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Listen to the reed how it tells a tale
Exploring tradition and modernity through Iranian musical literature


Aaron P. Baca
January 31, 2006

Paper submitted in a class taught by Abbas Milani last quarter at Stanford University called "Tradition and Modernity in Iranian
literature." Dr. Milani is Director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and a visiting professor in the department of political science. He is also a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford's Hoover Institution. See another paper, Mahnoosh Nik-Ahd's "Catching the blind owl".

Stanford University now has, thanks to Hamid and Tina Moghadam who have endowed a Chair, an Iranian Studies Program. As part of the curriculum I have been developing for the program, in the fall quarter, 2005, I taught a course called Tradition and Modernity in Iranian literature. We read a number of works (in translation) by Iranian writers, as well as theoretical works, explicating the fluid and multi-faceted nature of modernity, the ways and whys of transition, and the contested content of Iranian tradition. The Blind Owl, My Uncle Napoleon, and Women without Men were amongst the books we read. We talked of the dominant paradigm, promoted by a wide arrays of artists and thinkers — from Max Weber to Milan Kundera-- that claims modernity to be, in essence, a Western phenomenon. And thus, according to this theory Iranians, from poets to politicians, must emulate the Western tropes and values of modernity, if they want to be modern. We also discussed the hypothesis I have offered in Lost Wisdom, where I have argued that the dominant paradigm needs to be reexamined. Early forays into such critical scrutiny has shown that there was, in Iran, between the tenth to twelfth century, the early signs of an indigenous modernity. From Beyhagi to Nezami, from Ibn Sina to Biruni, Iranian thinkers and writers were, according to this hypothesis, beginning to experiment with ideas we today called “modern” and “Western.”

The students were invited to write papers on any aspect of modernity that interested them. Two of the essays were, in my judgement, particularly brilliant and full of interesting insights. Aaron Bacca, an accomplished musician with intimate knowledge of Western musical theory and practice, tackled the issue of modernity in music. Over the last century, a fascinating debate, with luminaries like Colonel Vazir, and Saba at its center, has continued on the question of whether Persian music is capable of modernity, and if such transition is desired and needed, then what are the rudiments of musicial modernity for Iran. The second article, by Mahnoosh Nik-Ahd is a fascinating comparative discussion of two important works of twentieth century literature — Hedayat’s Blind Owl in Iran, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in the US. Mahnoosh has cleverly unpacked the many similarities between the two novels, particularly between their two central narrators — the alienated “underground” men of modernity. While for generations of Iranians, Blind Owl has been, in form and content, a work of seminal influence, Catcher in the Rye has been uniquely influential, particularly in the US. Her clever insights point to the rich harvest of ideas we can expect if we can interest the new generation of Iranian-American youth in the Iranian part of their hybrid legacy.

Soon after reading the papers, I contacted Mr. Javid, the tireless editor of, and asked whether he might be interested in publishing a sampling of these papers. He kindly agreed to publish them, and what you are about the read is the slightly revised version of two of these papers. We  hope to continue this cooperation and bring to the Iranians more essays  of this kind.

Abbas Milani
Director of Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University


Over the course of a society, manifestations of social, economic and political progress are recorded in the evolution of that society’s creative process.  The culture that defines a people emerges from centuries of dynamic change, beginning with the society’s origins and following a course approaching modernity.  As a land steeped for millennia in rich multicultural heritage, Iran today stands at the crossroads of tradition and an uncertain future.  As societal progress constantly reevaluates itself, the literary canon serves as an extremely useful tool to scrutinize the intersection of many internal and external influences in Iran.  Iran’s past century has been a series of volatile skirmishes between the past and the future, beginning with the revolution of 1905 and continuing to the present day.

While the players acted out their revolutions in forms of coups, decrees and uprisings, the imprint of the political process has been recorded in the resulting culture that follows in the wake of social change.  The link between politics and cultures compels the exploration for a clearer understanding of Iran’s experience with modernity through literature.  In terms of historical context, the literary form of the novel began only some four-hundred years ago with Don Quixote.  However popular the young form of the novel is, the 10th and 12th centuries must not be neglected Iran if one is to use literature as an instrument of understanding Iran’s relationship with tradition. 

