The Phoenix of Persia

The Phoenix of Persia is an exciting multi-media project, re-telling stories from the Persian epic, the Shahnameh.  First reviewed in the summer edition of Armadillo, Simon Barrett wanted to find out more about the inspiration and perspiration behind this beautiful creation.  He was able to interview Laudan Nooshin by email and meet Sally Pomme Clayton in person in an independent cafe near Clapham Junction.  The interview in person followed a different thread that strangely intersects at times with the questions Laudan answered.

Recording The Phoenix of Persia.

(from left to right: Delaram Ghanimifard, Laudan Nooshin, Saeid Kord Mafi, Nilufar Habibian, Sally Pomme Clayton, Arash Moradi, Soosan Lolavar, and Sophie Hallam)

The Phoenix of Persia is my first encounter with the Shahnameh.  When did you first hear the stories of the Shahnameh?

Laudan: I remember my uncle telling me some of the stories as a child.  I didn’t grow up in Iran so I wasn’t introduced to them at school as I would have been there; the Shahnameh is studied in school like Shakespeare is here.

Sally Pomme’s interest in the Shahnameh is more circuitous.  She describes her enduring interest in Central Asian and Middle-Eastern epics from Arabic, Iranian and Turkic sources.  Travelling widely throughout Central Asia, listening to story tellers, Sally Pomme retold some of these stories in her 2004 book Tales told in Tents published by Frances Lincoln.


Then in 2006 Sally Pomme was involved in the British Library’s ‘Inside Story’ project, working with schools to engage with a number of manuscripts, including the British Library’s Shahnameh manuscripts.  Sally Pomme began to tell the story for the first time as part of this project.  She also undertook additional research and met with Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, responsible for pre-Islamic Iranian coins in the British Museum.  Sally Pomme recalls how Vesta eloquently explained the huge cultural and historical story of these little coins and showing Sally Pomme for the first time a coin with the image of a King, wearing a crown with features that features in The Phoenix of Persia.


What draws you to the stories in the Shahnameh?

Laudan: There are some wonderful characters and stories; the stories mix actual history and myth and explore some very universal human themes of love, loyalty, power, forgiveness, and so on.

Sally Pomme seems drawn to epic stories generally.  She explains that epics are stories within stories within stories, and in Central Asia today, it takes literally months to narrate these stories with audiences returning time and time again to hear more.  Sadly, this is now a historic tradition in Britain, when bards would have told epics, such as The Mabinogien through words, song and music.  It is this form of epic or bardic singing that Sally Pomme says she enjoys exploring in her own writing, performances as well as collaborations.  Her motivation: to keep these epic stories alive.

Which is your favourite story in the Shahnameh?

Laudan: I think it has to be Prince Zal and the Simorgh.

The Simorgh preoccupied much of Sally Pomme and my time during the interview.  Since publishing the The Phoenix of Persia, Sally Pomme has created a number of different performances, including a solo performance of the story.  When telling this story, Sally Pomme narrates other little stories about the Simorgh. As she explains the Simorgh is a character in other Middle-Eastern and Persian folklore, poems and songs, representing the human soul.  So Sally Pomme enjoys drawing upon these extra stories, re-telling them in a fun, poetic way.

For me The Phoenix of Persia is an absolute sensual delight.  When did you decide that The Phoenix of Persia should be a multimedia project, bringing together the words, art work and the music?

Laudan: The initial idea for introducing this story to British children came from attending the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Funharmonics family concerts with my own children many years ago, when I heard a piece by composer Brendan Beales based on a story from the Finnish epic Kalevala.  This planted the seed of the idea of introducing British children to Iranian music, culture and storytelling through one of the Shahnameh stories and that was the basis for the project that I ran with the Education and Community Department at the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2011-12, and which resulted in a specially-commissioned piece for orchestra, Iranian instruments, key stage 1 violinists and story-teller by composer David Bruce, with the story adapted by Sally Pomme Clayton.  Even back then, it seemed to me that this would make a perfect story for a children’s picture book, but it took me another few years to turn this into reality!


Sally Pomme remembers Laudan’s invitation to write the text that David Bruce set to music for the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2011-12.  It was a huge project. The completed work, Prince Zal and The Simorgh, was part of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s ‘Brightsparks’ series, a fifteen minute orchestral work including professional Iranian musicians and narrated by Sally Pomme.  But she credits Laudan for continuing to pursue the idea of publishing the story, made possible, when Tiny Owl publishing established in 2015, agreed to the project. The book is therefore very unusual, involving many collaborators and belongs to many people.  Sally Pomme characterizes Laudan appreciatively as the ‘mother’ of the project, bringing it all together. Laudan’s official role was producer.

Where do you begin with such a project?  How do you know who to involve?

