Wonderland chats interactive art and hip-hop with Ehsan Ziya.
Our environment can affect us in so many ways – immersing yourself in a new city can modulate the way you dress, shape your mannerisms and shift your palette. For beat-smith Ehsan Ziya, it was his work which adapted characteristically when he moved from Tehran to London.
Ziya makes ethereal, bass-heavy music that is hard to classify. It’s atmospheric, though in no way wishy-washy; it has the bass and boldness essential to London dance music, but without the fast-paced rhythm. Ziya’s creations sit neatly amongst those of his peers, Burial, Evian Christ and Rabit, but are flecked with acutely Eastern instruments. His second solo EP, Flowers, has been described by the musician as a ‘sonic representation’ of his migration to London, combining atmospheres from both of the very different cities he lived in.
In the three track instrumental EP, London is hinted at by an ominous, rolling sub-bass (that is so deep, you need some seriously good headphones to hear it’s full potential) and Tehran makes a melodic appearance as well as with unusual 6/8 time signatures typical of Persian music. The result is a haunting, hybrid soundscape which transports the listener to another world, somewhere between East and West.
Diligent Ziya has a pretty impressive resumé to date. Not only has he been a solid figure in shaping Tehran’s hip-hop scene, founding one of the country’s most highly acclaimed record labels, the artist utilises his fine art background and computer coding skills to produce interactive generative art. His Flowers EP seems to be an accumulation of everything that the producer has made throughout his lively career, including a downloadable album cover of fallen flowers which warps into a psychedelic pattern, yielding unique results for each participant. Ziya firmly believes that the future of music is in tracks that create themselves.
Wonderland caught a rare moment with the dynamic multimedia artist to chat about the workings behind his latest release, Iran’s hip-hop scene and to find out exactly what generative art is…
Hey, Ehsan. Can you tell us what kind of concept were you going for with the EP?
I guess can describe this project as a sonic representation of my immigration story. Flowers consists of three tracks which are a hybrid of environmental influences that living in Tehran and London has had on me. The two cities have a lot in common but are so different in many ways. You can see elements from each city’s ethos and atmosphere in my music – and even in my personality now. Maybe, Tehran is the moodiness and the melancholy, and London is the bass and the distortion.
There is a correlation between the artwork and the music, too. The stretched, glitched and warped flowers on the cover are a good visual representation of my process in making music. I start with a piece of sound, either a sample or something I recorded and I start moulding it to the extreme – to the point that it becomes something new and sounds totally different.
So, you produced the first hip-hop podcast in Iran, how does the scene there differ from that of the UK?
Before talking about the differences, I’d like to mention one thing both scenes have in common. I believe Hip-Hop, both in the west and in Iran, became a platform for a historically under-represented class of people to express themselves and create art that resonates with them. In Iran, this class consists of the millennials born in families in the socio-economical middle class. The children of the 1979 revolution who were born at the time of Iran-Iraq war or just after it was over. As you can imagine, that was a strange time to spend your childhood. The official media felt alien, distanced and unreachable for us. I think hip-hop provided our generation with the tools and a platform to express our view of the world through art and culture.
Coming back the the differences, the Iranian scene is quite different to the Western hip-hop scene. Firstly, it is much less glamorous, mainly because of lack of financial support. There are no official sales, gigs or funding making it truly underground, not only in aesthetics and morals, but in terms of economical independence as well. Artists have to find alternative ways to fund their work and their lives. Having said that, things seem to be getting better now as we are finding ways to sell our music directly to listeners. As far as content and style goes, Iranian hip-hop, in its first years of existence, started imitating the Western culture. After a while, rappers, producers and graffiti writers started exploring ways to localise the style by taking inspiration from Iranian poetry, musical and visual heritage to create newer and more unique styles. We haven’t yet come up with our equivalent of grime, but we’ll get there!
How did you first get into making music?
