The oud in Iranian repertoire and teaching

The oud in Iranian repertoire and teaching

This is the second article about the oud in Iran, developed in conversation between oud player Negar Bouban and Rachel Beckles Willson at Labyrinth Musical Seminars in Crete in August 2018. Here we focus on how the core repertoire of Radif, and Iranian musical trends more broadly, are incorporating the increasing popularity of the oud.

Rachel: You are a teacher of oud at the University of Tehran, the first to teach oud as a principal instrument of study. Can you tell us how the oud has entered pedagogical traditions in Iran?

For some time Mansour Nariman was working to get the oud onto the curriculum of the music school in Tehran, the Conservatory, which was founded by Ali Naqi Vaziri about a hundred years ago. This was the very first music school in its modern sense, and the place where people were studying tar, santur, kemence (Kamancheh) and violin, along with a lot of other instruments, plus music theory, harmony, etc. But setar and oud were not taken seriously, not as primary instruments to study and graduate with, probably for a lack of repertoire. So, students who played other instruments – mostly tar – would try oud and/or setar as a second instrument.

Nariman was already teaching oud as a second instrument at the Conservatory. His first recognized student of oud was Mohammad Firouzi, whose first instrument was tar, meaning he graduated from the Conservatory with the tar. When Firouzi continued studies at the University of Tehran, he played oud as his main instrument, but there was no oud teacher at the university, then. He was always known as an oud player afterwards, he played in many important ensembles.

Rachel: So who taught him at the University?

At the University of Tehran you take lessons of Radif with a master who knows Radif, but not necessarily someone on the same instrument. It happens still, as an old tradition, maybe because Tehran University’s music department is the oldest place one could go to for a degree in music after Conservatory. At the other university that presents BA and MA programs of music (the Art University founded in 1994, a much younger institution than Tehran University), it was first Mansour Nariman who taught oud students (from 1994 for about 10 years) and then the younger generation took over.

But at the University of Tehran, before I was asked to teach there 4 years ago, there was no oud teacher because, according to the Dean of the department, the number of oud players was too low, 1 or 2 every year at most, so they went to the tar class and took Radif lessons from other instrumentalists. My guess is that at those times (before 1979), Firouzi might have continued oud lessons with Nariman, but I can’t be sure.

A couple of years after Mohammad Firouzi, Nariman did manage to establish the oud as a principle instrument at the Conservatory, and his first student in this capacity was Hossein Behroozinia. He got a diploma as an oud player,having changed from tar during the course of his studies, and then of course he continued playing it as a professional musician.

Firouzi and Behroozinia were the first generation of Iranian oud players after Nariman, at least on a public level.

Rachel: When Nariman started with the oud in Iran did he play Arab or Persian music?

A mixture, I would say. He knew Persian music before, he knew all the Radif and all the dastgahs, the melodies and everything related to what we call Persian music, because his father had been teaching him since he was very young. When he became familiar with Egyptian oud playing I think he absorbed some material but made his own mix. I think he tried to find what could match, and find a balance between the two. Neither to be too Arabic, nor too tar-like. He even refers to that as an attitude in the introduction to his Method book, when he points to the tremolo technique (called riz in Persian), stating that it does not sound as pleasant to play constant riz on the oud as it would on tar, but to keep the “touch” of Persian character, we should put as much riz as we find appropriate.

The tar has been a sort of Sultan of Persian music because of the Radif that was orally transmitted by the renowned setar and tar player Mirza Abdollah.

Many musicians are over-influenced by the techniques of tar and play in a way that works on tar or setar but not on other instruments necessarily. Nariman had the idea of finding something that works for the instrument itself, yet presenting the same content. He sought a balance. The judgement on whether he succeeded or not, remains for the audience and the future of the instrument. Some people suggested Mansour Nariman’s music was a bit too Arabic. There’s been a lot of discussion over that.

Rachel: Could you tell us more about your teaching methods? First of all I’d like to know your perspective on the ‘ustad’ tradition of transmission.

What I’m going to say is obviously my very personal opinion and I’m sure a lot of my colleagues wouldn’t agree with me! [laughter] But I sincerely believe that what has passed through time and reached us in a package of behavioural pattern and attitude, labelled altogether as Ustad, and with its position towards others, is wrong, if not sick!

