Iranian-Canadian-American composer Kamyar Mohajer says he draws on his multicultural background for inspiration. An example of that blend of traditions will be premiered at this weekend's concert by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. But even as he balances those influences, he also has to balance composing with a career in Silicon Valley.
Mohajer was born in Iran in 1976. He says that’s where his interest in music began.
“My mom was a Persian folk singer, and she always practiced these folk songs at home,” he recalled. “Ever since I was a child, she sang me lullabies.”
So he absorbed the sounds of his native land. He also developed an enduring interest in other parts of his culture, including what he calls an obsession with its rich poetic tradition.
But he also studied the piano and fell in love with western classical music.
In 1995 his family moved to Canada, where he continued to study western music -- eventually earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from York University in Toronto. He continued to study composition with teachers from Juilliard and Stanford.
He says the combination of his Iranian roots and western influences forms the basis for his compositions, like the one that premiered in Rockford, titled “Bliss.” He points to a dance theme that is the building block of the first of three short movements.
“It’s the quintessential Persian dance,” Mohajer explained. “It’s there in the meters of the 13th Century Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez and all the way to the Persian folk music and especially today, in Persian pop music, when you think of the dance, this is the rhythm.”
He says the second movement, called ‘Poem,” is based on his reading of those Persian poets. The dance motif then returns to end the work.
Despite his studies, and determination to compose, Mohajer says he also felt an obligation to pursue something besides music as a career.
“I just didn’t have the heart, you know, to go and say to my parents that, you know, ‘You’ve gone to all this trouble bringing us to Canada, and now I’m just going to pursue this profession which is very, very risky,’” he said. “Unfortunately or fortunately, I made the decision to go to law school, which put me on a different path, and business school.”
In 2007, Mohajer joined a company called Soundhound on the legal and business side. It was started by one of his brothers and produces music recognition software. He’s lived and worked in Silicon Valley since.
He never lost his love of music and continued to compose. He says it can be a bit of a juggling act, and the day job is -- as he puts it -- “noisy.” But the parallel careers can be a good thing.
“Composition is a solitary exercise,” Mohajer said, “and that can be tough when you have to put so many hours in because you can go nuts just being in your room the whole time. We’re social beings, we’re social animals. So, from that perspective, it definitely helps to be in a social environment that’s dynamic."
The fact that he works with his brother, and others he sees as an extended family, make him feel like he’s in a good place right now.
But while the tech work is satisfying, he’s really happy to have his music get out in the world. There’s just something special, he says, about what music can do. He cites Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 8,” the piece that will close the Rockford concert, written in Austria 200 years ago.
“What he captured was so beautiful that -- despite many generations, and despite the cultural difference, and despite not speaking Beethoven’s language -- you can connect with his emotions and how he felt at the time,” Mohajer said. “That’s really powerful; that’s really the most powerful form of communication I think of.”
Mohajer hopes his compositions, written today and in his unique voice, can make that connection with listeners, too.