Winter 1997 (5.4)
Reflections on Playing Tar
Hossein 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
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
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.
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
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
Probably, I wouldn't have realized the immense influence religion
has had on Persian classical music if I had not compared it with
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 .
I love the Azeri tar1.
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.
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
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.
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web
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.
(5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.
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