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A composer in a new key
Interview with composer Reza Vali

Maryam Pirnazar
January 25, 2007

It is a rare pleasure that you encounter the realization of a potential you had only imagined possible. Hearing Reza Vali’s Nayshaboorak (Calligraphy No. 6) was one such pleasure.

For all the hype about “celebration” of cultures and “dialogue” between this and that, those of us who spend our lives commuting between cultures know that works that are grounded in real knowledge of different artistic traditions are still quite rare. In music, what is generically called “world music,” while certainly not wanting in raw talent and freestyle thrill, lacks the formal cohesiveness that one associates with classical traditions. It is the exploration of the wide open area afforded by the rigor and nuance of the highly developed musical traditions of Iran and the west that Reza Vali undertakes. The result is not only novel but a delight.

Nayshaboorak is a joint commission from the Del Sol Quartet and Cuarteteo Latinoamericano. It was performed by the Del Sol String Quartet in four venues in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nov. 5-10, 2006, as part of the ensemble’s “Premiers without Borders” series. (On April 21, 2007, Quarteto Latinoamericano will perform four of Reza Vali’s string quartets, including the European premiere of Nayshaboorak, in Amsterdam.)

I listened to Nayshaboorak with a great deal of admiration for the Del Sol Quartet in both tackling such technically demanding music and the vision to introduce such a novel genre to American audiences. The rapt attention with which the audience listened to the piece generated a good deal of mostly technical questions for Vali during the question and answer period.

The Iranians in the audience, however, heard the music with different ears. The ones I talked to, all expressed the wish to hear the piece performed by Iranian players who instinctively know “how it’s supposed to sound.” For me, listening to accomplished western musicians struggle with the pitch, rhythm, and the indescribable quality my mother described as the “charm” of Iranian music was interesting in itself. Paradoxically, I found the performance partly an exercise in hearing Iranian music with western ears. As I went back and forth between my Iranian and western “ear,” I could not help reflecting on questions that have been running through my mind for some time now.

We, as Iranian producers and consumers of art, are occupying an awkward space at the moment. There is still a huge gap between what we imagine possible and whether and how what we imagine can be actualized – between conception and delivery (and indeed reception), as it were. This is a gap to be filled not just by creating art but by fashioning the very media of cultural transmission: performance opportunities, new and traditional venues, and the infrastructure that supports all of this (from funding and promotion to technology and what makes the acquisition of technique possible). And as I ponder the predominantly one-way cultural transmission between Iranians and the west – think of how far each side has traveled in not just appreciating but mastering the arts of the other – I think that, exceptions such as the Del Sol Quartet notwithstanding, we are mostly on our own in filling this gap. We have little choice but to build the very stages on which we are to perform. And if this means that one minute we are in tutus and pointe shoes and in another minute we are laying bricks, then so be it.

Interview with Reza Vali
Reza Vali was born in 1952 in Iran. He received his musical education in Iran, Austria, and the U.S. He has received numerous awards and his works have been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Seattle Chamber Players, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, as well as the Del Sol Quartet and Cuarteto Latinoamericano. He is Associate Professor of Music at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.

I interviewed him recently via email.

Tell us about yourself – your educational and professional background, and your compositions.

I was born in Ghazvin and studied at the Tehran Conservatory from 1965 to 1969.  In 1972 I went to Vienna and studied music education and composition at the Academy of Music in Vienna. After graduating from the Academy of Music, I moved to the United States and continued my studies at the University of Pittsburgh, receiving a Ph.D. in music theory and composition in 1985.  I have been a faculty member of the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University since 1988.

My compositions include pieces for large orchestra, string quartet, piano and voice, and chamber ensemble. My music has been performed in the U.S., Europe, Mexico, Chile, Iran, Hong Kong, and Australia and is recorded on the Naxos, Albany, New Albion, MMC, Ambassador, and ABC Classics record labels.  

Tell us about Nayshaboorak: How do you reconcile writing in Persian Dastgah to western harmony?

The musical material of the work is entirely derived from Persian traditional music. The tuning, rhythm, form, as well as polyphonic constructions such as imitation, inversion, and retrogradation relate to the Persian modal system, the Dastgah. Since the entire composition is based on the Dastgah system, there has been no attempt to reconcile the system with western harmony. All aspects of the composition are directly derived from the Persian system and the western musicians are asked to adapt to aspects of the Persian system such as tuning, rhythm, etc.

What have you incorporated in Nayshaboorak from your background in western classical music?

The idea of using western instruments, the exact notation of the score and parts, which are precisely notated in western notation, the use of instrumental timbres, the concept of long-range design of musical forms, are all related to my background in western classical music.

How do you notate a piece such as Nayshaboorak?

Western classical musicians do not improvise.  Therefore, all aspects of the music (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulations, etc.) have to be precisely notated.  Every aspect of the music in Nayshaboorak is exactly notated. For transcription of the micro-tones, I use the standard notation of the micro-tones, the Sori and the Koron, which were developed during early 20th century by the Persian master Alinaghi Vaziri.

