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
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).
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
- Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 1
- Dariush Tala'i (tar & setar), Mohammad
Musavi (ney), Majid Kiani (santur)
Ocora (Radio France) C 560024
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
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....
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.
- Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 2
- Mohammad Karimi (voice), Mohammad
Musavi (ney), Jamshid Mohebbi (zarb)
Ocora (Radio France) C 560025
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.
- The Abu-Ata Concert
- Mohammad Reza Shajarian (voice) &
Mohammad Reza Lotfi (tar)
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.
- Iran: Mohammad Reza Shadjarian (voice, santur)
- w/ Parviz Mechkatian instrumental ensemble
Ocora (Radio France) C 559097
There is a similar program of vocal/small ensemble music by
Sorouch Izadi (voice) and Djalal Akhbari (composition/direction)
on the Auvidis Ethnic label.
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
- Classical Music of Iran
- Faramarz-e Payvar (santur)
Al Sur (Media 7) 164
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.
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
- Masters of Persian Traditional Music, Volume 2
- Ahmad Ebadi (setar)
Caltex Records 2070
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.
- Iran - Hassan Kassai: The Ney
- w/ Djahangir Behesti (tombak)
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 6
- Asghar Bahari (kamancheh)
Caltex Records 2081
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.
- Masters of Persian Traditional Music, Volume 9
- Mohammad Mousavi (ney)
Caltex Records 2075
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.
- The Classical Tradition of Iran, Volume II
- The Tar: Daryoush Tala'i
w/ Djamchid Chemirani (zarb)
Harmonia Mundi HMA 1901031
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.
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.
- The Classical Tradition of Iran, Volume III
- The Santur: Majid Kiani
w/ Djamchid Chemirani (zarb)
Harmonia Mundi HMA 190395
This is another quality recording by Kiani. Modes are Abu'ata,
Segah, Dashti, Afshari, Homayun.
- Great Masters of the Santur
- Majid Kiani - Iran
Auvidis Ethnic B 6756
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
- Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 3
- Shahram Nazeri (voice), Dariush
Tala'i (setar), Bijan Kamkar (zarb & daf)
Ocora (Radio France) C 560026
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 Music
- Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh (kamantcheh),
Djamchid Chemirani (zarb)
Al Sur (Media 7) 112
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.
- Persian Classical Music
- Hossein Omoumi (ney), Madjid Khaladj
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 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.
- Behnam Manahedji: Master of Persian Santoor
- Wergo (Welt Musik) SM 1508
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
- Alizadeh: Live at the Los Angeles Festival
- Improvisation in Dastgah Nava - Hossein Alizadeh (setar)
w/ Madjid Khaladj (tombak)
Kereshmeh Records K-105
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
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