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97 Ensemble - In conversation with Niki Moosavi

EH*V had the absolute pleasure of chatting to the wonderful musician Niki Moosavi, about her background, journey into becoming a cellist and setting up her own ensemble.

CONTENT NOTE / TRIGGER WARNING: This article includes references to sexual assault.

To start with, can you please tell me a little bit about yourself – who you are, what you’re up to…

Hello EH*V! I’m Niki, a feminist cellist. I’m Iranian and I grew up in Abu Dhabi. I graduated from the Royal College of Music in 2021 and in my final year at the RCM I held the position of Diversity Officer for the Students’ Union. My work saw changes in both curriculum and artistic programming; I’m proud to have amended syllabuses to require students to perform works by underrepresented composers in their exams and organised the first ever concert at RCM celebrating works by Black composers for Black History Month. I campaigned for social initiatives such as free menstrual products, consent talks and a talk with Manhattan School of Music on taking action on diversity in conservatoires. Outside of RCM, I was the leader of the undergraduate group of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Music Studies network (EDIMS).

Since graduating, I am very thankful to have received funding to start 97 Ensemble, a musical campaign raising awareness to the prevalence of sexual harassment in the UK.

What sparked your interest in music?

I’m really lucky that I went to a school with a strong music department. Our head of music was really passionate and was always organising concerts and opportunities for us. I always loved performing and concerts and music courses became the highlights of my school years. I also just watched a lot of Disney Channel and wanted to be the next Hannah Montana.

What motivated you to continue with music?

I remember around year 11, school started talking to us about A-levels, university and deciding what we wanted to do with our lives. Looking back, I think it’s such a high expectation of the British system to expect you to narrow down your options at 16, but that’s for another discussion. I knew I’d take music A-Level just because it was something I was good at, but I wasn’t considering it as a career path yet. As I’m sure many others from the Middle East can relate to, it seemed engineer, doctor or lawyer were the only acceptable paths.

In the summer between year 11 and year 12, I went on a music course in the UK at the Purcell School for Young Musicians. As with every music course I’d done, I had the time of my life and loved being creative. At the end of the course, one of the teachers mentioned that the school still had spaces left for sixth form if anyone was interested in auditioning. After many, many conversations with my parents and music teachers, I auditioned not really thinking I’d get in, and then I did! I remember that was the first time I felt that I had control over the course of my life. I’d lived in the same house in the same city and gone to the same school everyday, and suddenly I was changing that and moving from Abu Dhabi to Bushey (big shock). I felt equally excited and terrified that I just changed my life course but I’m thankful to everyone that helped me prepare for the audition and for my parents for supporting my decision to go.

What inspired you to start 97 Ensemble?

In March 2021, I saw an Instagram post from the Guardian sharing the findings of the APPG report from UN Women UK that 97% of women aged 18-24 in the UK experience sexual harassment. My initial thought was “who are the lucky 3%?” as I needed some comic relief. My main thought was, how is something so prevalent in our society still taboo and something we don’t want to talk about? Is 97% not a high enough figure for everyone to accept that we live in a misogynistic society? And maybe feel a little angry? It felt like we as a society collectively accepted sexual harassment as part of life. Don’t get me wrong; I definitely just accept it myself. It is much easier to sweep the catcalling under the rug of being a woman than to speak up. You don’t want to be known as the person who got harassed. But I don’t want to accept the fact that 97% of young women experience this. I do get angry when I think about it and I’m trying to channel my anger into something productive. I’m ready to make some noise and be heard.

What are you primary goals in setting up this group?

97 Ensemble has 3 main aims. Firstly, to raise awareness to the prevalence of sexual harassment in hope that our attitudes towards it change. Second, we want to raise funds for Solace Women’s Aid, who have unfortunately been overwhelmed with an increase of demand as a result of lockdowns. Finally, we want to make classical music more inclusive. We’re hoping to get our concerts to people who may never have attended a classical music concert before. As part of our commitment to inclusivity we will always champion works by underrepresented composers in our concerts, as we believe representation matters.

"I do think it’s important for artistic groups to engage in politics and it’s a privilege to be able to ignore it."

What are you most looking forward to in running this ensemble?

As a musician, I’m really looking forward to performing great music amongst great musicians. In addition to our public concerts, we are working with Solace Women’s Aid by giving concerts to their service users and I’m especially looking forward to that. As a woman, I’m looking forward to having important conversations in hopes that we change our views on sexual harassment.

What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of working on this ensemble?

I want 97 Ensemble to be inclusive and empowering. I’m aware that we are dealing with a sensitive topic for many. I am not an expert and we are a new ensemble. We are always welcoming any feedback on how we can improve ourselves.

Do you think it’s important for artistic groups to be engaged in politics?

If the arts are part of our culture and reflect our culture, it is impossible to avoid the world around us. Combining music and politics is nothing new. Beethoven originally dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon, and then redacted it. Shostakovich always had to please the Soviet Union with his works or literally face death. Today, we have conductor Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made of Palestinian and Israeli musicians. So- yes. I do think it’s important for artistic groups to engage in politics and it’s a privilege to be able to ignore it.

How do you hope to use your platform to raise awareness of issues such as sexual harassment?

I want to get people talking, especially people in the classical music world. I remember seeing a Facebook post from Classic FM about Black Lives Matter in music. I knew I shouldn’t have looked at the comments section, but I did. It was full of complaints that Classic FM should just stick to posting about music and not involve politics in everything. What’s so political about treating people with respect regardless of their skin colour? During my time as Diversity Officer I also received complaints reminding me that it’s the Royal College of Music (I just wanted a consent talk in fresher’s week).

I love classical music and the traditions it upholds. But just because we’re playing music from the 18th century doesn’t mean we have to have the attitudes of the 18th century. 97% of women aged 18-24 experience sexual harassment in the UK. Let’s talk about it and do something about it.

What can we look forward to in the future for the @97ensemble?

!!!debut concert on 12th March!!! We’re so excited to announce our debut concert at St James’s Church Sussex Gardens in Paddington on 12th March at 19:30. We’re performing works by composers Errollyn Wallen and suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth. Student tickets are £5 or £12 for general admission; profits go to Solace Women’s Aid. Whether you’re a budding concertgoer or have never been to a classical music concert before, we hope to join you for a special night of music making in support of Solace Women’s Aid.

Follow the 97 Ensemble here, and buy tickets for their first concert here.

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