A World Premiere Illuminates Connections Between Persian
and Indian Music
By Lou Fancher
Mysticism, language and location establish corner points of a triangle within which North Indian classical music and Persian music converge in Noor — The Path of Light. The collaboration presented by Chitresh Das Institute in late September at Z Space features tabla master Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and percussionist/composer Houman Pourmehdi with the Lian Ensemble.
Following a kathak dance performance by Chitresh Das Youth Company choreographed by Artistic Director Charlotte Moraga, the two-part program offers a unique perspective on the contrasts and similarities rising from the cultures’ shared and separate origins. Persian mysticism in music, poetry, and dance folds into North Indian music that itself bears the religious and spiritual influences of Hinduism, Islam, and Sufism.
The interwoven musical results, layered with contemporary sensibilities and energized through exploration, creates new textures and profound understanding of connectivity between cultures, says Pourmehdi. “The similarities explain the differences. The music of North India, because of the Persian invasion, bears the footprint in the arts in general.”
North Indian and Persian musical phrases and melody lengths and the positioning of melody within a phrase are similar. A shared belief in the mysticism of ancient cultures prevails in the work’s subject matter, although language differs. “The syllabus of language creates an impact,” says Pourmehdi. “In Persian music we say lots “ah” sound. A single stroke. But in Indian language there is “dah.” That affects the music and the sound of the instruments. Again, because there is language exchange through famous poems and poets, there are concepts that spread to both countries.”
Geography clearly plays a role. Music sung by people living in high mountains is meant to echo and carry to distant people and villages. “In the desert though,” says Pourmehdi, “there is no bouncing, so the music is very low, not as loud.”
Chaudhuri and Pourmehdi are on faculty at CalArts in Valencia, California. They have performed and recorded together numerous times, but never before collaborated as closely on this world premiere.
Pourmehdi says the experience is like looking in upon the same space through different windows. Especially during highly improvisational sections, half the pleasure is in not speaking beforehand about the structure. “We just need to hear one phrase to catch the idea,” he says. “This chain, once it starts working, things happen that we’ve never heard before. New music is being born onstage. One sound creates millions of ideas.”
The second half of the concert ends with a fixed, scored section written by Pourmehdi and other composers. “Even then, we like to improvise with the colors and sound,” he says.
With a tour to Los Angeles and likely more tours to Washington D.C., Toronto, and locations in Europe with large Persian communities, Chaudhuri and Pourmehdi believe the time is right for crossover presentations. “Imagine showing the exchange of love and playing, to pass that onto the audience,” says Pourmehdi. “When you’re out of yourself and there is less ego, you wake up somebody else. You’re tapping the truth. When we fly in that time and space, it’s an extraordinary moment that makes us drunk without even drinking. People need to see there is a zone, there is humanity though music.”