Musical Encounters of the East and West

A journey through Alireza Mashayekhi’s solo piano works

Albert Sassmann, ViennaEdited by Kristin Samadi
I was first acquainted with Alireza Mashayekhi’s piano works while doing research for my book on piano music for the left hand. My attention was drawn to his Two Etudes for Left Hand op. 117 No. 3 and 4, which both contribute to this specific repertoire. While teaching at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, I gained a great deal of knowledge regarding the classical music scene of Iran today. During 2010, Mr. Mashayekhi and I met in person. Soon thereafter, I had most of his piano music at hand. Following his musical education in Tehran, Alireza Mashayekhi studied in Vienna with Hanns Jelinek and Karl Schiske. These were two eminent composers during Austria’s post-war period. He then went on to Utrecht to study Electronic Music. Having training in various countries throughout Europe and the Middle East, Mashayekhi had many influences allowing for a great deal of colour and creativity in his compositional approach. This encouraged me to analyse his work with regard to the differences and interrelations between Persian and Western classical music. This aspect is a central focus in Mashayekhi’s work and is embedded in the often discussed dichotomy themed “Orient-Occident” or “East-West”. Inspired by Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, Mashayekhi underlined the aforementioned dichotomy with the title of his electronic composition East-West op. 45. The myth of the Orient has always been a source of inspiration in the field of Western arts. The universal language of music is judged primarily on the quality and intensity of emotions that it is able to trigger in the audience. This seems to be a perfectly suitable medium to integrate cultural differences in a lively way. At this point, I may relate to the extensive literature on the various points of contact between Occidental and Oriental music. Starting in the 17th century, one of the first examples for “Orientalism” in European music is the alla turca style. This was derived from the practice of Ottoman military music. Initially, musical reception of the Orient was predominantly a kind of exoticism in which Western tonal language was performed with an Oriental flavor. Think of the example of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Marche pour la cérémonie des Turcs, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Carl Maria von Weber’s Abu Hassan, Mily Balakirev’s Islamey, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, or the Persian March by Johann Strauss II. In comparison, Claude Debussy’s encounter with the Parisian Exposition Universelle in 1889 can be seen as a milestone. From this approximate date on, the multifarious musical world of the Orient was being explored on a more profound level. Over the course of the 20th century, this had more and more effects on influential musical figures such as Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, amongst others. Therefore, the musical interrelations between East and West have changed substantially. Oriental and Occidental elements were brought together to create a new music, as John Cage stated in his article “The East in the West” (first published in 1946). This is where Alireza Mashayekhi’s music comes into play, seen from the Oriental perspective. To describe the mutual interaction of musical worlds, he coined the stylistic concept “multicultural”. Among his works, Mashayekhi differentiates between three categories: works which are directly inspired by Persian music, works which have no direct connection to Persian music, and works which he calls “multicultural”. Yet we may assume that boundaries cannot be drawn so rigidly within this three-part division. The concept “Meta-X music” is a kind of further development in this multicultural style in which various tonal, atonal, thematic, athematic elements, improvised, predetermined, Western-influenced music, as well as Persian traditional music merges into one heterogeneous unity. Obviously the study of Western compositional techniques significantly increased Mashayekhi’s abilities to draw influences from the Persian musical heritage in an innovative manner. With the inclusion of traditional Persian instruments, this results in a unique sound experience. This is especially distinctive when Persian and Western instruments play together. Some examples include Mashayekhi’s Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra op. 152 No. 3 as well as META-X No. 4 for Flute and Orchestra op. 163. A crucial factor to the performance of Persian music on Western instruments is in its tonal system which differs to a large extent from the Western semitone/whole tone structure. Because of their tone production, string or wind instruments have a clear advantage over the piano. The piano has an equal temperament that cannot adequately reproduce the subtleties of the Persian intervallic system. This is also confirmed in the ethnomusicological literature in HormozFarhat’s book: The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music (Cambridge University Press, 1990). The author states that the piano “is undoubtedly the most unsuitable of instruments for Persian music”. It can be anticipated at this point, however, that Alireza Mashayekhi has convincingly countered this assertion in his piano works. Let us take a closer look as to how far Persian and Western music traditions interact with each other in these works. For listeners who are accustomed to Western classical music, the first impression of Mashayekhi’s piano works would most likely be influenced by its characteristic tonal system. Makhayekhi’s tonal system differs from Western major-minor harmony a great deal in its sound and appearance. In addition, his music strays far from “typical” 20th century atonality. The following compositions are considered to be the core works in which Mashayekhi began experimenting with the application