Saturday, October 25, 2008

Second course: Modernization, Identity, Media, and the Music of Iran and the Caucasus

Moving from the huge auditorium for the YouTube panel, I'm sitting in one of the small, intimate rehearsal halls in the World Music Center, listening to a paper presented by Piruz Partow of the Brooklyn Music School on Shirin-Nawazi, or "sweet playing" on the Iranian tar and setar in particular. The paper is of particular interest to me as a performer of Indian classical music, because it contrasts two very different approaches to the interpretation of the Persian radif--the more orthodox observation of the conventions and conceptions of this austere corpus of modes and motifs, vs. a freer, literally "sweeter" style that gives more scope to improvisation and personal interpretation. Since one of the central transitional figures of his paper is Muhammad Raza Lotfi, a master of the tar and sehtar with whom my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I had the good fortune to collaborate in the rehearsal for a planned Millennial Rumi program at Washington's Kennedy Center which, ultimately, never took place.

Yet the experience of working with Agha-e-Lotfi (with honorific title), and listening endlessly to his recordings, has radically changed my own style of playing the Indian sitar, to incorporate a significantly different right and left hand approach, as well as new developmental sequences, while continuing to play classical Indian ragas. I hope to have a sitting with him with my own sitar at some some time in the future, having learned that he will be returning shortly to New York

And so it develops that a scholarly paper leads me into an intensely personal meditation on performance, and on my own style reflecting some aspects of Persian technique and improvisation, and I take some small comfort in considering that my own playing of classical Hindustani music may represent an Indian equivalent of shirin-navazi, which while often used formerly as a derogatory term in Persian music for those who are considered by the orthodox as insufficiently trained or in practice, is now used, in a way parallel to "cool jazz" (vs. the orthodoxy of "bebop") in a kind of celebration of a calmer personal creativity . . . .

The next presentation is "'Flowers of Persian Song and Music,' The Golha Radio Programs" by Jane Lewisohn of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She discusses a series of radio programs from 1954 to 1976 created by a high-ranking pre-Revolution Iranian government official. The programs contained declaimed recitations interspersed with music, along with discussions of the meaning of the poetry. I remember being enchanted by recordings of these superbly produced features when I was teaching at Harvard, embroiled as I was in the teaching of both Urdu poetry and Indian classical music--with music and ghazal poetry having a very close connection, both in concept, ethos, and presentation to and reception by an audience. Given the challenges to twentieth century South Asian Society in maintaining the dynamism of classical music, with All India Radio making major contributions, the analogous efforts in Iran provide a very interesting parallel, adding the dimension of poetry--with the survival of full-spectrum Urdu (as opposed to the Hindustani amalgam of the Indian films), particularly in India, currently being at some risk.

In both cases, radio played an important role in exposing to audiences in the millions to the classical traditions of music and poetry. Following the previous panel on YouTube, one wonders whether the Internet might assume a similar responsibility in the current century.

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