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Published Writings
Co-authored with Amir Koushkani. Singing Iran: Mohammed Reza Shajarian and the art of avaz. Forthcoming, 2012.
“Kurdish Maqam,” in the Encyclopaedia of Popular Music of the World: Genres volume, London: Continuum, (in press).
“Foreground Structures and Processes in the Avaz of Mohammad Reza Shajarian.” Proceedings of II International Musicological Symposium ‘Space of Mugham’, The 7th Symposium of the Study Group “Maqam” of the ICTM, 15-17 March, 2011. Baku: Serq-Qerb, 2011 (pp.154-59).
“Maqamistan: Toward integrating maqam cultures.” Proceedings of International Musicological Symposium ‘Space of Mugham’, organized and sponsored by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture, 18-20 March, 2009. Baku: Serq-Qerb, 2009 (pp.392-396)
The Repertoire of Iraqi Maqam, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

“Persian Vocal Music: Avaz,” Tavoos Quarterly, 2003 (see below ***).

“Scholarship after 1300,” in Alison Arnold (ed), The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music—Vol. 5, South Asia, New York: Garland, 2000 (pp. 42-59).
CD Review: “Taherzadeh Vocals, Mahur Productions, M.CD-44, 1999.” World of Music 44/2:222-24, 2002.
“Some Thoughts on Riaz in Hindustani Music,” Bansuri 11:6-14, 1994.
“Aspects of Cosmological Symbolism in Hindustani Music,” Asian Music 24/1:67-89, 1992.

*** Tavoos solicited this short article from me, which was submitted to them in November, 2003. Unfortunately this admirable journal ran into various problems and its publishing license was eventually revoked by the Iranian government. As I did not receive a citation of its publication in their quarterly journal (which is difficult to access) and the article doesn’t appear to have been published in their online journal, I reproduce it here for those interested.
Persian Vocal Music: Avaz
Vocal genres and heritage

Iran is remarkably rich in traditions of vocal music. Folksong throughout the country is extremely diverse, reflecting the rich multi-ethnic, multicultural blend of the population itself. Even a superficial survey of music from the four corners of the country (i.e., Khorasan, Baluchistan, Bushehr, Azerbaijan) reveals a stunning range of vocal styles, aesthetics, repertoires, and practices. This vast array of music includes songs for work, diversion, travel, epic narration, seasonal celebrations, love, lullabies, lamentation—songs woven into the fabric of daily life. Another immense stream of vocal music is sung in the context of sacred and devotional settings: ta’zieh, monajat, zikr, and other genres of Sufi chant. Lighter, popular music takes a variety of forms that range from small local scenes to commercial blockbuster acts with huge international markets and celebrity (who generally bear the very noticeable influence of Western popular culture). The voice plays a central role in the tradition of Iran’s classical or art music. While there exists a large repertoire of classical metrical songs (tasnif-ha), this article will focus on avaz, the non-metrical performance of classical poetry improvised by means of the radif modal system. As with Asian classical traditions (particularly Indian), Persian instrumentalists base their style closely on the more prestigious vocal style.

The practice of sung poetry, whether classical or folk, is common and highly valued throughout Asia. The word avaz, which primary means “voice” (but there are various technical applications), is a widespread cognate found in various Indo-European languages: e.g., Sanskrit (vac), Latin (vox) and English (voice). Several Asian traditions may be considered as forms roughly parallel to Persian avaz. Indonesian Tembang Sunda shares aspects of refinement and cultural context (i.e., small private gatherings of connoisseurs); the music is modal, highly ornamented and often superimposes a non-metrical vocal delivery over understated, gently rolling rhythmic accompaniment from a small ensemble of instruments. Korean shushimga (“song of sorrow”) are emotionally draining, cathartic solos that share a depth of expression with avaz, despite their much heavier character. Mongolian urtin duu or “long songs,” while based on a pentatonic modality, share some striking features with avaz, particularly the absence of meter, a bright, high-tessitura, often strident vocal tone, and a style of ornamentation that includes something akin to the definitive glottal flip known in Iran as tekye. Indian classical music privileges sung poetry and there are of course direct historical and stylistic connections between the khyal tradition of North Indian music and avaz. There are many traditions in Central and West Asia that are related structurally to avaz and, in all likelihood, historically as well. These include the unaccompanied kata ashula of Uzbekistan, and particularly the improvisatory traditions of the Arabic muwwal and qasida, and the Turkish gazel, all of which are improvised, non-metrical, and based on the modal traditions of maqam/makam. The classical tradition of Iraq—Iraqi maqam—is closely related to avaz, while the vocal tradition of mugam in Azerbaijan is essentially a sibling tradition of Iran.

