Iranian Classical Music

Iranian classical music is modal and monophonic. The most serious interpretations generally consist of a melodic soloist (or sometimes, a duet) and often a percussion accompanist. Orchestral combinations are also becoming more popular, but I will largely ignore those.

There are twelve basic modes -- seven primary modes (dastgah-s) and five secondary modes (avaz-s). Each avaz is derived from a specific dastgah, but it is also able to stand by itself. Performance is based on the idea of a "suite" in a single mode, in which the artist will choose items to make a finished "composition". Actual performances generally proceed largely as improvisations, incorporating & culminating in the chosen melodic patterns.

The standard items of Iranian classical music are codified in something called the Radif, written at the beginning of this century. This consists of a large number of melodies or sequences (gushe-s) grouped by mode. Some dastgah-s have more gushe-s than others. To form a suite, the artists will select appropriate gushe-s, along with classical poetry, improvised elements or original compositions. Some gushe-s are always present in a classical rendition, whereas others are less common; the order within the suite is also pre-determined, to some extent. Some gushe-s and compositions have specific rhythms, while others do not; the percussion accompanist will take part in some sections but not in others, and generally supports the main artist. Part of the artistry is to make smooth transitions between gushe-s.

There is a large body of classical poetry, from medieval times to the present day, available to vocalists. This is some of the world's great literature, and the flowing, timeless intensity of an Iranian singer will really bring these fine poems to life. Most of the poems are rhythmically free (that is, sung without a time signature, but following an internal rhythm of phrasing), and are generally performed within the context of a suite of gushe-s taken from the Radif.

Although the classical poetry is largely medieval, and the codification of the Radif is modern, the musical forms are believed to date from the days of Classical Persia. Iranian music has managed to sustain itself in recent decades, and looks to be undergoing a burst of creativity.

A variety of instruments are used; I'll list them in no particular order. The santur is a hammered dulcimer, similar to the santur used in Indian classical music (pioneered by Shivkumar Sharma), though of a brighter tone. The tar and setar are fretted plucked-string instruments, with sharp overtone series (the tar is the larger of the two). The ney is the reed flute common throughout the Near-east, although the Iranian technique is probably the most versatile, using both the low breathy register and the sharp higher register (held between the teeth). The kamancheh is a narrow, upright bowed-string instrument. The violin and oud (ancestor of the lute) are also used.

Iranian classical instruments are generally brighther and crisper in tone than many of those used by neighboring cultures. However, the voices are very deep and rich, although highly animated. The main percussion instruments are the zarb (also called tombak) and daf (in that order), and both tend to add a surprisingly subtle sonority to a performance. There are also solo percussion recordings, but I do not explore those.

I try to buy all of the traditionally-oriented Iranian classical recordings I find, as well as a few of the more innovative ones. If there are any excellent CD recordings not mentioned in this list, please let me know.

No consistent spelling is attempted; comments will follow the discs to which they apply. In all cases, the quality of the recorded sound is first-rate (although the Caltex CDs do not have the overall production quality of the others).

Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 1
Dariush Tala'i (tar & setar), Mohammad Musavi (ney), Majid Kiani (santur)
Ocora (Radio France) C 560024
This disc is made up of individual solo renditions by the three performers (Mohammad Musavi is accompanied by Jamshid Mohebbi (zarb)), and makes a fine introduction to Iranian classical music. The modes are: Avaz Bayat-e Esfahan (Tala'i), Dastgah Chahargah (Tala'i), Dastgah Homayun (Musavi), Avaz Bayat-e Kord (Kiani). This is the best place to start for an introduction to Iranian classical instruments.

A brief digression on other "starter" CDs....

The most commonly available disc of "Persian Classical Music" (as it's sometimes called) is a re-issue of an older recording by Nonesuch Explorer. This disc consists of relatively short dastgah performances by an ensemble of famous instrumental musicians.

There is also an introductory survey on the Smithsonian label, with examples (by numerous different artists, vocal and instrumental, in solo or duo performances) of most of the dastgah-s. In that case, each performance is rather short and so it is hard to gain a conception of the full suite, but the liner notes are especially clear.

There is also a recording of four songs (by two vocalists, variously accompanied) on the JVC World Sounds label. Also a relatively brief ensemble performance on Ocora is available. Finally, there are two discs of Iranian music on the World Music Library label, featuring a variety of performers in relatively brief solo/duo performances.

Now, on to the more extended performances....

Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 2
Mohammad Karimi (voice), Mohammad Musavi (ney), Jamshid Mohebbi (zarb)
Ocora (Radio France) C 560025
Most of this disc consists of a duet between Karimi & Musavi in Dastgah Nava, followed by two shorter suites in different modes (Dashti & Segah) by Musavi (accompanied by Mohebbi). The late Mohammad Karimi was previously one of the most influential teachers in Iran. This is one of my favorite recordings of any genre, with an almost unparalleled luminosity. Even after knowing every note, I find myself listening to it again and again.

The Abu-Ata Concert
Mohammad Reza Shajarian (voice) & Mohammad Reza Lotfi (tar)
Kereshmeh KCD-107
This is a duet between two of the greatest living performers of Persian music. Shajarian is known throughout the world as the leading Iranian vocalist; his strong voice easily mixes passion with tenderness. Lotfi is of the most influential tar players of the era, having contributed a more colorful instrumental technique as well as unique insights into the structure of Persian music. This performance is widely regarded as one of the greatest music concerts to be heard in Iran.

Iran: Mohammad Reza Shadjarian (voice, santur)
w/ Parviz Mechkatian instrumental ensemble
Ocora (Radio France) C 559097
Another performance by Shajarian, this time accompanied by an orchestral ensemble of traditional instruments in various combinations. As such, it is not quite to my taste, but the singing is more than worth hearing. Modes are Avaz Afshari and Dastgah Nava.

There is a similar program of vocal/small ensemble music by Sorouch Izadi (voice) and Djalal Akhbari (composition/direction) on the Auvidis Ethnic label.

Classical Music of Iran
Faramarz-e Payvar (santur)
Al Sur (Media 7) 164
Faramarz Payvar (b.1932) is one of the leading senior Iranian musicians, and widely regarded as the greatest santur player of our time. Santur is often played by ensemble leaders, and Payvar has been conductor for the National Radio & Television; he has also composed extensively. This performance exhibits his deep knowledge of mode & melody, as well as a transcendent rhythmic virtuosity. Modes are Chahargah and Shur; the performance is unaccompanied.

Payvar directs the ensemble on the Nonesuch recording referenced above, and there is also a recording on the Caltex label. Finally, there is a recording on santur by Hassan Tabar (student of Payvar) on the Artistes Arabes Assoces label.

Masters of Persian Traditional Music, Volume 2
Ahmad Ebadi (setar)
Caltex Records 2070
The elderly Ahmad Ebadi is one of the most admired performers in Iran. His playing on this disc is the most supple and vocal-style performance on Iranian setar/tar that I've heard. There is a tremendous lyrical depth here, as well as the lightning fast sequences for which setar playing is known. Modes are Segah, Chahargah, Homayoun, Esfahan, Afshari; the performance is unaccompanied throughout.

Iran - Hassan Kassai: The Ney
w/ Djahangir Behesti (tombak)
Playasound 65051
Hassan Kassai is perhaps the most highly regarded master of the ney. His performance is very strong, showing deep formal insight and exquisite phrasing. This recital exhibits the most traditional and intense side of Iranian classical music. The suites are in Dastgah Shour and Dastgah Mahour.

Masters of Persian Traditional Music, Volume 6
Asghar Bahari (kamancheh)
Caltex Records 2081
This is a very expressive and sonically captivating performance by a senior musician. I know nothing of Asghar Bahari, except for his playing here and picture on the back of the CD. He manages to capture the essence of a mode in just a very few phrases, yet goes on to develop them further. Since the kamancheh is otherwise under-represented, this is an even more significant recording; European vielle players will likely find it tremendously helpful. Modes are Segah, Shour, Afshari, Bayat-e Tork, Esfahan, Abouata. The performance is unaccompanied throughout.

Masters of Persian Traditional Music, Volume 9
Mohammad Mousavi (ney)
Caltex Records 2075
This is a fine performance, deeply expressive. There is just something about the sound of the Persian ney, something which I do not really feel with the other instruments, despite enjoying them. Mousavi (b.1946) is a superlative performer, and we're lucky to have so many recordings available. Modes are Shoushtari, Afshari, Segah, Bayat-e Zand, Mahour. The zarb accompanist is not named.

The Classical Tradition of Iran, Volume II
The Tar: Daryoush Tala'i
w/ Djamchid Chemirani (zarb)
Harmonia Mundi HMA 1901031
Together with some quality tracks on the Ocora anthology above, this is another recording featuring Tala'i (b.1952). His approach is based on a sensitive classicism and a genuine expressiveness. This disc consists of suites in Dastgah Shur and Dastgah Mahur.

