In contrast to the loud outdoor soundscapes of rural ceremonial, which inevitably draw us towards local social life, outsiders are often attracted to the more “classical”, “refined” urban chamber genres. Such music is much better represented in recordings, and feeds into the WAM taste for “autonomous”, “absolute” music—a notion convincingly debunked by ethnomusicologists such as Nettl, McClary, Small, and Bigenho.
Amaneh Youssefzadeh provides context (in Michael Church, ed., The other classical musics, 2015; chapter here):
Until the 20th century most classical music was performed in private gatherings—for small circles of connoisseurs, at Sufi brotherhoods, for family and friends, or in festivities including poetry recitation; the public concert was essentially a Western phenomenon. Moreover, apart from military music, public musical performance took place mostly in the context of religious and ceremonial rituals which are not considered musical per se; these include events in zurkāneh (Iran’s traditional fitness-clubs), the recitation of the Qur’an (tajwid), the call to prayer (‘azān), the recitation of the national epic Shāhnāmeh (naqqāli), the Shi’a passion play (ta’zieh) and the singing of laments (rowzeh-khāni) […]. Such ceremonies require singers skilled in classical music, and they have been crucial supports for classical music during the periods of decline and discrimination. And in Iran, as in many parts of Middle East, classical singers have traditionally honed their skills in the call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an; many celebrated singers from the first half of the 20th century sang in the ceremonial mourning rites described above. Mohammad Reza Shadjarian was a noted qāri (reciter of the Qur’an) before gaining fame as a classical performer.
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At the Purcell Room Dariush Talai, on tar and setar plucked lutes, was supported by his younger protégés Hooshmand Ebadi (ney end-blown flute), Kaveh Mahmoudian (tombak drum), and singer Hadi Hosseini. Like the Chinese qin masters of yore, they play for their own self-cultivation—the dedicated audience in the austere Purcell Room must have felt they were eavesdropping on a private gathering.
In the first half Talai played in duo—first on tar with sensitive tombak accompaniment, and then on setar with the breathy ney. The second half consisted of one long suite, with all three musicians joined by the singer Hadi Hosseini. While the progression of such suites is more episodic than the gradual acceleration of Indian raga from alap to fast sections, it’s always engrossing to follow long sequences—by contrast with the short snappy solos of the Chinese conservatoires!
Here’s a track from Talai’s 1991 Ocora CD:
As a novice, while spellbound by the musicians’ artistry, it would require a thorough grounding for me to get a handle on the modal and melodic features of such pieces. Part of a widespread muqam family that also extends to the Uyghurs, each of the two hundred or so gushehs and the twelve dastgahs of the complete radif repertoire are individually named (cf. nanyin in south Fujian).
This music was one of the main focuses of the great Bruno Nettl. In chapter 7 of The study of ethnomusicology, “Contemplating musical repertories: a sampling of descriptive and analytical approaches”, he is as lucid as ever:
Iranian musicians taught the radif, the body of music that is memorized and then used as the basis for improvisation and composition. They labelled its sections (dastgahs) and their subdivisions (gushehs) clearly, although there was some disagreement on terminology and in determining which gushehs properly belonged to which dastgah. Musicians were willing to analyze certain performances, dividing them into sections and stating upon which sections of the radif each of them, in the improvised performance, is based. An ethnomusicologist who has studied with Iranian musicians can analyze such sectioned performances in this way but can’t be sure, on account of the lack of complete consensus, that the analysis will be accepted by every Persian master. This is the kind of analysis in which the ethnomusicologist does what the musicians of the culture do.
But one could go further. There are, for example, performances or sections that masters of the radif are not willing to analyze in this fashion, giving their equivalent of “he’s just improvising here”. They may say about such a performance that the musician does not know the radif, or he is purposely and expertly mixing materials from several sources, or he is simply playing avaz (nonmetric improvisation) in a dastgah in general, not taking account of the differences among the subdivisions of the dastgah that the radif provides. The first approach mentioned here would simply report these anomalies and perhaps point out the difference between the carefully sectioned and the other performances and refer to the fact that it seems to be readily recognized by Iranians. The second approach would take these unsectioned performances and, with the use of motivic analysis, determine almost moment by moment on which part of the radif each short bit of performance is based. Instead of just accepting that a particular five-minute segment is simply “avaz of the dastgah of Shur”, one could show that it is composed of materials from three gushehs (for example, salmak, golriz, and shahnaz), and makes fleeting references to three other gushehs. Now, certain Persian musicians, when confronted with analysis of this sort, pronounced it correct but found the information only mildly interesting, and not particularly relevant. It seemed that I had tried to take their way of looking at their own music further and had managed to avoid violating their way of approaching the analysis, but I had gone beyond where they were prepared to go, had divided their concepts into units smaller than those they were willing to use. I had gained some insights into how the music is put together; on the other hand, I could no longer claim simply to be presenting the system as it presents itself.
By comparison with my Chinese experience, I find it intriguing how the radif tradition in Iran seems to have been maintained more successfully under the umbrella of conservatoire training and concert performances. Again, Nettl’s templates for the various possible forms of change and responses to modernization are salient.
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The concert inspired me to go back to the great senior masters like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian (1940–2020) and Mohammad-Reza Lotfi (1947–2014). Shadjarian, with his ecstatic singing and principled political stance, was a great icon; his death in October 2020 prompted national mourning (see e.g. here).
This live performance by Shadjarian is part of a playlist:
I’ve included a wonderful kemenche solo from Mohammad-Reza Lotfi under Indian and world fiddles.
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For a general introduction to the musics of Iran, with discography, see Laudan Nooshin’s article in The Rough Guide to world music: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and chapters in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol. 6: The Middle East. Note also the site https://mahoor.com/en/. For the “classical” tradition, see e.g. Jean During, Jean During, Zia Mirabdolbaghi, and Dariush Safvat (eds), The art of Persian music (1991), and Amaneh Youssefzadeh’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).
For related posts, see Iranian lives, Performance, Zithers of Iran and Turkey, and Three women of Herat. For more on the folk-art dichotomy, see e.g. Italy: folk musicking, and Das Land ohne Musik, as well as Popular culture in early modern Europe.