Azerbaijan International

Winter 1997 (5.4)
Pages 66-68

Hossein Alizadeh
Personal Reflections on Playing Tar

Hossein Alizadeh, tar playerHossein Alizadeh is recognized as one of Iran's foremost musicians. He is a composer and also a virtuoso on the Persian tar (six strings) and the sehtar (four strings). Since Azeri and Persian music share very deep historical roots, we invited Alizadeh, who is of Azeri descent, to reflect upon his perception of their similarities and differences. He also discusses the contemporary situation of Azeri music in Iran today.

During the fall 1997 semester, Alizadeh taught World Music at Cal Arts in Valencia, California. For the past 20 years, this university has been exploring the ethnic music of Africa, India, Indonesia and many other regions of the world. The following are excerpts from his interview with Azerbaijan International in October 1997.

I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on a tar. It was such a strange-looking instrument. The year was 1962 and I was 11 years old. My older brother had taken me to a music store off Shahabad Street in Tehran to show me what tars looked like. Actually, he was the one in our family who had been so keen to study music, but by the time my parents located a good school, he was too old to attend. And so, being next in line in our family of six kids-three boys and three girls-I was the lucky one who got to enroll.

I really wanted to play violin, but those classes were all filled. The only openings were for tar. I didn't have a clue what a tar looked like, much less what kind of sound it made. Despite the fact that the tar had probably been around for centuries, it was new to me.

So there I was, staring up at all of those odd-shaped, handmade instruments hanging down from the walls of the music store. What was this instrument that looked like two globes stuck together? I could only guess. But everyone kept telling me that it made a really beautiful sound.

And so it did. From the day I first held my own tar in my arms, I couldn't put it down. From the beginning I started playing at least 12 hours a day. Even my teachers complained. It's a good thing my family was so tolerant because I was always practicing when others were in the same room because our house was so small. My mom, a Persian, is from Arak; and my dad, an Azeri, is from Urmia. Both of them loved music.

Most of my childhood summers were spent in Tabriz and Urmiya (major cities in the Azerbaijani region of Iran). I'm bilingual, and I often remember how, both out of curiosity and love for our culture, we would listen to Baku radio to hear what was going on north of the border in Soviet Azerbaijan. For me, Azerbaijani music was so expressive and passionate.

After graduating from high school, I worked as a composer at the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children in Tehran. At the same time, I studied at the Center for the Promotion of Classical Persian Music and attended Art College. These three completely different worlds shaped my musical mind. Working with children especially freed my imagination. Later, I did graduate work at the University of Fine Arts in Tehran, where I studied both composition and Persian music. But to tell you the truth, my real education began after I left the university.

A Life of Music
My compositions are strongly influenced by classical Persian music. No one really taught me how to compose; I simply learned by doing it. Many times when I sit down and concentrate to write music, as soon as I put down the first few notes on paper, I can almost hear the entire piece. It's such a glorious feeling. That's when I get choked up with emotion. I don't know how to compare it to anything else in the world.

I can't imagine being able to survive a single day without music. I'm so glad that I stumbled across music at such an early age and that I've been able to make a career of it. Whenever I feel deep yearnings or disappointments, I pick up my tar and the feelings just fade away. Playing keeps me young and energetic. Despite the fact that I'm 46, I still feel like that same 15-year-old kid who used to play 12 hours a day.

Through music I feel people's love. Every time I perform on stage, I know exactly how I'm being perceived, even without seeing people's faces. It gives me a great energy. Actually, a sort of dialogue takes place during the performance, a constant give-and-take-it's like a steady flow of emotion between the audience and me.

Before I go out on stage, I'm always impatient. It used to be that I was scared to go out there; now I want to leap out there in front of the audience.

When the performance is going well, I have this feeling of weightlessness. Then afterwards, I feel a huge void-an emptiness-like an anticlimax. It used to really bother me. Now I just drive out to a hillside or somewhere in nature to calm down. It seems a lot of musicians have the same feeling after an intense concert. You give everything to the audience and empty yourself, and afterwards, you feel so drained. Despite this, I love the stage. It's a significant part of my life.

How do I see myself as a musician? Well, I always think that I've not done enough. I always think that I've not done the real thing, and this worries me a lot. I sometimes look out over the audience at the end of a concert and see all these people applauding me, and I wonder, "Is it me they are cheering so much?" I always feel there is so much more to give.

Azeri Music
I'm sure that my early exposure to Baku radio has influenced my music though it may not be obvious. Whether it's genetic or simply learned-by nature or nurture, I don't know which, but definitely it's not from any conscious effort. Perhaps, this influence is not very distinguishable to many people because Azeri and Persian music share common historical roots. Persian music is just as rich as Azeri music. They share the same improvisational modal structures. Their "mugams" and "dastgahs" are practically the same. Actually, these two musical forms are as close as they can get theoretically without being considered the same. Despite all this similarity, the music of each is expressed differently.

Historically in Iran, music faced strong opposition from the religious establishment, forcing it to go underground. While singing was permitted in the form of religious or Sufi chants, instrumental performances were forbidden. Therefore, poetry came to dominate music in Iran. Music in Azerbaijan is also influenced by poetry, but to a much lesser extent, and that's why instrumental music had a chance to develop tremendously, especially during the Soviet period.

