Musical Aesthetics in Iran

This article for The Philosopher’s Magazine compares Iranian music–in which riffing and flexing performing skills are seen as the highest marks of artistry–with philosophical theories about classical music, jazz, and improvisation, offering an example of comparative aesthetics in action.

Print Article for The Philosopher’s Magazine


It’s a hot, dusty day in mid-July. I am sitting in Asal Kheyradyar’s car, and we are driving to her music rehearsal space in downtown Tehran. Asal is a young, classically trained flutist and vocalist who studied at Tehran Art University. She is currently a member of an all women’s classical music ensemble performing in Iran’s public concert circuit. Asal slips in a CD for us to listen to on the way, of some early recordings of vocalists and instrumentalists performing musiqi-e sonnati, widely taken as Iran’s classical music tradition. The recordings are almost a hundred years old, and we take a little journey through some of the musical greats of this genre, encompassing (among others) performances by famed tār (six-stringed lute) player Darvish Khan (1872-1926), and master vocalists Seyyed Ahmad Khān and Qoli Khān Shahi, whose birth and death dates are similarly thought to be situated in the late Qajar era, spanning 1785-1925. This is the era in which the classical tradition emerged from elite circles of the royal courts into the wider public sphere, when its artists began establishing music education programs in Iran’s emerging public university system.

Asal pauses, listening, and reflects “such a love of artistry in that time, you can really feel it in their voices.” “Do you think it’s different now?” I ask, with genuine curiosity. “Oh yes,” she responds:

Traditional performances require real time and patience (hoseleh). There’s just a different feeling in today’s culture. Everything is moving faster. It’s a very different time.

– Asal Kheyradyar

Like many emerging musicians working in Iran’s classical concert circuit, Asal’s most common type of gig these days is the kind that takes place in a large concert hall, and lasts an hour, maybe two. From the perspective of a North American or European concertgoer, it may seem odd that “squeezing” a performance into a large, formal, concert space, and limiting the performer’s time to one or two hours seems like such a break with tradition. It’s no secret that most Western aesthetic analyses of music have long centered on the “concert hall” paradigm of musical performance that dominated European musical circles around 1800, or colloquially put, circa Beethoven.

This point was argued by Lydia Goehr in her early writing, most notably in her 1992 volume, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Oxford University Press). Goehr argued that many of the assumptions about musical performance that analytic philosophers consider fundamental to the nature of music itself became codified as ideals of musical practice when the musical work became the central concept shaping the way Europeans understood, made, wrote about, and performed music. By and large, the dominant aesthetic narrative holds that musicians (like Beethoven) created works (like his Ninth Symphony, running approximately 70 minutes long, which, by no accident, is about the length of a compact disc), so that audiences could go to concert halls, sit in silence, and fully attend to these works, faithfully reproduced by performers, in order that all could contemplate the beautiful sound structures contained therein. An early proponent of this view was German music critic Eduard Hanslick, who, writing in 1794, made a similar argument in his aesthetic treatise on music, On the Musically Beautiful, widely considered foundational to the field of the philosophy of music.

The dominant picture of art music in Iran however, offers a different narrative about traditional ideals of musical practice, which helps to explain why performing according to the “Beethoven” paradigm (if we want to call it that) venerated by critics like Hanslick, is something of a compromise for a traditionally-minded Iranian musician. It also explains why other practices that are packaged into the paradigm (like fidelity to a score, or the use of notation) are not venerated in the Iranian classical context. In fact, much of the  scholarship about Iranian musical practice in the 1960s centered around articulating ways in which the increasing presence of staff notation and theoretical discussion in instruction might be damaging to the tradition’s core aesthetic ideals. This research, spearheaded by master musician and scholar Dariush Safvat, resulted in the founding of the Center for Propagation and Preservation of Iranian Classical Music (or, colloquially, the “Center”) in 1968, which rose to prominence as Iran’s most venerated classical music school. Against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving Tehran propelled by Shah Reza Pahlavi’s pro-westernization cultural policies, the Center specialized in highly traditional instruction and performance practices.

Iranian classical music centers on an implicit structural framework called the radif. The radif is sometimes thought of as a canon of motifs, sometimes as a theoretical model, and sometimes as a musical grammar of sorts. A performance typically entails weaving together a selection of motifs in loosely in ascending sonic order, through a process of spontaneous improvisation involving drawn out periods of free singing and unmetered expression. Achieving improvisational creativity within the stringent structural parameters of the radif is considered the hallmark of artistry in this tradition. Traditional instruction involves one-to-one transmission by rote through observation and bodily mimicry over the course of several years. This process is thought to enable an intuitive absorption of the radif, taken as the structuring framework that implicitly guides improvisation. Under the traditional ethos, apprentices become musicians when they find themselves able to spontaneously reproduce and rearrange motifs in a manner consistent with the radif’s structure without needing to actively think about the structuring of a performance.

