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Conversation with Dariush Dolat-Shahi

An eclectic Iranian-American composer and artist

This text is based on conversations with Dariush Dolat-Shahi that took place on 8 and 19 December 2005. Originally published at the EMF Institute in 2006.

Dariush Dolat-Shahi studied traditional Persian and Western music at a conservatory as a child. He graduated from the Tehran Conservatory in 1968, where he studied with Alireza Mashayekhi, and he conducted a band in the Army. In 1970, Dolat-Shahi travelled abroad to study in Amsterdam where he began to compose electronic works, including Two Movements for String Orchestra (1970) and Mirage for orchestra and tape, both performed at the Shiraz Art Festival in Iran. The official Festival program observed: “Electronic music liberated [Dolat-Shahi] from old concepts of melody and harmony and provoked further explorations into the raw material of music, i.e. sound.” Dolat-Shahi returned to Tehran in 1974, but again travelled abroad to study at Columbia University in New York City due to his interest in Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center composers Vladimir Ussachevky and Milton Babbitt. He completed his doctorate at Columbia in 1981 and continued his compositional work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, welcomed by director and former Columbia-Princeton staff member Bülent Arel. Several of his works from this period were released on a Folkways recording. He turned to designing album covers because of the loss of Iranian government student subsidies following the 1979 revolution. Dolat-Shahi subsequently moved to Portland, Oregon, where he taught at several universities before becoming a freelance performer and composer of music informed by an array of world cultural traditions.

Musical Education

I was born in Tehran in 1947. Although my father was interested in music, neither of my parents knew anything about it. My mom was interested in poetry and writing. For what reason I do not know, they put me in a musical academy when I was 10 years old. It took a while, but I gradually got into it and I now feel grateful that they did that. At the beginning, my father thought that he would put me there for a couple years to try and see what would happen. But, as it turned out, I was happy and he was happy, so I stayed there. There was no pressure for me to study anything other than music, even though many other parents wanted their children to study law or medicine. We had regular courses in music theory and harmony and everybody had to play piano. In addition to that, you have to play one or two Persian instruments and study both Western and Persian music history and theory. This was in the late 1950s. Persian classical music was considered to be the main music. Even popular music was greatly influenced by traditional Persian music.

I went to study at Tehran Conservatory. This was at the time of the first of the Persepolis Festivals, which started in 1967, something with which the Conservatory was involved. In those first years at the Conservatory, the teaching quality and training in Western music was very high. There were a number of teachers from the West. But in 1975–1976, people who knew better began to return to their original countries, knowing that the coming political conflicts were beginning to happen. Then the [Iranian] revolution came and that was the end of the whole thing.

I graduated from college in 1968. I then joined to the music department of the Army, where I conducted the band. Then I got a scholarship from the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music. I left for Amsterdam in 1970.

First Work in Electronic Music

My first exposure to electronic music came when I was a student in Holland. In Iran, I had been part of a group of four people who used to get together and listen to music by Schoenberg, Berg, Ligeti… but not specifically electronic compositions. If I had heard any electronic music before being in Holland, I don’t remember that it had any significance to me. But before I moved to Holland, I created my first piece for tape and string quartet or chamber string ensemble, which was kind of an introduction to electronic music for me. I had a Groendig, a small, heavy, 50‑pound German tape recorder. I recorded on one channel and then played it back while recording on the other. It was really a test with sounds, but not a real composition.

Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts

Starting in 1967, the Iranian government television network created an annual arts festival. They sponsored all of the commissions and festivals. It was basically Queen Farah Pahlavi’s idea, the Shah’s wife, an architect who had studied in France. She was the major force behind these annual festivals. The Queen used to regularly come to the festival and formally open it. 1[1. The 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.] I also remember that all government officers had to buy modern art. The annual festivals were a major source of information for us about what was happening musically outside Iran. Works were commissioned from Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Iannis Xenakis, and from choreographers Maurice Bejart and Merce Cunningham. There were a lot of pieces for live orchestra and tape. Every year, I waited for the event to happen. I received my own first commission when I was nineteen years old. One of my works was played at the 1976 festival, a year before the festivals ended. 2[2. See Bob Gluck’s “Conversations with Iranian Composer Alireza Mashayekhi” in eContact! 14.4 for a different perspective on the festival.]

Study Abroad Towards a Proposed Iranian Studio

The government sent me on a very specific mission to learn electronic music. They gave me a scholarship to go to Utrecht. I was supposed to do my studies and finish my degree and work at a newly proposed arts centre. They were planning to open a very large electronic music centre at the television station in Tehran, in which they wanted me to play a role that was never clearly defined. The idea for this studio had a lot of support, since a lot of electronic music was performed at the festivals. They wanted to have a major centre of their own. I knew that composer and architect Iannis Xenakis had been invited two times to the Shiraz Festival and that he was asked to draft plans.

I studied composition at the Conservatory with Ton de Leeuw. But I studied electronic music with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht. Studying in Utrecht wasn’t what I expected. I thought that I would immediately begin composing. But you first had to study acoustics, which didn’t interest me. I don’t have a scientific mind. Eventually when we finally began working with sound, I became more interested. I was there nearly four years.

In 1974, I returned to Tehran. I felt the need, though, to continue my education, since I didn’t think that I had I learned enough. And so I contacted Columbia University, where I was interested in studying. I knew some of the works by Milton Babbitt and Vladimir Ussachevsky. I asked the Iranian government to give me another scholarship and they did. While I waited nine months for my scholarship to be approved, I taught composition at Tehran University. The political situation was growing difficult. Islamic political demonstrations started in 1975 and 1976, especially at Tehran University. However, no one could have predicted the extent to which this would go. Things were beginning to percolate before I left.

