A Monographic CD by Alireza Farhang and Ensemble Court-Circuit
From the stars
Born in Iran and now a resident/citizen of France, the background of composer Alireza Farhang reveals his nomadic character, his attraction to the Other. The extreme refinement that characterises his music is a direct reflection of his peregrinations; his works invariably embody the Eastern and Western poles of his intellectual universe. In this regard, Farhang’s music must be understood as a combination of multiple heritages, with all the tension and paradoxes that this creates. His work traces a very personal path between the variability of oral traditions and the rigor of the written score, between the mysticism of Persian art and the rationality of Western music. A devotee of Hegelian philosophy, the synthesis that he creates between these two worlds is particularly salient in the music presented here. The ‘Ictus Vocis’ (of which the works included on this disc are a part) is an example of what could be des-cribed as a globalised and borderless aesthetic in which musicians are invited to draw upon their own, often divergent musical vocabularies.
References to the East are inevitable for this musician born in Kerman, a city with a rich history. The titles of his works frequently allude to the mythology of his native country, and thus respond to the memory of a past existence. Undoubtedly, these references are a way of illustrating and affirming the Other within a contemporary musical setting, something that sets his work apart given the blindness from which new music culture suffers to all that is beyond Europe. At the same time, Farhang is well aware of the pitfalls of this “modern exo-
ticism,” a phenomenon which would categorise his music either naive or cynical, slogans that art loathes. However, the authenticity of the Iranian culture which informs his work would be difficult to dispute. Decidedly, his music should be understood more as the manifestation of an internal conflict, the consequence of being caught between two worlds.
Beyond the evocative quality of his titles, the presence of the East is to be found deep within the music itself, as exemplified by the melodic, or monodic nature of his musical discourse. The listener may observe the use of short glissandi which enrich the intonation of the melodic lines, bringing to mind both traditional Iranian instruments (in particular the strings) and the virtuosity of eastern vocality. In this composer’s musical imagination, melodic line serves as a primitive formal element, as if to remind the listener of the fragility and tenuousness of speech. It is perhaps for these reasons that the music of Alireza Farhang sometimes bares the scattered threads that constitute it and, as if to alluding to the weaving of a Persian carpet, willingly focuses listeners’ attention on the modes of articulation which characterise transitions from one element to another, from one instrument to another, creating a sequence which contributes to the plasticity of the compositional discourse.
Polyphony—which also has its place in
Farhang’s work—mirrors all of this; most notably, it betrays the presence of Western thought. His polyphonic rigor is driven by a deep reflection of harmony, most often based upon elaborations of the various spectra of the instruments making up the ensemble, as if to better reveal their complexities. To this end, multiphonics feature prominently; elsewhere, instrumentalists are required to sing into their instruments, evoking the style of Tristan Murail, a French composer whose ears have long been turned towards the East. Additionally, microtonality invites the listener to travel to the heart of sound, revealing an inner world made up of movement and subtle ornamentation. Therefore, globally, polphony is most often the result of the coexistence of several archetypal motifs or gestures, combined and later superimposed upon each other. The works presented on this disc perfectly illustrate this repertory of gestures. Farhang’s motivic treatment results in repetitive, haunting or even litanic textures, evoking in the mind of the listener the geometric abstractions of a kaleidoscope and an apparatus which turns its musical propositions into hypnotic and mysterious forms.
The music of Alizera Farhang shares much with that of Gérard Pesson (a musician who, for a time, followed Farhang’s work closely), namely, a predeliction for the use of alternating pa-tterns and delicate oscillations which evoke the regressive quality of lullabies. Farhang’s music, however, never repeats itself verbatim, but ra-ther, establishes fragile point of balance between a contemplative approach and a discursive (or dialectical) treatment of musical material. As such, the spiral progressions that characterise his works are far more trance-like and mystical. Farhang’s art is inspired by his own spirituality, but also by a fascination with a poetic of light, where the slow advance of the magma of the musical material occasionally gives way to the lightness of fleeting harmonics, just heard, but sufficient to destablilise the underlying formal evolution.
Finally, Alireza Farhang often strips elements of their cultural meaning in his work; gestures with particular (geographic/cultural) connotations are rendered abstract through their juxtaposition with stylistically divergent material. Various musical and extra-musical sources form the basis of a novel, idiomatic Gestalt which has come to occupy a unique place in the fringes of contemporary musical culture. In this regard, Farhang’s work is considered “exploratory” and “experimental”: each piece is conceived as a kind of musical laboratory that rethinks and questions perpetually its own means of expression, and makes Eastern musical traditions fruitful through the rigor of Western compositional processes.
with Damien Bonnec (May 2021)
Alireza Farhang, today you are a recognized musician in the world of contemporary music. Please explain the background of your interest, as well as your tastes, in music.
My father was an amateur musician. He played several instruments, including the piano. He was the one who introduced me and my two brothers to music. Even though I’m the only one in my family who has chosen to make music my profession, sounds have always been a major part of our family life. As I only had access to a handful of musical institutions, I took private lessons with an Armenian pianist Emmanuel Melikaslanian – there are a lot of Armenians in Iran, and especially Armenian musicians who are very talented. However, as an adult, I gave up my ambition to become a performer. Over time, the pleasure of composing took precedence over performing on the piano. Composing is perhaps a somewhat more spiritual activity, which suits me better.
In my social environment, any musical career was seen as rather marginalising. It was not without some anguish that my parents allowed me to embark on this path. This is probably why I first studied electronics at university, before pursuing studies in musicology.
