DJIVAN GASPARYAN / HOSSEIN ALIZADEH
It takes a certain level of artistry for musicians from two different ethnic backgrounds to join together to explore common ground. It is quite another for two master artists—one an elder statesman and the other at the height of his creative powers—to transcend simple cultural exchange.
In the case of Endless Vision, Armenian duduk virtuoso Djivan Gasparyan (GEE-vahn gas-PAH-ree-yan) and Iranian instrumentalist Hossein Alizadeh (Huh-SAIN Ah-lee-ZAH-deh) transform such a meeting into an event so thrilling that all who are present know that they are having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan’s haunting, mournful sound is well-known to American audiences familiar from dozens of popular films and television programs in which it’s been used, including the soundtracks to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. Born in 1928 in the Armenian village of Solag, he began teaching himself at age six how to play the double-reeded duduk—an instrument whose history stretches back at least 1500 years. Since his professional career began in the late 1940s, Mr. Gasparyan has been one of the pillars and ambassadors of Armenian music throughout the world, and he has collaborated with a wide range of artists from Peter Gabriel to the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Kronos Quartet. His awards include four gold medals awarded by UNESCO, a lifetime achievement award from WOMEX (the world music industry’s largest annual conference and artist showcase), and has been named the People’s Artist of Armenia by the government.
Film has also established an important connection between American audiences and Hossein Alizadeh: he has written the scores for some of Iran’s best-known “new wave” films, including Gabbeh, Turtles Can Fly, and A Time for Drunken Horses. Long acknowledged as one of Iran’s most important and influential musicians, the composer and instrumentalist consistently breaks new ground within the time-honored traditions of Persian classical music. Born in Tehran in 1951, Mr. Alizadeh was the conductor and a soloist for the Iranian National Radio and Television Orchestra, and went on to found the Aref Ensemble, a group dedicated to the promotion and advancement of Iranian classical music. Dedicated to educating younger artists, Mr. Alizadeh has taught at the University of Tehran, the Tehran Music Conservatory, and the California Institute of the Arts.
Mr. Alizadeh’s presence within the United States has skyrocketed over the past several years. A two-time Grammy® nominee, his most recent nomination is for last year’s 2-CD set Faryad (also on World Village Music/Harmonia Mundi USA), recorded with fellow Persian artists Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Kayhan Kalhor. The three tour and record together as the Masters of Persian Music. (The group will be doing an extensive tour of the United States beginning on Feb. 28).
Within Iran, this album has already caused a commotion amongst certain social conservatives. While the live concerts that led to Endless Vision were allowed by Tehran’s department of public programs, initial attempts to issue the recording in Iran ran aground of the nation’s Ministry of Culture, which must approve all audio recordings to be released in the country. In the case of Endless Vision, permission to release the album in Iran was delayed two years because a female singer, the sweet-voiced Afsaneh Rasaei (a longtime pupil of Mr. Alizadeh), performed alongside a male ensemble—a situation still controversial in Iran. That decision has only recently been reversed, finally giving a wider Iranian public access to this magical event. (Mr. Alizadeh’s concerts are anxiously awaited amongst his countrymen; before a recent series of massively popular Masters of Persian Music concerts, fans were sleeping outside ticket offices in Tehran.)
Endless Vision was recorded live during a series of concerts the virtuosos gave in the gardens of Tehran’s Niavaran Palace in September 2003. “The gardens are located in the northern outskirts of Tehran,” says Alizadeh. “There, in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, the air is cool and fresh; it has a lushness and peacefulness far removed from the noise, traffic and pollution of the city.”
The palace’s tranquil environment was the perfect ground for a summit meeting between two standard-bearers. In these concerts, performed for crowds of thousands, the soloists’ masterful playing was elegantly framed by Mr. Alizadeh’s Hamavayan Ensemble, a group featuring female and male vocalists, strings and percussion performing the Persian classical tradition, and two Armenian duduk players.
“The music of Iran and Armenia is a language shared between the two nations,” says Mr. Alizadeh. “It’s a mirror reflecting history in each phrase.” This is music at the crossroads of three traditions, and three peoples: Armenian, Azeri, and Persian.” This concept is entirely organic, especially given the presence of a large and vibrant ethnic Armenian community within Iran whose presence reaches back to the early 16th century. With that in mind, Mr. Alizadeh adds, “we dedicate this project to Iranians and to Armenians, and especially to Iranian-Armenians.”
The opening selection, “Birds,” is a composition by Mr. Alizadeh which sets verse by Iranian poet M. Azad (b. 1933): “Birds/soar high into the air/looking after the winds…” the poem says. “Earth remains uncovered/and gardens full of illusions/Back to me comes your graciousness/more generous than the sun.”
The second track, “Armenian Romances,” is an evocative and utterly mesmerizing improvisation by Mr. Gasparyan. The following “Sari Galin (Yellow Bride)” is a beloved traditional Armenian song that nearly all Iranians know. As such, it’s a microcosmic look at the cultural interplay that underpins Endless Vision. “Iran has a large Armenian community,” observes Mr. Gasparyan, “who live side-by-side with other ethnicities. There is an instinctual closeness between Armenia and Iran.”
An instrumental written by Mr. Alizadeh returns to the avian theme: titled “Call of the Birds,” the piece shows off the Persian musicians’ virtuosity, accompanied by vibrantly chattering percussion. “Mama,” whose lyrics and music were composed by Mr. Gasparyan, is a song full of tenderness; his vocals on this track are full of love and a nostalgic evocation of times gone.
For Endless Vision, Mr. Alizadeh uses a new instrument, a six-stringed plucked lute called the shurangiz, which combines aspects of three other Iranian lutes (the plucked, six-stringed tar, the four-stringed setar, and the Kurdish tanbur instrument). Although the shurangiz was first created about 50 years ago, Alizadeh has experimented with the lute and modified it to the point of making it his own. The unique sound of this new instrument—at once delicate and richly voiced—comes to the fore in “Shurangiz Improvisation.” The album’s final track, “Tasnif Parvaneh Sho…” makes use of poetry penned by the 13th-century poet Molavi—a mystic also known as Rumi, whose ecstatic verses of love continue to beguile listeners around the world. Mr. Alizadeh’s lilting composition brings Endless Vision to a stirring and satisfying close.