New York and Columbia-Princeton

First, when I arrived in 1975, I studied with Dr. Hubert S. Howe, Jr., at Queens College. He was the director of the electronic music studio. I first met him at a concert in Amsterdam. I didn’t know who he was. I told him that I was planning to come to the United States. He told me that if I ever came, call him. Queens College was a helpful experience. I studied with him for about nine months. I was doing practices and exercises, small pieces. Being there was very much the opposite of Utrecht. There were a lot of keyboards on which you could just sit down and play music.

I began my studies at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1976. At Columbia, there was a wide range people in terms of personalities and teaching approaches. I composed my first really solid piece there in 1976. I had a commission from the festival in Iran, a work for chamber string orchestra and electronics, and I did the electronic tape at Columbia. Every year we had a three-day group of electronic music concerts at Columbia. I usually had a piece performed. In addition to that, there were concerts organized by other organizations and played at different places in New York City.

My most important teachers at Columbia were Vladimir Ussachevsky and Mario Davidovsky. Also Alice Shields and Pril Smiley. Ussachevsky was such a great man. He had so much energy and such a great mind. I really enjoyed him as my teacher and friend. I went to his place in Vermont on a few occasions. And also his wife was such a gentle soul and they were a nice couple. He was a very intellectual, charming and warm with a very deep sense of things. I had a very good spiritual connection with him. I understood him and he understood me. We had a good conversation every time. I enjoyed his presence. I think that I studied composition with Davidovsky. He was very critical and very intellectual. Everything had another layer behind it when you talked with him. Alice Shields and Pril Smiley were also wonderful people. I had an especially wonderful understanding with Alice. She was a good composer and always available to answer any questions.

Also important to me was Bülent Arel, after he left Columbia and was at SUNY Stony Brook. Arel was a very interesting man. Every time he gave you advice, he would jokingly ask for a dollar. He was constantly making jokes. He was a handy man, experimenting with sounds and letting you do it yourself.

Dariush Dolat-Shahi
Dariush Dolat-Shahi [Click image to enlarge]

The year before the revolution, the television network commissioned Ussachevsky and he was supposed to go over there. He was supposed to write something for electronics and chamber orchestra. But a few months before his scheduled departure, the Shah left the country. The commission had been paid in part. They had also invited the chairman of the Columbia University music department, Chou Wen-Chung, to visit Iran and we went together. It was in the late 1970s, I’m not sure which year. He stayed for a week or so. Among the things they spoke about was a plan to create a division within the Columbia University art department for Persian studies, art of the past and present. They also spoke about establishing studies related to modern music and electronic music. They were going to get major funding from the Iranian government.

I finished my PhD in 1981 and continued to use the studio for a few years. I just asked Ussachevksy if I could use it and he said yes. I was mostly going there at 10 p.m. and working all night. I don’t know if I asked Davidovsky. I wonder if Arel was still there. I also used the studio at SUNY at Stony Brook. My connection with Stony Brook was through Bülent Arel, who directed their electronic music studio. Stony Brook invited me to play some of my electronic music at school concerts. I was giving concerts at Carnegie Hall and lectures on Persian music and also working as art director at Galaxy Music, doing art work for album covers. I had a more informal art background, but I took courses in graphic art. I had always done collages and small paintings at home, I still do. I left New York in 1987. I contacted Ussachevsky and talked to him a few years before he died. I read about his death in the New York Times. I lost track of Arel. When I moved to Portland, I lost most of my connections in New York.

After the Iranian Revolution

One reason that I got professionally involved in art was that at the beginning of the Islamic revolution in Iran, my scholarship was cut off by the new government. It put me in a financially unstable situation. All of my dreams were ruined, so I decided to learn more about art and I took some courses. That told me what kind of government it was going to be. My family gradually left and now there is no one there.

I am in touch with some of my old musician and poet friends in Iran. It seems that they have adapted to the new conditions. Those who did only traditional music had no option but to stay. Somehow they have learned to do their own things and the government doesn’t interfere. The government tried to close the music school, but they decided to keep it open and separate men from women. Iran is a very dark place. Ironically, because of that, music actually became more popular and everybody learned to play an instrument. Lots of small private schools opened and everybody now plays an instrument. Their policies had a reverse effect.

Current Life and Musical Aesthetics

After moving to the West Coast, I taught composition at the University of Portland and at a few other universities and colleges for a few years. Now, 70% of my time is devoted to composing and 30% is performing or recording. I have also written a few pieces for orchestra, especially for dance. I haven’t had many live performances of my compositions. I don’t know if orchestras want to invest much money in an unknown composer. I am still doing electronic music, now with computer. I have two keyboards, including my Kurzweil K2500, and Digital Performer. I’m pretty busy with that. I’ve been working recently on another dance piece.

My performances of music for tar and setar are a combination of traditional and contemporary. I wouldn’t call it classical Persian music. My recent performances are more influenced by not only Western, but many different types of music, from Indian, jazz, Latin… My performances don’t even sound Persian now. But this eclectic approach is not new for me. Back in 1981, after I graduated from Columbia, I composed a series of works for tar, setar and electronics. While the instrumental pieces that I did at that point remained in line with the abstract, serial Columbia style, the electronic music equipment allowed me to express another part of myself. Working mostly on my own, I became involved in a more expressionist style. I let it out.

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