instrumentation, Deyhim said it's "full-on and super-eclectic, with a lot of percussion, strings and voices.

"It's really an opera, but I don't call it an opera. It is a multi-media show, and all the language, the libretto is fully Forough's. I have a piece that's medieval based on a poem called "Rebellious God," which is very ethereal.

Deyhim said that the poem is funky. "It's electronica meets hip-hop. It's very street, so I bring that street - hers - to this street. I think that's a better way of translating Forough's energy."

Deyhim has a strong following in Los Angeles' Iranian community, with one of the UCLA show sponsors the Farhang Foundation, an organization celebrating Iranian art and culture in Southern California. As 37% of this country's 1 to 2 million Iranian-Americans live in California (mostly in L.A. and Orange Counties), with much of the population passionate about the arts, a large turnout is expected on January 23.

Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black"
Sussan Deyhim, "House is Black."

Explained Deyhim, also an activist who recorded a track for the 2012 Amnesty International "Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan" album: "I'm not a mainstream artist, so I don't deal with mainstream, but as far as the cultural community is concerned, they have received me beautifully and it is wonderful. I feel like I'm back in Tehran after 30 years, which I didn't anticipate. I didn't come to L.A. to be part of the Persian community, but, oh, my God, [it feels like] I'm back in Iran.

In 2005, before Deyhim, had moved here, she was on a double bill with cellist Maya Beiser, and, much to her surprise, she was embraced by fellow Iranians.

"We were these two avant-gardist women - one from Iran, one from Israel. I was expecting international, progressive people who go to Royce Hall, but then I was surprised to see a whole bunch of Iranian people there. They said they were amazed there was an Iranian woman in the Calendar section and they came to see me and figure it out.

"There's a group of extremely achieved Iranians in L.A. and California that are major figures in literally every field - from medicine and science to real estate to technology," added Deyhim. "There's always been mutual admiration and enthusiasm to know these people, and I've grown to be close friends with some of the people I've met here."

But Deyhim, rebellious to the core, is not nostalgic for her homeland.

"Whether my ashes are going to be under the ocean or irrigated to be food for a tree, like Ornette Coleman says, 'Creativity is the land and landscape of the soul. There is no barrier for it.' It doesn't mean that I don't love my blood.

"I like the fact that I'm Iranian," added Deyhim. "I'm at peace with quite a few aspects of being Iranian. I love the food, I love the music, some of the people are really cool and wonderful. So much about it I like, but what I hate is the traditionalists.

I want to kill them," she said, letting loose a hearty laugh, "with my own two hands."


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