The New York Critic: Reviews

From the Same Essence

The World Music Institute continues its extraordinary service to American audiences this season by presenting Masters of Persian Music. In performance, the four musicians of the group sit on carpets on a raised platform. Three play traditional Persian instruments: the tar is a long-necked lute with three double courses of strings, played by plucking; the kamancheh is a sort of fiddle, made from mulberry or walnut, played vertically; the tombka is a drum of wood, with lamb or goat skin, held horizontally across the lap. One gentleman (they are all men) is a vocalist, and the three instrumentalists sing as well.

Persian classical music is ancient. Its roots date from pre-Islamic Persia - that is, long before the seventh century. Until the last century, it was largely restricted to the royal Iranian court (as in Europe, the common folk developed a folk tradition of our own, not unrelated to the classical). Then its performance spread slowly - but only to a larger privileged class. It was finally released to the public with the 1979 revolution, which introduced a new popular consciousness of Iran's cultural heritage (and excluded women from singing).

Unlike western classical music, this music is highly improvisational. But, as in all improvised forms, musicians train with a strict structure. The entire repetoire is called the radif. Its individual pieces are called gushels, and are divided into a dozen modes called dastgah. After a musician has memorized the frames of the 200-or-so gushels, he moves on to create variations.

The solo line is foremost; there's no real harmony. In group performance, there's doubling of voice and instrument, and sometimes of two voices. Its unique perfection lies largely in its use of what we'd call melisma (the singing of many notes on one vowel). It's an intricate musical line, like those fine designs on Persian carpets, or the elaborate details of Arabic calligraphy.

The poetry of these songs, in Arabic, comes from Sufi writings. Often the poetry of the 11th to 14th centuries is used, although this concert included modern poetry as well. Many lines of lyrics are repeated. The Institute's documentation, otherwise excellent, gives us not a word of translation. Two songs are from the poetry of Sa'adi (11th century), and one of his couplets translates as follows:
All Adam's race are members of one frame;
Since all, at first, from the same essence came.

Like all mysticism, Sufism transcends its culture.

This music is by turns haunting, hypnotic, exciting - always elevating. If we don't identify the subtleties that musicians expert in this idiom might, there's great advantage in hearing music that's foreign to our ears. We have no specific expectations - and as a stranger give it welcome.

- Steve Capra