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The artist and the craftsman
Post-revolutionary Iranian classical music

Susanne Kamalieh
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 and his article -- "The crisis of Persian culture" -- about the Kennedy Center concert "Masters of Persian Music" in particular, although it seems to 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 conducive 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.

At 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 contemporary "human emotion."

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 music won't 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 seem essential.

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.

Let's 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 and traditions.

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.

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