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Cyminology: Exploring New Compositional Frontiers


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That's the good part in music--you never know how it will work out, but that's also the dangerous part because you never feel that you're a great composer because it's not in your hands to compose something; you really are depending on the inspiration.
After forming in 2002, Berlin-based Cyminology has been exploring the rich musical territory bound by the backgrounds of members Cymin Samawatie, pianist Benedikt Jahnel, drummer Ketan Bhatti and bassist Ralf Schwarz. Holding the foursome's unique tapestry of styles together is Samawatie's vocal and compositional work, built around classical Persian poetry, as well as her own writing.

The band began forging its sound after Samawatie started exploring her Iranian musical heritage. Moved by the power of the Persian music and poetry, Samawatie discovered new directions to pursue in her melodies. The elemental sounds of her Farsi lyrics, combined with the band's grounding in modern jazz styles, led to recognition and a host of awards for Cyminology, including winning the Jazz and Blues Award Berlin in 2004 and 2006, and the New Generation international jazz competition in 2003.

Now signed with ECM, As Ney delves further into the soundscapes Samawatie has written for the poems of Rumi, Hafiz and Forough Farrokhzad.

Those familiar with the band's self-produced per Se (Double Moon Records, 2005) and Bemun (Double Moon Records, 2007), produced by Frank Moebus, will find the band moving away from jazz-oriented compositions to more complex and subtle arrangements that still give the performers room to improvise.

Another change in the band's sound on As Ney resulted from working with ECM producer/label head Manfred Eicher, who helped sculpt the CD's sound both in the overall arrangement of the tunes, and the order of the tunes on the release.

All About Jazz: How did working with Manfred Eicher impact the recording?

Cymin Samawatie: I feel that when I'm the composer, when I'm the singer, and I'm involved in so much, it's really difficult for me to step outside. It relaxes me a lot when I know there's a person I can really trust and that I share his opinions and his taste, I mean it's about taste still, and I really do that with Manfred Eicher. I think we're really very close, and I'm very impressed with how close we are—I didn't expect that.

So for me, it gives me a very important calmness to focus on what I'm doing at that moment in the studio, because I know somebody else is taking care of other things. So that helps me to relax and to be there.

AAJ: How did he help with your compositions when recording the tunes?

CS: We had one rehearsal in Berlin with him and he made some [suggestions] and he said, "Maybe you want to repeat this part on this tune," or he said, "Maybe you want to leave the intro because the tune is so strong. It's great just to start with the voice and piano." That was the tune "As Ney" actually, and on another part he said, "Maybe you want to keep out the drum solo—it works great live but for the recording it might make more sense if we go in another [direction]."

He made some changes, but I was expecting more changes from him, and it feels great for the composer when you think you're working with a great person and you're waiting for him to do changes and then he doesn't do any. It gives you some confidence in the work that you do.

The other thing is that the music you play is influenced by what you hear. And how much you hear is influenced by the room that you play in, the instruments that you use and, of course, what you have for the mix in your headphones. So these are things that Manfred also has a gift for: for knowing which room is great for the music; knowing what we need in our headphones. This inspires us, and so that gives us a direction for the music and, of course, for the improvisation, too.

AAJ: How fully compose were the songs when you began recording them? Did you have them fully scored and written out?

CS: Each song had a different approach. If I think about the song "As Ney," a lot of it is written out. There's just one small passage where I wrote some changes and Benedikt is kind of improvising, but it's more like he's taking the melodic idea and putting it into the chords. Other than that, everything is arranged and written out.

There are other tunes, I can think of "Por Se Ssedaa," for example, "Sendegi" and I think there's a third one I don't remember right now, where I wrote a beginning, which is pretty much written out. Then I didn't write anything at all—it's really blank and I said, "Let's see where we go to let's just try out different things, but whatever we try it has to lead to this place." So then there's another place that I've written out that leads to the end. And I like that, too, to see what the musicians are making from it.

