Lily Afshar: Blending Western Music with the Rich Cultural Heritage of Persia

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Lily Afshar.

Lily Afshar is an Iranian American classical guitarist who is acclaimed as “one of the world’s foremost classical guitarists” according to Public Radio International. With a bachelor’s degree from The Boston Conservatory, she earned her Master of Music at The New England Conservatory and went on to study at Florida State University, where she became the first woman in the world to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Music in guitar performance.

Since becoming a tenured professor and head of the guitar program at the University of Memphis Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, Afshar has received the 2000 Eminent Faculty Award, and in 2011 she was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award from The Boston Conservatory. She conducts master classes worldwide and has released six instructional DVDs titled “Classical Guitar Secrets”, Vols. I & II for beginner to intermediate guitarists, and six instructional DVDs called “Classical Guitar Collection”, Vols. I & II for intermediate to advanced guitarists.

As a performing guitarist, she has won a top prize in the Guitar Foundation of America Competition, Grand Prize in the Aspen Music Festival Guitar Competition, the Orville H. Gibson Award for Best Female Classical Guitarist, and a National Endowment for the Arts Recording Award, among others, and she was chosen as an “Artistic Ambassador” to Africa for the United States Information Agency. With her passion for going beyond the traditional guitar repertoire, contemporary classical composers have sought after her for creative collaborations. Some of these have resulted in notable world premieres, including works by Carlo Domeniconi, John Baur, Reza Vali, Garry Eister, Gerard Drozd, Loris Chobanian, Arne Mellnas, Kamran Ince, Barbara Kolb, Marilyn Ziffrin, David Kechley, and Salvador Brotons.

Her first recording, “24 Caprichos de Goya, Op. 195′′ (1994), composed by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco led her to develop a unique multimedia concert combining performance and commentary along with a visual presentation of Francisco Goya’s satirical black and white etchings, which inspired the guitar pieces. She still receives special requests to present this unique program today. Her second recording, “A Jug of Wine and Thou” (1999), was inspired by the famous poem of Omar Khayyam and features arrangements of Persian melodies. At this time, Afshar was attracting the interest of international composers and her third and fourth recordings, “Possession” (2002) and “Hemispheres” (2006) feature a combined total of eight world premieres. “Hemispheres” reached №7 on Billboard Magazine’s Chart of Top Classical Albums in 2006 and attracted the attention of National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel, who featured Afshar on “All Things Considered.” Next came “One Thousand and One Nights,” (2012) which was recorded and released in Iran. Her sixth album and chamber recording, “Musica da Camera” (2013), featured a world premiere by Russian composer Vladislav Uspensky in addition to compositions by Niccolo Paganini and Astor Piazzolla. Her latest album, “Bach on Fire” (2014), highlights a completely unique and intricate approach to J.S. Bach’s guitar compositions.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I grew up in Tehran, my grandmother played the tar, my father played the piano and violin, and my sister played the piano. Music was always present in my house, especially classical music. I would wake up on weekends with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi blasting from the gramophone. I used to have a private guitar teacher and then I went to the Tehran Conservatory , twice a week, in the evenings for my guitar lessons. I played three concerts before I came to the US in 1977. I was always encouraged by my grandmother and father with my guitar.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Very early on I learned not to listen to negative people and negative comments. I surround myself with positive people. My father was a very positive person. He was the biggest inspiration to me. He told me to be diligent in pursuing my guitar studies so that I would reach international level. I respected him more than anyone else in the world. He built confidence in me and taught me to be independent from very early on. As a kid, when I would hear recordings of Andres Segovia, I had the confidence to say if he can do it, I can too. So I worked to reach his level.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I was selected to play in Maestro Segovia’s classes in 1986 at USC for 10 days. This was a big achievement for me, to have my idol sit next to me and listen to me after having listened to him since my childhood. He liked my playing and at one moment he asked me where I was from and complimented me on my interpretation. Also, I am honored to hold the title of the first woman in the world to have received a Doctorate degree in classical guitar Performance.

How has your Persian heritage given rise to some of your greatest musical innovations?

