Persian Classical Music

From high mountain ranges to vast desert plains and fertile coastal areas, Iran is a land of contrasts. Iranians often explain the profound spirituality of their music and poetry as a response to this landscape as well as to the country’s turbulent history.

Rooted in a rich and ancient heritage, this is music of contemplation and meditation which is linked through the poetry to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam whose members seek spiritual union with God. The aesthetic beauty of this refined and intensely personal music lies in the intricate nuances of the freely flowing solo melody lines, which are often compared with the elaborate designs found on Persian carpets and miniature paintings.

Creative performance lies at the heart of Persian classical music. The importance of creativity in this music is often expressed through the image of the nightingale (bol bol). According to popular belief, the nightingale possesses the most beautiful voice on earth and is also said never to repeat itself in song. A bird of great symbolic power throughout the Middle East, the nightingale represents the ultimate symbol of musical creativity. To the extent that Persian classical music lives through the more or less spontaneous re-creation of the traditional repertoire in performance, the music is often described as improvised.

The musicians themselves talk freely of improvisation, or bedaheh navazi (lit. “spontaneous playing”), a term borrowed from the realm of oral poetry and which has been applied to Persian classical music since the early years of the twentieth century. Musicians are also aware of the concept of improvisation in styles of music outside Iran, particularly in jazz and Indian classical music. But as in so many other “improvised” traditions, the performance of Persian classical music is far from “free” – it is in fact firmly grounded in a lengthy and rigorous training which involves the precise memorization of a canonic repertoire known as radif (lit. “order”) and which is the basis for all creativity in Persian classical music.

Like other Middle Eastern traditions, Persian classical music is based on the exploration of short modal pieces: in Iran these are known as gushehs (lit. “corners“) and there are 200 or so gushehs in the complete radif. These gushehs are grouped according to mode into twelve modal “systems” called dastgah.

A dastgah essentially comprises a progression of modally-related gushehs in a manner somewhat similar to the progression of pieces in a Baroque suite. Each gusheh has its own name and its own unique mode (but is related to other gushehs in the same dastgah) as well as characteristic motifs. The number of gushehs in a dastgah varies from as few as five in a relatively short dastgah such as Dashti, to as many as forty-four or more in a dastgah such as Mahur. The training of a classical musician essentially involves memorizing the complete repertoire of the radif. Only when the entire repertoire has been memorized – a process which takes many years – are musicians considered ready to embark on creative digressions, eventually leading to improvisation itself. So the radif is not performed as such, but represents the starting point for creative performance and composition.

The complex detail of the solo melody line is of utmost importance in Persian classical music – there is no harmony as such and only an occasional light drone (in contrast with the constant underlying drone in Indian classical music). As such, Persian classical music was traditionally performed by a solo singer and a single instrumental accompanist – in which case the instrument would shadow the voice and play short passages between the phrases of poetry – or by an instrumentalist on his own. In the course of the last century it became increasingly common for musicians to perform in larger groups, usually comprising a singer and four or five instrumentalists (each playing a different classical instrument). Nowadays one can hear both solo and group performances.

It’s Still Autumn

It’s Still Autumn

  • Kayhan Kalhor
It’s Still Autumn
Meeting At Dawn

Meeting At Dawn

  • Kayhan Kalhor
Meeting At Dawn
Ghazal Ensemble

Ghazal Ensemble

  • Kayhan Kalhor
Ghazal Ensemble
Sing me home

Sing me home

  • Silk Road Ensemble
Sing me home
The Music of Strangers

The Music of Strangers

  • Silk Road Ensemble
The Music of Strangers
Hawniyaz

Hawniyaz

  • Hawniyaz
Hawniyaz
Kula Kulluk Yakişir Mi

Kula Kulluk Yakişir Mi

  • Kayhan Kalhor
  • Erdal Erzincan
Kula Kulluk Yakişir Mi
I Will Not Stand Alone

I Will Not Stand Alone

  • Kayhan Kalhor
  • Ali Bahrami Fard
I Will Not Stand Alone
Rhino Season OST

Rhino Season OST

  • Brooklyn Rider
Rhino Season OST
Cinema Jenin OST

Cinema Jenin OST

  • Dresdner Sinfoniker
Cinema Jenin OST
Voices of the Shades

Voices of the Shades

  • Kayhan Kalhor
  • Madjid Khaladj
Voices of the Shades
Off the Map

Off the Map

  • Silk Road Ensemble
Off the Map
Silent City

Silent City

  • Kayhan Kalhor
  • Brooklyn Rider
Silent City
New Impossibilities

New Impossibilities

  • Yo-Yo Ma
  • Silk Road Ensemble
New Impossibilities
Soroude Mehr

Soroude Mehr

  • Masters of Persian Music
Soroude Mehr
Saze Khamoosh

Saze Khamoosh

  • Masters of Persian Music
Saze Khamoosh
The Wind

The Wind

  • Kayhan Kalhor
  • Dresdner Sinfoniker
The Wind
Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon

Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon

  • Yo-Yo Ma
  • Silk Road Ensemble
Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon
Faryad

Faryad

  • Masters of Persian Music
Faryad
In the Mirror of the Sky

In the Mirror of the Sky

  • Ali Akbar Moradi
In the Mirror of the Sky
The Rain

The Rain

  • Ghazal
The Rain
Without You

Without You

  • Masters of Persian Music
Without You
Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet

Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet

  • Yo-Yo Ma
  • Silk Road Ensemble
Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet
It’s Winter

It’s Winter

  • Masters of Persian Music
It’s Winter
Caravan

Caravan

  • Kronos Quartet
Caravan
Night, Silence, Desert

Night, Silence, Desert

  • Kayhan Kalhor
  • Mohammad Reza Shajarian
Night, Silence, Desert
Moon Rise over the Silk Road

Moon Rise over the Silk Road

  • Ghazal
Moon Rise over the Silk Road
Through Eternity

Through Eternity

  • Shahram Nazeri
  • Dastan Ensemble
Through Eternity
Scattering Stars Like Dust

Scattering Stars Like Dust

  • Kayhan Kalhor
Scattering Stars Like Dust
As Night Falls on the Silk Road

As Night Falls on the Silk Road

  • Ghazal
As Night Falls on the Silk Road
Lost Songs of the Silk Road

Lost Songs of the Silk Road

  • Ghazal
Lost Songs of the Silk Road
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