Persian music has been dominated by religious elements for such a long time that classical or traditional Persian music has merged with the religious chants or "noheh." In fact, it would be difficult to perform otherwise. It wouldn't sound like "traditional Persian music."

Probably, I wouldn't have realized the immense influence religion has had on Persian classical music if I had not compared it with Azeri music.

In my opinion, Azeri music has a greater flexibility compared to the music of most other Middle Eastern traditions. During the early 20th century, the Azeri tonal scale was modified to half-tone intervals. In this way, Azeri folk instruments can be incorporated into Western symphonic orchestras. Persian modes, however, have retained their traditional quarter-tone intervals. To me, Azeri music is characterized by a sound reminiscent of pride and bravery. Persian music, on the other hand, is more melancholic, meditational and mystic. It's more mellow or, shall we say, "fatigued," in comparison. It's true that in certain modes, Azeri music can be just as mournful, but still, you can detect a difference-somehow there's more dynamism and liveliness. Even traditional heroic pieces sung in Iran sound sorrowful; whereas, sad pieces in Azeri mugams somehow sound heroic and triumphant. I always try to recommend that Persian singers listen to Azerbaijani vocalists and absorb the liveliness of their expression.

During the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, I became very interested in Azeri music. I even went to Tabriz to study Azeri tar with master Ali Salimi, who since has passed away [1997]. I love the Azeri tar
1. But I'm so busy these days, it's hard to master a new instrument.

I'd like to work on Azerbaijani music and produce a major piece-not because my father is Azeri-but because I believe in cosmopolitan music-music that is international in scope which can be comprehended by a very broad audience. I believe that the first step in composing such works would be to connect with neighboring musical cultures, to explore, learn and interact with them.

Azeri youth in Iran have become much more interested in Azeri music these days. But interest in music is quite normal throughout Iran by all the youth these days. Somehow music has come to symbolize a sort of cultural protest by the people since the Islamic Revolution (1979).

In my opinion, the music that is passed off as Azeri music these days in Iran, especially in Tehran, is not true Azeri music. It's like the way Azeri language is spoken on Radio Tabriz. It's pidgin-a hybrid form. I'm not saying there aren't any good traditional musicians here, but, generally, what you hear on the radio and TV is so Persianized.

It all boils down to the fact that there are very few facilities or institutions in Iran where one can formally study Azeri music. It would be so helpful if musicians from the Republic of Azerbaijan could assist Azeri youth here to learn their own native music.

Due to the invisible but, nonetheless, tangible walls that separated us during the Soviet period, we didn't have a chance to really study Azeri symphonic or operatic works. Despite this fact, during the Shah's time [before 1979], the Overture to Hajibeyov's Koroglu Opera became associated with revolutionary, progressive and even leftist activities here in Iran.

Universality of Music
One of the greatest things I've learned being here in the United States these past few months is the universality of music. Our culture, somehow, teaches us to be conscious of shortcomings within ourselves and within others, but Americans try to emphasize positive attributes in everyone, and I believe this makes it easier for them to initiate relationships. At the same time, it helps break down national and ethnic boundaries. As much as I love my country, the more I became familiar with this positive approach, the less importance I place on a person's origin or ethnicity.

Music is a great vehicle for bringing people together. In my opinion, art, in general, is the only thing that can lift the borders between nations and ethnicities. I was so fortunate to sense more of this globalization during my stay in the U.S. I consider this to be the greatest gift that I'm taking back home.

Even though Western culture is more or less widespread in the East and Middle East, we've had very little exchange within our own region. For example, Iran has no on-going cultural exchanges with Pakistan, India, Turkey or Afghanistan. And although there are many Azeris living within Iran's borders, there has been very little cultural interaction with Azerbaijan because of political reasons. We begin to notice this lack of cultural exchange among ourselves when we go to the West because opportunities for exchange exist there. While in the States, I've had many opportunities to perform in many multicultural concerts with musicians of other ethnic backgrounds - Indian, Arabic and American.

When I speak of internationalization or universality of art or music, I don't mean the Westernization of it. We people in the East need to be conscious of this and need to create our own regional "universal" or "international" connections first. The only reason that people of one nation may not understand the music of another is usually that they've never had a chance to hear it before.

Classical European music is now considered to be international and comprehensible by all nations of the world. This has occurred simply because it became so widely available. But these days in the West, a new trend is emerging, and more and more people are becoming interested in a concept which they call "World Music." The horizons of music appreciation are expanding beyond classical European music and allowing for much more diversity and universality. It's a fortunate trend for all of us.

CDs by Alizadeh are available from Kereshmeh Records, 12021 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 420, Los Angeles, CA 90025. E-mail:; Web site:

1 The Azeri tar has 11, not six strings like the Persian tar. Also, its shape has been modified and weight lessened so that it can be played against the chest rather than in the lap. This provides greater versatility for performing mugams, the traditional modal music of the region. These days, the Azeri tar plays only half tone intervals while the Persian tar has retained quarter tones. The Azeri tar can be played in Western symphonic orchestras.

From Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.

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