East meets west in fusion of sound and film

Sussan Deyhim is the composer whose music now fills the Serpentine Gallery. Louise Gray met her
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The Independent Online

'Times have changed. A Shi'ite exhibition in the heart of London!" The composer and singer Sussan Deyhim, the artist behind the elaborate, visceral music that accompanies the installations of Shirin Neshat (reviewed above), looks pleased. As well she might, for as an Iranian exile, Deyhim - like Neshat - has direct experience of the West's confused responses to Islam.

'Times have changed. A Shi'ite exhibition in the heart of London!" The composer and singer Sussan Deyhim, the artist behind the elaborate, visceral music that accompanies the installations of Shirin Neshat (reviewed above), looks pleased. As well she might, for as an Iranian exile, Deyhim - like Neshat - has direct experience of the West's confused responses to Islam.

Yet in many ways, Deyhim's work transcends such issues, straddling cultures to create its own expression. It's a heady mixture, as the formalism of Persian classical tradition meets avant-garde sensibilities, Sufi devotionals meet Stockhausen.

In Turbulent, sound and image complement each other so well that any attempt to separate them quickly becomes an exercise in redundancy. At the moment that the Tehran-born Deyhim's song begins, it's clear that her music has its own motive force, driving the camera and the narrative itself.

All of which is to say nothing of the magnificent impact of the black-robed Deyhim herself. From the first gut-level growlings to its ululating arpeggios, the song flys through octaves of sound. It's simultaneously ancient and modern, sensual and terrifying: is it an incantation or a love song? We don't know for sure, and that's part of its contradictory power. If one aspect of Neshat's work concerns the visibility of women in Islam, then it might be said that Deyhim's collaboration considers their audibility. In Iran, where women are forbidden from singing to audiences that contain men, where even the act of performing might end with the woman arrested - Turbulent was filmed in New York - it's no small wonder that the male "singer" of the piece, actor Shoja Youssefi Azari, although he's actually voiced by popular singer Sharam Nazeri, looks nervous. This is transgressive stuff.

Deyhim's own cumulative experience is perfect for Neshat's complex series. Growing up in Iran, she studied ballet and folkloric dance as well as music - Deyhim speaks of seeing Cage and Stockhausen in the same festivals as the cream of Iran's classical musicians. She left soon after the 1979 revolution to pursue her studies abroad. She now lives in New York.

Deyhim's acclaimed recordings of both classical Persian music and her own electro-acoustic compositions on albums such as Majoun (made with long-term collaborator Richard Horowitz) and, this year, Madman of God - Divine Love Songs of the Persian Sufi Masters, show a body of improvisational work that, founded on a deeply held core of Sufism, displays an immense openness to new and alternative traditions. Her CV only confirms this: Deyhim has worked in recent years not only with such high-octane performers as Bill Laswell, Bobby McFerrin and Doug Wimbish but Jah Wobble, Talvin Singh and dance group Loop Guru. And, by special invitation only, she's the sole woman working with a group of Moroccan Gnawa master musicians.

Deyhim met Neshat in San Francisco, where she was dancing and the latter studying fine art. "Some friends brought her to my show", recalls Deyhim, "She was so cute and so pretty; we quickly became friends. When Shirin moved to New York, she called and said 'I have this idea', and she explained what was to become Turbulent. My immediate response was, you're not going to veil me, are you? You're not going to put that thing on my head?"

Well, she did, although Deyhim insisted that they modify her character's image slightly "to take it out of that Shi'ite corner into something that was a little more Renaissance, a little more universal". For Rapture, she had a different approach. "The idea was how do you know where to look? How do you know where intention is? We decided that we would use sound to guide people into each new situation."

Themes of transition are fundamental to both Deyhim and Neshat's art. In Deyhim's case, this is expressed in a long-standing interest in transcendental music. "In the West, people are coming to terms with the idea of wanting to let go of control", she says. "I'm not saying the East isn't like that, but there are different ideologies involved. Music is one of the most powerful art forms in the sense that it's so ancient and so abstract in its essence. It has the ability to go beyond cultural parameters. You may be unfamiliar with a certain sound, but once you hear it... it's soul music. It doesn't matter if it's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's qawwali or Al Green's gospel music; it's going to that place of ultimate surrender, a religious space that is not dogmatic."

Resolutely unveiled, Deyhim herself cuts a sophisticated figure, with an air of Parisian chic that sits pleasantly askew with her conversation about new currents in club music and street life. "Like many Iranians, I've witnessed 20 years of exile, and so I have a clear idea of what it means to readjust. We're not talking about the difference between Italy and France here, but between the US and Iran. I find it crazy not to talk about this; on the other hand I've got to get on with my own life. I decided long ago that I wasn't going to let anger and anxiety be the core of my message - that's why I'm so interested in transcendental music. I think there's a chemistry there that will heal me, and perhaps anyone else." She gives a brilliant smile. "Life's a tough task."

Sussan Deyhim's 'Turbulent' album is released on 1 September and is available only from www.eyestorm.com; 'Madman of God' is released on Crammed Discs Peter

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