Consequently, poetry and novels are some of the most consistent and comprehensive signposts of civilization, but they are not alone.  Besides being poetry’s best friend Music is endowed with equal responsibility to record social development.  As Ella Zonis writes, “the poetic modes have a direct cultural and historical relation to the articulation of rhythm in music.” (Zonis, p. 59).  In other words, music is a capable and necessary yardstick with which to measure a culture’s transition to modernity.  As we search for a cultural medium to use as a vehicle in this exploration, music and musical literature presents themselves as a vessel which has steered its course through many years. 

Iranian music is rich in cultural history and emotion, yet is also perceptive to the demands of a changing world so that it may adequately reflect the evolution of a society.  The intricate relationship between tradition and modernity is illuminated in Jallaleddin Rumi’s, or Mowlana’s famous poem as he speaks of the holes in the flute (ney) as wounds in the heart, bleeding with the anguish of separation and the desire for union.  Considering the chronological, spiritual, and societal girth of music’s reign as a cultural cornerstone, this paper briefly explores the way music speaks as a valuable window into the dynamic relationship between tradition and modernity in Iran.  

History of Music in Iran
With Arab, Turkish, Asian and Western influences developing over centuries, Iranian music refined itself as a synergy of contrasting cultures.  Iranian history is speckled by the influx of other cultures, resulting from invasions or treaties.  When speaking of early Persia’s cultural interaction with the outside world, Zonis suggests, “These periods between native Persian rule according to the Persians themselves, have left a scar on the Persian character, a scar that is manifested in the music of today.”  (Zonis, p. 18). 

Despite the prevalence of outside cultures, it is still difficult to simply read the scars left on Persia’s musical body because music from ancient Persia was rarely written down.  Not until the Safavid era are written records of Persian music more readily available.  This is in part due to the improvisational nature of the music, where transmission of the tune was done by personal instruction rather than by any means of writing.

 Through using secondary sources, we are able to construct a musical history of Iran composed of four periods; ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern.  In essence, the historical narration of Iran’s musical past is largely conjectural, depending on outside records but still valuable as a description of musical and cultural evolution.  The Greek writings of the Achaemenid and Sassanian empries are just a two examples of valuable insights to Persian music.  Herodotus’ Historie contains a record of the Graeco-Persian wars mentions chanting of Magi priests during a sacrifice (Herodutus, p. 69). 

Approaching the Sassanian period,(226-642AD) music increased in popularity in Iran when Emporer Chosroes II (Xosro Parviz) commissioned a number of court musicians including Ramtin, Bamsad, Nakisa, Azad, Sarkas and Barbod. (Farhat, p. 3).  Before being embraced by royalty, there were much fewer recorded references to music.  It is unfortunate that there are not more surviving records of the musical connection between the Greeks and Persians.  If the connection between ancient Greek and Persian music could be better substantiated, the study of contemporary Iranian music as a response to Greek influence would be invaluable.  Despite the lack of first-hand information, we are still able to extrapolate Persian music of the ancient period and use it as a basis for the construction reaching towards eventual modernity.

During the medieval period encompassing the Islamic conquests of 7th-13th centuries and the Turk-Mongol conquests of 13th to 15th centuries, Persian music began to develop many of the idiosyncratic characteristics present today.  The coming of Islam to Iran was the beginning of a process that would define the social scope of Iran for centuries.  From the earliest records of Arabic Islam in Iran, music served as a connection between cultures.  Tradition in Iran grew during this period as a result of the relationship between Arab and Iranian musical practices. 

For example, “Persian musicians were favored in the Arab royal courts, Persian instruments were introduced, and a great deal of Persian terminology came into Arabic music.” (Zonis, p. 31)  Surrounding Rumi’s 12th century poetry, the Mongolian invasions, the rise of Sufism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism were strong opposing forces to Iran’s exploration of a rudimentary modernity.  Still, music was a key component of Iranian-Islamic development, and the introduction and establishment of Islamic ideals would prove to resurface centuries later at the center of a swirling storm fueled by the tension of tradition and modernity.  

