At the end of June 2010, shortly after my move to the San Francisco Bay Area, I had the opportunity to attend a Persian classical music concert by the local group Meehan Ensemble. I was up for a very pleasant surprise — a beautifully arranged performance with all original compositions. It was also a very a well-rehearsed and well-organized concert that I enjoyed very much.

Faraz Minooei, who along with Naser Sheikhzadegan, co-founded Meehan Ensemble in 2008, dedicated the concert to the great santur virtuoso Parviz Meshkatian, who passed away in 2009. Faraz also announced that the group would change name from Meehan to Shurangiz Ensemble, named after a piece by maestro Meshkatian with the same name.

Meehan Ensemble, June 2010; click to enlarge

Faraz, a professional musician and composer, who has performed with legendary musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and Kayhan Kalhor, did a beautiful job on santur. In fact, I think he’s one of the best that I have seen in person, and I have seen many over the years. I particularly enjoyed one of his original compositions that he performed solo.

Behfar Bahadoran on tar also had a remarkable performance which included several of his own compositions. He is based in Washington D.C. and is the founder of Pejvak Ensemble in the East Coast.

Ms. Mima Goodarz was the vocalist who performed numerous songs based on poetry by Rumi and Hafez, the great Persian poets and sufis from the ancient times. She also sang a piece called “Karak” composed by Behfar Bahadoran and based on a poem by the Iranian 20th century poet, M. Akhavan Sales, which was interesting and unique.

Naser Sheikhzadegan, the co-founder of Meehan, did a great job performing one of his own compositions on oud. Naser is not a professional musician, but he’s passionate about his music and it shows. The Gorgani siblings also did a nice job on a daf duet.

The members of the Shurangiz ensemble and their instruments are as follows:

  • Mehrbanou (Mima) Goodarz, vocal
  • Behfar Bahadoran, tar
  • Nasim Gorgani: percussion
  • ShAhin Gorgani: percussion, daf/tombak
  • Faraz Minooei: santur, co-founder
  • Naser Sheikhzadegan: oud, co-founder

Innovating in Iranian classical music

I think one of the challenges in Iranian classical music is that for many years there had been very little acceptable innovation and change in this tradition. In the past even if a musician were successful in pulling it off, she or he might’ve been frowned at by certain traditionalists and purists.

However, in the recent years we have seen a number of classically trained musicians experiment more, introduce change to a varying degree, and even collaborate with non-Iranian musicians producing fusion music, all while achieving success and acceptance by the audience and even some of the experts.

Though Faraz Minooei has mastery in the traditional forms, there is something different, refreshing and innovative in his music. So I asked him about it. Faraz recently received his MFA in music from UC Irvine. In his thesis titled ““Abstracting” the Iranian Classical Music” he explores methods of introducing subtle changes into the traditional form while preserving its authenticity and identity. In his thesis he writes:

Analyzing two of my compositions, […] I provide examples of a new perspective towards Iranian classical music. I reconcile two general compositional methods or ways of thinking about sound; sounds as symbols of extramusical meanings – cultural associations and connotations – and sounds as purely sonic entities. This practice, which I describe as “abstracting” Iranian classical music, renovates the music by “thinning” – but not devaluing – the representational aspect of the music.

…Pondering the hierarchical value systems in the Iranian classical music, and suggesting that in order to keep this tradition alive, much like Iranian masters of the early twentieth century, I should be open to respond to my environment and its evolution, ideas, and aesthetic changes. In this way Iranian music could have an innovative and transformative function in contemporary society, instead of serving merely as a sonic monument.

In this model of “abstracting” classical Iranian music, the listener could not only enjoy the traditional aspects of the art work, but also be encouraged to adjust his/her views toward its new sounds and techniques. This unification can create new meanings and extramusical messages: that of Iranian classical music opening up to the “world” of new sounds and forms.

Eloquently said! I like it and I hope we get to see more performances by the Shurangiz Ensemble in the near future. Faraz is actually off to Iran for a while to work on a recording. I’ll be looking forward to hearing it.