By Daniel Akira Stadnicki, PhD
Hovering around -40 ℃, January 12, 2020 was a frigid and typically Edmontonian winter day. Smoke billowed out of car exhausts, chimneys, and hung frozen in the air. Snow squeaked like styrofoam and our screen door barely opened as the dog rushed in and out from the backyard. We made pancakes for breakfast—as customary on Sunday mornings—and set-up yet another couch fort in the basement to appease the whirling energy of our cooped-up kiddos.
It had been a week of cold and heartache. When we first heard of the PS 752 plane crash, my wife and I thought it was too cynical to consider it a result of heated military tensions in Iran. But that worry never settled, and as details slowly emerged, our fears became a bitter reality. Fifty-seven Canadians and a disproportionate number of Edmontonians—thirteen people—lost their lives, including University of Alberta students and faculty. Our thoughts immediately went to our many Iranian friends and colleagues at the U of A, as well as members of our own faith community, the Baha’is—a global religion that emerged in mid-19th century Persia and retains a uniquely hybrid aesthetic, gastronomic, and linguistic legacy from the region. Baha’is are often very active in the broader Iranian communities in which they reside, helping to organize events and participating in cultural gatherings across the city. Given the ongoing religious persecution of Baha’is in Iran, however, it was less likely that an Edmontonian member of our community would be travelling there (I have personally known only a few Baha’is that frequently travelled between Canada and Iran). Still, there was always a chance.
As an internationally renowned hub of music research and activity, the ethnomusicology program at the University of Alberta has long fostered a unique culture of mentorship, an emphasis on sacred music studies, and community-driven projects. The work of my supervisors and committee members like Dr. Regula Burckhardt-Qureshi, Dr. Michael Frishkopf, Dr. Federico Spinetti (now at the University of Cologne), and Dr. Julia Byl highlight the program’s strengths in the music of India, Southeast and Central Asia, Iran, North and West Africa, and the Middle East. I had the pleasure of studying with brilliant international student colleagues from Pakistan, India, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and—quite notably—Iran. While news media stories about PS 752 recognized large cohorts of Iranian students in the faculties of Engineering and across the sciences, the music department at the U of A has also been a thriving space for young Iranian scholars. This is also true at other music institutions across Canada: antagonistic travel bans and visa requirements have inhibited Iranian access to higher education in the USA, as well as restricting conference participation to remote Skype and Zoom presentations for annual meetings in the country (including the Society for Ethnomusicology). Following the crash, several of my Iranian friends were posting on social media, appealing for greater public support and attendance at a memorial to be held by the University of Alberta. This post is a reflection on that event and a brief meditation on some of the music and sounds that filled the space. (You can watch a recording of the memorial here, including some of the speeches.)
As I walked towards the Saville Centre from an overflow parking lot, I was met by a young mother with her daughter, who were trying to find the entrance. Like myself, she was also a recent PhD graduate (in political science, if I recall) and worked as a sessional instructor at the U of A. She asked if I knew any of the deceased: “No, but I am friends with people who did.” Thankfully, she said, it was the same for her. We entered the building together and were directed up the stairs toward a sports bar. Ushers funnelled us through a hallway that overlooked a number of busy tennis courts. It must have seemed very strange to have hundreds of somber eyes quietly watch from above; the sound of sneakers, grunts, and bouncing balls muffled through panes of glass offered a moment of quietude as we waited silently, staring as the players moved in irregular rhythm.
When we finally made it into the event space, I saw many familiar faces: PhD students from the Music Department, staff and administrators across Faculties, greeters from the Edmonton Baha’i community. Pictures of the crash victims lined the entrance hall and ushers handed out tissues. The venue was a large and cacophonous gym—banners of recent championships and tournaments lined the ceiling and media folks were arranging themselves and their cameras on the floor. The subdued hum of conversation was punctuated by phone sounds and fluttering jacket sleeves as people waved to friends and relatives entering the soon-to-be-overflowing hall. I was most struck by the surprising sound of children laughing and screaming: a makeshift daycare was set-up in a room at the top level as dozens of kids and adults played, made crafts, and watched cartoons on a projector. It made me wish I had brought my own children, too.
As the seats continued to fill, a slide show played to Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight (Entropy),” a popular piece of post-minimalist music that has been featured in several movies, including Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral alien film Arrival (2016)—a fitting soundscape for collectively bearing witness to a radical and traumatic event. The slow repetition of family photos, flowing in a cyclic dirge, fits well with Richter’s groove, rooted in electronic popular music: its undulating melodic sequence repeating the notes of Eb-Ab, later from Db to Gb. The slide show ends and loops again. And again…
Seated with my close friend Roya and her family, I was pleasantly surprised to see her husband Farhad Khosravi setting up with his santoor on the stage. Earlier in the week I learned that Farhad’s Master’s thesis supervisor in the Faculty of Engineering, Dr. Pedram Mousavi, was killed in the crash along with his wife Dr. Mojgan Daneshmand and daughters Daria and Dorina. Now a PhD Candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Farhad had received early support from Dr. Mousavi, who invited the young applicant to join a research project while he was (at the time) working as an adjunct at the U of A. Not only was Dr. Mousavi a key reason why Farhad chose to study in Canada, but he also attended many of Farhad’s concerts with his family, encouraging him to pursue the World Music Residency program at the Banff Centre. It was at Banff that Farhad met Roya. After patiently tuning his instrument, Farhad greeted us in the bleachers and sat back down close to the stage.