Throughout the renaissance period, the Safavid dynasty witnessed more flirtation between Persia’s traditional music and the pressures of Islamic influence.  The religious emphasis of this period was reflected not just as a measure of national policy, but also in terms of religion’s developing relationship with culture.  During this time the Abbassids firmly established rule on a religious basis, as the tension between traditional Islam and music took root.  Zonis writes, “[The Abbassids] encouraged religious writings as well as the creation of religious legalities and dogma (Khorofat) and opposed the deviancy of the Sufis, the main supporters of music.”  (Zonis, p.36). 

However, the situation was not as simple as to say that Islam was fundamentally against music.  This debate would be represented in Iranian composition for centuries to come.  As Bruno Nettl explains in his work The Radif of Persian Music, “Some devout Muslims were opposed to participation in music, but others maintained that the Koran does not prohibit music, and that those who maintain otherwise are simply wrong.” (Nettl p. 146).  Despite some setbacks in social approval due to pressure from the clergy, Persian music continued to soak up the cultural heritage and expand to embrace the years ahead. 

Persian music continued to evolve in the modern period of the 18th to 20th centuries, especially during the Qajar dynasty as the monarchs explored their Western neighbors.  In terms of the West representing an influence on modernity, Nasir ed Din Shah’s decision to formally introduce Western music by way of a French conductor to train is corps de musique in 1858 was monumental.  (Zonis, p. 39).  During the constitutional period a new era of growth for Iranian music began, encouraged by a gradual relaxation of religious restrictions and the commencement of extensive government patronage.  The rise of Mirza Abdullar and Ali Naqui Vaziri were just two examples the legitimacy Iranian music had secured for itself. 

More interestingly, Ali Naqui Vaziri had traveled to Europe to seek music education, naturally returning with some Western tendencies that propelled him to musical prominence.  Farhat explains, “As traditional Persian musicians were reduced, for many generations, to virtually illiterate musicians who knew only how to perform and could not discuss their own music scientifically, the emergence of Vaziri as the one exception placed him in a position of unquestioned authority.” (Farhat, p.9)  Vaziri was more than just one man balancing between Western and traditional influences.  He represented the future of the cultural see-saw in Iran, which would raise and lower itself according to the weight of tradition and modernity.   

Order and Wanderlust
In order to understand how music can serve as a representation of such an important cultural relationship, it is critical to understand the fundamental construction of the music itself.  Persian music is generally organized into twelve systems called dastgah.  Within each dastgah exists a series of tonal roadmaps called gusheh-ha which are utilized as context for each specific melody.  Listening to Ashgar Bahari’s Variations in the Chahargah Mode, you can hear the bold and straightforward structure in the early measures as he lays out the foundation for the piece.  The dastgah carefully creates a certain state of mind which is then explored by the individual nuances of the performer.

Below is a typical dastgah that outlines the scope of the piece.  The beauty of this music is found in it seeming simplicity, where it is indeed capable of so much expansion and enhancement.  Perhaps the simple nature of the dastgah comes not as a matter of choice but because after extensive Turkish and Arab influence, the resulting dastgah was the common denominator after all these outside cultures had run their courses.  

Whether playing setar, santur, tar, kamanche, or nay, the performer modally defines the work based on the dastgah, but then develops the performance as a matter of improvisation and discretion as the artist decides how and when to proceed from one gusheh to the next.  In her work The Persian Doctrine of Dastga-Composition, Edith Gerson-Kiwi explains, “Without a proper key [Iranian music] remains a closed book with its micro-world of melodic motives projected into the macro-space of evolution. (Gerson-Kiwi, p. 9) 

The “key” that Gerson-Kiwi speaks of is partly found in the dastgah, but is also contained within the individual performer.  In a sense, the performer takes the onus on himself to interpret and expand the dastgah, much like the author of a novel manipulates his character beyond simple internal exploration.  Iranian music is unique because after so strictly constructing the guidelines of the piece, the performer is essentially given carte-blanche to bring the music to fruition. 

Comparing Iranian music with Western structure, there is no traditionally accepted norm for the length or final structure of a piece as there are with most Western Symphonies.  The denotations of andante, allegro, scherzo or finale are not used in traditional Iranian music.  The construction of the novel and Iranian music is comparable in the sense that both utilize a structured central element to explore various thematic influences.  Looking Westward, there is a certain correlation between Iranian music and jazz.  Both are simultaneously very structured but also improvisational by nature.  Iranian music’s lack of notation distinguishes it by giving the performer the ultimate responsibility to translate a piece from the strict dastgah to the performance.

