Iradj Sahbai was born in 1945 in Teheran, Iran. He began his music studies with Samin Baghchehban, Hossein Nasehi, Shifteh Sedqi and Mostafa-Kamal Purtorab. He discovered Olivier Messiaen on Teheran Radio and wanted to become his pupil. After winning a first prize in music and obtaining a study bursary he went to France in 1966 to fulfil his dream. He studied at the Strasburg Conservatory, passed the entrance exam for the harmony class at the Paris Conservatory. Three years later he joined Messiaen’s composition class, where he won his composition prize. He also trained as a conductor, winning First Prize in the class of Jean-Sébastien Béreau and took advanced classes in Nice with Pierre Dervaux and in Salzburg with Milan Horvat.
Sahbai’s music combines lively rhythms with vocal expressionism. In Les sept miniatures persanes, for example, to poems by Hâfez, the two female voices are accompanied by a flute in G, a percussion instrument and a zarb. A composer in search of colour, he seeks to transpose into the art of sounds the vibrations of light (L’ombre et la nuit for 10 instruments and vocal ensemble). He has broken new ground with novel forms, notably in Méta-Shur, a work for large symphony orchestra in homage to his teacher Olivier Messiaen. He also works on quarter-tones, transcribing them onto a staff of more than 20 lines (Alephbaï for 12 voices).
His output reveals his great attraction to music that evokes Persian culture. Persian literature opened up for him a pathway to music that is universal, bringing together Orient and Occident, tradition and creation. The texts of his vocal pieces use words taken from Persian poetry, and this focalises his research into metre. The works of Nimâ Yooshij (1895-1959), the founder of modern poetry in Iran, is to be found in several compositions. In Gognus, for example, the music prepares the atmosphere, comments on the images conjured up, accompanies and acts in counterpoint with the poem. In this piece Iradj Sahbai exploits the voice in its different aspects, as well as a double bass clarinet, a zarb and a piano, the tone-colour of which is transformed by a ring modulator.
His piece for vocal ensemble Dans le miroir du matin (1986), commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, highlights a text by the Persian poet and scholar Omar Khayyâm.
Iradj Sahbai finds inspiration in the modes of traditional Persian music. In Nâghouss, dedicated to 50,000 compatriots who died in an earthquake in June 1990, he takes as base notably the Navâ mode. The lengthy poem of Nimâ Yooshij imposes its own rhythm on the work, its metric system, its expression, its inner lyricism and indeed its form. The composer considers the percussion instruments first and foremost as an orchestra that can fill the pitch-space in its entirety and only secondarily as percussive instruments, desiring, in all musical circumstances, to retain the primacy of song at all levels.
Sahbai is at ease treating light subjects as dramatic subjects. He tackles the themes of love (Une fleur for soprano and piano) and of nostalgia with traditional songs mixing lyricism, expressivity, melancholy, balance and audacity (Dix-huit mélodies populaires persanes for soprano and harp).
He has collaborated with the Atelier Lyrique du Rhin, the Biennale de Paris, Ircam, the Manca festival in Nice, Présent Musical in Orléans, the Festival of Beauvais, the festival Musica of Strasburg, the Festival of Forbach, the Festival of Dresden, the 38th Rugissants festival of Grenoble, the Festival of Krakow, the Festival of Kiev, the Ensemble ‘Nem’ of Montreal, the Lyons Conservatory and the Strasburg Conservatory.
A conductor settled in the region of Strasburg, he founded in 1986 the Schiltigheim Chamber Orchestra, directing it for 11 years and with it opening the door to composers of all horizons. The Schiltigheim Chamber Orchestra performed under his direction music from the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries and has recorded, notably, Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale.
Iradj Sahbai is a regular guest of the Teheran Symphony Orchestra and has also conducted the Sherbrooke Youth Orchestra of Canada, the Orchestre d'harmonie de Paris in Berio’s Orpheo as well as, for for his own works, the Percussions de Strasbourg, the Orchestra of the Boulogne-Billancourt Conservatory, the Parsian Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London.