Iranian classical music must be one of the greatest art music traditions. It has broad similarities to musical styles as seemingly diverse as Turkish fasil, Iraqi maqam, Azerbaijani mugham, Uzbek shashmaqam and Hindustani (North Indian classical) music. Given the history of interaction between Persia/Iran and these parts of the world, I would guess that the similarities all derive from Iranian music’s influence; in other words, it’s Iranian music that is the root of a variety of interlinked musical styles spreading from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal and north into central Asia.
This historical importance can make Iranian classical seem daunting and, like any kind of art music or ‘classical’ music, knowing something about the way it works will help you enjoy it more. But it’s a lot more accessible to Euro-American ears than some other kinds of music – there’s nothing as ‘difficult’ as the long, rhythm-free alaps of Hindustani music, for example. There are also a few outstanding musicians who have worked as popularisers of the tradition, making the music more accessible to people who may not otherwise come across it. Perhaps foremost among them is Kayhan Kalhor who, like Toumani Diabaté or Ravi Shankar, is a phenomenal musician within his own genre who has also collaborated with seemingly every musician on the face of the earth. Many of these collaborations have really pushed the boundaries of Iranian classical while also bringing outsiders into the music. However, Kalhor’s instrument is a type of spike-fiddle called a kamancheh, whose sound can be quite off-putting unless you develop a taste for it. So instead, I’m going to point you in the direction of the great Hossein Alizadeh. Alizadeh has also collaborated with many other musicians, including the Armenian duduk played Djivan Gasparyan on the great album ‘Endless Vision’, and he’s also worked as a film composer and written orchestral works for Iranian instruments. However, his best material for my money is the straightforward classical albums he recorded for the French record label Buda, of which ‘Saz-E No’ is easily my favourite.
Alizadeh is playing the tar here, Mohsen Kasirossafar plays the zarb/tombak
Alizadeh plays stringed instruments called the tar and setar, which are both long-necked lutes. The tar, whose name means ‘string’, has a body made of wood and skin which looks like two heart shapes. The tar is a historically important instrument, probably ancestral to the guitar amongst other things, and is played across Iran, Azerbaijan and central Asia. The setar is named because it has three (seh) strings, and, despite the name, it doesn’t sound like the Indian sitar since it doesn’t have the mass of sympathetic strings that give the sitar its ‘jangling’ sound. Alizadeh plays both tar and setar on this album along with the tanbur, a related instrument often used in folk music, and despite their differences – essentially, the tar is the loudest and least ‘delicate’ sounding – the instruments have a hypnotic effect. Alizadeh’s playing uses as many techniques as any great guitarist, and the frantic strumming across the whole body of the instrument sounds very different from the lightning-fast plucked solos on one or two strings. The stunning first, 19-minute-long track here uses strumming to create hypnotic layers of sound, while ‘Rohab’ uses measured, precise plucked strings which sound meticulously considered. The movement between the styles of playing allows Alizadeh to create great textures of sound that sound far more complex than you’d think was possible from three-stringed instruments.
All this is made more impressive when you realise that Iranian classical is largely improvised, although within boundaries. There are twelve dastgahs, or ‘systems’, of music, and a performance takes place within one of the dastgahs. Each dastgah consists of interlinked, modally connected melodic phrases called gushehs, or ‘corners’, and the entire collection of gushehs – which musicians spend years learning from their ostad (master) and memorising – forms their repertoire, or radif. A musician’s improvisation then consists of playing different gushehs, of different lengths, in a particular way so as to create the appropriate sentiment over the course of the performance as a whole; like a performance of an Indian raga, a dastgah performance builds to a climax, although in a dastgah performance, there is then usually a return to the same mode as the beginning of the performance.
Each track on this album flows into the next on this album and, despite the fact that’s it obviously been pieced together since Alizadeh plays three different instruments (although not together), it sounds like a single dastgah performance (the modulation between different dastgahs is part of the performance here, just like a concerto might modulate between different keys). Part of the enjoyment of music like this is in recognising the musician’s skill in improvising with the gushehs to create a suitable emotional journey over the course of the performance. But I think the effect of Iranian lute playing (including the related folk instruments like the dotar) can be most keenly felt if you simply let the waves wash over you. Although Iranian classical music doesn’t use harmony, the timbres of the instruments here build such textures of sound that it’s hardly the simple listening experience that you might expect from just one melodic line. There’s a lot going on in Alizadeh’s playing, and you can try to hear the finer details when you’ve listened several times – taken as a whole, the effect of the tar, setar and tanbur can be hypnotic or almost trance-like.
Here Alizadeh is on setar, with Madjid Khaladj playing daf
Alizadeh is joined on ‘Saz-E No’ by his frequent collaborator Madjid Khaladj, who plays two types of percussion here – the tombak, which is a small goblet drum, and the daf, which is a large frame drum – similar to a tambourine but without the metallic parts. Khaladj has made two solo albums for Buda demonstrating the range of these instruments – or lack of range, in the case of the tombak; the daf album is far more interesting, I think. Although Alizadeh is the star of the show here, praise must also go to the marvellous Afsaneh Rassa’i who sings on three tracks here. Restrictions in Iran mean that female singers are only allowed to perform to all-female audiences, and so many recordings of Iranian female singers have been made outside Iran. These sorts of restrictions make life for female singers in Iran hard – even practicing or studying, let alone performing, can be difficult. Whatever the difficulties she must have faced, Rassa’i puts in an excellent performance here, especially on the long opening track where she performs some amazing vocals in the style called tahrir, which sounds a little like yodelling. The lyrics she sings are taken from possibly the greatest of Persian poets, Jalaluddin Rumi, known in Iran as Mowlana, the opening track featuring part of his masterwork, the Masnavi.
I really can’t recommend this album highly enough, and I think it’s the perfect introduction to Iranian classical music as it’s far less complex than some of the recordings of instrumental ensembles, or more austere, traditional performances where singing alternates with instruments, rather than here where the two are together. You’ll have to hunt around if you want this on CD (the liner notes provide a good introduction to key concepts of the music such as dastgah), but it’s cheap to download. Alizadeh and Khaladj have made a couple more excellent albums for Buda together, ‘Masters of Improvisation’ and the double-album ‘Improvisations’. Neither of those feature a singer and, great as they are, ‘Saz-E No’ – which means ‘A New Theme’ – is probably the best and the most accessible. Like all art music traditions, while it is helpful to know some things about how the music works, don’t be afraid to just dive in, listen and see what you think. This is complex music, but before and above that, it hits you on an emotional level. Listen here.