If we accept written literature as a link to concurrent social progress, there are many key correlations between Iranian music and Iranian novels that serve to support music’s claim as an arena for tradition and modernity.  Specific links between Iranian literature and music include the focus on one character or instrument, the theme of sadness and the theme of searching.  As in Iranian music, the form of the novel takes a character through a series of developmental trials and tribulations as that character undergoes some sort of change.

One unique characteristic about both the novel and music is that these journeys are often done in various forms of isolation.  Iranian music is decidedly monophonic, with only one melody developing at a time rather than the counterpoint style of the West where multiple musical phrases play off each other.  Iranian literature from Savushun to Parsipur is inundated with the theme of a lone individual trying to make sense of his/her surroundings.  This parallels Iranian music to the extent that one instrument plays at a time, exploring its tonal surroundings rather than interacting with other melodies.  Of course, there are multiple characters in novels and many instruments in an ensemble, but the individual quest of each instrument or character to find individual resolution is unmistakable.

The concept of the individual connects to the theme of searching, another commonality between Iranian music and novels.  Hedayat’s The Blind Owl and Irani’s King of the Benighted are about characters wandering, waiting, searching and finding.  As with Hedayat’s metaphorical representation of tradition and modernity, the overall process of the search is very similar to the improvisational technique of Iranian music where the performer searches the dastgah and gusheh as the piece’s character develops. 

In Mohammad Reza Shadjarian’s 1989 recording of Pish Daramad “Gol Nush”, the artist cautiously hovers around one note, carefully venturing out across the scale, but hesitantly exploring the theme until the very end.  There is immense patience and introspection in this piece, much like the characters in contemporary Iranian literature.  For example, as the main character reflects on Amir Khan’s life before attending his memorial in Irani’s King of the Benighted, the sentiments of resistance and hesitation combat with a persisting urge to move forward and rebel against the norm.  

The lingering tones of sadness pervade Iranian literature and music alike.  Poems from different times of Behbahani, Hafez and Parvin Etesami echo with a quiet longing.  In A State Beyond Words Simin Behbahani writes, “I am the short-live lily, friend,/ seize the time./ If you are not at my side today,/ what use will it be tomorrow,/ when I wilt?” (Behbahani, p.25).  The regularly minor tonality of Iranian music carries similar tendencies to sadness and lack of resolution.  Iranian music is not generally depressing by any means, but there exists a flavor of emptiness in which the performer sings his song. 

In novels or poetry, literature is fortunate to have the luxury of using words to specifically comment on real-world events, like the disasters of political oppression in Irani’s book or the feelings loss in Behbani’s poetry.  However, Iranian music is not by any means ill-equipped to perform the same function, but simply uses different tools to create commentary.  In summation, there are many parallel form-related elements, such as organization and tendency to individually explore, between Iranian novels and music which suggest Iranian music has sufficient capacity to explore tradition and modernity. 

Individualism and Adaptive Nature
Beyond the notes themselves Iranian music contains the ingredients for a modern society, promoting pluralism, individualism and improvisation as responses to the authority of the past.  Persian music does not operate on the same 12-note scale of Western composition.  There are not the same sharps and flats that tell the performer what pitches are allowed.  The dastgah gives a simple and rough framework, but the interpretation is much more left up to the performer than in most Western music.  As a result Iranian music naturally cultivates individualism, a central component of modernity. 

Before modernity, each text or each song came with just one meaning.  The lack of secularism in the world before modernity contrasts with the open nature of Iranian music wherein the performer decides how to interpret the piece.  The ability of the performer to decide how to get from one dastgah to the next is a signal of music’s power to serve as a vessel of personal choice, a drawing board for modern times that can respond to the changing dynamic of a society. 

A great deal of the power of Iranian music and its individuality are derived not from the notes, but rather from the performance.  The performer himself is empowered to interpret, which is the very essence of modernity.  At times, it can be argued that the burden of the responsibility to interpret is too great.  Some musicians cling to the basic tonal and interpretive standards that guide them safely from note to note. 

