Contrary to what most major media want us to believe, Iran is without a doubt changing. And as history teaches us, changes are always led by artists - writers, poets, painters and musicians.
Proof of such a change in the ancient country of Iran is Endless Vision. This musical masterpiece stems from the recent movement of young Iranian musicians who investigate long oppressed musical traditions. Among these is the Radif, a classical Persian form of improvisation according to strict rules. Based on the Radif, many new compositions now see the light.
Hossein Alizadeh is regarded as one of the most prominent contemporary musicians there. A music teacher at the University of Tehran and the conservatory, he is a forerunner of the new musical directions. His instrument is the tar, a six-stringed member of the lute family. However, Alizadeh was not fully satisfied with the possibilities of this instrument. Another stringed and plucked Persian instrument, the four-stringed setar, has additional possibilities due to its amplifying membrane. A logical consequence for Alizadeh was to combine both instruments into his own version of an expanded lute called the shourangiz. Its longer fingerboard enlarges its tonal range and the resonator membrane adds more punch to the sound.
Djivan Gasparyan is regarded as the master of the Armenian flute, the double-reed duduk and precursor to the oboe. Just like Hossein Alizedah, Mr. Gasparyan is a prominent advocate of his country's musical traditions and does not shy away from promoting them by joining Western musicians and playing all over the world.
Iran's population includes a large group of ethnic Armenians whose presence goes back to the early 16th century. For his new album, Hossein Alizedah envisioned a musical meeting of various ethnic backgrounds. He invited Djivan Gasparyan and his own music group, the Hamavayan Ensemble. This group consists of vocalists, oud and shourangiz players and a percussionist. To add a bit more Armenian tone, another duduk and a bass duduk were invited.
The Endless Vision project culminated in a grand open-air concert in the gardens of Theran's beautiful Niavaran Palace in September 2003. Located at the foothills of the Alborz mountains far from the city hustle, Hossein Alizadeh's popularity attracted no less then 12,000 listeners. The concert's second half has now been immortalized on CD.
That the concert took place altogether and that the CD was released is another proof of the changes in present-day Iran. Not too long ago, it was unthinkable that music would be performed by men and women on the same stage, let alone that such an event would be publicly promoted. Yet the ministry of Culture approved the concert and -- 2 years later -- the release of the recording. This welcome change of mind now lets us enjoy the beautiful voice of Afsaneh Rasaei.
The recording opens with the 22-minute long "Birds. This very entertaining and diverse song is based on a poem by Mahmoud Moshref Azad, probably Iran's most famous poet and writer. The exceptional recording quality is instantly apparent in the opening shourangiz solo. As the song progresses, sparse duduk tones leading to a male and female voice set in motion the somewhat introverted atmosphere where vocals erupt and various melodies undergo rapture. This music is so close to the performers that they become as one. Imagine this against a starry night north of Tehran, with the musicians sitting in lotus position on low divans onstage.
In the improvisation "Armenian Romances", Gasparyan's duduk sets the initial mood in accordance with the Radif. Then beautiful voices and plucked strings take over in the next Armenian folk song "Sari Galin", the mournful story of unrequitted love. Hossein Alizadeh leads in the instrumental and very melodic "Call of the Birds". Many different rhythms and sub-rhythms chase each other in the almost Indian percussion while the plucked strings show off the masterful pizzicato technique of Alizadeh's shourangiz playing.
More lyrical rather than percussive is "Mama", played by all three duduks. Djivan Gasparyan wrote the lyrics for this downright tearjerker and sings them with his near falsetto voice that complements the melancholy tones of the duduk so well. The air around the music becomes almost palpable while the melody is very meditative - in one word, beautiful.
In the "Shourangiz Improvisation", Hossein Alizadeh puts his instrument on display in a solo number. Man and instrument become one and the improvisation evolves seamless into the final track where all musicians join together in "Tasnif Parvaneh Sho", a poem by the 13th century sufi poet of love, Jelaluddin Rumi.
Endless Vision is of a rare and sheer beauty and combines spirituality and emotion with musical mastery. The recording quality is equally exalted and the mastering is an example of how things can and should be done.