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Conversations with Alireza Mashayekhi, Iranian Composer

A new east-west synthesis

The following text is based on email conversations with Alireza Mashayekhi on 28 July and 13 December 2006, and 7 January 2007. Originally published at the EMF Institute.

Alireza Mashayekhi, born in Tehran in 1940, is a major musical pioneer in contemporary Iran. Educated in both traditional Persian and Western music, he studied avant-garde and electronic music in Vienna with Hanns Jelinek, and in Utrecht, The Netherlands, he attended lectures by Gottfried Michael Koenig. Mashayekhi’s music encompasses many traditions, including Iranian and Western, and is informed by philosophical inquiry. This composer views his work as a process of discovery in which contradictory possibilities point towards a multiplicity of truths. Alireza Mashayekhi has been a member of the composition faculty at the University of Tehran since 1970. In 1993, he co-founded The Tehran Contemporary Music Group, and in 1995, the Iranian Orchestra for New Music.

Musical Education

I became interested in both Iranian and Western music at a young age. My teacher of Iranian music, the late Dr. Mofakham-Payan, an important associate of the great master Abolhassan Saba, realized that I was eager to compose and encouraged me to take composition lessons. This is how I became involved with Western Classical music and I started to learn harmony, counterpoint (Palestrina style) and piano. My earliest interests in Classical music were Russian romantic music, Chopin, Bruckner and of course Beethoven. I became motivated to compose because I felt dissatisfied with the last measures (coda) of Western Classical compositions which, in my childish world, I tried to change. My composition teacher was the late Hossein Nasehi and my piano teacher, Mrs. Ophelia Kombajian.

What really sparked my curiosity about modern music, though, was modern art. In those days in Iran, the newest music performed in concerts was Sergei Prokofiev, so I searched for recordings and discovered the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, George Antheil, Henry Brandt and Dmitri Shostakovich. I had an endless desire for discovering new elements. Many years later I used the word newity to describe what I was looking for as a main element in composing as well as discovering music.

I continued my studies at Wiener Akademie für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. During my first months in Vienna, I had the opportunity to attend a concert featuring the music of Anton Webern. I attended Hanns Jelinek’s composition classes in part because he was musically closely related to Schoenberg, Webern and Alban Berg. It was in Vienna, a world that in many ways was strange to me, that I defined my position as a composer. I became deeply involved in philosophy. I could say that modern art helped me discover new music and philosophy helped me analyze and define my musical direction. My Iranian background and my interest in new music were both essential in shaping my artistic personality. After completing my studies in Vienna, I went to the University of Utrecht, in The Netherlands, where I studied electronic and computer music. I chose Utrecht because of Gottfried Michael Koenig’s reputation and because I wanted to have the freedom to work independent of technicians. I was afraid that in other places, for example in the United States, I would have gotten more involved than I wanted in technology itself. Considering the fact that my desire encompassed almost every imaginable experimentation in music, I feared that would lose too much time solving problems that could be solved faster and better by my expert advisors. In fact, my wish to have the freedom to work alone in the studio yet have the guidance of great technicians was fulfilled to my satisfaction in Utrecht. I continued to visit Utrecht University as a guest composer and researcher for nearly fifteen years, until 1982.

Electronic Music

The very first example of electronic music that I listened to was Jelinek’s film music. At nearly the same time, I became interested in the work of Herbert Eimert from the Cologne, Germany studio and Pierre Schaeffer from Paris. Soon after that, I heard the electronic music of Gottfried Michael Koenig and Karlheinz Stockhausen, both from Cologne. However, if you listen to my early electronic music from 1965–68, for instance Shur (1968) and East-West (1973), you will immediately realize that my compositional style was not influenced by any composers.

I do not recall any other Iranian composer being involved in electronic music during the 1960s, either inside or outside of Iran. If there was, I was not aware of it. When I started to encourage young music students to pursue new music, there were no electronic studios in Tehran. I had just finished Shur and I was planning my composition East-West. At that time I started to teach twelve-tone music to some of my students, among them Mr. Dariush Dolat-Shahi 1[1. A text based on an interview Bob Gluck made with Dariush Dolat-Shahi will be published in eContact! 15.2.]. I tried to interest my students in musical approaches other than Iranian or Western Classical.

Some of my early electronic works involved algorithmic processes. More often, though, my works are defined by a strict organizing of an order or orders and a set of disciplines that serve to break apart the first order or orders. The best example of this approach is the composition East-West. In the 1970s, I used a simple computer program to achieve full automation to compose works including Iranian Aesthetics (1979), Chahargah Nr. 1 (1979) and Dashti (1979).

My work with electronic music continued, most substantially, in the 1970s and early 1980s, often using the computer programming language XPL. A number of my instrumental works have included electronic tape and several have used various forms of live electronics in conjunction with traditional Iranian and Western instruments. Some of my live electronic works developed in stages: Saba (Chahargah Nr. 2, 1979) and Mithra (1982) each began with a random program, continuing with a long process that involved computer and violin improvisations, culminating with Mithra, which I combined with another composition, À la recherche du temps perdu (1994), for amplified piano, tar and orchestra. À la recherche… can be performed in various ways, including the use of digitally processed live recordings of the music that can be played back at the command of the conductor. The digital processing includes filters, equalization and other effects.