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov the chapter of the Grand Inquisitor poses this very question, whether or not people actually want to be free.  The musician has the authority to make this decision in his musical interpretation.  On one hand, the Iranian musician can follow the simple gusheh and go where it leads him.  Conversely, he can use his instrument to take control and instead create the music in his image, drawing on the responsibility of freedom to fulfill his desires in a most modern way.  Iranian music lets the performer become master of his own fate.  He does not have to be subject to rules and regulations if he chooses not to be.  His destiny is his own.

Ahmed Ebadi’s 1991 recording on Masters of Persian Music, Volume 2 is an extremely moving and musically empowering example of the performer’s ability to make the music his own.  In his performance the Segah and Chanhargah expound so far beyond the fundamental tonal parameters of the dastgah that is almost destroys the essence of the recording.  In this selection the performer establishes the traditional construction of the piece, but then develops it by his own accord to a point where it denies the original modal structure of the piece.  In the case of this recording it is both painful and inspirational at the same time.  It is painful because Ebadi creates an awkward tonal environment, yet simultaneously wonderful because the performer takes ownership of the dastgah and wields it as his own.  Improvisation and interpretation become a response to authority, a bold decree that predetermined musical regulations are not sufficient to restrain the velocity and strength of the individual. 

Over a century ago Nasir ed din Shah traveled to Europe and brought back a military band to encourage the Western arts (Caron, p. 15).  This past November 12th, modern Iranian sensation Googoosh played a sold-out concert at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California.  Steeped in centuries of tradition but readily susceptible to the inclinations of modernity, Iranian music has become a crossroad for the past and present.  The form instilled in the music so long ago is still greatly revered, but is approached with the tenacity of the individual.  Persian music does not abandon its roots but places increased emphasis on the freedom of the performer. 

Over the past century, form has become the content of Persian music.  Endless monophonic tragic melodies have been encroached upon by counterpoint-themed Western music.  The form of Iranian music itself has responded, incorporating Western influence and making it its own rather than blindly ignoring the rest of the cultural world.  In Persian music, the performer is the modern interpreter of pre-existing melodies rather than just the creator of new songs.  The ability of Iranian music to concurrently look so far to its past and maintain its susceptibility to modernity is truly unique.  Iranian music opens itself to multiple interpretations, allowing each performer to arrive at a different version of the musical truth.  In Iranian music, self-asserted individualism combines with a long-standing tradition to complete the concept of an art-form capable of traversing time, culture and humanity.

Indeed the reed (ney) is empty and hollow, but is also full of promise and possibilities.  However, it must be remembered that humanity is far more complicated than the flutes played on Mohamman Musavi’s truly breathtaking 1981 recording in Anthologie de la Musique Traditionnelle.  For better or worse, we have far more stops and holes in our collective soul.  As we allow our poetic selves to blow through us playing a song, we must have faith that modernity and tradition are both alive within, telling our tale. 

S. Bihbihani, A Cup of Sin : Selected Poems, Syracuse University Press, 1999

N. Caron, Iran: Les Traditions Musicales, BUCHET/CHASTEL, 1966

S. Daneshvar, Savushun, Mage Publishers, 2001

H. Faraht, The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music, Cambridge University Press, 1990

E. Gerson-Kiwi, The Persian Doctrine of Dastga-Composition, Jerusalem Post Press, 1963

S. Hedayat, The Blind Owl, Grove Press, 1957

Herodotus, The Histories, Penguin Classics, 2003

M. Irani, King of the Benighted, Mage Publishers, 1990

B. Nettl, Daramad of Chahargah: A Study in the Performance Practice of Persian Music, Information Coordinators, Inc. 1972

B. Nettl, Radif to Persian Music, Elephant & Cat, 1992

E. Zonis, Classical Persian Music, Harvard University Press, 1973

Internet Sources




A. Ebadi, Masters of Persian Traditional Music, Volume 2, Caltex, 1988

M. Reza Shadjarian, Musique Classique Persane, Harmonia Mundis 1990

A. Bahari, Anthology of World Music: Iran, Rounder Records, 1998

R. Vali, Persian Folklore, New Albion Records, 1995

Various Artists, Iran: Anthologie de la Musique Traditionnelle Vol. 1-4, Mars, 1982 

For letters section
To Aaron P. Baca
To Abbas Milani




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