A number of Iranian-born musicians are producing sumptuous sound landscapes that both incorporate tradition and go beyond it.
A talented diaspora presents a new kind of Iranian music
"My relationship with Iran is quite complex," says Leila Arab, the London-based techno composer who has not seen her childhood homeland for more than three decades. "To a certain extent I'm really proud that Iran asserts its right to be different. But I associate it with the place my dad always wanted to go back to, and didn't get to go back. I really love a lot of my family who are still there, but for me it's really tied up with my parents."
Born in Tehran in 1971, Leila and her family fled following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She grew up in multicultural London, later working with an international array of forward-thinking musical collaborators, including Björk. The stern machine symphonies and futuristic soul ballads of her new album U&I, released last week, reveal little of her Iranian or Persian heritage - and that is entirely deliberate. Music, Leila argues, should "transcend where you come from".
Arab belongs to a global diaspora of Iranian-born artists who feel only a tenuous connection with the rich musical traditions of their ancestral roots. But equally there are many electronic composers such as Sohrab Karimi Asli, currently living in political exile in Germany, or Leila's sometime labelmate Sote, aka the US-based Ata Ebtekar, whose sumptuous soundscapes resonate with bittersweet echoes of their lost homeland.
Significantly, there is also a growing wave of young digital composers based in Iran itself who are using new technology to bypass stifling state restrictions on musical forms often deemed to be suspiciously westernised and experimental. Artists such as Behrang Najafi, aka Bescolour, who offers his lush ambient mood pieces as online streams or free downloads. Or Siavash Amini, who records as The Waterfront and also worked with Hessam Ohadi and Nima Pourkarimi on last year's terrific Spotty Surfaces album of dreamy, moody, exquisitely crafted electronica.
Ebtekar was born in Germany to Iranian parents and now lives in northern California, where he balances his composing career with a full-time job teaching college courses in Sound Arts. He attended high school in Tehran, and many of his intricately woven sonic tapestries pay artful homage to the Persian music of his ancestors.
"I use Iranian scales, quarter-tones instead of semi-tones, and melodies from Persian folk music within an electronic framework," Ebtekar explains. "I apply micro-tonal systems and polyrhythm motifs in my compositions. To me, this can be considered a new form of Iranian music, but of course from a traditional point of view, what I do can be considered a sin toward Iranian music."
Ebtekar recently returned to Iran to collaborate on a series of joint projects with Alireza Mashayekhi, the 71-year-old grand master of Iranian experimental music. The younger composer worked with Mashayekhi and his Iranian Orchestra for New Music, recording a generation-spanning shared album Persian Electronic Music - Yesterday and Today and a further album of electro-acoustic collaborations titled Ornamentalism. Both were released on the Belgian label Sub Rosa.
"Mashayekhi is an amazing Iranian composer mainly involved and working in modern classical music," Ebtekar explains. "He started composing electronic music in the 1960s and continued in the 1970s and 1980s. He teaches at Tehran University and is regarded as a pioneer in Iranian avant-garde and modern orchestral music."
Mashayekhi's own work draws on a rich tradition of compositional rules dating back to the ancient Persian Empire, when music was deemed to be a formal science alongside mathematics, geometry and philosophy. For centuries Iran's cultural guardians struck a wary balance between safeguarding the past and embracing more cosmopolitan sounds from abroad, a liberalising trend that peaked with the launch of the Shiraz Arts Festival in 1967, which hosted works by international avant-garde composers including Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen alongside Iranian contemporary maestros such as Mashayekhi and Darius Dolatshahi.
But the 1979 revolution signalled an abrupt end to the Shiraz Arts Festival along with record labels, concert venues and university music courses. These restrictions have loosened slightly over the subsequent two decades, but official barriers still prevent Iranian music fans from buying albums or seeing concerts, even by local artists. All public performances and CD releases require pre-approval from the Department of Culture, which often denies permits on arbitrary taste grounds.
"It's not the genre specification that is considered," explains the Tehran-based composer Behrang Najafi. "There are elements that are not permitted by the authorities that, if they exist in a song, that song will not get permitted to be published or performed publicly. For example, electronic music with soft sounds and rhythms and no vocals is likely to get permitted. Add an English vocal to that and it's likely not to get permitted."
Recording under his Bescolour alias as well as several collaborative projects, including Telecraze and Thisposition, Najafi is part of an emerging subculture of young electronic artists based in Iran who are forging their own unofficial music movement using cheap software and internet access. He has no academic music training, and so far his only live performances have been in private group workshops. However, Najafi is optimistic about the blossoming Arab Spring of underground composers who make music as rootless and borderless as the online world where they share files.
"I haven't been influenced by Iranian artists," Najafi says. "I don't care where this kind of music came from, I just make whatever I want. I'm influenced by Iranian music of any form and decade as much as I'm influenced by the sound of my didgeridoo, my records, and any other kind of music that I find interesting."
Ata Ebtekar is equally wary of drawing glib comparisons between artists like himself, Leila and Najafi. "Overall, I think our work has nothing in common," he says, "except the fact that they all fall under the electronic music umbrella." However, he agrees that new technology, online networks and a slowly shifting cultural climate are starting to expose Iran's experimental techno underground to a much wider global audience.
"A few years ago, the only electronic music you could find at a music store inside of Iran would have been a couple of CDs from Alireza Mashayekhi," says Ebtekar. "I recently returned to Iran and, to my surprise, I was able to purchase a couple of electronic music CDs from young and upcoming musicians at the music store in Tehran. I think that's a very positive step. People are finally exposed to western experimental music through the internet and can download the necessary software to experiment with electronic music. It's a wonderful and exciting phase with a bright future."
- Leila's album U&I is out now on Warp. For more information on the artists, visit www.sotesound.com, www.touchmusic.org.uk/sohrab, www.soundcloud.com/bescolour, www.last.fm/artist/bescolour, www.facebook.com/telecrazemusic
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