Guide Music and Song in Persia (RLE Iran B): The Art of Avaz (Routledge Library Editions: Iran)

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This paper does highlight the work of two medieval scholars, but they are difficult to understand and have no practical examples for the contemporary practice of Persian music. Persian music and the art of poetry have changed over time; even though the works of the medieval scholars are valuable, their relevance to contemporary practice of the radif remains insufficient. What became apparent after my search in various libraries is the considerable amount of work scholars have produced on prosody from the field of literature.

In tandem with medieval philosophers and poets who have discussed the science of prosody in detail, this field has addressed contemporary scholarship that has explored this complex art. Moreover, there are many classes on the structure of prosody at the University 10 of Tehran in the literature department, while the music students have remained unfamiliar with this subject matter through their years of vocal and instrumental study.


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The connection between prosody and Persian art music—the art form with which I began my professional journey in music—is admittedly complicated. I hope, nevertheless, that this thesis is a beginning that can lead to a better understating of what prosody is, how it functions as the underlying rhythmic structure of Persian music, how it assists in the transmission of the oral radif, and the way it is utilized during an improvisation. However and especially from the Safavid Dynasty on, urban and folk musical styles to a lesser degree radically changed in Iran.

The most noticeable and profound alterations can be witnessed in the rhythmic characteristics of Persian music. Even though no actual composition has survived, a simple comparison can be made between the complex rhythmic thinking of scholars before the Safavid era and that of much simpler practice, often in duple or triple meters, embedded in Persian musical styles over the past three hundred years.

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Most scholars believe this shift was gradual; the transformation is historically best evident from the Safavid era onwards. This conservative perception was due to the socio-religious doctrine of sinfulness and immorality towards music which was evident at this time; as the result, poetry started to gather momentum and became the only connection to music.

On the other hand, while Mohammad Reza Lotfi agrees with the pivotal role the Safavid Dynasty played, he does not consider this dynasty as the sole reason for the discontinuity of the rhythmic tradition in Iran. Poets within this rich tradition either created their own schools of thought and aesthetics or followed more prominent schools of poetic thinking. It is safe to assume that poetry slowly became the revered art form in Iran, influencing other disciplines along the way.

Therefore, poetry in general must have had a great impact regardless of the socio-religious conditions amongst the public. With this in mind, I intend to outline the main medieval Persian rhythmic characteristics and to point to the gradual rise of poetic forms or prosody in Persian music, highlighting the Safavid Dynasty as a pivotal point of transformation.

Pre-Islam There is little evidence of musical activities in the pre-Islamic era, with almost no documentation on the rhythmic features of the great Persian empires. What is known to scholars is that ancient Persian rhythmic characteristics are assumed to have developed from the music of urban and courtly traditions Lotfi The first substantial historical evidence of rhythm is connected to the Sassanian Dynasty — CE.

The few extant rhythmic features are known to have existed in military marches as well as sporting events; the latter might have been included ritual, much like the modern gymnasium practice known as zur-khane House of 13 Strength 3 where exercise is accompanied by a drummer Lotfi The most well known evidence of rhythmic practices by pre-Islamic musicians is evident in the elaborated announcement—by playing loud drums throughout the villages and communities—of the Persian New Year, nouroz4 Another form of musical organization that seemed to have been followed during the pre- Islamic era is of Zoroastrian influence.

The sacred text known as Avesta is written in the Avestan scripture and follows a poetic pattern consisting of divisions which incorporate long and short patterns Shaffie-Katkanie Shafiie-Katkanie believes it is highly possible these rhythmic patterns, almost in verse-like structures, were used during musical ceremonies of the court or religious events Shaffie-Katkanie Lotfi By striking the drum, the New Year was declared to a community or a village, and the celebrations would then begin.

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The Establishment of Islam in Iran The Arab conquest of the Persian Empire began in and ultimately resulted in the incorporation of the Iranian nation within the greater Islamic Empire. Almost all musical evidence known to scholars is found in treatises, the great majority of it written in the language of the court, Arabic. This is also an important time, since the Arabic world introduced the Persians to various rules and regulations of prosody and poetic meter Shaffie-Katkanie It 4 Nouroz is the traditional Iranian New Year holiday celebrated in Iran and some surrounding regions.