And to be honest, that's the really difficult part and the band is not always happy when I'm coming with those ideas, because then I have to make them write music at the moment.

l:r: Benedikt Jahnel, Cymin Samawatie, Ralf Schwarz, Ketan Bhatti

But if you do things that you don't do all the time, that's something—to go from an idea and have something blank and go back to another idea and give it a sense [of] corners—to connect those corners. And then [it's] the four of us—not only one musician doing it but four people doing it. Sometimes I did something, too, and it can happen that I sing along; it depends on the mood, it depends on the room, the audience and the mood that we are in.

That's what I like about jazz music—you have all the freedom to go for the freedom, but you also have the freedom to stick to some details that you worked on during rehearsal or during recording time.

AAJ: "As Ney" is structured more like a suite than typical jazz songs. How did your choice of form come about?

CS: That was one song I really had to struggle with at the beginning. The words and melody were very clear from the very beginning, like everything the voice does was there, right away, but I really struggled a lot, thinking about, "Can I maybe [make] the odd meter not [feel like] odd meter?" I tried something out, but this didn't feel right for me. Then, I tried to put just harmony underneath it, and this didn't feel right for me, and then one day after talking to Benedikt and him trying out some things, I thought, "Well, why not just go in for the classical direction?"

I mean I was listening, at that time, to lots of classical music, so it turned out that for me [that] it felt right. I thought, "OK, that's what the voice needs, what the melody needs." It just worked out. And the idea of the poem—it's such a classical idea, so why not put classical music underneath?

I don't think you find so many times in classical music the odd meter stuff, and my hope is that people don't actually realize the odd meter inside, but that's how it turned out for me.

AAJ: When performing live, how much room do you leave for improvising on the compositions? Does the band take radical departures from the tunes?

CS: Once we find a sound going on with a tune, we like to stick to that sound. I mean the details are still open and free. And just recently it happened two days ago, when we played here in Berlin, that one tune just happened to be very different from what's on the recording. So, we have that freedom and nobody is upset when we don't stick to the idea on a CD. But most of the time we really stick to those sounds because once we find the sound we think goes great to the poem and to the music, we like to be there.

I think, for the listener, it's nice because once you know the CD and then you listen to the music, or the other way around where you listen to the concert then go back to the CD, you suddenly start realizing the details that are there. And the details that are changing slightly because you can still improvise with the sound that you have and make people think that it's composed, but then at the same time knowing there are some composed ideas but it's not [actually] composed.

Maybe you can compare it a little bit with a standard tune. When you have a typical standard tune, the changes always stay the same, and when you know the tune, you know the changes and the person improvises underneath the special change line. So we improvise, but we have the sound there so the sound changes. Maybe that's something you can relate to.

AAJ: How does living in Berlin affect your composing? Is the community supportive of artists bringing different styles of music together?

CS: Living in Berlin for maybe six years now, I realize that Berlin is the kind of place you come here and you don't feel like a stranger. Because everybody does, there are no real "Berlin persons" here. I grew up in small town—a village—and I sometimes felt like a stranger because the German people would see an Iranian girl, and the Iranians who were living there would see a girl who was born in Germany.

So, I was not one, I was not the other; I was something in between. So, I came to Berlin—I don't see strange here. It's just easier to get together and you and can take inspiration from other people, from the culture they bring to you. You have the opportunity to be an inspiration to the other people so it's really something getting together and creating something.

I'm very, very happy it's happened like that. When we first got together, we didn't think about "Let's take an Indian drummer, and you're from Iran, so we have a multi-cultural band." That's not how we started the band. We were just thinking, "I know a bassist and I've been working with him..."

It just happened that we were working together and now it just happened, we're where we are right now.

AAJ: Did Berlin's community of modern music composers help Cyminology blend your sounds into something different?

CS: I think the music that you hear—the environment you grew up with—is the way you improvise and the way that you compose. So especially if you try to take off your hat, to not try to think but more try to feel what you're doing, then those things just appear by themselves.

When you listen to so many different things, it just appears to influence you when you're open minded, when you are excited to learn new music, new things and to meet new people, new cultures.

AAJ: Can you describe your approach to composing? Do you begin with a melody, or by learning a poem and working around from that?

