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The Language of Music

Composer adds classical Persian selections to the cultural mix presented during spring festival at CalArts.


Ten CalArts students were listening to "Song of Compassion"--a transfixing musical account of the 1990 earthquake in northern Iran--when its composer, Hossein Alizadeh, walked into the classroom.

Alizadeh, explained the professor, is not only one of Iran's leading contemporary composers, but also a master of Persian classical music, which is based on improvisation.

"But I can't improvise in English," Alizadeh told the students with an almost bashful smile.

Alizadeh, one of the featured performers in CalArts' Spring Music Festival this week, is most comfortable in his native tongue, Farsi. He struggled a bit explaining to the students the basics of Persian improvisation, based on a collection of melodies known as the Radif. There are goushehs--sort of like melodies--contained in dastgahs . . . and goushehs are centered on a shahead . . .

His English vocabulary strained, Alizadeh turned back to the language he knows best: music. He drew a set of notes on the chalkboard and turned on a CD of Radif improvisation. Waving his hands over the notes as the music played, the system crystallized: The notes danced in patterns all around the center tone.

Of course, this lesson represented just one drop of fuel in the engine than runs the Radif. These melodies have been passed from master to student over generations. Masters like Alizadeh spend years practicing, internalizing the music like another language, so that any part of it can be recalled at any time as easily as speaking.

Shahrokh Yadegari, who produced five CDs of Alizadeh's music, has been serving as the musician's translator during his semester-long visit at CalArts. "Not only is he a virtuoso, but he's a very powerful thinker," Yadegari said. "The way he teaches in the class--he takes difficult concepts and presents it in an easy manner."

Alizadeh, 46, was born in Tehran, one of six children in his family. His older brother, a film director, suggested he go to a conservatory when he was about 10. At 16, he enrolled at the University of Tehran where he studied composition and music. In addition to playing with Iran's national orchestra, Alizadeh established a successful solo career and is now head of the Tehran conservatory.

Back in Iran, said Yadegari, people camp out overnight to get tickets to the two concerts Alizadeh gives every year, some of which are held in sports stadiums.

But there is nothing rock star-ish about Alizadeh, neither in his manner of speaking, nor playing. His instruments of choice are the tar, a double-bowled lute, and the setar, a four-stringed instrument that is higher pitched and more delicate than the Indian sitar.

Persian classical music is very emotional, Alizadeh said, and the more closely you listen, the more it moves you to go inside yourself. "My most beautiful moments are when I give a concert and everything goes well," he said in Farsi during an interview after class. "When the concert is over, I feel weightless and empty."

Alizadeh's compositions use traditional Persian instruments, but some like "NeyNava" are undeniably contemporary. In this concerto for ney, a wooden flute, and string orchestra, he bridges Persian and European styles by creating harmonies that are appropriate to the complex--but normally monophonic--Persian melodies.

Writing music, he tries to discover new sounds--but not ones that are synthetic, Alizadeh said, ones that already exist. In answer to the question, "How do you find new sounds?" he gave a long explanation, in Farsi.

Yadegari listened intently, clarified a few points, and finally translated as best he could. We see subtle changes in light over the course of a day that alter the appearance of colors and shapes, Yadegari relayed. This is also the way we hear. To ignore this is to lose that part of your connection to life.

Alizadeh smiled and sighed. Much of what he'd been trying to communicate, Alizadeh finally conceded, is easier said with music.



CalArts' Spring Music Festival, which features performances by faculty, students and guests, runs through March 21. Unless otherwise noted, all concerts start at 8 p.m. in the Walt Disney Modular Theatre of CalArts, 24700 McBean Parkway in Valencia, and general admission is $7. Call (818) 362-2315.


Classical music from North India, featuring performances on the tabla (tuned drums) and sarod (a lute-like instrument with many strings).


Javanese Gamelan (instrument ensemble) featuring music and dance from the Majapahit kingdom.


Balinese Gamelan featuring dance and "Kecak," the Balinese monkey chant.


CalArts South Indian Music Ensemble with guest artist percussionist Glen Velez.


Green Umbrella Concert: Cal Arts' New Century Players at the Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles. $15-20.


Classic Persian music featuring improvisations by Hossein Alizadeh on tar and Pejman Hadadi on tombak.


Interactive electronic music concert.

March 20

New Millennium Performers present eclectic international chamber music.

March 21

West African music and dance.

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