I continue to compose with electronics today in a private studio in Tehran owned by Mr. Ali Mardani. Recently, some of my compositions have been realized with the interaction of computer, especially the as-yet unfinished opera, Shahrzad. I am currently in the process of composing two major works that include live electronics, one for orchestra and the other for piano. Mr. Ata Ebtekar [also known as Sote] is serving as my advisor on computer matters.

Looking Across Cultures

I am interested in regard to meeting different cultures as a superlogic leading the content of music towards totality. The notion of totality draws upon an idea from Hegel’s philosophy that has been a major inspiration in my musical thinking. What I’m looking for is quite different from a collage. I look for concepts and elements that are related. I can reach a new quality of sounds in the process of composing; discovering and attaining a new level through quantitative developments. In my philosophy of music, I describe this idea as a dual function facing the composer, consisting of composing and discovering. Composing is just one part of what a composer does, and the other part is discovery; a lot of this is rooted in destruction of form and material. As one can imagine, I also don’t have any problem listening to music where a non-Iranian composer has borrowed aspects of Iranian music for his/her composition. In my opinion, every technique that can be helpful on the road to discovery may and should be tried.

Some have observed that most performers of traditional instruments show great resistance to contemporary music, when they react at all. In the 1960s, many composers of new music made a big mistake in isolating themselves from a large audience of listeners. I can recall a concert in downtown Manhattan at The Kitchen, where a very interesting composition by a notable American composer was performed in the presence of six listeners! In situations like this, I learned a great lesson that helped shape my movement in Tehran. Verbal communication in the form of simple worded lectures and press interviews had an enormous impact on the audience. It is always important to show the fact that contemporary music is not just for the elite.

Nationality, Identity and Iranian Music

In order to explain how my Iranian nationality and cultural background influences my music, I would like to clarify my perception about nation and nationality. In my opinion, nationality is a perspective and not an identity. Identity develops itself, independent from nationality and may or may not be influenced by nationality. In my philosophy of music I speak of Multicultural Identity. National influences can sometimes be indispensable values but they are not always automatically positive influences. For example, in my case, knowing Iranian music opens the gate to a very special way of artistic thinking, but it would not be worth it if it closed my eyes to other possibilities. These are the origins of my definition of Nationality as a Perspective. One can watch the world through a national perspective, but one might lose oneself in a multicultural world while sticking to a so-called nationalistic identity.

In a country that has no tradition in Classical music and no acquaintance with contemporary music, the Shiraz festival had the appearance of an invasion.

I have touched and experienced Iranian music in many of my compositions and my involvement with Iranian elements has created a huge repertoire. To understand me it’s very important to consider this wide spectrum of works, though not just as a quantitative value. In confrontation with music and æsthetics, I would like to mention, that there is almost no field that I have not gone through or that I have not touched on.

Now that I have given you a general picture of my way of looking at the world of music, I can come to your question about my approach towards Iranian music. From the very beginning of my career as a composer, I had one passionate desire for destruction and dialectical construction as a new form of synthesis. Interestingly enough, this approach has also influenced some of my compositions, which are not directly related to Iranian music. I’m not thinking only of the composition Nous ne verrons jamais les Jardins de Nashpour, but also the last movement of Sinfonietta, for cello solo and Iranian instruments.

The current state of musical life in Iran, in comparison with pre-revolutionary times, is neither worse nor better. A lot of young music students leave Iran for good but some people like myself prefer to stay in this country. One of my reasons for remaining in Iran was to establish conditions that give the young generation the opportunity to become composers in this country. I am pleased to see that some of my goals have been achieved.

I know of some composers who have approaches similar to mine. I have not been able to build a serious connection with many colleagues. One reason is the shortage of organizational help here. I know the composers, situations and working conditions in Europe and North America fairly well. In cases when they have the same volume of activity that I have, they have usually been furnished with much more organizational help. For sure, some colleagues in countries like Iran have similar problems. A wide range of my activities is mostly done with the help of volunteers and this kind of situation has definite limitations.

The Shiraz Art Festival

Among the first times Iranians were exposed to avant-garde music from the West was during The Shiraz Art Festivals. I believe that the Shiraz Festivals were wrong from the beginning to the end! Let us look at the festival from different points of view. Historically, in a country that has no tradition in Classical music and no acquaintance with contemporary music, the festival had the appearance of an invasion. Sociologically, at a time when we needed a modest electronic studio, we should not have spent a fortune to invite big foreign names. 2[2. The annual festival was founded in 1967 “as a showcase for the royal court.” The National Iranian Radio and Television, founded in the same year, was the sponsor of the festival during its decade-long existence. For more on the history and conflicts of the festival, see Robert Gluck, “The Shiraz Arts Festival: Western Avant-Garde Arts in 1970s Iran” in Leonardo 40/1 (February 2007), pp. 20–28.]

