Improvised music performed at Ole Miss’ first-ever Persian Arts Festival

Posted on Nov 13 2017 - 8:00am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

Poignant pitches strummed with a brass pick on the setar and cyclical beats emanating from the tonbak filled Nutt Auditorium during the first-ever Persian Arts Festival at Ole Miss on Friday afternoon.

Iranian composer, musician and poet Shahin Shahbazi closed his eyes while playing the four-string setar and then opened them to gaze at his partner, Pezhham Akhavass, a percussionist and music director playing the tonbak, a goblet drum. The two have a bond and understand each other because their performances are completely improvised — a signature of traditional Persian music.

In addition to the classical music workshop, the festival, organized by the Iranian Student Association, also consisted of a fine arts documentary in the morning and a music and painting concert in the evening in which the duo played while Akhavass’ father, artist Mostafa Akhavass, painted a masterpiece.

The three artists traveled from California and president of the Iranian Student Association Vahid Naderyan, a physics Ph.D. student, said he is pretty sure this is one of the first times Persian musicians have performed in the state of Mississippi.

During the music workshop, in addition to the setar, Shahbazi also demonstrated how the long-necked tar is played, and Akhavass showed the audience how to play the daf, a frame drum.

The two share the same birthday and live together in San Francisco. They have been practicing music together for two years. Akhavass said such improvisational music is only possible when two people share lifestyles and form a close relationship.

“We live next to each other, and in the process of eating, drinking and being together, we get to know each other, so we know when and how to raise the melody or change the tempo,” Akhavass said. “It’s like a journey with a friend, the life comes into the music.”

Shahbazi said the music comes from their hearts and just happens in the moment. Neither of the two said they think about the specific note they are playing in the moment but rather just have a mystical connection to the instrument.

“Sometimes I even don’t understand how it’s happening,” Akhavass said. “That’s the beauty of Persian music.”

They explained that “dastgah” is the modal system used in traditional Persian art music, which refers to 12 principal scales or patterns. Dastgahs are melodies that performers use as the core of an improvised piece. There are more than 50 dastgahs, but musicians tend to use just the main 12.

Akhavass said he likes to spice up the repetitive rhythms with infusions of concepts from other cultures, such as India, and genres such as jazz.

“I’m a fancy tonbak player,” Akhavass said. “I like to decorate the patterns and add some dots in the painting.”

Shahbazi also designs jewelry and writes poems in Farsi that he incorporates into his compositions. After music, literature is his next biggest passion, he said.

“The most comfortable place in the world for me is the stage,” Shahbazi said.

Even though during their childhoods, music was prohibited in public in Iran, Shahbazi and Akhavass both grew up in artistic families — Shahbazi’s mother is a vocalist, and his grandfather is a musician, while Akhavass’ father is a master of Persian art forms such as calligraphy and painting. Thus, growing up, the two still had a close relationship with music and were trained by some of the best Persian artists.

Akhavass said that as a kid, he did not really enjoy playing games and found instruments more fun. He said he would sit in his closet and practice up to 12 hours per day. Shahbazi also said he used to spend 16 hours a day practicing.

Junior accounting and Chinese major Drew Ramsey said he was amazed by how quickly Akhavass’ fingers moved over the tonbak and daf drums.

“I can’t believe he’s moving his fingers that quick,” Ramsey said. “It just looks impossible.”