a REVIEW of BAZM-E DOWR
As modern artists make their way through their creative processes, they immerse themselves in a world of imaginary conversations. It is hard to imagine a creative individual who does not engage in hypothetical exchanges of ideas, feelings and experiences with a range of imagined audiences: from their former masters and mentors to the anonymous listeners to whose intellect and emotions they aim to appeal. These exchanges of ideas happen in tandem and sometimes intertwine with the real conversations that artists have with their colleagues and collaborators: we live surrounded by expectations and our perception of what those expectations are.
At a time when an increasing number of musicians in Iran aim to reach wider audiences beyond the realm of specialist connoisseurs, the contents of Bazm-e Dowr are presented with a leaning towards the knowledgeable listener. Wright considers shared connoisseurship to be at a loss as a result of the commercial distribution of sound recordings (Wright 2009: 39); I suggest that ‘intellectual conversation’ (ibid) in music has spread across a wider domain of social life. Aesthetic debates became – to some extent – de-territorialized from the intimacy of private gatherings of like-minded people and re-territorialized into the realm of critical reviews, specialized publications, album release events and of online music forums.
As individuals become members of society through the singular ways in which they re-create and interact with material, social and institutional orders (Bourdieu 1977, Barber 2007, Miller 2009), I expect knowledgeable listeners of Iranian classical music to have their original ways of listening to Bazm-e Dowr. However, what defines them as knowledgeable is their awareness of a number of aesthetic, theoretical and methodological debates at the heart of Iranian classical music. In this review, I will first examine how the contents of Bazm’e Dowr relate to those ongoing debates and I will subsequently argue that the album’s many radical departures from conventional practice do not constitute a detachment from the established models of Iranian classical music, but a revisionist re-acquaintance.
Bazm-e Dowr is a 'suite': a macro-formal unit that was practiced in different ways in Iran for centuries but was heavily adapted throughout the 20th Century to the proliferation of public concert performances (Zonis 1973: 147). Whilst enabling a range of compositional or concert programming possibilities for performers and composers, this form also prescribes a set of limiting structural parameters. These emerged from a range of adaptations and negotiations with broadcasting needs, commercial formats and the many transformations that punctuated the relationship between musicians and different audience expectations. The knowledgeable listener will therefore imagine a more or less familiar musical narrative delineated by the interaction between metric and non metric pieces, instrumental and vocal pieces, fast and slow pieces; these will be associated to the interaction between two generative aspects of music which frequently take the centre stage in debates about Iranian classical music: improvisation and composition.
Bazm-e Dowr is not made of a reduced number of clearly separated metric and non metric pieces, as is the case in conventional suites. It is rather made of a complex interweaving and juxtaposition of sections and sub-sections that cross-reference and grow into each other. In this respect, the structural narrative of Bazm-e Dowr emulates the complex internal structure of the instrumental radif system as a model to diversify the structural outline of the suite form, which had been kept relatively simple after its adaptation to modern concert performance. Different versions of the instrumental radif present a series of interrelated pieces of different type which is rich in cross-references, long-term modal fluctuations and cadential units that operate as structural icons. In Bazm-e Dowr the extraordinary structural richness of the radif is emulated explored rather than simplified. This revision of the compositional habits associated to the suite form is also present in the way in which metric and non metric pieces are allocated. For example, the album opens with an unusually dense, unmetered avaz. This is likely to confound the knowledgable listener’s expectation, used to an opening in the form of a slow and lengthy pishdaramad.
The album is presented in three sessions. This is an arbitrary decision which is at odds with the flow and of Bazm’e Dowr’s formal uniformity. Rather than helping the listener to process and assimilate the density of the album’s contents – as it is claimed in the CD booklet – this division could confuse listeners or diminish the album’s expressive weight. A future edition of this work would benefit from a presentation that features a single movement together with a tracking system based on its many sub-sections, enabling a type of fragmentary listening more adjustable to the preferences of individual listeners, rather than suggesting a macro-formal scheme that was not intended on the first place.
The contents of Bazm-e Dowr confront knowledgeable listeners with an unusually free reading of the diverse radif sources used by the creators. As Nooshin notes, musicians draw on several versions of the radif as well as on musical experiences that go beyond the radif (Nooshin 2015: 111). However, even listeners familiar with a wide range of radif-derived sources as well as the less familiar sounds of morakkab navazi (Hosseini 2012), will find it difficult to trace the models for some of album’s melodic and rhythmic ideas. Daramad-e bayat-e tork is rendered through its modal and expressive qualities (Safvate & Caron 1966: 70-74, Farhat 1991: 43-46, Kiani 2014: 35) but the unusual shape, complexity and density of the opening sentences bear little relation to daramad-e bayat-e tork’s usual melodic skeleton. Some listeners might even refuse to accept it as daramad bayat-e tork, others might attribute its astonishing freedom to the performers willingness to push the radif’s boundaries through a very free ‘improvisation’, as the avaz sections are at the heart of improvisation practice in Iranian music (During 1991: 90-94, Nettl 1974a: 405-414, Azadehfar 2011: 143-147).