You were born in Kerman. Having grown up in one of the great metropolises of Iran, how did you relate to the traditional music of this country?
In addition to my piano lessons, I learned about Iranian music with Sedigh, but it was especially during my musicology studies at the University of Tehran that I learned the rudiments of traditional Iranian music and was able to further explore this field. I have always been fascinated by the ancestral dimension of this music, by the fact that gestures, modes and playing techniques are today the result of a gradual process of sedimentation, and that there is a connection between old and young learners, a sharing which is based upon the concept of transmi-
ssion. It must be said that, at home, we had a Western violin, but we played it in an “Iranian style,” that is to say, not in a very “academic” way, i.e., with techniques inherited from kemanche or ghaychak.
Your training in the field of composition led you to Europe, and in particular, to France. Who were the teachers, the people who helped you or supported your work?
I first met Michel Merlet at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. He was very interested in my work. Subsequently, I worked with Ivan Fedele at the Strasbourg Conservatory. I also undertook study of new compositional techno-
logy in 2007, dividing my time between Paris (IRCAM) and Berlin. My meeting with Gérard Pesson in Metz (at Acanthes) was important. He is a composer with whom I gradually established a long-term relationship, notably through attending his classes at the Paris Conservatory. But I owe a lot to Yan Maresz, Tristan Murail and so many others!
Please tell us a little about the paratexts associated with your works, in particular your titles, which are quite enigmatic for those of us that are not familiar with Persian mythology.
I maintain a paradoxical relationship with the paratexts of my works. The titles, for example, only come after composing each work; they conclude the process. Once the music is finished, I make it resonate with me. I analyse its characteristics and try to find an analogy between music and my personal culture. It is the musical material that calls for the words, not the other way around. I therefore believe in the power of ‘pure music’. The title is there only to shed light on what is, ultimately, a personal reading of the music.
Originally, Anagrān was to be a mixed piece, before the commissioning organisation changed the specifications. In general, electronics seem to play a key role in your creative process. Can you talk about the reasons for this?
My interest in technology crystallised during my studies at IRCAM in 2007. From my point of view, electronics are a consequence of the expectations of the ear and of writing, even though I modelled harmonies and rhythms to generate complex formal processes long before I started using technology for these purposes. My Tak-Sīm string quartet is a good example of this; it embodies the methods I developed to better master the materials I want to use in my pieces. However, my use of technology has been rather more limited and less systematic for some time. It is as though the research I undertook many years ago bore sufficient fruit, and I can now apply it far more sparingly.
The pieces on this record all belong to the “Ictus Vocis” series. What was this project exactly, and how did it come about?
I didn’t decide a priori to create a series of works. Rather, the pieces revealed their unifying qualities as they were being written. Given their similarities and their references to Iranian music, it gradually occurred to me that they ought to be brought together, making them into a singular constellation, so to speak. The works recorded for this disc are only a part of the complete series; other works like A capella, Tak-Sīm and La chouette aveugle are also a part of it, and are no less important to me than the works presented here. I think I can say that now, the cycle is complete.
Commissioned by ACIMC, with the support of Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung and the Francis and Mica Salabert Foundation, this work is the last of the Ictus Vocis series in which a close correlation is established between the timbre of the instruments, the gesture of the performers and the melodic motifs. This work is organized in several movements, conceived as so many paintings: Sepideh (Dawn), Nimtāb I (Twilight I), Tābān (Illumination), Bāmdād (Night), Pegāh (Sunrise), Nimtāb II (Twilight II) . In Persian language, Anagrān means infinite light. The piece is dedicated to Eric Daubresse.
Elikā represents an ecstatic and transcendent ritual, and a mystical rapture. The rhythmic cycles, inspired by Indian music, development of the material through repeated gestures, and sounds produced by the plucked strings and special bowing techniques (bariolage) characte-
rise this piece. In the Zoroastrian religion, Elikā represents the mother of the earth, and also the “flowering”
In this piece, the ornaments are intended to be more than mere embellishments; they become gestures in their own right, detached from their original context. Each gesture resembles material which is perpetually being degraded, releasing heat and light. The purity and clarity of natural harmonics evoke the image of lightning burs-ting in a dark sky. Produced by the excessive bow pressure near the bridge of the instrument, a flurry of harmonics create iridescent halos. In ancient Persia, Āzar is the deity of firre and sky. Āzar is written for Elise Douilliez.
Harā is a legendary and sacred mountain where earth and sky meet. The title is the metaphor for the fusion of materials used in two solo
pieces, Elikā (2017) and Āzar (2014). Harā
opposes light and fragile sounds to more grounded and rich sounds. The use of natural harmonics gives an ethereal quality to the piece and, on the other hand, specific bow techniques and cello scordatura give these sounds a strength and vigour reminiscent of the solidity of old pillars. Harā is a commission of Ensemble Nivak.
In Persian, Eiwān designates a vaulted, open space, drawing a large arch and adorned with calligraphic, geometric shapes and inlaid with glazed ceramics. As a child, during a trip to Isfahan, I was amazed by the beauty of the Aali qapu Palace. The relief decoration of the music room ensures special acoustics, allowing the most subtle sounds to travel through the space without any attenuation. Eiwān’s composition is strongly influenced by this sound, echoic image. Gesture is also a driving force in the composition process of the piece. The idea is to let yourself be carried away by the force of ‘gestural substitutes’, to use a term by Philippe Leroux. Eiwān is dedicated to Maha all the children victims of war.