Concepts and aesthetics

“In Iran music is inseparable from singing, and singing from poetry; (and in turn) poetry is the medium par excellence of Persian mysticism.” (During 1989: 21). The Persian poetic tradition is renowned for its lofty inspiration, perfection of form, richness of imagery, depth of content, quantity of first-rate poets, and for its relevance and high esteem in contemporary Persian culture. Avaz primarily functions as a vehicle for exposing both the inner and outer dimensions of a poem. Its purpose is to breathe life into poetry written centuries earlier, to activate and renew its message—in short, to re-animate it. The singer attempts to match the meaning of a poem with a corresponding musical aura. This coupling of media is extremely potent: the semantic content of words and the complex allusion to the spaces between words and ideas that great poets can evoke, and the purely abstract realm of music that bypasses our rational faculties and appeals directly to emotions, intuition, and deeper, ultimately mysterious corners of our consciousness. The vocal improvisation of avaz requires immense control, technical skill, and knowledge of modal theory and repertoire on the one hand, and a sense of freedom, abandonment, and intuitive flow on the other. These contrary and yet complementary abilities are very difficult to combine and realize effectively. A good singer not only draws upon and reveals an interior or psycho-spiritual state, but does so with the paradoxical balance of control and abandon.

For Persian listeners, avaz is a means of affirming Persian identity and values, a sense of solidarity and cohesive community (both for those present and performing). Avaz performance is a media of transmission comparable to book publication whereby the audience experiences the poem as sung rather than printed word; one suspects that public recitation was a vital means of grass roots transmission throughout history, when levels of literacy were low and book publication was expensive and elitist. This social cohesion and interaction extends much deeper, however, to a means of individual contemplation of the human condition—life’s mystery, paradox, and beauty—ideally aimed at facilitating a sense of wholeness with humanity, the world, and indeed the cosmos. Avaz appeals simultaneously and ambiguously to both our celestial intelligence and sensuous pleasure. In a traditional setting it is not so much a concert with performers and audience as a meal that actively engages everyone. No one owns the recipe, the performers cook and serve a unique meal with care, and the listeners are appreciative guests—atmosphere and communication are central to such a performance. Listeners express their appreciation through body language, occasional verbal utterances (a sigh, moan, a quiet word of encouragement or exasperation), and the indescribable but undeniable entrainment of subtle, transpersonal psychic energy. This response from listeners creates feedback which in turn inspires the performers to greater heights (cf., Racy 1991). In Iran this heightened state (hal) is usually described as being significant but fleeting, a brief, transient glimpse at a higher state of consciousness and, by extension, spiritual realms (During 1989: 527ff.). There are of course other routes to this profound experience but avaz opens a possible entry point for both performers and listeners.
Historical connections

While it is impossible to know with certainty, due to the scarcity and nature of extent sources, the tradition of sung poetry is clearly of great antiquity. There is evidence that suggests the Sumerians practiced a form of vocal improvisation based on melodic modes and skeletal melodies (Volk 1994: 186-89). Sources are quite clear that Greek music in Hellenic times was based upon setting poetry to microtonal modes and preset melodic formulae (nomoi); indeed the word lyric originally signified poetry sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Such practices, like so many aspects of ancient Greek culture, were likely adopted from Eastern sources. Sacred recitation of the Qur’an, while emphatically not considered singing or music by Muslims, nonetheless displays striking relationships to avaz in terms of both structure and performance practice. Faruqi (1985: 457ff) has suggested that this reflection of the Qur’anic archetype in art and life is an aspect of divine unity (tawhid), and accords a particular prestige to avaz among the tonal arts of the Muslim world. Avaz also shows a heritage with the various bardic traditions that are an important and ancient genre in folk traditions throughout Iran. The formal structure of the radif (discussed below) resembles the episodes and subplots of an epic narrative from which a bard improvises a performance. The function of the bard and epic as a focal point for reaffirming community (often ethnic) identity is similar but becomes classicized and nationalized in avaz.

