Digging through an old CDr of work from 2007 and came across this piece, originally written for The Believer, though I don’t believe it ever ran there and remains unpublished. It was based on a compilation of composer Alireza Mashayekhi and a CDr that Simon Reynolds sent to me. Not sure where either item might be now. But in light of this story about how David Rockefeller’s involvement with the Shah has led to decades of conflict between the US and Iran (buried in the Times buried at the end of the year), it felt timely. Most recent events suggests war is unavoidable. And so…
Persian Electronic Music
For a decade, I’ve been riddled by the coda to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or garnering film Ta’m e guilass (A Taste of Cherry). After an hour and a half of the austere film, its principle character closes his eyes in a makeshift grave on the outskirts of Tehran; the audience too is in the dark. Our eyes re-open to another green-hued world: the arid landscape is now verdant, captured not on celluloid but in grainy video. The curtain pulls back to reveal Kiarostami’s crew at work and strains of “St. James Infirmary Blues” blare across the once-hushed film, the lone instance of music. A minor-key dirge voiced by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Jack White, “Infirmary” gives voice to innumerable clashes, between illusion/ reality, sound/ silence, past/ present, ancient/ modern, and –most charged in this time– East/ West. But why that song in particular? Why then?
Slouched in an American theatre, watching the films of Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, I can’t help but feel an irretrievable distance. There exist myriad parables and allusions in their work of such depth that as an outsider I feel I may never dig it out. Even an attempt to bridge that divide, be it in the translated poetry of Sa’Di or else the dialectic disco of Farah (who sings in both Farsi and English) on that After Dark compilation, in reading Polish reporter Rsyzard Kapuscinski’s account of the last days of the Shah’s regime in Shah of Shahs or that of ex-pat Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi, nothing gets me closer. If anything, my inquiry makes me think of Kapuscinski’s remark that “the most common Iranian technique is active assimilation, in a way that turns the foreign sword into the Iranians’ own weapon.” My presumptive probes are being used against me.
When the opiated buzz of heretofore-unknown Iranian composer Alireza Mashayekhi’s 1982 composition “Mithra, Op.90” reaches my ears, it is as if emanating from down a long tiled hallway, the disorienting echo that reverberates throughout contingent to the piece. As it unfurls, it becomes like a plaint from the void. Half of Sub Rosa’s 2CD overview of Persian Electronic Music is given to Mashayekhi (covering the years 1966-1982), yet it’s difficult to situate his place in the pantheon, much less the global bazaar.
Surely Mashayekhi isn’t the first Iranian to cite Adorno and Schoenberg, but was he the only Iranian doing such audacious electronic compositions during the time of the “Great Civilization” and the “White Revolution”? The closest example of Iranian electronic music I can recall is that of an outsider, Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who staged his visceral 1971 composition Persepolis amid its ruins at the Shiraz Festival. So how did this music survive the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the instituting of an Islamic Republic? In the notes to a cdr of Mashayekhi’s music that made its way to me, it says that the LP was found “in a bin for distruction (sic),” noting that no current information, much less a photo, was available at that time.
Barely three years after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile, the resulting revolution and institution of the Islamic Republic that followed, Mashayekhi created “Mithra,” whose intent is to “take us to an unreal space.” It conspires with Dabashi’s words in Iran: A People Interrupted, which speak of “impermanence,” “misplaced memories,” “temporary allocations” and an Iran “where no history can even begin, let alone end.”
Similarly purgatorial, Mashayekhi’s work hangs between East and West, between the Persian past and their Iranian future. He knows as much, as his “East-West Op.45” piece from 1973 makes clear. A scabrous soundclash, he deploys traditional modality and instrumentation, then twists them through the computer banks. Much like that lamentable trumpet arising out of the Tehran landscape at the end of Cherry, the sound here ruptures any and all human notions of borders, cultural distinctions, and time. As the gulf widens between our two sides, Mashayekhi’s declared aim resounds all the louder: “We can discover truth only through multicultural structures of artistic thought.”