Laudan: I began discussions with Tiny Owl in June 2017, almost a year before work started on the music.  It was a complex project and took a long time to bring the various elements together. Tiny Owl chose which artist to invite (Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif).  I had worked with Sally Pomme Clayton on the London Philharmonic Project. Early on, I invited my PhD student, composer Soosan Lolavar to help create the music; in fact, Soosan was originally going to compose the music.  But after much discussion we decided to invite the Iranian musicians to workshop and compose ideas from which the music would be created. We weren’t sure what form that would take when we started and it was a bit of a risk, but once the workshopping started, it became clear that there were some lovely ideas emerging.  We also decided early on that each instrument would represent a different character in the story (rather like Prokovief’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’), which worked well. We selected musicians who we felt would be open to working in a collaborative way. Arash Moradi had also worked on the LPO project. I was also keen to include a female musician because there are so many talented female Iranian musicians who simply don’t get the opportunity to be heard because of the way that the industry works, so it was really great that Nilufar Habibian was available to work on the project.


What surprised you most during the project?

Laudan: Generally, I have been surprised at the rich potential of the project, particularly in relation to the extended educational activities and the wonderful teacher resources that Tiny Owl produced.  I’d particularly like to mention Sophie Hallam at Tiny Owl. Sophie brought so much enthusiasm and vision to the project, taking it in directions that I could not have imagined at the start. I have also been struck by the interest and enthusiasm of the school teachers and pupils that we have had contact with, and the general public, for instance at the book launch at the British Library at the end of May.  Everyone seems to love the book!


The boy finding a coin in his pocket at the end of the story was a delightful surprise for Sally Pomme.  He showed the coin to her.  This is the same coin Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis showed to Sally Pomme.  In her mind, and as Sally Pomme writes in the story, the feathers on the King’s crown are those of the Simorgh, and when the Simorgh flies over the King, the King would receive Faar or divine light of wisdom.  Sally Pomme believes Vesta sowed a seed that day, which grew in her unconscious, finally appearing in her story. She even searched eBay for Sasanian coins and found this exact coin! Sally Pomme describes the coin arriving beautifully wrapped up and when she opened it, the coin was minute, the size of a finger-nail.  She made a bigger version of the coin so she could show children at her performances.  

The Phoenix of Persia begins and ends in Daneshjoo park, Tehran.  To what extent is story-telling a public event in Iran? Why do you think it is important to hear a story being told, accompanied by music and pictures?  (I was interested to read that storytellers in Iran painted their stories onto large canvases.)

Laudan: Yes, story-telling still takes place in public.  As in many story-telling traditions around the world, music and pictures help bring stories to life and give them a whole different experience/dimension.  In the school workshops we encouraged children to think about how music brings stories to life, for instance in films or video games!

See Sally Pomme’s answer to how she first heard the Shahnameh at the beginning of the interview and what draws her to this story.

The book includes two stories: the creation of the universe and an adventure about Prince Zal.  Why this selection?

Laudan: The choice of the Prince Zal story dates back the original LPO project of 2011-12.  We felt this was a story ideally suited to the age of the children (Key Stage 2) that the project was aimed at, with its themes of understanding and valuing difference, forgiveness, and so on.  Sally Pomme decided to add the creation of the universe section at the start.

What do you think you gain most when working collaboratively?  How did you bring all the creative elements - words, music and art work - together?

Laudan: The music compositional process presented a number of challenges, particularly since some of the musicians had not worked in such a collaborative way before.  But the most fruitful aspect of the project was that everyone brought their own ideas and perspectives, and I believe this ultimately enriched the resulting music.

The first step was that Sally Pomme adapted the story from the LPO project to a length that was suitable for a children’s book.  Tiny Owl then started working with the artist, Amin.  Meanwhile, in May 2018, we brought the musicians together and started working on the music.  Sally Pomme was integrally involved from the start, so that the music was composed around the storyline.  This process took several months, followed by three months of recording and editing.

Sally Pomme enthusiastically recalls working on the recording and the amazing experience of collaborating with such talented musicians.  The idea of framing the story with modern day Iranian children listening to a story-teller was so she could introduce the different musical instruments.  The text however was written and remained unchanged so readers could listen to the recording and read the exact words on the page.  Whereas Sally Pomme explains normally during a live performance she would make changes, not to the plot, but to the words.  She was grateful for the opportunity to do a recording and the privilege of having all their voices heard in readers’ private spaces, perhaps a bedroom or sitting room.

When did you know you had crafted a great story?  What do you think Ferdowsi might say?

Laudan: I think Ferdowsi would love this retelling of his story.  We realized very early on in the LPO project that this story has great potential, both in the power of the story itself and all the extended curricular work that it enables.

