The artist and the craftsman
Post-revolutionary Iranian classical music
May 19, 2005
McLEAN, VIRGINIA -- With all due respect to Dr. Nafisi,
I beg to differ with him on the subject of Iranian music in general
his article -- "The
crisis of Persian culture" -- about the Kennedy Center
concert "Masters of Persian Music" in particular, although it seems
reflect the sentiments of many in the audience.
On the evening of March 5th the huge Kennedy Center
Concert Hall was more or less packed. For many attendants
the concert had social as well as artistic significance. The Iranian
community was extremely excited about having their concert in an
establishment of such caliber. The Kennedy Center is undoubtedly
one of the most, if not the most, -- important cultural symbol
in the nation‚s capital. "Making it" to the Kennedy
Center in Washington has the same significance as "making
it" to the Carnegie Hall, which is the ultimate sign
of success in live performance. So, for the Iranian community seeing
their most cherished musicians perform in the great halls
of American high culture was almost triumphant.
Sadly though, the venerated Kennedy Center Concert Hall does
not lend itself well, acoustically or otherwise, to a Persian
quartet. The small ensemble would have sounded much better
in a chamber orchestra setting rather than a concert hall that
is primarily designed for a symphonic orchestra. The Persian
instruments did not amplify well, but more importantly, the
necessary atmosphere that is only created in an intimate setting,
where the artist and his audience connect and interact, and is
to improvisational music, did not exist in the large space
of a concert hall.
The Persian audience was extremely enthusiastic
and supportive of their music heroes, but there was no proximity
for the musicians to feel that warmth and to respond to it. Thus
the concert was only a great performance because of the enormous
talent of the artists, and not an inspired one. For an audience
with such extremely high expectations that could be a disappointment.
My main dispute with Rasool Nafisi, however, is on his condemnation
of contemporary Persian music. Although, I don't consider
myself an expert in the technical aspects of Iranian musical
traditions, as a native Iranian, and a music lover, I have a totally
different experience with regard to the development of music
in Iran after the Islamic revolution.
I was living in Iran 25 years ago when the revolution broke out.
I remember how those of us involved in artistic activities
were searching hard for venues to express our emotions, pro
or anti-revolutionary, through our artwork -- most of us quite
unsuccessfully. Changes were happening at a staggering pace,
and there had not been enough time to digest, absorb and
to give back. Nevertheless, we certainly felt the need for artistic
expression of our intensified feelings. And that was when,
more than any other art form, music came to the rescue.
the time, when Islamic law was prohibiting musical activities altogether
calling it "haram", many traditional musicians
responded by producing music that was immediate to the revolutionary
fervor of the people, reflective of the political and social energy,
and irresistible even to the Islamic Republic. So it defied, it
endured, it resisted, and it flourished into what Dr. Nafisi is
calling "impoverishment of the traditional form." On
the contrary, I find this to be in the best tradition of artistic
evolution, and a genuine artistic response to the need for formalizing
I grew up listening to Marzieh, Delkash, Banan, the great
"Golha" programs and other traditional music and
I enjoyed it very much. But let's face it: the pre-revolutionary
make it in today's Iran. Try listening to it; other than
some nostalgic value, it sounds old and out of place.
To appreciate contemporary art one MUST make oneself open to
the experience with active participation and let go of dogmatic
tendencies that restrain our enjoyment -- even then it
may take some effort to truly appreciate something totally new.
It is much easier to relate to what we are accustomed to.
The old format becomes a religious doctrine, an untouchable
and unreceptive part of one's belief system. Changing it
threatens some deeply ingrained rules and regulations that
Throughout history art has faced this attitude. It has always
been the dilemma of the artist: to stay within the established
rules and enjoy the recognition, fame, and praise of his
contemporaries or follow his artistic instincts at the risk of
moving beyond the realm of public appreciation.
not forget that Stravinsky was booed on the opening night of the
Rite of Spring. Beethoven was considered to be losing his mind
when composing his Ninth Symphony. Van Gogh did not sell
a single work during his lifetime. The instances are frequent
and common rather that rare and noteworthy, far too many to mention.
Great advances in art, however, have always come about through
incessant probing of boundaries and the breaking of rules
The innovations that Shajarian and others bring to Persian music
are hard to get used to for those of us who have enjoyed Golha
for a large part of our lives. But it would be a crying shame
to miss the enormous energy and the new vitality that we find in
the post-revolutionary Iranian music.
What Dr. Nafisi calls
the "hurried tone" of Alizadeh might be the force
and the power that challenged religious dogmas of the government
and brought about the fatwa that kept music alive
in the country. (Mohamad Reza Lotfi and the Chavosh Group
also come to mind.) The old Golha music would have
been squished under the wheels of the Morality Police's
four-wheel-drives before getting a chance to make a sound.
It wouldn't have had the strength or the stamina to survive
the revolution and it did not.
It is also note-worthy that some of these innovations are extremely
creative and clever ways of overcoming the censorship and
limitations that have been imposed by the government. The
asynchronous duets are being used to allow women to sing in public
in spite of the ban on female voice. Performances of great
musical plays that are very popular in Iran today are taking
full advantage of it and bringing great female singers to the
stages of Iranian theatres.
The achievements of these musicians are admirable. Unlike most
of us they did not run away from hardship. They stayed and
used their talents and creativity to produce a new art form,
and more importantly, a voice for a population that needs it badly.
Iranians inside the country or abroad recognize that and
appreciate it deeply.
In his article Dr. Nafisi talks about "honar", meaning
art, versus "technique".
He states that the Iranian musicians, by putting emphasis
on their technical skills, never make the transition to being
an artist and stay at the level of a great technical expert. I
believe the painstaking perfection of one's craft is
what allows the true metamorphosis. The transition will not
come from a conscious decision to stop being a craftsman and start
being an artist.
You become an artist and express feelings, emotions,
make statements, or do whatever it is that artists do, as
you overcome the technical difficulties of your instrument.
When you don't spend your energy constructing sentences,
then you start talking, and the rest has to do with what
you've got to say!
It is not an easy task to define art, to tell art from non-art,
or to distinguish good art from bad art. Anybody can sign
a piece of junk and call it art (no disrespect to Marcel Duchamp!)
But to call Shajarian's music anything but high art would
be a wasted effort.