L ily Afshar can’t find her map. “I have a big one, it’s nice,” she says, perplexed, picking up books, random objects, and pieces of paper, then putting them right back down again, sifting through piles of fresh work and stacks of personal memorabilia in a cozy office that’s more stuffed than cluttered.
A lot of life, she says, happens in this windowless room on the second floor of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis, where Afshar was named head of the classical guitar program in 1989. Music is composed, performed, arranged, and rearranged here (“I couldn’t live without Wite-Out,” Afshar confesses). Concerts are planned, students are mentored, and visitors are received. There’s a desk, a desk chair, a coffee maker, a small sofa, and a straight-backed practice chair where nobody is allowed to sit. Afshar’s custom-made Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar rests just out of sight in its case on a table near the geographic center of the room. Concert posters and photographs hang on the wall. A cardboard box conceals yellow and red, flame-patterned copies of Afshar’s latest Archer Records release, Bach on Fire. But the one thing Afshar really wants right now, however, is a large rolled-up map of Iran, the country where she was born and raised, but was separated from for more than 20 years: a map of the place where she’s spent the past two months playing well-attended concerts and teaching classical guitar. It’s in plain sight, she’s sure, but nowhere to be found. Afshar pushes herself. It’s been only five days since she deplaned in Memphis, the city she now calls home.
The 2014-15 school year is in full swing at the U of M. And even though she says she’s learned to cope with jet lag, she’s still not fully recovered from the rigors of international travel. And tearing around her office in plain black pants and a T-shirt, with curly black hair tumbling everywhere, she doesn’t seem at all like the colorful, composed, and serene perfectionist reclining on the cover of Bach on Fire. Neither is this Lily Afshar the coolly intense virtuoso of the concert stage. She looks comfortable and at home in her office, the workshop of a disciplined artist given to marathon practice sessions.
As a student at The Boston Conservatory, and later at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Afshar used to work out on her instrument like the lead character in a 1970s-era rock opera, playing for 10-hour stretches, until a callous split and fingers bled. Although injury taught her to pace herself, she remains driven, and this is the place where she rolls up her sleeves to wrestle for as long as it takes with technique and tradition in her chosen field of classical guitar, an extremely conservative mini-universe defined almost entirely by men.
T here has never been a time in Lily Afshar’s life when she held a guitar in her hands and felt ordinary. Her list of accolades is long, growing. She was the first woman in the world to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Music in guitar performance from Florida State. She was selected to play for Andrés Segovia in his master classes and won the Orville H. Gibson Award in Los Angeles for Best Female Classical Guitarist. She was awarded top honors in the Guitar Foundation of America Competition, the Grand Prize in the Aspen Music Festival Guitar Competition, and she was selected as an “Artistic Ambassador” to Africa for the United States Information Agency.
Afshar, quite literally, believes she can achieve anything she can visualize, and she visualizes herself as being the best classical guitarist in the world. She has eight critically acclaimed CDs under her belt and has published two books and an instructional DVD set for Mel Bay Publications. Her most recent entry in the Bay catalog is a book called Essential Bach: Arranged for the Guitar, and it finds Afshar going places nobody else will, reconsidering traditional fingerings and the provenance of excessively difficult arrangements.
“Here is the map,” she says at last, sitting back down and unrolling her elusive visual aid with joy and relief. “Look how Iran is shaped like a cat,” she says. “See the ears? And here’s the Caspian Sea, where I used to go swimming. See here where the cat’s back is arched? And the Persian Gulf.”
Afshar always had a dream that she would someday return to her native Iran and play concerts all across the country. For the last 13 years, despite the geopolitical obstacles, she’s been fulfilling that dream, teaching guitar in a place where the instrument is very popular, and where her concerts quickly fill up with reverent audiences that silently hang on her every note.
“I’ve been analyzing myself from childhood and I’ve noticed that I’ve always been very competitive. All these trips going back to Iran, I also visit my childhood. Sometimes I see something that I remember from childhood. And it tells me something. I know that I’ve always wanted to be the best in whatever I did. I’m a very competitive person.”