My first proper encounter with music was actually through break dancing. My older brother was a b-boy and I got into breakbeat music through his tapes when I was about 12. And after a while, I started making my own mixtapes to practice using cassettes. That was my first experience of messing around with recorded music. That all continued until one day my brother brought home a PC and I started learning how to use a computer, which is when I started making mixtapes digitally using a programme called Jet Audio. It wasn’t until around 2003 that I got my hands on cracked versions of Cool Edit and Cubase 3 and that was when I started making beats by chopping classical Iranian samples and merging them with 90’s hip-hop drums. These were my first experiences with making music but I started putting out tracks with emcees in 2006 when my friend and I founded Divar, our record label.
Is there anything in particular that really influences your work?
I think most of my early work was inspired by my life as a kid in the suburbs of Tehran and the city itself. In general, I think places I live in or travel to inspire me and effect what I make. As far as musical inspiration goes, I think mid 90’s hip-hop affected my early work pretty deeply as that was the one thing I was listening to most of the time. Especially people like DJ Premier and The RZA – they influenced what I chose to sample and way I used those samples. I also went through a phase of exploring Iranian traditional music from people like Hossein Alizadeh and Keyhan Kalhor and finding ways to incorporate them and make them sound relevant to myself and people my age. Our generation was a bit disconnected with classical music as we were distancing ourselves from anything that was considered traditional. Also, when I moved to the UK in late 2011 – I decided to go against all the styles I’d used before then and started exploring the modern electronic music scene and delving deep into technology, generative art and coding. Overall, when I listen to my recent work, I can see traces of all those things I mentioned.
You make all of the album artwork on your record label as well as produce interactive art. Do you see yourself as more of an artist or a musician?
Well, I don’t feel like I need to limit myself to a practice or a movement. I make music as well as other things, but I don’t consider myself just a musician. I have been making music for the last 10 years and I write code and make software for a living now. We live in an interesting time; a lot of previously mysterious crafts or techniques that were limited to a few people, have now become democratised and are more accessible to everyone, from music making, design and even coding. I’m trying to explore as much as I can. I think different mediums and practices offer unique ways of thinking. Having experience in many different fields will help artists imagine worlds never imagined before. I guess I am something between an artist, an engineer and a designer. I’m not looking for a title, I just learn new things and create new things.
Why is generative art interesting to you… Can you tell us how it works?
The question for me boils down to static versus dynamic art. In the latter, the artist sees art as a system of rules and behaviours usually defined through code. The art is generated using that system, in real-time and sometimes with user interaction. Imagine a piece of music which is not the same every time you experience it, its duration is not fixed and behaves to your input. The artist then shares that system with the audience as opposed to sharing a static product. Technology is a lot more accessible now. Artists have the opportunity to educate themselves and their audiences about the powers of the digital world and start exploiting the unique creative opportunities provided by this medium to create new experiences never possible before and tell stories never told before. My point is, every medium provides limitations and opportunities for creativity and it seems like we can do better in using these opportunities that the digital world provides
Your music collection must be pretty interesting… What are you currently listening to?
I don’t actually collect records but I do listen to a lot of music. The list is huge, however, my go-to albums are:
Burial’s Kindred EP. This never gets old! It might even be at the top of my favourite records of all time.
7L and Esoteric – Bars of Death. I used to listen to this so much. The beats on this are amazing, it’s a great hip-hop album. I’d describe it as style of the 90’s, perfected using the technology of early 2000’s – especially the track Rise of a Rebel.
Bon Iver’s self-titled album, it’s been played many, many times.
Masoud Shoari – In the Shade of the Wind. The first track ‘Hamsaaz’ is epic! You should definitely check it out.
Jay-Z and Kanye – Watch The Throne. One of the best hip-hop records of the last ten years. I listened to this just before I moved to the UK so it induces many memories for me – and the production is legendary!
Ehsan Ziya’s Flowers EP will be released on 20th June via Divar Records.