Writing around the end of the 14th century, Mawlana Mubarak Shah describes how the legendary Sassanian musician Barbad improvised words and melodies to suit the occasion and disposition of the listeners. While we do not know whether this type of singing was non-metrical, it was surely modal; Barbad is credited with creating an elaborate system of melodic modes which incorporated musical-cosmological correspondences. Safi al-Din clearly describes the practice of non-metrical, sung poetry in his 13th century treatise Kitab al-Adwar. Demetrius Cantemir’s treatise on Ottoman music (written around 1700) notes that Persian musicians of the late 16th century sang (poetry, one assumes) in an non-metrical fashion (known as taksim in Turkish) according to melodic formulae (terkibs) learned from their teachers (Feldman 1996: 285, 287), which sounds very similar to the practice of modern avaz based on the radif.

Performers and connoisseurs describe at least four stylistic schools (maktab-ha) of contemporary avaz, which are designated geographically as the cities of Esfahan, Tehran, Qazvin and Shiraz. The schools vary with regard to vocal timbre, treatment of the text, emotional engagement, and in some cases, specific local repertoire.

Structure and performance

Avaz is the central, climactic point of the typical performance format used for media broadcasts, recordings, and concerts, usually framed by rather lengthy metrical instrumental pieces such as preludes (pishdaramad) and concluding dance pieces (reng). Metrical instrumental interludes and strophic songs (tasnif-ha) may also provide variety within the program and heighten the effect of the avaz sections.

Like daily living itself, the practice of avaz essentially involves a series of choices for the performer, beginning with the selection of a poem from the vast ocean that comprises the Persian literary tradition. The scansion of the poetic meter (its cycle of long and short syllables) will determine the rhythmic delivery of its musical setting to a large extent. While not exactly replicating the scansion, a performance of avaz will roughly profile the rhythm of the language—extending syllables with various gestures here, clipping syllables there—and end phrases with virtuosic flourishes of melodic passagework know as tahrir-ha. Once the poem is selected, the performer must then select a melodic mode from the traditional classical repertoire (i.e., the radif ) that they feel corresponds to the atmosphere of the poem. With the warp and woof of poem and radif, a good singer weaves a spontaneous and unique musical performance.

The radif (or radif-ha, as there are different versions transmitted through the lineages of various masters) consists of twelve collections of modes, seven of which are considered large independent collections known as dastgah-ha, and five of which are smaller collections derived from the former and called avaz-ha or naghme-ha. Each of these collections contain a number of specific melodies called gusheh-ha which vary from a few seconds to a few minutes in length; each gusheh has a proper name and is memorized by performers as an essential part of their training. Gusheh-ha of a particular modal collection follow a specific order and can vary on a number of parameters: range, scale, melodic shape, and thematic content. While most gusheh-ha are non-metrical, there are rhythmic features that also characterize some melodies. There are many complex and subtle relationships between gusheh-ha of an individual collection and the radif as a whole that bring a kind of fractal cohesion to all Persian classical music.

The performer selects particular gusheh-ha as vehicles for reciting successive couplets of a poem. Gusheh-ha are springboards for the vocalist to improvise in terms of ornamentation, paraphrasing, variation, rhetorical repetition, and rearrangement (“remixing” as it is known contemporary electronic popular music). The radif thereby guides the foreground aspects of melody and, through selection from among the conventional ordering of gusheh-ha, the overall form of the performance.

The vocal technique of avaz is virtuosic, requiring strength, range, breath control, diaphragm support, accurate perception and execution of pitch, a variety of articulations, and clear diction. While exceptions abound, the preferred range for male singers is tenor, with a penetrating, bright tone, produced by tightening the vocal cords; in contrast to Western vocal technique, the vocal tone originates in the back of the throat and the mouth is kept comparatively closed in Persian singing. Female vocalists share these qualities and often sing in the same range, which is more comfortable than for men; some connoisseurs feel that a good female vocalist is intrinsically superior to an equally gifted male. A great variety of melodic ornaments exists in avaz, the most important and definitive of which is the glottal flip known as tekye (“leaning”), which creates a strong attack, detachment of notes, and an alternation of head and chest voices (similar to a yodel). There are actually a number of different kinds of tekye associated with different schools of singing and individual singers.

The singer is usually accompanied by one or more instrumentalists (such as setar, tar, ney, kamanche, santur) in avaz performance, who quietly “shadow” the melody of the singer and then provide interludes that paraphrase the melodies that were previously recited. This allows listeners to reflect on the line of poetry recited, provides a contrasting musical texture and some diversion from the intensity of the vocal avaz. It also allows the singer of this physically demanding genre to rest the voice and, most importantly, creates a musical dialectic or feedback loop between the musicians that helps inspire and intensify the performance.