This notion will be discussed in detail in Chapters Two and Three, but one could point to the beginning of Islam as the start of a strong relationship between prosody and music. One of the first illustrations of rhythmic construct in Persian music is found in the writings of the philosopher and musician al-Kindi AD—cAD.

The division of rhythmic values illustrates that each cycle had a specific characteristic and function in Iranian musical practice. This perception hints at the notion that the medieval rhythmic characteristics of Persian music were consciously chosen for a specific function where each cycle might have served as a significant component in the performance, much like its modal counterpart.

It is unclear to what extent poetry and its form had any direct effect on the music at this point. The Umayyad Dynasty settled in Damascus, which eventually became their capital city. Yet, Al-Kindi clearly points to fast and slow tempos as the flow or driving force behind the music, in contrast to melodic gestures that are seen as the decisive steering force in Persian music at present.

Classical music of Iran - Various Dastgah (rec. 1966)

Al-Mahdi focused largely on stylistic disparity more than the analysis of different rhythmic cycles ibid. When used in relation to Umayyad musicians or scholars like al-Kindi, the distinction between heavy thaqil and light khafif appears to have suggested a greater diversity in its structure and forms, giving more freedom to improvise.

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It seems that there was freedom of expression as to the extent and the dynamics of each thaqil and khafif Sawa Perhaps musicians had some liberty with regards to employing various elaborations and rhythmic ornamentations. Such perceptions as part of performance practice, however, are not common. Another possibility is that gradually musicians started to depend on poetic meter and the possibility of improvisation allowed the fusion of different forms of poems bridged by musicians. From the thirteenth century onwards, further Persian influence was only to be expected. The Abbasid revolt began in Khorasan, and the shift of the capital eastwards from Syria to Iraq symbolized a new cultural as well as political balance in which Persian contributions would became more prominent.

Although occasional references are made to a number of musicians singing or playing together most commonly in unison , the norm for the Abbasid court performances remained the solo singer accompanied by an instrumentalist Wright Despite signs that emphasized rhythmic considerations, accompaniment on percussion instruments appears to have been the exception rather than the rule ibid. There are also references, mostly in poetry, to the aerophones nay end-blown flute , although it is not certain whether these terms were identified with the modern presentation of these instruments.

Among melodic instruments plucked chordophones generally predominated; among them the tambour—a long-necked lute— gained increasing popularity, being identified particularly with certain Persian provinces in north-eastern Iran. It is worth noting that many of the melodic instruments, including the tambour, still survive today. Most likely they were not structured differently, and the principle function and performance characteristics would certainly have been similar.

Thus, it is tempting to assume that the same melodic instrument in use currently might have had a more complex rhythmic role. Therefore, the question of instrumental adaptability cannot likely be seen as a significant factor in the lack of rhythmic 17 variations in the contemporary repertoire of Persian music. This notion also allows the question as to why the melodic instruments—and, perhaps, the modal system—did not change as severely as the rhythmic philosophy of the Persians.

Even though he did not invent the art of iqa iqa are rhythmic modes or rhythmic patterns used in Arabic music, and at one time a known concept in Iran , his work far surpasses the preceding theories in its depth and detail. They are based on his firsthand experience of musical practice, grounded in his expertise on theory, mathematics, and logic. An attack such as bowing the kamancheh or plucking the sehtar is considered timeless in itself and marks the beginnings of an envelope of sound.

The light attack is separated from the next attack by the shortest perceptible unit of time Sawa Medium attacks, known as naqara mutawassita, are notated as either ta or tan and are divided from the next attack by double the shortest audible time. A heavy attack is known as naqara thaqila, which is notated as tan. This attack is separated from the subsequent attack by four times the shortest perceptible time Sawa Attacks are therefore categorized by the duration that follows them.

It closely resembles the syllabic units used in contemporary discussion of prosody see Chapter Three. Figure 1. This notion or concept of fundamental iqa can be thought of as musical meter. These particulars constitute the concept of rhythmic modes Sawa In other words, these processes served as both compositional and improvisational techniques, as well as analysis.