T racing the path of her tour this past summer, Afshar runs a finger from the Persian kitty’s head to its heart not far from Tehran, where she grew up in a musical family, the youngest of four sisters. “Nobody ever had to tell me to go play guitar,” Afshar says, almost as an aside. Her father, an electrical engineer educated in England and America, strongly encouraged excellence in her artistic pursuits. He loved art and music of all kinds, and Afshar remembers hearing him play many songs, including Bach’s “Ave Maria” on the violin. One of her sisters played the steel-stringed guitar, and another sister played piano. Afshar would watch piano practices at a respectful distance, but she was curious and would occasionally ask her sister to repeat a page of music.
“I wanted to see how these notes on the page sounded when they were played,” she says.
When Afshar was 10 and visiting her uncle, she watched a cousin take a music lesson and instantly fell in love with the classical nylon-stringed guitar that was being played. It was her first experience with that kind of performance, and she knew right away that this was an instrument she wanted to play for the rest of her life. The next day her father presented her with a guitar like her cousin’s and a lifelong journey commenced.
Afshar has always been artistically inclined, and those inclinations were nurtured in an uncommon environment. “I owe it all to my father,” she says, describing her dad as well-rounded and open-minded: “An atypical Iranian, but more westernized.”
“My father always said, ‘First, become a musician; then become a guitarist,’ and that is still my advice to everybody else,” Afshar says. As a young Iranian student, Afshar wrote poetry and studied painting, showing proficiency for both at an early age. But it was the concert stage that called out to her.
“As a child in Iran, I went to all kinds of concerts,” she recalls, describing her musical and academic immersion as being “unusual,” even in the period before the Islamic Revolution, which reversed many of the advancements made by Iranian women in the mid-twentieth century. She attended an international school in Tehran, where she was immersed in English and studied philosophy and psychology. In her progressive home, in a country heading in the 1970s towards a conservative cultural revolution, she was free to pursue any artistic or intellectual endeavor, with no boundaries or restrictions.
“I went to classical concerts, and to the ballet. I remember one time when I went to a concert where there was a foreign violinist. And when I saw her onstage wearing a beautiful green dress and playing solo violin, I immediately saw myself instead of her onstage. I visualized myself there, and that was it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and to this day, I say that if I can visualize it, it will happen.
“My dad always said to keep working until I could reach an international level, and so from the beginning, that was always my goal,” Afshar says. “The only thing I ever wanted to do in my life was play guitar on the concert stage. It’s easy, actually, when you know what you want.”
Easy is relative. Afshar was already a strong guitar player when she came to America at age 17 in 1977 to attend Boston University. But BU offered no coursework for serious classical players, so she left her studies there and walked onto the campus of The Boston Conservatory, two weeks into the school year. Somehow she talked her way into an audition. “They said, ‘You will have to work very hard, but we’ll accept you,’” Afshar says. After a year of practicing ten hours a day, she rose above her peer group to receive the school’s first scholarship for guitar studies.
B ut just as quickly as doors opened for Afshar in America, others slammed shut behind her at home. The Islamic Revolution in Iran brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into power, ushering in radical cultural change that prevented Afshar from returning to her country, keeping her half-a-world away from friends and family. Other classical players and students, she observed at the time, thought the world was ending if they broke a fingernail. She’d been cut off from almost everything she knew, and threw herself into practice and study while the world she’d always known fractured into bits and pieces.
“All I could think about was how I was sent to America to study and that’s what I’m going to do,” Afshar says, recalling how she immersed herself in work to stave off depression. “My country is falling apart,” she recalls. “There is war. I’m separated from my father and from my family. But instead of being depressed, I’m going to put it all into the guitar. I’ll make my guitar talk. It became my voice for expressing my feelings of frustration and loneliness and separation. Everything in me went inside the guitar and into my music.”
The map of Iran is rolled up again and returned to its hiding place somewhere in the depths of Afshar’s busy office. She then opens an unremarkable case and extracts an exquisite spruce-topped guitar with a tapered body for better projection and an elevated fingerboard for better access to the higher frets. It is the fourth guitar she’s owned that was made by the late master luthier Thomas Humphrey, who died in 2008 at age 59. A former student now owns one of Afshar’s earlier models; two others were sold after concerts to smitten fans.
There is even a photograph she keeps of Andrès Segovia holding her first Thomas Humphrey Millennium, a pretty stringed machine she named Bambina. While leading a master class, Segovia asked for a guitar, so Afshar jumped up immediately and offered Bambina. “It’s first-come, first-served,” she says, grinning competitively. “When the master says give me a guitar, you don’t think, you give it to him.”