Given your background in western classical music, what inspired your interest in Persian Dastgahs?

My education at the Tehran Conservatory was completely western. Sadly, the Persian music system, the Dastgah, was not taught at the conservatory and we were trained in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. Not even a single note of Persian music or a single sentence about Persian music history was taught – nothing!!  As if we were born in Iran by accident!

My involvement with the Dastgah came through folk music. Composing and studying Persian folk music, I came to realize that there is a strong connection between Persian folk music and Persian classical music and both are based on the Dastgah/Maqam system.  The more I studied the Dastgah system, the more I realized that this is one of the most sophisticated and most complex musical systems in the world. Since 2000, I have completely broken away from the western music system (12 notes equal temperament, western musical forms, etc.) and my music has been since then based on the Dastgah system.

I have to mention here that my recent music, although based on the Dastgah, does not follow the Radif. Radif is the concentrated form of the Dastgah and is usually attributed to one of the masters of Persian classical music, such as the 19th century master Mirza Abdollah, or the 20th century master Abolhasan Saba. Radif is quite strict and has to be followed according to the performance practice of a particular master. Dastgah is the umbrella system, the superstructure, and can be used freely.

The Iranians in the audience at the Nayshaboorak performance noted that the Dastgah system was at times too challenging for western performers. Why is that?

As I mentioned earlier, the Dastgah system is one of the most sophisticated and complex musical systems in the world and it is very difficult for the western players to perform it accurately. Although I have to say that my dear friends of the Del Sol Quartet made all efforts to play the piece as accurately as possible.

Which of your pieces have been performed in Iran?

One of my string quartets was performed in Tehran in 2004 and a solo guitar piece called Gozaar was performed last summer in Tehran by the Iranian guitar virtuoso Lily Afshar.  Gozaar was written for Ms. Afshar and she has performed it in many of her guitar recitals in the U.S., Europe, Turkey, and Iran.

My work Folk Songs (Set No. 11B) was performed in Tehran on May 5, 2005 by the Armenian string quartet the “Ani String Quartet.”  The performance was part of a festival of Iranian contemporary music that took place in Tehran on May 5-7, 2005.

What would be an ideal performance situation for pieces like Neyshaboorak?

It is my wish that Nayshaboorak be performed by a quartet made of the Persian Kamanche. The ideal performance would be by four Kamanches in different sizes corresponding to the registers of violin, viola, and cello.  Also, the tuning should strictly follow the Persian traditional tuning system.

However, we do not have a Kamanche quartet yet (or if it exists, I don't know about it).  So, the alternative would be to play the piece by a western string quartet and of course the rhythms and the tunings are extremely challenging for the western players.  I am lucky that my western musician friends are devoted to make all efforts to play my music as accurately and as close to the original as possible.

Tell us more about your compositions before the Dastgah period.

The main focus of my music before 2000 was Iranian folk music.  I started collecting folk music when I was a student at the Tehran Conservatory, an activity that I have continued to the present day, and I have a large collection of Persian folk music consisting of tapes, cassettes, and CDs.  This is not a musicological undertaking because I am not a musicologist.  I have used the Iranian folk music as the raw material for my compositions.

In 1978, I wrote a piece called Four Persian Folk Songs for voice and piano. The success of this piece encouraged me to continue composing pieces based on Persian folk songs. This was the start of a continuing cycle of Persian Folk Songs and I have composed 16 sets of these folk songs encompassing close to one hundred songs. Each set consists of four to eight songs. The early sets were for voice and piano. Then I started expanding to composing songs for voice and orchestra, voice and chamber ensemble, and instrumental pieces without voice (songs without words). Because of their simple forms, folk songs are great raw material to be superimposed on a western harmony or even a modern harmony and orchestration.

I imagine that it is especially difficult for a composer like you to have his pieces performed. Have you experimented with electronic production of your music?

I amcurrently developing a computer-based Persian keyboard instrument called the “Arghonoon.” The instrument is in its first phase of development but I have established the hardware/software components of the instrument and have been able to tune various western instruments (such as flute, harp, strings, etc.) in Persian tuning, effectively creating a Persian orchestra out of digital samples of the western orchestra. Arghonoon is able to create the Persian intervals with precise accuracy and is already solving many of my problems dealing with the Equal Temperament of the western instruments.  In its final stage of development, Arghonoon will be able to produce the sounds of all Persian instruments, western instruments, and many other Asian, African, and Latin American instruments, and it will be able to produce any type of interval tuning with precision and accuracy.

What pieces are you working on now?

I have recently finished a piece for three flutes, based on Dashti. I have also started another piece for six wind instruments and three percussion players based on Esfahan. Comment

* Reza Vali was interviewed on NPR after the premier of his Concerto for Ney and Orchestra, Febbruary 2006.
* Vali’s commercially released CDs on

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