of the Persian tonal system on the piano: Short Stories op. 106, Letters op. 110, A la recherche du temps perdu op. 111, Kristall I and Kristall II op. 113, and Shahrzad op. 115. In Short Stories op. 106 (1993), four piano pieces are strung together into a little suite. The first piece is an atmospheric work that runs through the keys in a meditative-improvisatory way. In the second and third piece, quick ornamented figures and tremolos (obviously inspired by Persian string instruments) lead the musical events. After a short monodic introduction, the fourth piece unfolds with a final virtuosic character that consists of rhythmical-percussive elements, arpeggios, as well as short appoggiaturas. The first piece of Letters op. 110 (1993), consists of fast octaves that stand in stark contrast to the pensive second figures of a Persian folk song on which the material is based. After the strongly ornamented middle work in number three, quiet and lively sections (in which most of the left-hand sixteenth-groups evoke the impression of “Alberti basses”) abruptly alternate with each other. The title of the three-part work A la recherche du temps perdu op. 111 (1994) is a quote from Marcel Proust’s famous book. Not only does this make an association with France, but also draws attention to the contrasting layers of sound within the piece. In the first piece, contrasting layers of sound are juxtaposed. They have similarities with the sonorities opposes as they are encountered in both Debussy’s and Messiaen’s works. The second and final piece is a typical example of Mashayekhi’s style which may be called “constantly varying and improvisational”. The formation of highly ornamented melodies plays an important role. In this work, the constantly spinning and varying-improvisational style also constitutes the basic compositional scheme in Kristall I and Kristall II op. 113 (1995) as well as in Shahrzad op. 115 (1995/96). This extensive, nine-part piano work follows the story of the Sultan and the captured prophetess Shahrzad (which was also written by Mashayekhi). Similarly, Variant II op. 151 (2001) seems like a series of varied, contrasting sections based on modal material of the Persian dastgāhs. Memory No.1 op. 124 (1996) and The Butterfly of Zagros Mountains op. 121 No. 1 (1996) are also strongly rooted in Persian music. In the latter work, the folkloristic elements create a compelling stirring atmosphere. The three pieces in Pearls op. 118 (1995), are largely focused on one particular pianistic pattern. Number three, for example, almost exclusively consists of sixteenth note triplets and eighth notes. This texture, in a slightly modified and extended version, echoes in Mashayekhi’s Etude op. 155 (2002). Moments op. 119 (1995) is enmeshed with Western piano literature in several respects. On one hand, Mashayekhi uses the tradition of pedagogical pieces, which began with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Notebooks and Daniel Gottlob Türk’s Pieces for aspiring players. These ideas later developed into Béla Bartók’s For Children or Mikrokosmos. Comparisons to Bartók’s educational piano works seem particularly obvious since Mashayekhi’s Moments contain clear, audible elements of local musical traditions. On the other hand, one can interpret the 15 character miniatures in “Moments Musicaux” (with their compact form) as being associated with Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives. We can see a more concrete bridgein Retrospective II op. 109 (1993), in which Mashayekhi makes a pianistic reminiscence of traditional Western compositional forms. The first piece, Prélude, is a study in sixths which is then followed by a Rondo. Split between both hands, virtuosic broken chords dominate in the second movement. Before the final movement, the Interlude, is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The solemn tone evoking associations go hand in hand with the historical framework of this novel. Retrospective II ends with a tribute to Mashayekhi’s Viennese composition teacher HannsJelinek. The form of the Toccata (as well as the dominating pattern of alternating two sixteenth note groups), is modelled after the final Toccata frizzante from Jelinek’s Four Toccatas op. 15 No. 4. Delicate forms of East-West musical encounters includeAvec Chopin op. 130, Impromptu op. 162, and Avec Debussy op. 178. In these pieces, Mashayekhi processes material from works of three famous composers in a multi-layered manner. The opening bars of Avec Chopin op. 130 (1998) are perceived as a long process of attunement. The acoustic layers seem as though they need to be uncovered to let memories of the piece emerge. The characteristic arpeggio-figure consisting of fifths and fourths from Chopin’s Waltz in E minor op. posth., slowly crystallises out of eighth note movement. Over the course of the piece, Mashayekhi artistically mixes direct and distorted quotations from the E minor Waltz with excerpts from Chopin’s G minor Ballade op. 23, as well as the Chopin-Waltz in A minor op. 34 No. 2. Mashayekhi’s Impromptu op. 162 (2003, after Franz Schubert’s op. 90 No. 4), has the subtitle “Eine Fröhliche Einsamkeit” (“A happy lonesomeness”). This was quoted from the pastoral novel Schäfferey von der Nimfen Hercinie (The Idyll of the Nymph Hercinie, 1630) by the German Baroque poet Martin Opitz. Compared with the other two “Avec-pieces”, Mashayekhi remains much closer to the original tone and aesthetics in Impromptu. One feels less reminiscent of a stylistic encounter, but rather of a “painting over” in the style of Andy Warhol. In a remarkably long quotation, he brings almost the entire C-sharp minor middle section of Schubert’s Impromptu, followed by a brief concluding section. Special attention should be given to the last four bars, in which Mashayekhi quotes the arpeggio of the main theme in its original form. He is unmistakably alluding to the characteristic major-minor dichotomy of the composition. Finally, Avec Debussy op. 162 No. 2 (2004) features