Of Music Heard in These Pages

Atabak Elyasi

30 October 2005

What I compose is an answer to a philosophical question that has formed over a long period of time. These questions are composed of many layers: academic training, influences from various artistic currents, the audio memory, the unconscious, the audience's reaction, etc.

Usually, when I think it is time to compose, I subconsciously move in that direction. For example, in composing "Qafeleh" (Procession), the freedom from structure and form stems from an academic training that sees everything with its own magnifier. Whether I like to or not, I cannot escape the academic angle. What's more, I feel grounded with tools that academia provides. Nevertheless, I am not preoccupied with form ("Form is the deportment of thought over time"). Form, harmony, orchestration, these are only material that need to be used somewhere and find their meaning in a building. Artists can do many things with these materials, but they first need to pose questions whose answers he will furnish through music.

Posing the Question

It was in "Qafeleh" that for the first time I wanted to use the building materials of music to achieve a fluid current. But this wasn't enough. The composition of a piece is a time-consuming process for me. My work forms slowly, it has a miniature-like pace. I always knew this, but in "Qafeleh" I tried to make use of this miniature quality, whether in lapidary sketches or in the processing of several themes together.

Miniature Qualities

I was always fascinated to know whether a musical composition can be framed like a miniature painting. The question is: Will this frame stand on its own without the help of what precedes or follows it.

To answer these questions I looked at Iranian traditional music. In this music, performance is an important part of the music produced. Both the singer and the instrumentalist fuse their sounds in a composition. During the performance, sounds are coming together in improvisation. Each performance is different from the other.


In these works, the roles of the instrumentalist and the singer have acquired special prominence. In "Qafeleh" the singer was asked to improvise within a particular range. The ability of Mahsa Vahdat, the singer, in this performance has given body to the composition – dealing with details, improvisation, and coloring.

Compositions in this collection were written especially for the voice of Mahsa Vahdat. The performer, as such, was given a prominent role in the creation of the collection. When I was writing them, these songs were mere sketches and they come alive when performed. None of these compositions, as such, were predetermined.

In the two other pieces, "Khosh-Kharaman" and "Navaee," the most important element was again the performance. The combination of the voices of the two singers interested me. In each performance a new creation is lying in wait. I was only the discoverer of these voices and went along with them. I must insist on the concept of performance, which is the essence of Iranian music and many of my questions have been raised by how music is performed.

Regarding "Raz," I must say that it started from a lullaby, then fell in love with a moon, and found a nest with a swallow. It takes off with the "Bayat-e Tork" mode of Persian music, then moves on to another mode, "Shushtari," and end in "Shur." This traversing of various modes emphasizes the instability of the moments. This time, not only the previous techniques are used but the change in modes indicates instability. I was inspired by painting techniques of watercolor – the slipping and sliding of colors on each other.

In fact, whatever forms in my mind is related to me meaningfully and flows into my work unconsciously. These are my personal answers to philosophical questions in the arts.

Review of "Twinklings of hope"by Simon Broughton ,Songline Magazine

Songs from a Persian mansion

I first heard Iranian sisters Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat in Istanbul in 2006. The power in their voices, so perfectly matched and intertwining around each other was a revelation. We were all there for a Freemuse meeting about music censorship. Sadly, solo (or duo) women singers are not permitted to perform in Iran except for all-female audiences. The Vahdat sisters have released several albums on the Norwegian KKV label, most of them fusion projects, and have contributed a track to KKV’s Lullabies from the Axis of Evil album in 2004. But this is the first recording where the power and beauty of their voices really comes across. It was recorded with three instrumentalists on ney flute (Pasha Hanjani), plucked setar (Atabak Elyasi) and percussion (Ali Rahimi) in an Qajar period Persian mansion in Tehran belonging to the Italian embassy. It’s a beautiful location for a traditional ensemble. Some of the words are by the great Persian poets Hafez and Rumi, others are contemporary, but the music is timeless. The breathiness of the ney, the tingling delicacy of the setar, the punctuation of drums and the overlapping voices in ‘Garden of Visions’ are magical. A soft ney introduction leads to the drama of ‘Crane’, a powerful song yearning for freedom. The words are intensely poetic and often hard to interpret (despite translations), but the effect of the songs is transformative.