"In a bustling marketplace in Iran, a traditional storyteller regales her audience with the tale of Prince Zal and the Simorgh…"
"High up on the Mountain of Gems lives the Simorgh, a wise phoenix whose flapping wings disperse the seeds of life across the world. A king awaits the birth of his son but when the child is born with white hair, he is banished to the mountain to perish. But the baby is found by the Simorgh who raises him alongside her own chicks. She teaches him everything she knows. But when the king comes to regret his actions, Prince Zal will learn that the most important lesson of all is forgiveness.
A mythical tale of family, forgiveness and what it means to be truly wise."
The story of Prince Zal and the Simorgh is one of the most heart-warming and moving tales from the Shahnameh, the 10th-Century epic poem by Iran’s national poet, Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1020 CE). The Shahnameh comprises more than 50,000 rhyming couplets that weave together myth and history, with stories of kings and queens, heroes and heroines, demons and magical creatures. The Shahnameh lies at the heart of Iranian culture and many people know long sections of it from memory. It also forms a central part of a tradition of oral storytelling that stretches back hundreds of years, and which is often accompanied by music.
Sally Pomme Clayton frames her re-telling of this magical story in modern-day Iran, with the children Shirin and Ali excitedly preparing to listen to the storyteller and musicians in Daneshjoo Park.
The main characters in the story:
One of the most colourful characters in the Shahnameh is the beautiful mythic Simorgh bird (pronounced See-mor-gh, with the ‘gh’ like the ‘ch’ in ‘Bach’) who appears in the story of Prince Zal.
She lives on the Mountain of Gems, and is described as being the size of thirty birds, living for a thousand years, with red and gold feathers. Instead of being frightening or intimidating she is known to be wise, forgiving and benevolent. Play Chapter 3 to listen to the Simorgh’s music.
Prince Zal (pronounced with a long a, Zaal)
The son of King Sam, who is born with ‘hair as white as snow’. He is shown to us in the story as a baby, as a wild teenager, and as a young Prince. He is described as wise and forgiving, and respectful and loving towards the Simorgh.
King Sam (pronounced with a long a, Saam) rules with his wife, Queen Aram and together they long for a child. He is quick to judge people on their looks, and over the story learns to amend his judgements and become a better, more forgiving person.
In 2011, Laudan Nooshin approached the Education and Community Department at the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a view to commissioning an orchestral piece based on one of the stories from the Shahnameh to be performed as part of the LPO’s BrightSparks series of concerts for young people. She had previously attended these concerts with her own children and had particularly enjoyed a piece based on a story from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, by composer Brendan Beales. Laudan had the idea that a similar piece based on the Shahnameh would be an excellent way of introducing British children to Iranian music and culture, and promoting a different and more positive image of Iran than children might otherwise receive through the mainstream media and elsewhere.
Laudan particularly loved the tale of Prince Zal and the Simorgh which she remembered her uncle telling her as a child. In this story, the young prince, born albino and abandoned as a baby, is found and raised by the magical and wise Simorgh bird; many years later he is reconciled with his family and returns triumphantly as the new king. With its many topical themes of understanding and valuing difference, and of the importance of forgiveness, this seemed an ideal story for a piece aimed at promoting greater cultural understanding. And indeed, the story proved a wonderfully rich source for use with British school children.
Discussions with the Education and Community Department at the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led at that time by Patrick Bailey, began in the summer of 2011. The LPO invited composer David Bruce to write the music and storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton to adapt the story for a modern audience. The initial musical ideas for the piece were developed through a series of school workshops with key stage 2 children in the autumn of 2011. Prince Zal and the Simorgh was premiered by the LPO at two BrightSparks concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London in May 2012.
Find out more about the 2011-12 Shahnameh Project
From the early stages of the Shahnameh Project, Laudan believed that this story and the music had the potential to reach a wider audience and in particular she envisioned an illustrated children’s book with accompanying music.
Following a performance of Prince Zal and the Simorgh by the Cornwall Youth Orchestra at the Youth Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, in November 2015, Laudan came back to the idea of a children’s book. In early 2017, she started discussions with Deleram Ghanimifard, Karim Arghandehpour and Sophie Hallam at Tiny Owl Publishers, a relatively young company specialising in beautifully illustrated children’s books featuring stories from around the world. Tiny Owl turned out to be an ideal fit with the project and planning continued for several months, during which time Tiny Owl invited Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif to be the illustrator and Sally Pomme Clayton to adapt the story for the book. Tiny Owl secured funds from Arts Council England towards the project and partnered with HEC Global Learning Centre, Pop Up Projects CIC and Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services to produce educational resources and activities. Laudan secured funding from Iran Heritage Foundation to support the project.
The original intention was to adapt the music from Prince Zal and the Simorgh, but it soon became clear that an orchestral score would not suit this project, since Laudan wanted to take the opportunity to introduce children to Iranian instruments and their sounds. She decided that rather than having a single composer, it could be interesting to bring Iranian musicians together to workshop ideas and create the music collaboratively. Eventually four Iranian musicians were invited to take part: Arash Moradi, who had been part of the LPO project (tanbur – plucked lute); Nilufar Habibian (qanun - plucked dulcimer); Saedi Kord Mafi (santur – hammered dulcimer and daff – frame drum); and Amir Eslami (nei – end-blown flute).
Workshop sessions began with the musicians and storyteller in May 2018, the aim being to compose and shape the music around the story. Soosan Lolavar was the Project Manager and Creative Producer (and later Assistant Editor). It was decided early on that each instrument would represent a different character, in the manner of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The music took shape around individual ‘chapters’ (equivalent to the book page spreads), with each chapter composed (and generally performed by) one musician, according to the storyline. In the early workshops, musicians brought their pre-composed ideas, and others would listen and offer suggestions. A certain amount of the creative process was therefore collaborative and it was interesting to hear the music evolve organically and take shape in this way over a period of months. Being based in Vancouver, Amir collaborated from a distance, composing sections and sending them for feedback. The chapters were eventually ready for recording in the sound studies at City in late 2018, with editing, mixing and mastering taking place in January 2019. We were fortunate to be able to draw on our talented students at City for the recording and production of the music, in particular Julius Johansson who, together with Soosan Lolavar, edited the music files.
The Phoenix of Persia was published in May 2019. The official launch event was held at the British Library on 30th May 2019 and included a live performance of the piece by Sally Pomme Clayton and two of the musicians.
The music is available to stream online using the QR code in the book and directly via soundcloud.