By the 1960s, Iranian classical music had become available to a wide audience, but at the same time the growing pace of modernisation and westernisation in Iran created a demand for all things western – including western music and western-style Iranian pop which seemed to be more in tune with people’s increasingly modernised lifestyle – and the classical music gradually became sidelined as a minority interest. Many fine classical musicians were performing and recording at this time, but in the context of a society which seemed little interested in its own culture, it is not surprising that many of these musicians became preoccupied with trying to preserve the musical tradition rather than exploring new ways of developing and enriching it. The headlong rush into modernisation and westernisation reached crisis point in the late 1970s and eventually culminated in the Revolution of February 1979. One of the most interesting aspects of post-1979 Iran was a “return to roots” reawakening of national consciousness in which Iranian classical music played a central role. Such was the popularity of this music that by the mid-1980s - and despite the many religious proscriptions against music-making and the long period of austerity during the Iran-Iraq war – the classical music had attracted a mass audience of unprecedented size, with many young people in particular starting to learn.
Iranian classical music has experienced significant changes over the last thirty years, partly through a new confidence among those musicians willing to explore new musical avenues. This music is deeply rooted and imbued with a sense of tradition and continuity, but at the same time speaks with a contemporary voice.
The Musical Tradition
Creative performance lies at the heart of Iranian classical music. The importance of creativity is often expressed through the image of the nightingale (bol bol). According to popular belief the nightingale possesses the most beautiful voice on earth and is also said never to repeat itself in song. A bird of great symbolic power throughout the Middle East, the nightingale represents the ultimate symbol of musical creativity. To the extent that the classical music lives through the more or less spontaneous re-creation of the traditional repertoire in performance, the music is often described as “improvised”. Musicians themselves talk freely of improvisation, or bedaheh navazi (lit. "spontaneous playing"), a term borrowed from the realm of oral poetry and which has been applied to Iranian classical music since the early years of the twentieth century. Musicians are also aware of the concept of improvisation in styles of music outside Iran, particularly in jazz and Indian classical music. But as in so many other “improvised” traditions, the performance of Iranian classical music is far from “free” – it is in fact firmly grounded in a lengthy and rigorous training which involves the precise memorisation of a canonic repertoire known as radif (lit. “order”) and which is the basis for all creativity in this music.
Like other Middle Eastern traditions, Iranian classical music is based on the exploration of short modal pieces: in Iran these are known as gusheh and there are 200 or so in the complete radif. These gushehs are grouped according to mode into twelve modal “systems” called dastgah. A dastgah essentially comprises a progression of modally-related gushehs in a manner somewhat similar to the progression of pieces in a Baroque suite. Each gusheh has its own name and unique mode (but is related to other gushehs in the same dastgah) as well as characteristic motifs. The number of gushehs in a dastgah varies from as few as five in a relatively short dastgah such as Dashti, to as many as forty-four or more in a dastgah such as Mahur. The training of a classical musician essentially involves memorising the complete repertoire of the radif. Only when the entire repertoire has been memorised - gusheh by gusheh, dastgah by dastgah - a process which takes many years, are musicians considered ready to embark on creative digressions, eventually leading to improvisation itself. So the radif is not performed as such, but represents the starting point for creative performance and composition.