The program began with the singing of the national anthem, which rung out in the hall, saturated in natural reverb. Most in my section sang along, myself included. This all-too-familiar community ritual punctuated a narrative I would find throughout media coverage of the crash: that Iranians are, and have long been, embedded in Canadian culture and society, and that the PS 752 crash was a Canadian tragedy. University of Alberta President Dr. David Turpin opened the speeches and received a warm embrace from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he returned to his seat. Trudeau promised justice, accountability, and that “a full and transparent investigation” would be conducted, but he was much more forthright in later interviews:
if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families […] This is something that happens when you have conflict and war. Innocents bear the brunt of it and it is a reminder why all of us need to work so hard on de-escalation, moving forward to reduce tensions and find a pathway that doesn’t involve further conflict and killing.
While the above statement can be read as a veiled critique of the United States’ escalating military tensions with Iran, the memorial’s proceedings articulated further underlying political tensions in Alberta, though of a different sort. Following Trudeau was Premier Jason Kenney’s very moving and eloquent speech, though it was met with audible groans and tsking in parts of the crowd. Kenney’s United Conservative Party budgetary cuts to post-secondary education will lead to hundreds, if not thousands of job losses at the U of A alone, as well as increased K-12 class sizes, layoffs, and strained resources for teachers throughout the province. Here, it seemed that Kenney’s participation at the memorial, however genuine and compassionate, was eclipsed by these recent developments. The most resounding speech was delivered by Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, who shared his personal affections for annual Naw Ruz celebrations in the city and quoted the following poem by Rumi: “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes, because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.” However, his concluding lines of support for the Iranian community in Farsi would receive the most uproarious applause of the afternoon: man-dal dar-do andu-yi shoma shariq hastam (“I share in your pain and your sadness”).
With local singer Mahdi Modirzadeh, Farhad performed “Karevan”: a well-known piece made famous by the celebrated Iranian vocalist Gholam-Hossein Banan (1911-1986) and often used in funerary settings. Not a stranger to sharing his music for local events and social initiatives, Farhad has been involved in a range of community activities around Edmonton, including raising over $1400 at his sophomore album release for victims of child labour, and performing at a memorial for the Baha’i community in honour of Soleil Asdaghi Beattie (2010-2018). I have been fortunate to collaborate with Farhad at these events and continue to work with him as a drummer/percussionist. As the duo performed, tears flowed throughout the crowd. It was a cathartic release unlike any I have experienced, breaking through the formal and ceremonious aura of the event as a kind of emotional invitation for the nearly 2400 people in attendance. Mahdi’s voice remained clear and strong whilst wiping away tears as Farhad stoically performed with uninterrupted focus. An older couple embraced a lone student beside me, who was weeping throughout the song; rows of attendees were shaking in front of me, sobbing and leaning against one another. There were several instrumental breaks in the piece, allowing for the sounds of mourning to share in the delicate melody and timbre of the santoor.
Edmontonians continue to make space for our grief. In addition to a special memorial service held at the Edmonton Baha’i Centre, several other initiatives have been organized to help support the local Iranian community. On February 18th, I performed with local band Bardic Form, singer-songwriter Martin Kerr, and Farhad Khosravi at Festival Place theatre in Sherwood Park, Alberta. Members of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton were invited and provided free tickets to the show, which premiered a co-written instrumental piece by Farhad and Bardic Form guitarist Justin Khuong in honour of the PS 752 victims, titled “Oliver’s Tears”.
Details of the crash and the contents of the black box remain mired in governmental obfuscation by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the meantime, Edmontonians will keep the victims in our thoughts and gather together with friends to share stories, music, and prayers, remembering: “Be kind to your sleeping heart. Take it out into the vast fields of Light and let it breathe” (Hafez).
Daniel Akira Stadnicki is a professional drummer, educator, and scholar of global popular musics. He received his PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Alberta, where his research on the sounds of Iranian Baha’i persecution was supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. He has presented at numerous international conferences, published articles in drumming trade magazines, as well as in the Journal of Popular Music Education (2017). With Matt Brennan and Joseph Michael Pignato, Daniel is co-editing both the Cambridge Companion to the Drum Kit (2020) and a special issue for the Journal of Popular Music Education on Drum Kit Studies (2021). Recently serving as the principal drumming instructor at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Edmonton, Daniel will begin a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at McGill University in Fall 2020. For more information, please visit: www.danielstadnicki.com.