Meet The Musician Who Founded An Association To Elevate The Work Of Female Iranian Composers

Niloufar Nourbakhah | Image by Michael Yu

This article is part of a series we launched in 2018 called Today’s Wonder Women – designed to celebrate the inspiring, impactful, empowering and extraordinary things ordinary women are doing every day. Over the coming months we will be sharing interviewsessays, articles and guest posts about women who are creating change. If you have a story to share and want to add your voice to the Today’s Wonder Women conversation, get in touch by emailing

When we think of musicians and composers who have defined generations, eras and even genres, we conjure up names like Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Bach etc. Even in a modern setting, the classical music world is very male-dominated when you look at all the major symphony orchestras around the world. The absence of women, and especially women of color on a larger scale means the plethora of diverse voices and lived experiences are not being represented as they should be.

One woman is aiming to change that with both her music as well as an organization she founded to disrupt the status quo, and make space for other women of color. Niloufar Nourbakhsh is a composer who grew up in Iran and eventually made her way to the United States to pursue her dream of music. She did not grow up seeing many female musicians as role models, but now she is in a position to change that. She is the founder of the Iranian Female Composers Association (IFCA) which is dedicated to empowering Iranian women in music and in the arts by fostering originality, honoring diversity, and strengthening equality. She has built up the organization and established it as a force for good within the classical music community alongside her colleagues Anahita Abbasi and Aida Shirazi.

As part of the Kennedy’s Center’s annual two week Direct Current Festival, which celebrates contemporary culture, Niloufar and the IWCA performed a show on the Millennium stage on March 30 for audiences in attendance. The performance was described as an amazing opportunity to bring women, from all walks of life, together in order to support other women, especially in the field of music and composition. As a true trailblazer who didn’t allow the lack of opportunities to prevent her from pursuing her ultimate dream, Niloufar is the kind of everyday Wonder Woman we like to get to know and have shared an interview with her below.

Niloufar Nourbakhah | Image by Michael Yu

Growing up in Iran, did you have many female role models you could look up to in terms of musicians or artists?

There were, of course, many prominent female pianists that were highly influential like Delbar Hakimova and Farimah Ghavam-Sadri, but no female composer that I knew about. 

How did you make your way to the United States eventually?

After being determined that I wanted to pursue a path in music, I applied to a few programs in England and the United States. I was lucky to be given a scholarship to attend Goucher College in Baltimore. 

Tell us how the Iranian Female Composers Association came about, and what is the mission?

In the very beginning, this association really started from the idea of a concert. I had become familiar with the work of several Iranian female composers in the United States that were from my generation, and I thought that it would be very significant for us to join forces and present our music in one concert, since something like this had never happened before. As I started to think more about it and converse with these wonderful composers, specifically Anahita Abbasi and Aida Shirazi, it became a much bigger concept.

I think the foundation of IFCA is inclusivity and sharing a space without having to fit to any particular agenda. We want to support Iranian female-identifying composers by commissioning and performing their music, and invite the world to explore the diverse, artistic voices these women are offering. We also hope to empower and support the younger generation in Iran that faces profound cultural and educational roadblocks in discovering their own voice as an artist.   

What barriers have you personally faced in the composing world as a woman and as an immigrant?

Personally, women seem to have a harder time convincing institutions about her potential as a composer compared with her male colleagues. As an immigrant, the music community could not have been more loving and supportive towards me as it has been in the past three years; however, many opportunities, specifically in the world of opera, are solely given to Green Card holders and citizens, and that is something to think about. For example, how on earth can a musician on a DACA status apply to any of the call for scores and competitions that are not competitive international opportunities? Where can they start their careers really?  

What are some stereotypes or misconceptions about the women in your organization that you are hoping to dispel through music and performance?

The stereotype is usually the idea that we are very rare and exotic. I hope that through IFCA, we can showcase to everyone that making music is natural and it comes in many shapes and forms all around the world, and its really no surprise that women in Iran or anywhere else would want to make interesting sounds and shape them in a compelling story.  

You are performing at the Direct Current Festival, put on by the Kennedy Center. What do you hope festival attendees will be immersed with when they hear your music? 

I am thrilled to be included at the second DIRECT CURRENT this year, a festival that celebrates artists’ innovative reactions to some of the most pressing issues in contemporary society. I hope that my music is able to transcend boundaries, both to the physical audience at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage and to those who watch from the livestream. It is our hope that we will be able to communicate our mission clearly while offering the audience a rare experience.  

How does the IFCA empower other Iranian female musicians, and what kind of community engagements/outreach does the group do?

During this past year since our launch concert at National Sawdust in April 2018, we were able to commission three Iranian Female Composers for premieres in Washington, D.C. and New York. With each concert, we aim to bring out the Iranian community into these classical concert halls to engage with the emerging composers of Iran as well as becoming involved with the new music scene. 

What message do you have for aspiring musicians, especially women or immigrants who find themselves up against a number of barriers or set-backs? 

I would say if you are determined to live as an artist, you must keep moving forward by remaining confident in your potential. Trust the truth within you. It will find its way eventually.  

If you could change one thing in the world with music, would would it be? 

Music education! Every child deserves to have access to an instrument and a music teacher to explore and express themselves. All children are creative and it would be a different world if we all grew up without forgetting our playful soul.  

Finally, something we like to ask all our interviewees: what makes you a powerful woman? 

Ha! I’m not sure powerful is the exact right word. I think knowing my capacity to love other people and make strong collectives with them gives me joy; but most importantly, understanding my responsibility towards other people, both as a musician and as an individual, gives me a lot of strength. 

You can learn more about Niloufar and the Iranian Female Composers Association by clicking here. If you are inspired by her story, considering finding some affordable pianos for children and set them on their own musical journey.


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