Why? First of all, because it comes from a whole different society structure, in times when people lived in hierarchies of separate casts, etc. In such divided societies, the very principle that people are not equal and should not be treated so, is just taken as normal. So, when you are thought to be HIGHER in place –for whatever the reason- you are automatically given more importance than others, in almost everything, not just your profession; meaning people will take you more knowledgeable even in fields other than your own, or expect you to be a saint, etc. This results in an unbalanced relation between you and the people around you, as if they make an idol to put in a temple and worship. The whole image is not humane at all.

Then there follows a power game. The one put in the Ustad position, probably enjoying the power he/she feels there, starts to treat others –pupils mostly- like subjects to rule. They gradually come to believe –maybe not consciously- that they are worshiped because they deserve it, as excellent musicians or music-teachers. Then something even funnier can follow: the established Ustads form groups of followers, with closer circles like disciples, and there, the more followers and disciples you have, the more powerful you are, of course! Isn’t it funny? Where have we got to really? from knowing music and teaching it, to a cartoony image of a ruler with its subjects.

The other unhealthy side of this, in my opinion, is that the above mentioned process tends to freeze people in the past, as if followers should try to be copies of the Ustad, as if whatever worth knowing or learning is there already and there’s no need for anything other than that. Then you lose all the chances for creativity and individuality, which is the worst attitude one can have towards arts and knowledge, in my opinion.

Obviously, I do not intend to undermine the respect one needs to run the learning process. Every learner should bear in mind that the teacher is there because she/he has something the learner is seeking or should be in search of. Therefore, it is the content in exchange that is important and the act of giving such a thing, knowledge or experience or anything alike, deserves huge respect. Without the appropriate respect, no learning process can really run. But it’s the lesson that deserves the respect, not the person necessarily. On the other hand, every teacher knows that learning can only be “helped” by the teacher and it is totally up to the learner to accomplish. So even if you are a great “master” in whatever you are doing, say a number-one artist as a musician, you cannot guarantee anything when it comes to your pupils. So, we should be able to make the distinction between Ustad as a master in doing something, things that certainly need lots of skills –hopefully not including the skill to manipulate people!- and Ustad as a teacher.

Well, we will only start to make the distinction when we all feel ready, especially the society that is almost always hungry for an idol to cling to, which gives rise to the power game very easily when the idolized person has no will or honesty to break the vicious circle.

Negar Bouban, teaching at Labyrinth Musical Seminars, Crete, August 2018

Rachel: Can you tell us how your own teaching fits into the work of developing Persian traditions?

The method I am using for teaching Persian music is quite new, it’s my own idea of putting materials into a lesson-like arrangement that’s more task-based rather than just presenting or doing things on the instrument, which in my opinion is mostly based on imitation. I intend to have different aspect of the music involved and achieve more in a balance. Often I find  teachings kind  of off-balance –they mostly rely on repeating things, imitating a thousand times, after which maybe you get half of it or less. I hate this, I think it’s boring, it takes a lot of energy,and it’s not efficient. This new task-based learner-centred method I’m proposing, is a recent project I’ve been working on, I’m looking for feedback and I’m developing it, maybe into a course, perhaps online like in an interactive web-based or something similar, so that anyone interested in Persian music can get into it. If it gets there, people can do stuff and get to know about Persian music, can understand it and come to appreciate it.

I also push my students to sing. Most of them can’t, but… you know how pushy I can get [laughter]. There was one, who found it impossible to sing what she was playing when she came to the University. I had to really push her to find her own voice. I don’t want them to sing to become singers, of course, I just want them to do it so they have the melody inside their head somehow; especially because our music is basically a melodic music, with lots of voice-like qualities.

Rachel: Do you follow the Iranian tradition to focus on Radif? Or do you get students listening to oud players from around the world?

The latter. But more importantly, my aim is to focus more on the music content than playing the instrument. The attitude that is more towards the instrument, usually ends in a salad of imitated parts that do not necessarily match and therefore quite poor in music. I try to give the students some way of understanding the characteristics of the instrument and following the music through singing. The whole region uses this instrument in some kind of melodic music, mainly based on melody not harmony. If they can sing something, they have some better understanding of the melody, then they can follow it as closely as possible on the instrument. Of course it needs some understanding of the instrument too. I should also add that I strongly object to the idea of technique which focuses only on speed, as if playing fast means you have a strong technique. I think technique means all the things you can have that work as your tools, giving you the possibility to bring the music from your head to the instrument. For example, if I listen to some tune from a distant village in Iran and I ask myself if I can play it with the technique I have learned for the Radif, usually the answer is ‘no’. I need to find the way to be able to express that tune, and it may be a technical challenge. It’s something else you have to do with your fingers on the instrument to bring that music to life. I try to encourage that view.

