Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Classical Tradition of Iran: The Santur

For those, like this blogger's father-in-law, the preferred term is "Persian," to hearken back to the millenia of tradition emanating from Persia and its empire, to disclaim the recent use of the term "Iran" for the homeland, and, since 1979, to distance themselves as far as possible from the regime that has dominated the country.

In any case, whether it is the fine craftsmanship of the Persian rug, the gorgeous Sufi poetry of Rumi and the masterful work of Omar Khayyam and much more, the cultural legacy of Persia is wide and deep.  This is no less true of its music and this disc from the French label Harmonia Mundi, the third in a series on Persian classical music, focuses on the vigorous and rich sounds of the santur.

The immensely helpful liner notes by Nelly Caron give much information on the music and instrument, noting that the santur might well go back to the ancient Assyrians, well over 2,500 years ago, though the most accurate dating goes back to about the 1200s A.D.  The dulcimer-like instrument has 72 metal strings, at four per note, in two segments lying across nine bridges.  It ranges through three octaves and a key tunes the 72 pegs on one side.  A wooden plectrum is used to strike the string and the curvature of its end adds to the particular sound made when the santur is played.

Accompanying, on one of the two songs, the playing of the santur is the percussion instrument known variously as the zarb or tombak or dombak.  The goblet-like drum has a wood body with a head made of sheepskin or goatskin.  The zarb is placed on an angle on the lap and the fingers and palm are used to make tapping, clicking and other percussive sounds, with some players even wearing metal rings to create an unusual timbre.

The two pieces on this recording last just over 20 minutes each and are known as dastgah, a particular melodic type based on a modal system, in which series of modes, or scales, are put together  to create the dastgah.  The selection of melodic sequences is up to the perfromer and, in addition, there is a great deal of room for improvisation in bridges linking the sequences, called gusheh, as well as during the sequences themselves.  For example, the first piece "Dastgah-e Rastpanjgah" has twenty-three named sequences, while the second work, "Dastgah-e Segah" has twenty-one.

The santur is masterfully played by Majid Kiani, born in Tehran in 1941 and trained at the university there in what is known as the radif, or the total range of Persian classical music.  As Caron indicates, Kiani plays with remarkable clarity, as well as great precision and mindboggling skill.  On the second dastgah, the zarb is played by Djamchid Chemirani, who accompanies the soloist with great sensitivity and ability.

The stateliness, grace and emotive power of this music is a living reminder of the immense and time-honored tradition of Persian classical music.  Whatever has occurred politically in Iran in recent decades, the heritage of this beautiful music is a reminder that one should not judge a people solely by its political and religious leadership (nor by the recent so-called reality show, Shahs of Sunset.)  This is music that will long outlive all of the shallow stereotypes of the latter.

The Classical Tradition of Iran, Vol. III: The Santur (Harmonia Mundi, 1993)

1.  Dastgah-e Rastpanjgah  20:20
2.  Dastgah-e Segah  20:49

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