I modified my guitar neck by adding fretlets, or” small frets”, in order to play traditional Persian scales which use quarter tones (like the setar and tar). This attracted the attention of NPR and I had an interview about traditional Persian music performed on the guitar. I performed and recorded this music on two of my CDs and a DVD called “Virtuoso Guitar”. I have also enjoyed arranging the folk melodies of Iran and Azerbaijan for solo guitar and performing them in concerts around the world. My western audiences now get to hear something new and different. The music is now published and it is a unique addition to the guitar repertoire. Students and professionals are playing them in concerts and even recording them on CDs.

Which artist, album or song had the biggest impact on you as musician?

Andres Segovia was the major guitarist who influenced me. I loved the sound that he got out of the guitar — a very warm tone. I have always had that in my ears. That sound is what attracted me to the guitar and made me fall in love with the instrument.

We thought we’d ask: What’s it like being a guitarist in the here and now?

There are now many more talented guitarists than there were before. Competition is high for concert bookings. One has to find a unique program and be a virtuoso to get concerts and succeed. A guitarist has to keep up with the times, play new pieces by contemporary composers, stay up to date with festivals and guitar societies and concert series. In other words, a guitarist whose career is performance, has to be visible, perform a lot, and make recordings and videos.

What’s your biggest disaster and greatest triumph playing live?

I haven’t had any disasters with my playing because I am always 110% ready for my concerts. However, I have been misled and taken advantage of in dealings by several concert organizers where I was not paid what was agreed upon. Those were disastrous. My biggest triumph was performing at the Wigmore Hall in London where the audience sat spellbound and you could hear a pin drop. I played my heart out and I received several great reviews in the press. The Musical Opinion magazine said the following: “Lily Afshar’s Guitar recital at the Wigmore Hall on 18 March provided an extremely well thought-out and fresh sense of programming, illustrating many different sides of her impressive talents on this instrument. Her relaxed, attractive stage manner, her searching and sensitive musicianship and her ability to draw the listeners onto the edge of their seats, were all backed up by a thorough knowledge of the tonal capabilities of her instrument and a frankly awesome digital technique”.

Could you highlight your works?

I have seven CDs and 13 DVDs. My CDs are 24 Caprichos de Goya by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (premier recording), A Jug of Wine and Thou, Possession (with 4 premiers of pieces written for me), Hemispheres (with seven premiers of pieces written for me), One Thousand and One Nights (with two premiers of pieces written for me), Musica da Camera (with one premier of a Russian chamber piece), and Bach on Fire (my own edition of Bach’s music on the guitar). My DVDs are Virtuoso Guitar, Classical Guitar Secrets, and Classical Guitar Collection. I have many publications such as two volumes of Guitar methods with four CDs in Persian, my guitar arrangements of works by Baroque, Classical, and Romantic composers, as well as Persian and Azerbaijani Ballads.

How do you present and describe your three top albums?

I try to do something new on every album. Many of them have world premieres on them. On 24 Caprichos de Goya, I was happy to blend the worlds of art and music together. This music is written by the 20th Century Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and it is inspired by etchings of the late 18th century Spanish painter and printmaker, Francisco Goya. The guitar works were neglected and never recorded before. I analyzed the relationship between each piece and picture, wrote and published scholarly articles about them in three languages, and then recorded them. This was a major addition to the guitar repertoire and since its release, many of the pieces are being performed and are requirements for guitar competitions. The Classical Guitar magazine said that I was the “world authority” on these works. On my CD Possession, I gave the world premiere of four newly commissioned works by composers from Turkey, the USA, Croatia, and Spain. I enjoyed working closely with the composers I recorded on the disc. We came up with new sounds and effects for the guitar. The American Record Guide journal said this: “…Afshar plays beautifully on this vibrant and adventurous recording made up mostly of contemporary works. Her tone is sonorous, her technique solid, and each of her interpretations of these widely varying works is richly characterized…”