Improvisation can be approached as a generative process (Nettl 1974b, Pressing 1988), as the experience of states of mind (Racy 2009) as well as a socially negotiated and malleable sonic identity (Blum 1998). Knowledgeable audiences can identify improvisation through its association to specific musical characteristics or psycho-emotional states. Despite their association to improvisation, the avaz sections of Bazm-e Dowr were, like the rest of the album’s contents, fully composed and played from memory. The open admission of the creators of Bazm-e Dowr that their avaz sections are fully composed carries, in my view, a poignant subtext: the automatic association between the sonic identity of the un-metered avaz and improvisatory performance needs to be scrutinized. Music that might conform to the sonic identity of improvised avaz can be composed. Moreover, music that sounds like improvised avaz to the non-expert, could be a rendition or written music materials with only minor modifications. Not least, it is possible for gifted instrumentalists to improvise pieces which will not conform to the sonic identity of improvised avaz. I suggest therefore that with its contraposition of sonic identities and generative processes, Bazm-e Dowr brings to the surface a sensitive issue in the appreciation of Iranian classical music: there might be too many disagreements and misunderstandings among Iranian musicians and listeners about the nature and sound of instrumental improvisation, for it to be arbitrarily associated to a whole musical genre.
On the other hand, an insight into the creative process that led to Bazm-e Dowr suggests that the differentiation between improvisation and composition is in this case arbitrary. The compositional raw materials of Bazm-e Dowr were extracted from informally recorded improvisations completed during the album’s long gestation period. The creators explored these methodological possibilities in their previous project ‘Bedahesazi’ (Kazemi & Kordmafi 2012). However, in Bazm-d Dowr the aesthetic implications of this compositional process involve a more pronounced departure from usual creative practice. This concerns the role of vocal parts and poetry in classical Iranian music.
It could be said that for many knowledgeable listeners, the role of the voice as a vehicle for the extemporization of classical Iranian poetry in the performance of avaz is of paramount importance. For this reason, the role of instruments in sung avaz sections is expected to be in most cases, secondary. In Bazm-e Dowr, the composition of every detail of the saz o avaz and javab avaz sections enabled an equal treatment of leading voices within heterophonic textures. The singer’s entries in avaz sections are usually unexpected and are introduced within the elaborate melodic layers created by Kordmafi and Kazemi. In other words, the vocal part is not ‘taking the lead’ in the saz o avaz sections. In addition, the vocal part is adapted further to the individuality of the internal structure of the work, as the there are long sections of the album that remain instrumental following the initial appearance of vocal parts. Most importantly, the formal integrity of the ghazal is not used as a fixed model for melodic composition, but adjusted to the pre-composed melodic structures. This is probably the most radical aspect of Bazm-e Dowr: it prioritises a result-orientated creative process to interfere with the established authority of Persian poetic meters in the vocal performance of avaz and composition of tasnif. The instrumental parts are therefore not only given full autonomy from vocal parts, but treated as the main divers of a compositional approach to which the vocal part is subordinated. The successful adaptability to such a different creative process speaks volumes for the extraordinary invention and flexibility of singer Mahdi Emami, whose beautiful melodic ideas and powerful delivery provided the compositional matrix engineered by Kazemi and Kordmafi with the unique expressive nuance that give Bazm-e Dowr its brilliance.
Whereas other innovative artists seek to regenerate their musical vocabulary through hybrids with pop, folk, fusion jazz, Western 19th century classical tradition or the 20th century avant-garde, the creators of Bazm-e Dowr engaged in a creative process that constitutes a re-appraisal of the radif system itself and its role as a repertoire and as a model for composition and performance. In this respect, it is important to observe that knowledgeable listeners relate to what they know in different ways: in their encounter with Bazm-e Dowr, the line of communication enabled by their awareness of aesthetic and technical aspects of Iranian music could be an outlet for their admiration or their rejection. It is likely that in those imaginary conversations with hypothetical listeners, the creators of Bazm-e Dowr speculated scenarios of recognition and criticism by their colleagues, listeners and, not least, their masters. From a perspective of album reception, the listeners’ knowledge could be an advantage as well as a hindrance. From the perspective of someone whose relationship with Iranian music is based on a polyphony of Iranian and non-Iranian voices, and whose imagination, as a non Iranian listener, has many times filled the gaps of experience, Bazm-e Dowr owns its success to the strength of its expressive output. It is precisely by transcending the methodological and theoretical matters that were at the heart of Bazm-e Dowr’s making and presentation that the creators will maintain the strongest line of dialogue with their listeners, through which they can learn from each other. Maybe this was their ultimate aim.
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