The Persian Traveling Wilburys

Masters of Persian Music

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 10, 2002) – The music that the Masters of Persian Music ensemble plays is commonly called “classical.” But in its approach, the quartet is more like a jazz combo, and in its makeup the group recalls one of those efforts by rock superstars to join forces in a supergroup.

Think of them as the Persian Traveling Wilburys, with vocalist Mohammed Reza Shajarian in the role of Roy Orbison, composer and musician Hossein Alizadeh playing Bob Dylan and George Harrison, kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, the young Turk of the group, as Tom Petty, and drummer/vocalist Homayoun Shajarian as Jeff Lynne.

“Our approach is much closer to jazz than classical music,” said Kalhor in a recent phone interview from a Boston Hotel.

“It is very much based in and relies on improvisation,” said Kalhor, who performs with his three partners in a free concert in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on the campus of Williams College in Williamstown on Tuesday at 8 p.m.

Persian classical music is built of a complex system of modal passages, called the radif. There are approximately 500 of these short pieces, called gushehs, which are grouped into 12 categories, called dastgahs.

If it sounds complicated, it is, and that’s why the four masters aren’t boasting when they call themselves masters. “As students we have to learn all the gushehs and dastgahs – as well as other composed pieces – and we have to develop the skill to improvise with them,” said Kalhor, a child prodigy born in Tehran in 1963, who studied Western classical music in Rome and at Carleton University in Ottawa.

But to appreciate the music, you don’t really have to know the gushehs and dastgehs. The musicians learn them all for you, and then use them as building blocks for their improvisations.

“The pieces in the radif are set in a special order,” said Kalhor, a featured composer and performer with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and co-founder of Persian/Indian trio Ghazal. “That’s what the radif means in Persian, literally ‘order.’

“We learn it like that, but we can start at any point and go to any other point with our interpretation of it. If you listen to very mature Persian music, it’s nothing like the radif itself. The singer and musicians are trying to get as far as possible from the radif. It changes beyond recognition.”

Musicians personalize the radif by doing more than rearranging the notated gushehs, in a process that sounds remarkably like jazz.

“Each musician according to his experience in life, playing techniques, technical abilities, and understanding of the music -- all of these are very important,” said Kalhor. “And talent. Improvisation doesn’t come naturally. Some people are better improvisers than others. It’s a skill you have to develop and to learn. Different musicians have different styles and techniques. Every time one improvises on the same dastgah, it’s going to be different. Even our programs are never the same; they’re different every night.”

Traditionally, the vocalist was the most important musician in a Persian classical performance, and the instrumentalist – typically only one – was relegated to a supporting role. In recent decades, a number of classical musicians have widened the role of instrumental music and brought it heightened status.

Alizadeh and Kalhor in particular have been instrumental in this move towards forefronting the musician, as well as in finding new forms of musical structuring and ways of combining melody lines using different types of call and response. These innovations in modern Persian classical music find their greatest realization in the performance of the quartet of Masters, captured on a recent live recording called “Without You” (World Village/Harmonia Mundi).

“A concert is a communication,” said Kalhor. “If I play something, the next person tries to develop that, and the singer develops from there. We just take it from each other and develop it. There is no set point, but we know where to land, because we have fixed compositions as songs that we perform as well. When we want to come to those points, we have to come to a conclusion, which we call landing. We all know when to do that. What comes in between, it’s unknown.”

In spite of the musicians’ innovations, the vocalist still plays an essential role, and Mohammad Reza Shajarian is widely recognized as the undisputed master of traditional Persian singing. In 1999, UNESCO presented him with the prestigious Picasso Medal in France, and in 2000, the Ministry of Culture in Iran declared him “Best Classical Vocalist.” Born in 1940 in northeastern Iran, Shajarian studied with several great masters, and rose to prominence on his own in the 1960s for his powerful and intensely emotional style.

“Shajarian is a living legend in Persian singing,” said Kalhor. “He has no match. Music critics always say we have not had such a singer in our past history, and we will not have such a one after him.”

As in most Persian classical music, Shajarian’s texts are for the most part taken from Sufi mystical poetry of the 13th century, particularly from the poet Rumi. He also occasionally uses lyrics by contemporary poets.

“He is highly regarded as someone who brings the poetry alive, sometimes for non-Persian-speaking listeners,” said Kalhor. “His singing is so artistic, sometimes you think translation is not even needed.”

Like the musicians, Shajarian also improvises. “Every time is different,” said Kalhor. “He chooses different passages and different melodies to sing the poetry with.”

One of the oldest musical traditions, Persian music has been very influential, and first-time listeners will recognize bits of North Indian, Chinese, flamenco and Middle Eastern music in the sinuous melodies of the Persian masters.

Kalhor said traditional music is very popular in Iran today. “There’ve been times when fanaticism threatens music, but this music somehow survived,” said Kalhor. “After the revolution, musicians worked really hard to prove themselves. They didn’t budge for any kind of law against music. They did what they did. Maybe a part of the respect and popularity of this music is because they never quit or left the music.”

With thousands of young Iranians learning the traditions, the future looks bright for classical Persian music. “It’s a very alive tradition,” said Kalhor. “It’s not a forgotten or dying tradition. This is why it’s updated every day. And when you listen to the music from the 1920s and ‘30s, you could definitely hear that the music has changed a lot.

“This is the beauty of a living culture. And I like it because it actually continues to live. Otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting if I played what my father did and his father did. That would be a fixed and non-living tradition. We don’t want to do that to this music. It’s very alive.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 11, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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