From a technical perspective, many of the generative processes (as musicologist Laudan Nooshin puts it) in this performance model seem to be rooted in motor memory. Nooshin speculates this may be because of the speed at which improvised utterances are typically articulated. One way to interpret the notion of musicality that anchors this performance model is to consider traditional instruction as oriented toward facilitating motor-driven extemporization skills. Musicality, then, is taken as a function of a particular kind of embodied dexterity that drives improvisation in the performing moment. Historical narratives about artistry in this tradition are similarly couched in language that centers on the skillful manipulation of the instrument, as this oft-quoted passage Ruhollah Khaleqi (1906-1965) indicates: “All eyes were riveted on the maestro’s hands. Rapidly the mezrabs [hand-held hammers] struck the strings. They were so finely and evenly regulated that they seemed to be drawing lines in the air perpendicular to the santur [dulcimer]. Shifting around between the rhythmic pieces and melodies for chanting, Soma’ Hozur probably played for more than half an hour, spellbinding everyone. Had today’s santur players been there that night, they could have found out for themselves the meaning of the words skill and mastery.”

Soma’ Hozur probably played for more than half an hour, spellbinding everyone. Had today’s santur players been there that night, they could have found out for themselves the meaning of the words skill and mastery.

This anecdote is retold in The Art of Persian Music by Jean During, Zia Mirabdolbaghi and Dariush Safvat (Mage Publishers), among other sources.The anecdote captures well much of what audiences typically attend to when witnessing a performance of Iranian classical music. Even to the uninitiated—as I was when I first  encountered the tradition as a teenager in the mid 1990s—it is clear that the audience’s attention is directed to skillful articulation of the voice, or dextrous manipulation of the instrument, as the thing on primary display. The encounter I speak of was with an infamous musician who went by the stage name “Delkash.”

Delkash was a classically trained vocalist who amassed fame in pre-revolution Iran as a crossover artist, traversing high art and popular entertainment contexts between the 1940s and 1970s. The performance I saw comprised a rare outing for her, following her retirement from public performance after the 1979 revolution, during a period when extensive restrictions on public performance were in force. The performance took place in the traditional style—in an informal, private setting, over the course of several days—at my aunt’s summer cabin in a small mountain village just outside Tehran. I knew little about Iranian classical music then, other than the fact that you listened to it, rather than danced to it. This fact alone rendered the prospect of seeing Delkash perform significantly less interesting to me. Nonetheless, after an ill fated attempt to sneak away for a jaunt in the mountains, I found myself seated cross legged in a corner of the room, firmly pinned between the respective knees of two aunts.

Family and friends sat on cushions around the edges of a large room opening out to the verandah, leaning against the walls, nibbling fruit, sipping tea, swaying their heads, and uttering murmurs of approval as Delkash sang from her corner of the room, drawing out phonemes from ancient poetry into elaborate, interweaving passages that seemed indifferent to the passing hours. What I remember most distinctly is her use of a rapid guttural yodeling-like technique called tahrir. It is quite something to witness in the flesh. How she sustained it for so long I do not know, but it set my hairs on end and made me feel like I had sore throat just from watching, all at the same time. I later learned that this is a hallmark skill used for the most extensive improvised sections of free singing, and the central subject of appreciation for singers among those who are initiated with the genre.

When reflecting on the past, contemporary musicians often speculate that the informal performance setting provides the best setting for allowing the musician to get in the zone, so to speak, for undertaking the spontaneous free singing or playing that is the focal point of a traditional performance. This is partly because of a belief that without limitations on performance duration, the skillfulness of the performer (partly resting on the extent to which they can draw out a performance, and partly resting on the ability to adjust a performance to different moods and atmospheres of a passing day) can really shine. This performance ideal is captured in the metaphor of the nightingale, an important cultural motif in Iran. In a mythical garden of Persian legend, the nightingale is famed for its ability to endlessly sing subtly different melodies without ever repeating itself, all for the love of the rose to which it sings. In fact, the honorific title “bolbol” (meaning nightingale) is often used to distinguish the most skilled musician in the region. In short, to do as the nightingale does is to be musical.

For Iranian classical musicians, debates center around ways to accommodate these ideals of creativity—taken as a sort of embodied skill—with changing parameters of education and performance in today’s culture. Many discuss the concept of time in this context. As noted earlier, mid-century debates about the tradition questioned experimentations with techniques aimed at accommodating more accelerated learning, such as permitting the use of notation or tape recordings as memory aids, or engaging in explicit discussion of the theoretical components of the radif and processes of improvisation. Artists, meanwhile, grappled with more limiting constraints on performance duration and settings when they first started laying down tracks for early recording technology. The primary focus for today’s musicians centers on adapting to the more formal live concerts of much shorter duration, for much larger audiences that have become normalized in recent decades. Despite worrying that today’s performances have a “mechanical feel,” Asal advocates a pragmatic approach that places historically venerated ideals like open duration performance (taken as a function of the creative freedom of the performer), in balance with an approach to musicality that will speak to contemporary audiences, as long as body driven improvisation remains a part of the practice.

Ideas about the conceptual significance of embodied components of performance have also surfaced in western musical aesthetics. One of the payoffs of Goehr’s argument is the rendering more visible, aesthetically significant aspects of musical practices that might be obscured by the dominance of the Beethoven paradigm in the European context, not least, embodied components of performance, a theme Goehr takes up at length in her subsequent work. Improvisation theorists like Philip Alperson (in a seminal 1984 essay called “On Musical Improvisation”) and Lee Brown also draw on this idea when addressing jazz, by placing aesthetic significance on musical activity itself, in addition to musical structure.

For scholars of the Iranian classical tradition, the conceptual question also centers on how to embrace a more pluralistic vision of aesthetically significant components of music. Though in the Iranian case, it is other contenders that rally for significance alongside the embodied performative aspects that have long occupied center stage.