In the old Iranian language Avestan, “Nemāno Gaona” translates to “house colors”. At its beginnings album of the same nameIranian violist Kimia Hesabi performs seven works that uniquely represent the disparate and intersecting qualities of contemporary classical music and Iranian folk traditions. For Hesabi, founder of the Yasna set and a current resident of Washington, D.C., these works by Iranian diaspora composers signify developments in music in Iran, as well as Iranian music abroad.
Gity Razazit is Song and whispers mainly explores two different sound worlds: the melodic traditions of the “songs” of Iranian music and contemporary classical “whispers”. At first the piece seems to juxtapose the two ideas with little interaction, but the two techniques are welded together in a new and unexpected musical language by the end. In this direction, Song and whispers works as a statement of musical purpose: to find common threads between old and new musical traditions, and opportunities where there are no pre-existing common threads, by creating them from scratch.
Hesabi’s Program Notes for Alireza Mashayekhiit is Variant op. 139, no. 2 state that the work begins with “a simple motif, suggesting the type of thematic development used in an āvāz”, a modal vocal passage in Persian music. But to an ear unfamiliar with Persian traditions, this kind of thematic development also resembles the techniques used in classical music. This is not to imply a direct cultural exchange, but to emphasize that if the mission of Nemano Gaona is the marriage of musical traditions, so Variant respect these parameters.
The word “kamalto” is a portmanteau of “kamancheh” (an Iranian bowed instrument) and “alto” (French for viola). In Showan Tavakolit is Kamalto, the viola is meant to represent the sound of a kamancheh. The first movement, sung by Lori Sen, is based on a text by the ancient Persian poet Rumi. The movement is structurally a call and response, with sung stanzas separated by long alto tones. When the alto part becomes busier, the singer’s return is signaled by long tones. In the second movement, the solo viola plays both the role of soloist and accompanist, with technically difficult passages interrupted by sustained notes.
Among composers across Nemano Gaona, Bahar Royae is perhaps least concerned with making explicit musical references. tomb stone is an exploration of timbre that allows an effective transition between Kamalto. The book is based on a collection of poems by Yadollah Royae — Bahar’s late uncle. Each poem in the collection is an imagining of a tombstone for a fictional or real person. Thus the three movements of tomb stone have quite different emotional arcs and musical characteristics. For a work that eschews the use of melody in any traditional sense, tomb stone is one of the most emotionally striking tracks on the album.
Sailby Niloufar Nourbakhshfocuses on the 2017 Tehran protests against the compulsory wearing of the hijab — a timely inclusion for Hesabi, such as the release of Nemano Gaona (June 17, on New Focus Recordings) predates the current iranian protests. Nourbakhsh writes that “covered hair is a general metaphor for the presence of women”, and thus the electronic component of the work obscures the viola. This description might suggest the electronics have a menacing quality, but in execution they are quite striking and almost eye-catching in their own way. The real dramatic tension in the work comes from the struggle of the viola and electronics to dominate the musical foreground.
Hani and Sheh Mureedby Mozhgan Shahian, is based on 15th century Baloch folk tales. Chahian delves less into the expansive techniques and atmospheric soundscapes that define the album’s contemporary classical approaches, but the melodic and lyrical passages throughout the work are no less touching.
The album ends with Mashayekhi’s Sonata for viola and piano. It’s striking to finish an album focused on mixing different musical traditions with something as typical of western classical music as the sonata. But Mashayekih’s music is beholden to form only insofar as it should be and wastes no time building up energy with dissonant textures. The sonata works very well as a closer album, as it seems to encapsulate the common threads of earlier works: there are plenty of contemporary screams and harmonic scratches, but there are also moments of beautifully composed lyrical passages that reference the Iranian folk traditions.
With indisputable know-how, Nemano Gaona should be considered an important part of contemporary canon. The collection concept — exploring Iranian musical traditions in a contemporary classical setting, or vice versa — is effective, interesting and extremely well done. But outside of that context, these are works that are intellectually and emotionally effective entirely on their own.
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