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Classical Persian Music

Iranian classical music is modal and monophonic. The most serious interpretations generally consist of a melodic soloist (or sometimes, a duet) and often a percussion accompanist. Orchestral combinations are becoming popular, but I will largely ignore those.

There are twelve basic modes: seven primary modes (dastgah-s) and five secondary modes (avaz-s). Each avaz is derived from a specific dastgah, but it is also able to stand by itself. Performance is based on the idea of a "suite" in a single mode, in which the artist will choose items to make a finished composition. Actual performances generally proceed largely as improvisations, incorporating and culminating in the chosen melodic patterns. Part of the artistry is to make smooth transitions between elements of the suite.

The standard melodic patterns of Iranian classical music are codified in something called the Radif, written down from oral sources at the beginning of this century. The Radif consists of a large number of melodies or sequences (gushe-s) grouped by mode. Some dastgah-s have more gushe-s than others. To form a suite, the artists will select appropriate gushe-s, along with classical poetry, improvised elements or original compositions. Some gushe-s are always present in a classical rendition, whereas others are less common; the order within the suite is also pre-determined, to some extent. Some gushe-s and compositions have specific rhythms, while others do not. When there is a percussion accompanist, he will take part in some sections but not in others. Finally, there are different versions of the Radif that different artists will use, especially for different instruments.

There is a large body of classical poetry, from medieval times to the present day, available to vocalists. This is some of the world's great literature, and the flowing, timeless intensity of an Iranian singer will really bring these fine poems to life. Most of the poems are rhythmically free (that is, sung without a time signature, but following an internal rhythm of phrasing), and are generally performed within the context of a suite of gushe-s taken from the Radif.

Although the classical poetry is largely medieval, and the codification of the Radif is modern, the musical forms are believed to date from the days of Classical Persia. Iranian music has managed to sustain itself in recent decades, despite political suppression, and looks to be undergoing a burst of creativity.

A variety of instruments are used; I'll list them in no particular order. The santur is a hammered dulcimer, similar to the santur used in Indian classical music (pioneered by Shivkumar Sharma), though of a brighter tone. The tar and setar are fretted plucked-string instruments, with sharp overtone series (the tar is the larger of the two). The ney is the reed flute common throughout the Near-east, although the Iranian technique is probably the most versatile, using both the low breathy register and the sharp higher register (held between the teeth). The kamancheh is a narrow, upright bowed-string instrument. The violin and oud (ancestor of the lute) are also used.

Iranian classical instruments are generally brighther and crisper in tone than many of those used by neighboring cultures. However, the voices are very deep and rich, although highly animated. The main percussion instruments are the zarb (also called tombak) and daf (in that order), and both tend to add a surprisingly subtle sonority to a performance. There are also solo percussion recordings, but I do not explore those.

From an article by T. M. McComb

London concert in support of Bam Quake appeal - Jan 18, 2004

A concert of Persian classical music was held in London in memory of the victims of the devastating earthquake in the historic Iranian city of Bam. The concert at the Royal Festival Hall at 7 p.m. on January 18 was organized by the Center for Promotion of Persian Language and Literature in London in conjunction with the Bam appeal set up in the north-west English city of Manchester and the Iranian Music Centre. The event was used for fund-raising for survivors of the Bam earthquake on December 26, which killed around 35,000 people, injured 16,000 and left 70,000 homeless. Iran`s renowned composer Loris Tjeknavorian is conducting 25 musicians from Tehran`s Rudaki Chamber Orchestra being flown over for the event. Legendary vocalist Shahram Nazeri will also present some of his classical and traditional masterpieces. Tickets for the concert can be obtained by calling the Royal Festival Hall box-office on ++ 207-960-4242 or online from its website www.rfh.org.uk.

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