Sally Pomme was more reticent about Ferdowsi’s approval.  She compares him to Chaucer and Shakespeare also part of an oral tradition, writing down the stories that had been passed down by countless generations.  Ferdowsi spent thirty years writing these stories down.  The king was paying him a bag of gold for every couplet, which is why, wryly, Sally Pomme said he may have written so much.  Sadly the artistic relationship between Ferdowsi and the king broke down, Ferdowsi believing he had not received enough praise and the king refusing to pay so much. Ferdowsi went back to Tus.  Sally Pomme continued that the king repented and sent a huge canavan of gold, ivory and elephants to Tus, but sadly Ferdowsi died before the canavan arrived. Ferdowsi’ daughter used the money to fulfill her father’s wish to build a bridge over the river that would survive any flood.  Famously Ferdowsi said:

"The houses of today will sink beneath shower and sunshine to decay.

But storm and rain, will never spoil the palace 

I have built with my poetry."

And his palace remains.  This is because every king since has commissioned an illustrator to make a new manuscript of the Shahnameh, which is why there are so many copies of the manuscript.  Sally Pomme suggests The Phoenix of Perisa is another copy of Ferdowsi’s manuscript.  She remained uncertain whether Ferdowsi would have liked it, but for her the book follows on the tradition he started and keeps his words alive.

I know you have visited many primary schools.  What format did the school workshops take?

Laudan: The music workshops have been run by myself and Nilufar Habiban, composer and qanun (plucked zither).  We start off by introducing Iran the country; then Nilufar plays her qanun and the children are encouraged to talk about what the sounds bring to mind for them and also how it is similar or different from other stringed instruments that they are familiar with or even might play.  We also talk about how music can bring stories to life and ask them to think of examples of this and talk about them.  We then teach them an Iranian song and then move on to the children creating their own rhythmic or melodic ideas, depending on their previous musical experience and what instruments are available.  In doing so, we ask them to create music for a character from the Phoenix of Persia story.

What did you enjoy about going into schools?

Laudan: The genuine enthusiasm of the children - about the music, the story and learning more about this country called Iran that they don’t know much or anything about.  Children are so open and have fewer pre-conceptions generally than adults that it has been an absolute pleasure to introduce them to Iranian music, culture and story-telling.

What do you think the children gained most from your visit?

Laudan: Learning about a different music and culture.  The children seemed to enjoy listening to the qanun, learning an Iranian song and creating their own melodies and rhythms.  See also the answer to the next question about what children gained.

For me The Phoenix of Persia is more than a story.  It is an immersive cultural experience, especially if a school also arranged to receive The Shahnameh Box, a resource box comprising of cultural artefacts, books and objects.  The only sense not piqued seems to be taste, but then I noticed a section on Iranian food in the teachers resources booklet! What would you like to share most about Iranian culture? 

Laudan: One of the aims of the project was for British children to learn about aspects of Iran that they might not normally through the news and mainstream media; and particularly to offer an alternative to the generally negative representations and stereotypes of what Iran is.  We wanted to challenge those kinds of representations, to show that beyond the politics there is a deep and rich culture and history and to ‘normalize’ Iran in the minds of British children and show that it is a country like any other with its own music, culture, food, etc.

For Sally Pomme, particularly reflecting upon live performances, is about communicating often quite complex ideas, usually introducing an unknown culture and tradition to a new audience.  She enjoys making the ideas accessible to the audience, opening the door to a new world. When telling the story of The Phoenix of Persia Sally Pomme likes to finish encouraging each member of the audience to identify with the Simorgh, so this story, this culture becomes familiar and a part of their life.  The story also remains contemporary, reworded and enjoyed by an audience today. 

How do you think our world is enriched through the sharing of such epic stories?

Laudan: As well as the very human lessons of the story itself, I think these stories help children learn that we are all human and that no matter what culture you look at, there are common human themes and emotions that we all share.  Again, this sends a very different message from the mainstream media which tends to ‘demonize’ Iran to the extent that British people have no conception that people in Iran just live normal lives just like anywhere else! I took a group of music students from City University to Iran on an educational trip in 2008 and one of the things they commented on was how ‘normal’ everything seemed!

Sally Pomme emphasized the importance of stories - fairy tales and epics - to plant seeds in our unconscious and begin to evolve, adding to these stories and filling in the spaces.  Like a well, she continued, everyone can dive into our imagination as long as you believe.  Sally Pomme spoke with conviction that we all have the imagination, we just need a few keys to unlock it: imagination is crucial for children, so they can solve problems creatively.

Finally, like Shirin eager to hear the next story, when might we hear more about King Zal?

Laudan: Very soon, I hope!  The complexity of the project meant that it was quite expensive to run and we depended on funding from Arts Council England, City, University of London and Iran Heritage Foundation, without whose generous support the project would not have been possible.  So any further projects are likely to depend on securing further support.


Thank you so much for having produced The Phoenix of Persia.  

British Library Launch May 2019

© 2019 by Armadillo

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