There is also a five-volume series of recordings by Tala'i on the Al Sur label, performing the complete Radif.

Volume I of this series on Harmonia Mundi is a recording of solo percussion by Djamchid Chemirani, a name we will see often in this list, and an excellent traditional percussionist.

The Classical Tradition of Iran, Volume III
The Santur: Majid Kiani
w/ Djamchid Chemirani (zarb)
Harmonia Mundi HMA 190395
Majid Kiani plays full suites (in Dastgah Rastpanjgah and Dastgah Segah) on this recording, as opposed to less standard sequences he plays on the Ocora disc above. He is a leading figure in the Iranian musical establishment, and known for his controlled expositions (which some might find a bit cold). In particular, the intricate Dastgah Rastpanjgah really benefits from the precise treatment on this disc.

Great Masters of the Santur
Majid Kiani - Iran
Auvidis Ethnic B 6756
This is another quality recording by Kiani. Modes are Abu'ata, Segah, Dashti, Afshari, Homayun.

Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 3
Shahram Nazeri (voice), Dariush Tala'i (setar), Bijan Kamkar (zarb & daf)
Ocora (Radio France) C 560026
Shahram Nazeri is a singer in the sufi tradition, and incorporates some Kurdish folk compositions into a classical context. This is a very energetic performance of two suites, in Avaz Afshari and Dastgah Mahur.

Persian Music
Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh (kamantcheh), Djamchid Chemirani (zarb)
Al Sur (Media 7) 112
Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh is one of the younger generation of multi-faceted performers, but this performance is strictly classical -- both intense and lyrical. Modes are Dastgah Mahour and Avaz Abuata.

Persian Classical Music
Hossein Omoumi (ney), Madjid Khaladj (tombak, daf)
Nimbus 5359
This is one of the most widely available recordings of Iranian music (at least in the US), and would make a good introduction. Hossein Omoumi is a student of Hassan Kassai, and has gone on to make some technical improvements to the ney as well as to innovate new gushe-s (while retaining a thoroughly classical stance); these technical changes make his ney sound more mellow than that of the older masters. Madjid Khaladj is an innovative young percussionist. Modes are Dastgah Homayun, Avaz Dashti, Dastgah Chahargah.

Hossein Omoumi was also largely responsible for the chosen selections on another Nimbus CD, featuring Sima Bina (voice) along with Madjid Derakhshani (tar) & Madjid Khaladj (tombak). Sima Bina is primarily a "folk" singer and has another recording on the Musique du Monde label. This label also features a percussion recording by Madjid Khaladj, as does the Al Sur label.

Behnam Manahedji: Master of Persian Santoor
Wergo (Welt Musik) SM 1508
Behnam Manahedji is an innovative performer. He has softened the sound of his santoor, and composes suites with evocative titles. However, his style is still firmly grounded in the radif, even if unconventional. Although I'm usually very traditionally-minded, I find this recording quite effective; meditative moods are emphasized. Modes are Dastgah Homayun and Avaz Abuata.

Alizadeh: Live at the Los Angeles Festival
Improvisation in Dastgah Nava - Hossein Alizadeh (setar)
w/ Madjid Khaladj (tombak)
Kereshmeh Records K-105
Hossein Alizadeh is one of the most dynamic composers and performers in Iran, having studied with many of the great masters of the older generation and even at the University of Berlin. He has composed new gushe-s, thoroughly grounded in the radif, along with numerous fixed compositions based on the radif and even orchestral music in the Western style (but still inspired by Iranian ideas). His string technique is very fast and very colorful. In this performance, Alizadeh treats the radif with greater freedom, leading to a more rhythmically varied rendition. His treatment of the Dastgah Nava is fairly convincing, and historically based. This is high energy music.

There is another similar performance by Alizadeh on the Kereshmeh label (called "Torkaman"), even faster than this one. His first recording on Kereshmeh ("Hamnava'i") is for performed as a duet for two tars, and is more typical in its use of the radif. There are also two recordings of his orchestral music on the same label. There is a 2CD set of improvisations (Nava, Homayun) by Alizadeh on the Musique du Monde label. Alizadeh is certainly a man with ideas, although where they will lead is hard to say.

There is a recording called "Kord Bayat" by Jalal Zolfonun on the Music of the World label which uses an unusual (but traditionally oriented) format.

The traditional music of Central Asia is also partly Iranian, and highly recommended. In some cases, I have rather arbitrarily allocated a recording to that list rather than the present one which I have reserved for the more "classical" Iranian music (not necessarily older in tradition).

T. M. McComb
13 March 1996