CS: A lot of my music develops while I'm improvising at home, as I record myself. Sometimes, when I sing with words, without words, when I sit the piano and play music and just improvise on ideas, I like I try to stick to them and repeat them and see maybe if they need a change here or a change there. That's what I actually did most of the time—improvise, record myself and listen back to it. And write down the ideas I like most.

Sometimes, it happens that the lyrics are leading me, sometime it's thinking about different instruments, sometimes it's just hearing the melodies and trying find what I'm hearing.

Sometimes when Benedict writes a tune, I also try to write lyrics for his tune. I want to stick to the idea that he had, when he was writing the tune, but also I need to find the words that go with the melody so that the words make sense within the melody. That's actually the most difficult part for me to do, and I think I only did it on one of my songs on the CD, but I did it on two of his tunes.

AAJ: What impact has touring had on your composing schedule?

CS: When I go on tour, I'm always very fascinated because I found out every country is different from the others, even when they are very close. And even every city is different than every other city, so that's something that influences me—that I think is going on in my head when I come back home after a tour.

I need some days to recover, and once I'm recovered ideas start to show. That happened when we just came back from India and Burma, and it was for me very moving to see the people, to meet them. We went on a three-hour train tour through Yangon [Burma] and just saw how the people lived on the market, and going on the train and getting off the train. And some people liked to talk to us—they know very little English but they're very happy—you can really see their eyes shining when they get a chance to talk to you and you answer. These are the moments that are just in my head and they sometimes lead me to special ideas; sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.

That's the good part in music—you never know how it will work out, but that's also the dangerous part because you never feel that you're a great composer because it's not in your hands to compose something; you really are depending on the inspiration.

AAJ: What have you been working on recently?

CS: Actually, starting last year, I've been working on some piano pieces. In fact, one of the tunes on the new CD, it's called "As Ssafar," that's the first piano tune that I wrote in this style. I've written out 10 tunes and I feel maybe one of those tunes I can put on the next CD too, but [not] all 10 of them go in the direction where I believe the band goes. So, I [will] just keep those compositions and see what will happen—I met a pianist when we were on that tour, she's a Chinese pianist who is living in England and she likes my music. Maybe we will get a chance to work together and maybe I can arrange that music well enough for her to play, I don't know yet.

When I compose, I like to compose directly for the band—like imagining Khetan, the drummer, sitting next to me and playing the way he does. That influences me and influences the way I compose, too, and so today was the first tune that I thought sits very well for the band and uses those ideas and is still in the Cyminology [style], if I can say it like that.

AAJ: As Ney seems to move away from the overt jazz sounds to something more blended. Is that a direction the band is taking?

CS: I think definitely it's the songs, they're more important; they're actually the center of everything, so we try to make the sounds as good as possible. And another thing that I would say is the fingerprint of the producer.

The first CD we did all by ourselves, the second CD we had Frank Moebus, he's a guitarist in Berlin and he's famous with the Der Rote Bereich—that's really some unique music and we're really happy he said he would go into the studio with us, and on two songs he's actually playing guitar. So I would think him being there in the studio with us and being the producer in this case was one fingerprint on the second CD.

And definitely there's a fingerprint from Manfred Eicher on the third CD. So maybe that's another explanation of why the CD went in the direction it is now.

AAJ: As Ney was recorded at Rainbow Studio in Oslo, and has a very clear sound. How did the studio impact the recording?

CS: For the first time, I was staying in the room where the pianist and the bassist were, only our drummer was in another room—and we could see him. I think we were a little bit closer than on the other CDs.

That is definitely also a gift that Manfred Eicher has—that he can listen to the music and know that's what the music needs or what makes the music special, or the shape and this blending and everything. I'm amazed he did it so fast—our other CDs took so long to bring them to where they are. He just kind of snapped his fingers and everything was there—that really was amazing for me. So, after two days everything was done, nothing changed after that.

Selected Discography

Cyminology, As Ney (ECM, 2009)
Cyminology, Bemun (Doublemoon, 2007)
Cyminology, Per Se (Doublemoon, 2005)

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