Masters of Persian Music

Last Modified:



Hossein Alizadeh

Kayhan Kalhor

Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh

About This Performance

Key figures in Persian classical music headline this edition of Masters of Persian Music, which will entrance with evocative improvisations and highlight the next generation.

From high mountain ranges to vast desert plains and fertile coastal areas, Iran is a land of contrasts. Iranians often explain the profound spirituality of their music and poetry as a response to this landscape as well as to the country’s turbulent history, marked by successive invasions from the ancient Greeks onwards. Rooted in a rich and ancient heritage, this is a music of contemplation and meditation which is linked through the poetry to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam whose members seek spiritual union with God. The aesthetic beauty of this refined and intensely personal music lies in the intricate nuances of the freely flowing solo melody lines, which are often compared with the elaborate designs found on Persian carpets and miniature paintings.

Developed at the royal courts of Iran over many hundreds of years, nobody really knows how old Persian classical music is. The sparse documentary record dates it back to the pre-Islamic era before the Arabic invasion of 642 AD, but the extent to which the music has changed over time isn’t clear. Until the early 20th century, Persian classical music was largely restricted to the royal courts, but with the declining influence of the monarchy following the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, this music found a new setting in small, informal gatherings at the homes of musicians and aristocratic supporters of the arts. Although still very much a private and elite affair, this marked the beginning of an increasingly public presence which gained momentum with the arrival of sound recording, broadcasting, and European-style public concerts.

By the 1960s, Persian classical music had become available to a wide audience, but the growing pace of modernization and Westernization in Iran created a demand for all things Western, and Persian classical music gradually became sidelined as a minority interest. Many fine classical musicians were performing and recording at this time, but in the context of a society which seemed little interested in its own culture, it is not surprising that many of these musicians became preoccupied with trying to preserve the musical tradition rather than exploring new ways of developing and enriching that tradition. The headlong rush into modernization reached crisis point in the late 1970s and eventually culminated in the Revolution of February 1979. One of the most interesting aspects of post-1979 Iran was a “return to roots” reawakening of national consciousness in which Persian classical music played a central role. By the mid-1980s - and despite the many religious proscriptions against music-making - Persian classical music had attracted a mass audience of unprecedented size.

Persian classical music has experienced significant changes over the last 20 years, partly through a new confidence among those musicians willing to explore new musical avenues. The music you will hear tonight is deeply rooted in and imbued with a sense of tradition and continuity, but at the same time speaks with a contemporary voice.

The Musical Tradition
Creative performance lies at the heart of Persian classical music. The importance of creativity in this music is often expressed through the image of the nightingale (bol bol). According to popular belief the nightingale possesses the most beautiful voice on earth and is also said never to repeat itself in song. A bird of great symbolic power throughout the Middle East, the nightingale represents the ultimate symbol of musical creativity. To the extent that Persian classical music lives through the more or less spontaneous re-creation of the traditional repertoire in performance, the music is often described as improvised. The musicians themselves talk freely of improvisation, or bedaheh navazi (lit. “spontaneous playing”), a term borrowed from the realm of oral poetry and which has been applied to Persian classical music since the early years of the twentieth century. Musicians are also aware of the concept of improvisation in styles of music outside Iran, particularly in jazz and Indian classical music. But as in so many other “improvised” traditions, the performance of Persian classical music is far from “free” – it is in fact firmly grounded in a lengthy and rigorous training which involves the precise memorization of a canonic repertoire known as radif (lit. “order”) and which is the basis for all creativity in Persian classical music.

Like other Middle Eastern traditions, Persian classical music is based on the exploration of short modal pieces: in Iran these are known as gushehs; there are 200 or so gushehs in the complete radif. These gushehs are grouped according to mode into twelve modal “systems” called dastgah. A dastgah essentially comprises a progression of modally-related gushehs in a manner somewhat similar to the progression of pieces in a Baroque suite.

The complex detail of the solo melody line is of utmost importance in Persian classical music – there is no harmony as such and only an occasional light drone (in contrast with the constant underlying drone in Indian classical music). As such, Persian classical music was traditionally performed by a solo singer and a single instrumental accompanist – in which case the instrument would shadow the voice and play short passages between the phrases of poetry - or by an instrumentalist on their own. In the course of the last century it became increasingly common for musicians to perform in larger groups, usually comprising a singer and four or five instrumentalists (each playing a different classical instrument). Nowadays one can hear both solo and group performances. The latter often follow a formula by which a performance begins and ends with an ensemble piece (with or without the vocalist) which are generally pre-composed (and often notated) rather than improvised and which frame the largely improvised and unmeasured central part of the performance. In this section, known as avaz (lit. “song”), it is still common practice for instruments to take it in turns to accompany the singer rather than play together.

The Poetry
Poetry has played a central role in Iranian culture for centuries. At times when Persian language and identity were under assault, it was poetry in particular which kept the essence of the culture alive. Such a time, still remembered as one of the darkest periods of Iranian history, was the Mongol invasion of the 13th century through which the Sufi poet Mowlavi (also known as Jalal-e Din Rumi, 1207-1273) lived. The fact that such a period produced some of the finest poetry in the Persian language is a testament to the passion with which the culture was maintained against the odds. Moreover, it was through the poetry, particularly that of Mowlavi, that the message of mystical Sufism found its most potent voice. With religious proscriptions against music, dance, and representational art at various times over the past few centuries, the creative energies of the artistically-minded have often found an outlet through poetic expression. It will be no surprise then, to find that an art form so imbued with history and which addresses some of the most fundamental and eternal philosophical issues of human existence, should play such an important role in the lives of Iranians today. Poetry is also central to Persian classical music - it’s still unusual to hear a performance without a singer – and vocal sections are usually set to the poetry of medieval mystic poets and, less often, to the words of classical contemporary poets.

Adapted from notes by Laudan Nooshin, City University of London, for the CD “Without You” on the World Village label.

Programs, artists, dates, prices and availability subject to change.