Iranian-Canadian composer Saman Shahi is full of surprises. He writes music for anything from films to electric guitars, makes rock fusion music, and directs concert bands. On Breathing in the Shadows, his debut album, he pulls yet another compositional style from his massive toolkit in three lucid and dramatic song cycles. Shahi draws from the rich history of songwriting, writing conversationally for voice and accompaniment and lavishly painting text through music. This writing style is most successful on Orbit, the second cycle on the album and the second-prize winner of the 2019 Canadian Amateur Musician’s Association’s composition competition. The piece features piano bubbling underneath a smooth voice, a style reminiscent of nineteenth-century lieder. But it also ventures through smoky nightclub jazz with hints of dissonance and vivid text painting—haunting glissandi accompany the words “your smile always appears unexpectedly,” tangibly evoking the imagery of Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat.
Shahi’s flair for visceral imagery and texture is what stands out most on Breathing in the Shadows. It’s this colourful writing that drives his storytelling, creating an album that finds its groove in its unabashed theatricality.