My CD Hemispheres reached #7 on the Billboard Classical Music charts. It attracted the attention of Robert Siegel from NPR’s “All Things Considered” who interviewed me on his program. This CD featured five world premieres by composers from Iran, Poland, the USA, and a US premiere of a traditional Turkish song by the Turkish composer Asik Veysel as arranged for guitar by the Argentinean composer/guitarist Ricardo Moyano. In Gozaar by Reza Vali, I altered my guitar fingerboard in order to produce micro-tones that were required for the key and scales of the piece. These micro-tones are used in traditional Persian music. By adding fretlets (small half-sized frets that are set partway across the neck of the guitar between certain existing frets) to my guitar fingerboard, I was able to make my guitar sound like a Persian instrument. This, in turn, has added a new sound and effect to the existing contemporary guitar music. Furthermore, in Hemispheres, I performed for the first time on the Persian stringed instrument, the Seh-tar, and introduced it to my western listeners by playing a traditional Persian song called Morgh-eh-Sahar (Bird of Dawn). I went even one step further and commissioned a new composition for the guitar by Garry Eister inspired by this Persian song. In September 2006 Albert Simon of Ultra High Fidelity magazine from Canada stated: “…Nothing prepared me however for the fantastic Fantasia on a Traditional Persian Song. Composed by Garry Eister, it is, in his words, a Westerner’s travel tale of an enriching and exciting first visit to a new musical culture. Yes, he too, wrote it for Afshar, and she does wonders with all the subtleties of his music-the sudden stops, the whispers, the joy of soaring to the light. Then for the real thing, she trades her guitar for a Setar and we are transported to another world with her interpretation of Morgh-eh-Sahar (Bird of Dawn)”.

Is there a theme that presents in your albums?

I am interested in performing new compositions by international composers and my own arrangements and compositions on my albums. Every one of my seven CDs have world premieres on them. A recurring theme is my arrangements and compositions of Persian and Azebaijani music for the guitar. I have published this music and I have recorded them on my CDs A Jug of Wine and Thou, One Thousand and One Nights, and on my DVD Virtuoso Guitar. Even my chamber music CD, Musica da Camera, has a world premiere of a neglected work by the Russian composer, Vladislav Uspensky. The Classical Guitar Magazine wrote the following about it: “…A first-class addition to the Afshar catalogue that was, as always, well worth the wait….in terms of quality control, Afshar maintains the highest standards, always generating upmarket fare and often with a sizeable dose of original thought.” If I am playing a standard guitar piece like Bach or a Spanish piece, I still do my own innovative fingerings and editing. The result is something completely new; a fresh approach to the old repertoire.

Looking back on your career, can you identify your proudest achievement so far?

I can name a few: Receiving my Doctorate and finishing what I started, Playing for Segovia, receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Boston Conservatory, making 7 CDs and many DVDs, and publishing books. I am also proud to be able to go back to Iran and teach the guitar students there and perform concerts.

As a female guitarist what challenges have you faced? Has it affected you at all?

The classical guitar world is male-dominated. I have always been the only, or one of the few women present in my guitar classes. I have always had to be strong and work hard. It was the only way I knew to prove that I was no less than the male guitarists, and therefore gain their respect.

In your eyes, what makes a great guitarist?

A great guitarist feels one with their instrument and the piece that they perform. A great guitarist makes their guitar sing by using a smooth flawless technique, beautiful tone, and deep musicality. A great guitarist should be able to convey all the emotions of the piece to their listener and convince them that there is no other way to hear this music but the way they just heard it.

Can you update our readers on what you’re doing now?

Right now I continue to perform internationally both solo and as a soloist with orchestras in festivals and in concert halls across the USA, Europe, and Iran. I teach full-time at the University of Memphis where I work with undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctoral students pursuing degrees in guitar performance. I advise students and direct dissertations. I am working on a new CD of All my arrangements and compositions of Persian and Azerbaijani music for solo guitar. I prepare and publish my editions of music.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

I have now lived longer in the USA than in Iran. But I am fortunate to have one foot in the USA and one in Iran. I travel regularly to Iran to perform and teach. I feel like I bring the best of each world to the other. I bring my musical experiences and all that I have learned in the USA to Iran and share it with my students and the people. Vice versa, I bring the music of Iran to my American audience and students. Most have never heard Persian folk music or Azerbaijani music and I am happy to be the one who introduces it to them.