Rachel: Are there expectations about covering the Radif as a part of instrumental tuition?

There are a lot of discussions about that. The older generation of teachers is more into Radif. They take it as the core repertoire and think that students who lose it, should be taken as illiterate. If you have a student playing a piece from the Arab repertoire, there may be some disapproval.

But the younger ones are more open-minded. Still, some of them are more in favour of adapting Persian repertoire –that is the repertoire taught on Tar, Setar or Santur- for the oud. There is also another problem, as some think you can get the technique from other musical cultures and then use them to make your music. As if, once I’d learned technique from a Turkish teacher, I could translate it to Persian music. I think, as I said before, that technique is “how to use the instrument to express some music” and you have to find the right/suitable technique for every music. We have had a lot of fights over the qanun and the oud because they suffer from not having much printed music. Some say that qanun teachers should be sent to Turkey to improve their teaching. In my opinion they don’t understand that if you simply import, it’s Turkish music, the intonation is Turkish, the techniques there have been developed over decades if not hundreds of years, to express that regional music. So we have a lot of discussions about that.

Rachel: What about repertoire written specifically for the oud?

Well, first of all, let’s not forget that the whole history of using modern, western-style, notation in Persian music is not that old. It all started with Ali Naqi Vaziri. Tar and santour have a richer repertoire –both as recordings and notated material- in comparison with even kamancheh and ney, which did not experience the fall-out like the oud. That’s why what Nariman started doing with his 3 books was so important, but certainly not so much and not enough yet.

If  you collected all the scores we have now for oud, starting with those of Nariman, you wouldn’t find 10 volumes. There are 3 volumes by Nariman (a method, repertoire, his Radif).

Hossein Behroozinia published 2 books (1 of folk songs and 1 of transcriptions of his solos). There are 2 or 3 other ones, like the one by Mohammad Reza Ibrahimi – a transcription of pieces he played on his album Sana; and then some basic pedagogical material, mostly intended for beginners.

What we now do mostly is working on some adaptations of the accepted Persian Classical repertoire written for other instruments; like those by Farāmarz Pāyvar that are of course shaped by the characteristics of santur but some have been transcribed for tar, too.

Parviz Meshkatian also wrote as a santur player. Yet, some of his pieces have been adapted for oud. A few works by Hossein Alizadeh, written for tar originally, have been adapted as well. The same for some of Abolhassan Saba’s pieces. Kemence and ney are making similar adaptations as well, although there is a repertoire for violin written by Abolhassan Saba.

In my recent book, titled “Highs and lows of Oud” I have created sets of exercises, plus scores of three of my own compositions, already performed, 2 of which are released as recordings, one is the 5th track on my album Continuous (CONTINU), the other one, the 4th on my recent album On Fire.

Rachel: How do you adapt repertoire from santur for the oud?

The best would be to find the recording, and listen to it, then you find the score and try to compare them. You work out if it fits, if it works once played on the oud. If it doesn’t, I would try to find a way to make the same, or as close as possible, sounding melody-shape as on the recording. Here, you need to explore other ways on the instrument, using the instrument’s potentials and limitations. It takes time, or should we say patience, and experience, of course.

 Rachel: Do you think there is an interest in developing a Persian identity for the oud? Or are the younger players mainly interested in Turkish virtuosity?

I’m sure that the oud is going to be increasingly established on the Persian music scene, with the current young generation. All the oud players in their classes taken with other instrumentalists – santur, tar – are among the very best. The other instrumentalist are mixed levels, whereas there are almost no weak oud players. This means, at least, that they are generally more serious in what they’re doing. It will be a lot more established on the scene but I don’t know if we can call it a Persian identity. So far, as I know Iran and Iranians, they tend to have different layers running at the same time. So you will always find a group of people who are going in one direction and another group of people working on a different thing.

One thing that I personally love about the oud as an instrument, however, is that it doesn’t belong to one place and one musical culture only. To me, it has the capacity to be taken as a language you can speak with many people from distant parts of the world. That is what music is supposed to be for, isn’t it?

Thanks to Francesco Iannuzzelli for sharing his library to provide images in this article.

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