four works from Debussy’s oeuvre: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque, Voiles, La serenade interrompue, as well as La danse de Puck from Préludes I. The starting and ending point of this musical walking tour is the opening motive of Clair de lune. Mashayekhi also embeds Debussy’s music into the interludes by superimposing the rhythmical-motivic associations with reminiscences of Persian music. Mashayekhi’s selection of the Debussy-pieces is particularly interesting in this context since both works may be viewed as musical encounters with the “exotic other”. While Debussy in Voiles was inspired by the whole tone and pentatonic scale, allusions to Moorish-Arabic influenced music of Southern Spain are clearly audible in La sérénade interrompue. One of the main characteristics of an idiomatic texture in piano music for the left hand alone is based on the successive performance of sound structures that are otherwise perceived simultaneously. Here the so-called latent polyphony plays a key role that connects left hand piano works to the repertoire for unaccompanied melodic instruments. At the piano, this implies the simultaneous playing on different registers, including wide ranged leaps, and the efficient use of the sustain pedal. In Mashayekhi’s Etudes for Left Hand op. 117 No. 3 and 4 (1995), we find these elements applied in different ways. As in many other series of one-handed piano studies, Mashayekhi’s two left hand Etudes op. 117 is half of a cycle. The other half is two Etudes for the Right Hand op. 117 No. 1 and 2. Mashayekhi has composed various works with the title “Sonata”, both for solo instruments as well as for solo instruments and orchestra. His approach, however, is not committed to the traditional concept of the classical sonata form. Mashayekhi’s five Piano Sonatas can be called the most experimental among his solo pianoworks. While in other conventionally notated pieces, extraordinary time signatures (such as 55/8 or 11/32), many time changes, and written-out ritardandos were used to indicate the content of the composition as precisely as possible. In the Sonatas, Mashayekhi follows a different path. He predominantly dispenses the conventional bar; free lengths of notes and bars dominate which allow for free space as well as personal interpretation. This element of “indeterminacy” is expanded in certain parts, where Mashayekhi uses aleatoric compositional techniques. For example, during the last two pages of Sonata V op. 209 (2011), independent notated events are provided by the composer. However, their order and frequency is left to the determination of the performer. The most radical example is Mashayekhi’s Sonata III op. 160 (2003), which consists of only one page with scattered snippets of music overlaid by various grades of graph-like notation. The appearance of the music seems to fluctuate between a score and a musical painting. On the other hand, Mashayekhi expands the pianistic playing techniquein his Sonatas. We should mention the fast, uncoordinated repeated chords in which the effect of acoustic noise is generated. Clusters have to be played with the fist or with the forearm respectively. In addition, a particular feature is highlighted that we can identify in the various passages in his piano works. For the most part, Mashayekhi’s Sonatas lack a clear recognizable division of roles between right and left hand (familiar from classical Western piano music). The musical content emerges out of one common voice; right and left hand seem to be merged, which can be well seen, in a way, related to the strong monodic tradition of Persian music. In summary, we can state that Mashayekhi’s concept of polyphony differs fundamentally from the Western major-minor harmony. According to Robert Gluck, this form of polyphony consists of “vertically juxtaposed modal elements” ("Between, Within, and Across Cultures“, in: Organised Sound, vol. 13 (2), 2008, p. 148). The composer himself calls it a “polyphony inspired by the main part”. Naturally we encounter major-minor tonality in Avec Chopin, Impromptu, and Avec Debussy. Tonal structures can be discerned sporadically in Variant II, in the ending of the final piece of Pearls, in the third piece of Short Stories, as well as in the second and third piece of A la recherche du temps perdu. The characteristic form principle in his piano works (which I have referred to above as “varying-improvisational”), is undoubtedly derived from Persian music. This is probably one of the main reasons why Mashayekhi’s piano compositions are sometimes difficult to understand for the listener trained in Western classical music. Mashayekhi remains fairly traditional in tone production and pianistic figures with the exception of more advanced, contemporary techniques used in his Sonatas. We should also mention the relatively frequent occurrence of ornamental melodic phrases, intermanual motion sequences, as well as tremolos. The technique of playing inside the piano is omitted entirely. Drawing from the musical heritage of his homeland and from Western compositional techniques, Alireza Mashayekhi has enriched the world of piano literature by adding his own unique stone to a huge mosaic. The points of contact between Persian and Western music tradition, can be traced on different levels. However, rather than being manifested in a concrete way, these points of contact dissolve in Mashayekhi’s individual style. Compositions such as Kristall or Shahrzad are eventually perceived as impressive emanations of Persian art. In works such as these, the encounter between East and West only seems to consist of the fact that Mashayekhi uses an instrument of Western music history. In Mashayekhi’s piano works, this instrument thus becomes a projection surface for a sound aesthetic that is deeply shaped by the Persian music. In this sense, the piano does not remain limited to its direct role, but becomes an intermediary between musical worlds – in several respects an “intercultural” instrument.