Sahba Aminikia has created an extraordinary multi-media experience for his 5-month residency at 836M. The Language of the Birds—sometimes known as The Conference of the Birds—is a poem by the 12th-century mystic Attar of Nishapur and among the most treasured Sufi writings, revered by Rumi and others over centuries. Attar’s poem comes alive for a new age in this musical and visual adaptation, which follows a group of birds who overcome doubts and fears to set off in search of a mythical king who will make the world right. Their quest is both a migration in witness of this flawed world and a journey of spiritual transformation, as they finally understand that the king they are searching for is none other than themselves, acting as one for the good of all.

The residency culminated in two one-hour performances, with collaborators including writer and translator Zara Houshmand, the Living Earth Show (guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson), renowned ensembles of the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus, multidisciplinary artist, musician, composer, director, and educator David Coulter, media artist John Sanborn, and singer Marjan Vahdat.

The Language of Birds marks Aminikia’s third collaboration with Houshmand whose contributions include translating the medieval poem that serves as source material as well as writing original lines of verse. The libretto will be sung in both Farsi and English, and Houshmand will also perform the role of one of the lead characters, a bird named Hoopoe.

Over his career, Aminikia has worked with the renowned San Francisco Girls Chorus and the Living Earth Show on many occasions. For this project, between 31 young singers play a variety of birds, and the “ferociously creative” duo of Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson perform on guitar and percussion.

John Sanborn designed the visual program for the work. Sanborn, who is based in the Bay Area, is widely considered one of the leading American video and digital media artists of his generation. His work spans the fields of television, video installation, video games, music videos and much more.

Finally, The Language of the Birds included guest artist Marjan Vahdat, an award-winning Iranian singer and musician, currently based in Northern California. Vahdat’s third solo album, Our Garden is Alone, was released last year to great fanfare, topping the transglobal world music chart.

The Concourse of the Birds, Folio 11r from a Mantiq al-Tayr (Language of the Birds (ca. 1600) written by Farid al-Din`Attar (Iranian, Nishapur ca. 1142–ca. 1220 Nishapur) and painted by Habiballah of Sava (Iranian, active ca. 1590–1610). Ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Sahba Aminikia

Sahba Aminikia, is an Iranian-born composer, pianist and educator based in San Francisco. Aminikia’s work has been widely performed around the world and commissioned by ensembles such as Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, Akron Symphony, Symphony Parnassus, International Contemporary Ensemble, ZOFO Duet, Verdigris Ensemble, Music of Remembrance and the Living Earth Show. His musical pieces have been widely performed in United States, Canada, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Italy, Poland, China, Greece, Turkey and Israel and at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Le Poisson Rouge, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF Exploratorium, SFJAZZ and Saint Anne’s Warehouse. Aminikia is the Founder and the Artistic Director for Flying Carpet Festival, a mobile music festival for children living in conflict zones.

Zara Houshmand

Zara Houshmand is an Iranian American writer, raised in the Philippines and educated in the UK, whose work includes poetry, theatre, literary translation, collaborative memoir, and creative nonfiction, with a special talent for deep collaboration across cultural divides.

She was a pioneer in the development of virtual reality as an art form and her VR installation Beyond Manzanar, created with Tamiko Thiel, has been exhibited widely around the world and is in the permanent collection of the San Jose Museum of Art. For two decades she worked with the Mind & Life Institute on books representing the Dalai Lama’s dialogues with Western scientists, and she has contributed to many other publications on Buddhism, including Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi’s Running Toward Mystery. Her theater work includes directing and designing as well as writing and translation, with bilingual productions and award-winning translations of Bijan Mofid’s plays. As a contributing editor for Words Without Borders, she has translated contemporary Iranian poetry as well as classics. Her most recent book is Moon and Sun, a bilingual edition of her translations of Rumi’s rubaiyat.

Living Earth Show

Deemed “outstanding” (San Francisco Chronicle), “transcendent” (Charleston City Paper), and one of the “22 for ‘22 performers to watch” (Washington Post), The Living Earth Show–guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson–represents the future of American contemporary and experimental chamber music.

The Living Earth Show pushes the boundaries of technical and artistic possibility while amplifying voices, perspectives, and bodies that the classical music tradition has often excluded. The organization uses the tools of experimental and contemporary chamber music to foreground BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists, facilitating the creation of their most ambitious musical visions and creating work that reflects and responds to our world.

Based in San Francisco, The Living Earth Show is simultaneously one of the premiere contemporary chamber ensembles in the United States, a groundbreaking production company (TLES Productions), and an uncompromising record label (Earthy Records). The Living Earth Show has presented seasons of commissioned multimedia productions since 2011, working with dance companies, visual artists, sculptors, poets, and other musicians to craft compelling, immersive, progressive new work.

San Francisco Girl's Chorus

Since 1978, the mission of the San Francisco Girls Chorus has been to create outstanding performances featuring the unique and compelling sound of young women’s voices through an exemplary program committed to education and visionary leadership in the development of this art form.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe, the San Francisco Girls Chorus has achieved an incomparable sound that underscores the unique clarity and force of impeccably trained treble voices fused with expressiveness and drama. As a result, the Chorus vibrantly performs 1,000 years of choral masterworks from plainchant to the most challenging and nuanced contemporary works created expressly for them in programs that are as intelligently designed as they are enjoyable and revelatory to experience.

Hundreds of singers from 45 Bay Area cities aged 4 – 18 participate in the SFGC’s programs each year. The organization comprises a professional-level performance, recording, touring ensemble, and a six-level Chorus School training program. A leading voice on the Bay Area and national music scenes, the Chorus has produced award-winning concerts, recordings, and tours, empowered young women in music and other fields, enhanced and expanded the field of music for treble voices, and set the international standard for the highest level of performance and education.


John Sanborn

John Sanborn is a key member of the second wave of American video artists, including Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Dara Birnbaum, and Tony Oursler. Sanborn’s work spans the early days of experimental video art in the 1970s through the heyday of MTV music/videos and interactive art to the digital media art of today.

His work has been shown at major museums worldwide, including the Whitney Museum; MoMA, New York; the Prado, Madrid; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Gallery, London; and the Seibu Museum, Tokyo. Sanborn’s television programs have been broadcast worldwide, including works with Robert Ashley, Bill T. Jones, John Zorn, Nam June Paik, Philip Glass, Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Gordon, and The Residents.

Sanborn’s recent works are media installations addressing questions of identity, cultural truth, memory, mythologies, and humanity’s compulsion to tell stories.

Marjan Vahdat

Marjan Vahdat is an Iranian award-winning singer and musician. Her career has given a deeper knowledge of Iranian poetry and music to large audiences in Europe, America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa.

Marjan has developed her style based on the Persian vocal tradition of classical and regional folk music with a contemporary expression. She always searched for ways to make her music relevant to the present world. Even if the origin of her style is Iranian, she believes in her music’s ability to express a universal message of humanism and freedom.

She has developed a unique performance style, rooted in Persian classical and regional vocal music traditions and infused with contemporary and innovative expressions and influences. Her many performances and recording projects include collaborations with the world’s most acclaimed musicians.