Crisscrossing Geographical Boundaries

Kiawasch Sahebnasagh (1968) studied music in Iran before moving to Austria to continue his education at the Music University of Graz. He graduated with honors in composition and musical theory in 2002. His subject of research was “microtonality in Iranian music,” focusing on scales in the Radif Music.

He earned the first prize in the International Graz Film Festival for the soundtrack of Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space and the music prize of the city of Graz in 2001. In his two albums Lullaby Under the Debris (pieces for orchestra and computer) and Here in Silence (improvisations by piano), inspired by the devastating earthquake in northern Iran, he lays out his theory on music: “Recording the static moments of routine life either as rhythmic figures or as melodic designs.” In Lullaby he has recorded the voice of a grandmother from the north Khorasan province, soothing her grandchild into sleep.

Sahebnasagh has incorporated electronic, computer-generated sounds into his music “to manipulate and defamiliarize sounds and tones in a musical framework.” In fact, he accepts the use of all and every instrument provided that it brings the listener out of the stupor of listening to familiar tunes. Thus the use he makes of electronic sounds. To him, electronic sounds and computer programs can be employed to bring diversity to music, but he remains cautious about the music thus generated, “what if the capabilities of a computer program are such that they impose limitations on the composer and take control of the piece,” he asks himself.

“An instrument is nothing but a tool that helps us express ourselves better. Such a tool may come from the green forests of north Iran, the scorched clay of the Central Desert, or the towering peaks that girdles this land,” says Sahebnasagh. “To give voice to our pains, to bring joy to our lives, to infuse hope into our veins, to invite tears to roll down our eyes,” continues the composer, “all of these are achieved through a single language, a language independent of space and time or the soil we walk on. Eastern, Western, National, or Folk are names that have been invented to give the illusion of geographical divisions in music.”

The arrangement of instruments in the concert hall is one of the preoccupations of this young musician. A composer can make use of instruments in various arrangements to influence the way the audience hears the music, thus adding another dimension to the piece. “In my string quartet piece, Vern, as well as the wind quartet for saxophone, Zervan, I have placed musicians in the 4 corners of the hall. In Vern, musicians appear in the middle of the hall and the audience surround them.”

He believes that Iran music has traditionally chosen to focus on “repetition,” “repose,” and “movement” as the main constituents of musical aesthetics. The subtle combination of these constituents detaches our mind from time and place. By “repetition” he doesn’t mean going round in a circle. Notes need to be reworked in order to embellish and emphasize points that are both identical and different at the same time. This is usually achieved by adding an ornament or changing the dynamics of a musical node that has somehow evolved from the previous note but seeks to become whole in the next.

Repose and silence direct the attention of the listener to the next movement and give him/her the chance to savor the moment. This is repose or silence in the fold of time and before the next movement unfolds. “The world is in perpetual motion,” adds Sahebnasagh philosophically, “and every movement takes place in a plane through which repose and silence comes to life, and vice versa.”

The three principles of repetition, repose, and movement are like mirrors that invest the work with creativity. According to this composer, Iranian music needs experimentation. The outcome of such experimentation may at first not be pleasant to the ear, but the aim is to submerge the listener in the moment and to find order in chaos. It is ultimately this chaos that delimits the order of and in music.

Order here, of course, does not imply confinement within a framework that may hamper musical vitality. Music must first and foremost have the freedom to bring various shades of color by combining different instruments/tools and by fusing different scales to create polyphonic sounds and parallel tonalities. By calling for experimentation in polyphonic sounds and for a new approach to vertical (harmonic) and horizontal (melodic) tones, Sahebnasagh is not trying to repeat the Western experience for which, according to him, Iranian music needs nine centuries to catch up. But the music of Iran must expose itself to different experiences and combine them with its own rich history to come up with new forms, and this requires time and patience.

Sahebnasagh is currently preparing a piece for the Klangforum Ensemble and working on two more pieces based on poems of Ahmad Shamloo, Iran’s best known “free form” poet. His last project is the soundtrack of documentary film about an Iranian disabled woman.


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