I’ve recently been exploring music of the Persian classical tradition. There’s a lot of it available on YouTube, but I wanted to share one of my favourite discoveries in particular, an album by the santur player Faramarz Payvar (1933-2009).
If you’ve never listened to Persian music before, then a bit of context may help. As musicologist Hormoz Farhat describes, the classical tradition is fundamentally monophonic and modal. It’s related to (but distinct from) the Arabian and Turkish traditions, and it includes improvisation alongside composed pieces.
Farhat’s study is fascinating for its description of the specific dynamics that have shaped Persian music in recent centuries, which include religious censure and flawed attempts to apply Western theoretical models. (He also argues the case for preferring ‘Persian’ over ‘Iranian’, which I won’t try to repeat here but will simply go along with him).
The santur is a type of hammered dulcimer, an instrumental family that doesn’t enjoy huge prestige in Western classical music. But in the hands of a master like Payvar, it is undeniably capable of real poetry. It has a crisp sound, ranging from sweet delicacy to nasal harshness, that is carried in a bloom of decaying notes like a cloud of smoke.
On this record, Payvar shows that monophony need not mean monotony. Rapidly alternating hammers can give the impression of several parts at once, as well as a tremolando effect on a single note that allows for dynamic swells. One instant he makes a driving gallop, the next softly drumming rain. The scope for expressive melodic ornamentation, so important to this tradition, is immense.
Cithare En Iran, Santur was released by the French label Pathé Marconi EMI in 1979, one of their Arabesques series which featured Middle Eastern musicians. Running to 43 minutes, Payvar’s recital showcases a Dastgāh. The Dastgāh is a Persian system for structuring a performance. As Farhat puts is, there are twelve Dastgāhs, but each one:
identifies a set of pieces, traditionally grouped together, most of which have their own individual modes. It also stands for the modal identity of the initial piece in the group. This mode has a position of dominance as it is brought back frequently, throughout the performance of the group of pieces, in the guise of cadential melodic patterns.
In this case the performance is of Nava, one of the less commonly heard Dastgāhs. But being unfamiliar with Persian modes should be no major barrier, as some aspects of the music are very intuitive to grasp.
The introductory Darāmad passages, for instance, unfold in the manner of ruminative preludes, while the Čahārmezrāb facilitates virtuoso display, much like an étude. The cadential patterns that Farhat mentions – Forud – are not hard to discern either. One that occurs here is rather charmingly known as the ‘pigeon’s wing’, a stately drop of the interval of a fourth.
Payvar’s elegant sculpting of lines through pacing, dynamics, and ornamentation makes this album a blissful listen. If you can read French, the impressively detailed sleevenotes by Jean-Claude Chabrier can be found here (and if you can’t, you can still admire their extremely 1970s brown and cream colour scheme).
If you’d like to listen to more Persian classical music, I highly recommend the Hafdang YouTube channel, which is both a fantastic resource and an exemplar of slick music video presentation.
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