The Millennium Afshar plays today was made especially for her, with quarter-tone frets for fingering Persian music without having to bend strings like a blues musician. It is the last Thomas Humphrey guitar she will ever own. “This one is not for sale,” she says lovingly. “This one is me. Her name is Lily.”
Thomas Humphrey once told Acoustic Guitar magazine that American luthiering practices tended to be more experimental compared to those he encountered in Europe and Asia. Over there, “they speak of the tradition of the guitar,” said Humphrey in that article. “But what I see as the tradition of the guitar is its evolution, the fact that it does change. And the reason it changes is because of the players, who say ‘Give us more.’”
L ily Afshar is that kind of player, always looking to break new ground. When other classical players wondered why quarter-tone frets might be useful, Humphrey asked why this conceptual collaboration hadn’t happened sooner.
“Classical guitarists in general are extremely conservative, and Tom really pushed the envelope in designing this type of guitar,” Afshar says of her Millennium. “I myself have always pushed the envelope, too. I’m not happy with doing what everyone else does. I love Segovia, and I play his repertoire, but I have a calling to do certain other things, and every CD of mine has something new. Even my recent Bach CD.”
Afshar begins to play Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1” the “traditional” way, and it sounds beautiful. She then spreads her fingers like a fan, stretching them wide across the frets, showing the difference her approach can make. Right away familiar material takes on new life and new characteristics. “Nobody ever plays it this way,” she says, working her left hand, reaching and touching and lifting, and reaching and touching and lifting. The usual slurs disappear with her cross-fingering technique, and more open strings are used, making the guitar sound warmer and more resonant. Afshar works her right hand to create the texture of other instrumental voices and the feel of a solo artist playing a duet with herself.
“I found a treasure in this type of fingering,” Afshar says, smiling broadly as the melody pours into the room. As a player and consumer she has lost interest in atonality; she wants to play passages that she could just as easily sing, and the gorgeous measures she cajoles from wood and string don’t just sing, they soar.
“I’m not limited to just four frets either. Why should we limit ourselves? We have to expand our abilities.”
Expanding options and nonstop evolution have been among Afshar’s goals since she made her first recordings of M. Castelnuovo Todesco’s Goya-inspired “24 Caprichos De Goya,” a complicated, virtually unknown work that found the expressive player addressing not only the usual issues of tempo and tonality, but narrative and satire as well. Humor is something she’s good at. The liner notes for Bach on Fire bear an alternative version of the cover portrait, cropped to show a fire extinguisher at the ready. It’s her way of acknowledging that, if there is humor in a work, she will find it. And if things get too hot to handle, well, she’ll handle that too.
Afshar brings more than humor and a strong sense of storytelling to her playing. Like a master chef aiming to elevate the status of his/her native cuisine with classically inspired fusions, she has become a champion of traditional Persian music, which was often composed with strings in mind, but never the Western guitar. On Afshar CDs like the Omar Khayyam-inspired A Jug of Wine and Thou, Hemispheres, and Possession, Afshar has laced the Spanish gumbo of post-Segovia classical guitar with a potent Middle Eastern sensibility.
Five Popular Persian Ballads, created by Afshar for Mel Bay Publishing, represents the first classical guitar transcriptions of traditional Persian music. “Americans are not even familiar with Persian music,” Afshar says. “When I play Persian music on my guitar, it is (usually) the first time they’ve ever heard it. So it is my mission and duty to bring all that to my audiences.
“We have been playing Spanish music over and over again. Segovia promoted it. Everybody played it. Well, if Spanish, then why not Persian? Persian music is nothing less than Spanish music. It stands equal to Spanish music, and my arrangements are good.
“I feel strongly that I’m contributing to the classical guitar world by contributing this thing nobody else can do. I’ve got the arranging skills, the composing skills, and the performance skills. It’s the perfect package.”
Lily Afshar — the perfect package — has thoughts regarding her next recording project, but a theme has yet to settle in her mind. The one certainty, she says, returning Thomas Humphrey’s Lily to her case, is that she’ll continue to run down paths less taken and launch into uncharted water. And she’ll do it whether she can easily find her map, or not.