The presence of composers like Mr. Stockhausen and the late Mr. Xenakis was a miserable example of opportunism. While we had no adequate facilities in our small Tehran Conservatory, great leftist and religious composers enjoyed expensive trips for sightseeing with helicopters that were furnished by the Shah’s army. For most Iranians who visited the Shiraz Art Festivals, it was a show by Europeans for Europeans! Some Iranian musicians who attended that festival told me it was a very good occasion for European composers to do their experimentations using Iranian taxpayer’s money.

I boycotted those festivals, more or less a one-man boycott. I even didn’t attend those events in which my music was performed. It was ironic that although the festival organizers refused my conditions for participation, the American Brass Quintet, which was invited to the Festival, chose to perform my Contradiction I at the Shiraz Festival. Of course, for the organizers it would have been more embarrassing to stop the performance of Contradiction I than to accept it! And it was after this or the next festival that they suggested making my music the central subject of the upcoming festival. When I received the letter, I felt sorry for them because I realized they didn’t know that there would not be any more international music festivals in Shiraz. Of course, some Iranian young musicians had the chance to listen to contemporary music, but that did not justify the Shiraz Festival.

Art, Society and the Future

Technological development, while making electronic and computer music possible, has in recent years also influenced the philosophical justification of music in a negative way. We have more and more possibilities of sound production yet fewer and fewer compositions that merit more than one listening. The trend of trash TV can gradually be detected in the musical development of serious music. We could have predicted this development when multi-national LP producers Co. started to dictate the direction of music. In fact, Theodor Adorno, with whom I do not agree on all points, warned us long ago about “manipulations” that dictate the trend of music. I see great problems for modern music in the future.

I believe that a great majority of the world’s population is going through a deep multicultural transformation. This international development is rooted in sociological, political and historical elements. For many people, multicultural thinking has gone beyond wishes or suggestions and many people already have a multicultural identity. There is already a multicultural way of thinking in this world which, like any other kind of thinking, automatically seeks its own cultural, artistic and musical experiments.

In my writings I have criticized Western as well as Eastern ideas of æsthetics. The problem is this: theories are developed without information, communication, understanding and knowledge of each other, between and within our cultures. Thus, the composer of our time is in the position to look through a different window. At this point I might be very close to Nietzsche’s view of values.

A Philosophy of Music

I have developed a substantial series of philosophical theses of music and art. I hope someday to publish it in its entirety on my website, where a brief synopsis can now be found. There are fifteen theses that I formulated in short paragraphs and they are accompanied by extensive explanations. In those texts, I define music as a kind of language that can’t easily be explained with the help of vocabulary that languages offer.

I believe deeply in the capacity of the philosophy of music and that is what really influences my work. Non-musical ideas are supposed to help us get closer to the nucleus of music and by stating this we’re immediately in the middle of contradictions. We can’t have a black and white discussion, especially not since Nietzsche’s warning about authenticity of values. I like to put forth some contradictory views in order to open a gate to my kind of thinking, for instance:

Music cannot describe. I cannot describe music. Music can put me in a special situation. Any special situation is located in a special environment. I cannot try to describe the environment. Environment is located in physics.

Since the time of ancient Greek philosophers we were warned about dialectic connections of all phenomena in physics. Music, which cannot describe anything, is related to the above observations and, as a result, is a part of Hegelian totality.

I believe in the autonomy of music. This autonomy creates the necessity to compose, regardless of environment, and in the end, the autonomy of music dominates the environment. Furthermore, as I have said before in my philosophical theses, I don’t believe in political art and I do not agree in this regard with some philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre, whose work I otherwise appreciate.

Contemporary Music and the Role of the Composer

I believe that we composers have a social duty to educate performers, like all members of society, to gain a better understanding of contemporary music. I have personally done this eagerly and thoroughly. My technique is very simple. I win the trust of performers and listeners, and if I am successful and if I bring them to the point that they trust me, they will work very well together with me. If I can win the trust of performers and listeners, they are far more likely to be open to contemporary music. I have a series of pieces called Sokut (Silence); the fourth was performed last winter at Tehran University. Considering the long duration of silence in this composition, the concentration of people during the performance was amazing. I have practiced gaining understanding from the public and I have achieved results to my satisfaction.

I consider everyone to be my potential audience. If my compositions are going to be performed by capable instrumentalists, I am sure that I can communicate with almost everyone. That of course doesn’t mean that everybody will receive the same musical message. In general, communication with my audience is smooth and strong. Honestly, I have no complaints and I am proud to say I never make musical compromises.

For an excellent overview of the history and key figures of the Iranian EA milieu, see Arshia Cont and Bob Gluck’s “[Community Report] Electronic Music in Iran,” published in eContact! 11.4 — Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium 2009 (TES) / Symposium Électroacoustique 2009 de Toronto (December 2009).

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