I will look at the possibility of applying these techniques for analysis of the current practice of Persian music in Chapter Four. One was to divide a circle into the same number of segments as there were time units and add symbols indicating those normally sounded Wright The other was modeled after the standard conventions of poetic meter in prosody, employing such mnemonics as ta or na, equivalent to one time unit, or tan or nan, corresponding to two time units ibid. This poetic approach further divided the rhythmic cycle into two, three, or four time units, where ta and tan always started at the first down-beat, na was associated with the middle section of the count, and nan the final section Lotfi The utilization of prosody by Ardabili is thought to be closely related to modern practices.

His use of rhythmic divisions is similar to the long and short syllables and vowels that will be discussed in Chapter Three. In fact, before notation became common for tomback compositions, it was customary to practice and teach percussion instruments in such a manner. About fifty years ago, Masters like Hussein Tehranie used the same procedure in his pedagogical training for pupils. Interestingly, even today in the contemporary training of the radif the same method is used.

Music and Song in Persia (RLE Iran B): The Art of Avaz

The famous gusheh of kershmeh is always memorized as [tanan tanan ta na nan nan], modeled after the pattern hazar mar-tabah bah bah Persian poetic literature has various classification for systematically naming the poems as a guide, regardless of what dastgah the gusheh kershmeh is to be played in.

This notion by Ardabili does illuminate that prosody steadily had gained a closer connection to pedagogical practices and improvisation. Safi al-Din Ardabili might have been one of the first scholars to discuss and elaborate on rhythmic cycles and their variations in great detail. His creative use of syllables as a tool for notation brings some clarification as to the methods in which percussion would have been utilized and emphasized, and also how contrasts in timbre would have been employed.

The question arises, then: how and where would they be implemented, and how independent were these rhythmic underpinnings in relation to practice and the melodic counterparts? Although many such questions exist, the conclusion can be made with some confidence that a strong rhythmic tradition existed in Iran regardless of its exact nature.

Music and Song in Persia (RLE Iran B): The Art of Avaz

It is also interesting to note that some of the names of the cycles, such as ramal, are used in contemporary radif of Persian music. The contemporary gusheh of ramal might very well contain traces of its former rhythmic cycle, 22 or perhaps the name ramal in Farsi geomancy has a broader significance within the musical tradition.

Many of the melodic modes such as bayat-i Isfahan, zabol, or bayat-i shirz are named after cities and regions, but there is no proof that they are specific to the area. The great majority of these modes were known by musicians throughout different provinces in Iran. However, there seems to be regional presences when it comes to rhythmic cycles. After al-Farabi, other theorists and musicians wrote on iqa including Ibn Sina d. Thus, due to a religious society, music was generally seen as an accompaniment to frivolity and merriment, which could lead to impiety. The consequence of such proscriptive attitudes towards music was a gradual decline of musical scholarship from the Safavid era on ibid.

Within urban settings music was drastically reduced, gradually becoming a private, quasi-clandestine art where solo performance, improvisation, and a strong reliance on poetry became dominant features. Yet there is a strong shift in the usage and presentation of such characters during the Safavid era, which still has lingering effects on the contemporary viewpoint of Iranians. At first glance, these sources of music tradition seem to have their roots in the tradition of cyclic thinking, but each style relies on and is built upon the lyrical tradition, known as avaz salarie.

Avaz salarie places the poetry and the vocalist as the focal point Lotfi Avaz salarie does refer to the vocal dominance in the practice of Persian music, but it also refers to the reliance on poetry as the driving force, even in solo improvisational performance. As noted, the radif is full of poetic prosody. Furthermore, the strong poetic influence also enabled a greater freedom in melodic discovery as well as experimental exploration by the instrumentalist who either had to accompany the vocalist or paved the way for the song to commence.

It is also important to mention that with the dominance of prosody in the past century, the instrumental soloist has started to become an unaccompanied practice based on improvisation, one that is separate from the vocal discipline. In fact, Hossian Alizadah, one of the contemporary masters of Iranian music, has been advocating such a movement where an instrumental both melodic and percussion field could be created, totally independent of the vocal radif, with a heavy reliance on the knowledge of prosody. Therefore, the notion that the instrumental repertoire relies heavily on Persian poetry is evident and advocated by various master musicians.

Before discussing the common practices of the past three hundred years, I must first discuss a significant element that started to become accepted in Persian music during this period.