There is very little documentary information before the middle of the nineteenth century, so the history of the radif is quite speculative. The evidence suggests that for many generations each ostad (master teacher) would have developed their own individual repertoire of pieces based on a broad tradition shared with other musicians. These versions of the traditional repertoire were passed down orally from one generation to the next, each generation developing its own variants. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, there were moves to standardise the repertoire, and Ali Akbar Farahani (1810-1855), master of tar (plucked lute) at the court of the Qajar monarch Nasser-e Din Shah (r.1848-1896) in Tehran, is credited with organising the diverse materials of the traditional repertoire into a coherent structure in which modally-related pieces (the gushehs) were grouped together into the twelve dastgahs. It was also around this time that this repertoire acquired the name "radif". Farahani’s work was completed after his death by his son, Mirza Abdollah (1843-1918), and this particular version of the repertoire came to be known as radif-e Mirza Abdollah (“Mirza Abdollah’s radif"). A proficient performer, Mirza Abdollah was also active as a teacher, and was more aware than most musicians of his day of the importance of transmitting the repertoire to the next generation. Many of his numerous pupils became prominent musicians and they, in turn, taught this radif to their own pupils. There are, in fact, a number of different radifs in existence today (including interesting regional variations), mostly rooted in a shared tradition and each one usually associated with the particular master who developed it. Indeed, students of Iranian classical music are often expected to learn a number of radifs of different schools (maktabs) with a series of teachers in order to consolidate their musical knowledge. At the same time, in the course of the last century, Mirza Abdollah’s radif (as developed and transmitted, and later recorded and published by his pupils and grandpupils) attained authoritative status, particularly in the version taught to many contemporary musicians by Ostad Nur Ali Borumand at the University of Tehran in the 1960s and 70s.
A performance of Iranian classical music is usually based in one of the twelve dastgah (although there is a technique known as morakkab navazi by which musicians can move between different dastgah using shared gushehs as “bridges”). The musician (or musicians in the case of a group performance) selects a number of gushehs from the learned repertoire of the chosen dastgah, and presents these in turn, using each one as the basis for improvised performance. This progression of gushehs takes the music gradually away from the opening “home” mode of the dastgah, through a series of increasingly more distant modes and usually tracing a rise in pitch until the music reaches a climactic point (owj) towards the end of the dastgah. This is followed by a release in the final cadential section known as forud (lit. "descent") which returns the music to the home mode of the dastgah to end the performance. The resulting arch-like shape of the complete dastgah provides the music with much of its dynamic energy. The length of a performance can vary a great deal depending on the context, the number of gushehs selected by the musician and the extent of the musician’s improvisations, but most performances nowadays are between thirty minutes and an hour long.
The complex detail of the solo melody line is of utmost importance in Iranian classical music – there is no harmony as such and only an occasional light drone (in contrast with the constant underlying drone in Indian classical music). As such, Iranian classical music was traditionally performed by a solo singer and a single instrumental accompanist – with the instrument shadowing the voice and playing short passages between the phrases of poetry - or by an instrumentalist on their own. In the course of the last century it became increasingly common for musicians to perform in larger groups, usually comprising a singer and four or five instrumentalists (each playing a different classical instrument). Nowadays one can hear both solo and group performances. The latter often follow a formula by which a performance begins and ends with an ensemble piece (with or without the vocalist) which are generally pre-composed (and often notated) rather than improvised and which frame the largely improvised and unmeasured central part of the performance. In this section, known as avaz (lit. "song”), it is still common practice for instruments to take turns accompanying the singer rather than play together.
Poetry has played a central role in Iranian culture for centuries. At times when Persian language and identity were under assault, it was poetry in particular that kept the essence of the culture alive. Such a time, still remembered as one of the darkest periods of Iranian history, was the Mongol invasion of the 13th century A.D. through which the sufi poet Mowlavi (also known as Jalal-e Din Rumi, 1207-1273) lived. The fact that such a period produced some of the finest poetry in the Persian language is a testament to the passion with which the culture was maintained against the odds. Moreover, it was through the poetry, particularly that of Mowlavi, that the message of mystical sufism found its most potent voice. With religious proscriptions against music, dance and representational art at various times over the past few centuries, the creative energies of the artistically-minded have often found an outlet through poetic expression. It will be no surprise then, to find that an art form so imbued with history and which addresses some of the most fundamental and eternal philosophical issues of human existence, should play such an important role in the lives of Iranians today. Poetry is also central to Iranian classical music - it’s still fairly unusual to hear a performance without a singer – and vocal sections are usually set to the poetry of medieval mystic poets such as Baba Taher (11th Century A.D.), Sheikh Attar (12th Century A.D.), Mowlavi and Hafez (1325-1389) as well as to the work of contemporary poets.
Notes by Dr. Laudan Nooshin
City University London, UK