Individuals and style

Traditions are comprised of individuals, and individual performers in most contemporary musical cultures function within a continuum between poles that may be described variously as classical-romantic, conservative-avant garde, traditionalist-modernist, or (in popular music genres) mainstream-fringe, etc. Iranian musicians are no exception to this and even within the more restricted view of the genre and subculture of avaz performance, singers situate themselves within this stylistic or behavioral continuum and are known and admired (or reviled) by connoisseurs for the same. Among classical Persian musicians, this aesthetic placement is primarily made through the relationship between the artist and the radif—the extent of their knowledge of one or more canonical versions, and the way that they treat it in performance (e.g., ornamenting and paraphrasing but remaining close to the radif model on the one hand or using it as a springboard for individualistic creative departures on the other). A distinction should also be made between private and public contexts of performing avaz. There are many low-profile masters who remain amateurs in the sense that they do not derive their livelihood from public performance but are nonetheless gifted artists and integral to the tradition. In contrast to Western sensibilities, such musical expertise devoid of professional accomplishment is considered prestigious among Iranians.

Two important lineages of vocal radif-ha exist. The most influential and widely disseminated is that of Abdollah Davami (1891-1980), particularly as it was transmitted through his pupil Mahmud Karimi (1927-1984). This radif is characterized by its cogency and (particularly Karimi’s) self-similarity: its dense transposition and recycling of motives, tahrirs, and entire phrases. The second line of vocal radif transmission is relatively little known. The repertoire preserved by Hatam Askari Farahani (b. 1933) extends back through his teacher Seyyed Zia Rasa’i (a.k.a. Zakeri) to Seyyed Abdol Rahim, an influential and somewhat legendary master active at the turn of the 20th century. Askari deliberately restricted his transmission of this very large repertoire to preserve its integrity from the abuses that can be associated with published radif-ha. Askari finally recorded this radif but it remains unpublished as yet. It is characterized by its large size due to the greater number of gusheh-ha, their lengthier duration, and the inclusion of rhythmic types that are normally only associated with instrumental radif-ha. Askari’s nephew Farhad Farhani believed that the transmission of this radif included anecdotes describing the circumstances regarding the creation of particular melodies—a quasi-epic account of Persian music history (personal communication, 1998).

The following discussion offers some brief comments regarding the styles of some important public exponents of avaz. Although all singers share a style that is unmistakably Persian (largely due to the transpersonal quality of the radif), one marvels at the range and variety of their personal characteristics and preferences as representatives of the art.

The earliest recordings of avaz were made in the first decade of the 20th century. Mirza Seyyed Ahmad Khan was an outstanding singer from this period; he featured a wide range in terms of tessitura and tone quality, a variety of tahrir-ha, and extensive use of vocables (syllables devoid of semantic content). Qorban Khan had an extroverted style with intense, penetrating tone and executed lengthy tahrir-ha, while Qoli Khan was more restrained and stately, featuring a relaxed tone with relatively brief tahrir-ha. Aqa Hossein Ta’ziyeh Khan recorded tasnif-ha that were prefaced by short sections of avaz; he sang in a very high tessitura with a bright tone, biting tekye, and characteristically short phrases.

Seyyed Rahim was the master of many several important singers, including Seyyed Zia Rasa’i, Hossein Taherzadeh (1882-1955), and Taj Esfahani (1903-1981). Taherzadeh, considered by many to be the most important singer of the 20th century, sang in a high tessitura with flawless technique and employed a light tekye in concise tahrir-ha. His style was refined, dignified, somewhat conservative and emotionally removed compared to other great vocalists. Taj Esfahani had an extroverted style, featured a broad powerful tone, and brilliant, aggressive tahrir-ha.

Iqbal Sultan (a.k.a Eqbal Azar) [1866-1971] was renowned for his knowledge of the radif and highly emotional style. His voice had an attractive roughness (a qualitiy appreciated in blues and flamenco singing), particularly evident in his assertive execution of tekye. He coupled with this a vigorous, exciting style of delivery that was still evident in recordings made after reaching 100 years of age! Iqbal’s star pupil was Reza Qoli Mirza Zelli (1906-1945), who shared his teacher’s emotional intensity in addition to possessing considerable natural gifts in terms of technical precision, a powerful, bright tone, and brilliant, flowing tahrir-ha.

There are many significant singers from what may be considered the second generation of the recording era (i.e., artists born in the first decade of the 20th century).

Davami’s student Gholamhossein Banan (1911-1985) stands out for his gentle, warm elegance and great sensitivity; while frequently mellow and understated on the surface, there is always an emotional intensity bubbling underneath his singing. Hossein Ghavami (1909-1988), whose recordings were included on well-known anthologies in the West during the 1960s and 70s, likewise featured an attractive understated style with a relaxed, warm tone. Adib Khansari (1901-1982) sang in a comparatively low register with a full but loose and relaxed tone, and preferred a light tekye. The most influential female singer from this period was Qamarolmoluk Vaziri (1905-1959), whose penetrating vocal tone, electrifying tahrir-ha, and emotional engagement combine to make a style that is unrivalled in its unrelenting intensity. Ruh Angiz is another fine female singer from this generation who is characterized by a gentler tone, agile tahrir-ha, and occasionally explored her low register.

Mohammed Reza Shajarian (b. 1940) is the most famous contemporary exponent of avaz both within Iran and around the world. He combines natural vocal gifts with remarkable technical skill, a vast knowledge of repertoire that consolidates the styles of many important singers and schools, and an emotionally charged delivery. Shajarian’s recorded legacy is immense, encompassing multiple renditions of all dastgah-ha and avaz-ha, and performed with a wide range of accompanists (both large and traditional chamber ensembles), all with a high degree of formal and inspirational consistency. He is significant for bringing the art of avaz to a wider audience, particularly young Iranians both in and outside of Iran, and to non-Iranians in the West. Some fine singers ten to fifteen years younger than Shajarian include: Shahram Naseri, who is well known and appreciated outside of Iran, Arij Bistami, Ali Reza Eftekhari, and Sadiq Ta’rif. Despite the suspension of her professional career in the 1980s, Karimi’s student Parisa is a brilliant singer in the tradition of Qamarolmoluk. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Homayun Shajarian (b. 1975) has the potential to continue the style of his father.

Listening across cultures

After years of discussing avaz with Iranians (I’m a second-generation Canadian with no Persian ancestry), I’ve found that we often reach a gap, a point of mutual surprise or incomprehension. My Iranian friends are frequently surprised that I would appreciate avaz at all, particularly when I first encountered it and knew nothing of the Persian language or poetic tradition. I am equally puzzled at their limited view of its universality, its intrinsic beauty, and ability to move the soul, regardless of cultural or linguistic background—particularly as I know many non-Iranians who are avid fans of avaz. Good singers of avaz must dig deep inside and give something of themselves; when done with skill and sincerity, this expression of honest subjectivity resonates with the listener as a result of our shared humanity. As with good blues singers, it is a matter of direct expression over content. Come to think of it, I enjoy many performances of the blues in which the English text is largely unintelligible due to the singer’s diction or dialect. Similarly, many people enjoy opera while remaining oblivious to the text or having only a vague or mechanical understanding of it. If the essence of good poetry is the space between the words, non-Farsi speakers can (and indeed must) listen beyond the words of an avaz performance to the dimension toward which those words are pointing. The cultural outsider who becomes attracted to avaz for its abstract, purely musical quality will begin quite naturally to explore Persian poetry in translation, entering another vast ocean for exploration and enjoyment. So while the most potent effect of avaz is to experience it as it is intended for Persians—the simultaneous coupling of poetic and musical dimensions, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts—it can hold great significance and value for cultural outsiders as well.

Iran is remarkably rich in traditions of vocal music. And we are all the richer for it.

Works Cited

A Century of Avaz: An Anthology. (3 Cds featuring 32 singers). Tehran: Mahoor Institute of Culture and Art, 2003.

During, Jean. Musique et mystique dans les traditions d’Iran. Paris: Institute Francais de Recherche en Iran, 1989.

During, Jean; Zia Mirabdolbaghi and Dariush Safvate. The Art of Persian Music. Washington, D.C., 1991.

Faruqi, Ishmail and Lois Ibsen Faruqi. Cultural Atlas of Isam. New York: MacMillan, 1985.

Feldman, Walter. Music of the Ottoman Court: makam, composition and the early Ottoman instrumental repertoire. Berlin: VWB-Verlag fur Wissenschaft und Bildung, 1996.

Ganj-e Sukhteh: Pizhuhushi dar musiqi ‘ahd Qajar (“Burnt Treasure: An Inquiry into the Music of the Qajar Period) [5 cassettes and text] Tehran: Aheya’ Kitab, 1994.

Miller, Lloyd. Music and Song in Persia: The Art of Avaz. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.

Racy, Jihad. “Creativity and Ambiance: An Ecstatic Feedback Model from Arab Music.” World of Music 33/3: 7-28, (1991).

Volk, Konrad. “Improvisierte Musik im alten Mesopotamien.” Improvisation 2: 160-202, (1994).

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