An Apprenticeship in Persian Classical Setar
In playing setar, an audience of one person is not enough. An audience of two people, too many. --Ostad Abolhasan Saba
By Sherwood Chen, Associate Director and Apprenticeship Program Manager
Master artist Kourosh Taghavi of San Diego has been working with Novato-based apprentice Emad Borjian as part of the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program this year. The apprenticeship has revolved around monthly meetings in a donated office space in Berkeley, and focuses upon the Persian classical music repertoire and the Radif, particularly focusing on the Avaz Bayât-e Tork which is a derivative of the Dastgâh Shur. Mid-20th century compositions by Ostad Ali Akbar Shahnâzi have been selected to challenge Borjian. Involved in the course of their apprenticeship is a deeper understanding of knowledge of Avâz Bayât-e Tork’s limited selection of Gushes, in addition to developing Borjian’s improvisational skills within the framework of the Radif—something which is essential to growth in Persian classical musicianship. “Emad has a keen ear already and can already improvise on some older melodies,” Kourosh notes. “This ability and the expanded knowledge of repertoire is an important basis for him.” The focus on improvisation also revolved around the Avaz Bayât-e Tork. The setar-playing style they have focused on was introduced in the 1920s by master musician Ostad Said Hormozi, characterized by Taghavi as “very melodic, soft, with longer phrases conceptually and over time, technically challenging, and definitely very passionate.” Taghavi wants to create more opportunities for Borjian to perform, seeing Borjian as a fellow ambassador who can introduce Persian music to wider audiences. Ultimately, Taghavi expressed an ultimate goal to develop a fine fellow musician to play with.
Borjian recognizes the rigorous balance between exacting study of the classical Gushes and improvisation. “I have to practice very precisely all the Gushes, memorize them, work on them as much as I can, try to create new things from them, then show Kourosh what I have done. He helps me look at Gushes in many different ways. The farther a musician gets from the Gushes, the more a musician needs to demonstrate more understanding of the Radif, as opposed to someone who simply repeats the Gushes.”
Taghavi attributes much of his learning to two master artists: pioneer classical musician, Ostad Mohammad Reza Lotfi (linked to the lineage of Ostad Ali Akbar Shahnâzi) and, later in Taghavi’s career, composer and musician Ostad Hossein Alizadeh. These two remain key influences, considered by Taghavi as “two of the greatest masters of Persian classical music” who have deeply impacted his approach and journey as a teacher and musician. An exception to the rule, Taghavi began his musical studies later in life after having arrived in the United States as a teen, making the choice to become a musician when he was 24.
“I left Iran in middle of Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. At that time, those who arrived here in the United States left Iran for two reasons: they were politically active, or they didn’t want to be drafted to go to war. I happened to leave for both reasons. Among us, some left with an idea of exactly what they wanted to become. I left Iran because I didn’t want to get killed. When I came to the United States, I was barely 18. I was really searching for who I was. My point in leaving Iran was to stay alive. My point of being here was to find out who I was.”
After living in Los Angeles for a few years as a college student, Taghavi attended an intimate classical concert in Los Angeles, where he witnessed a solo by Lotfi, who was visiting from Europe. It was the first time Taghavi saw the setar up close in his life, moreover in the deft hands of great artist. “As soon as Lotfi struck the strings, I said, ‘This is it.’ I knew then that this was something I should pursue.” Taghavi soon began studies with Partow Houshmand-Rad, a Berkeley-based student of Lotfi’s. He then subsequently studied with Lotfi whenever Lotfi came to the Bay Area, and his commitment to a life as a musician was sealed. “It was hell to go down a path I hadn’t planned to go down, but the ups and downs have been the greatest things that have happened to me in my life. Being a musician is not a process that is going to stop.… I know I will continue this until I die.”
Lotfi was also an instrumental figure in awakening the musicianship of now 21-year-old Borjian. Borjian initiated short-lived studies in Tonbak as a pre-teen with Jamshid Mohebbi in Tehran. As a teenager, he encountered a musician sitting in a corner of a Tehran art gallery playing a setar. Borjian was fascinated by the instrument as he observed its qualities and timbre up close, and was driven to take lessons with Nasser Ezadi at local Tehranian arts organization Daneshjoo (formerly known as Farhangsaraye Shafagh), making rapid-fire progress covering in a matter of ten months material which normally takes several years, and working tirelessly on his technique. Eventually he began studying compositions by Alizadeh and others, and within a year, was playing in an ensemble in front of hundreds, which pushed him further into his studies for another year. Soon after, Borjian immigrated to Novato, California, with his family and immediately hit a wall in his studies because he did not have access to a teacher. Though crestfallen, he eventually tracked down Lotfi’s e-mail address and wrote in earnest to Lotfi about his studies cut short and cultural isolation. To Borjian’s surprise, Lotfi replied, wishing Borjian well, advising him not to worry, and encouraging Borjian to see Lotfi when he next would be in California, assuring Borjian they would talk about Borjian’s dilemma. “It was the greatest thing in my life—Lotfi just sent me an e-mail!” Borjian recalls.
With new hope, galvanized by the encouraging words of a master on the other side of the country, Borjian continued practicing setar on his own and was able to take an intensive summer workshop in Berkeley over several weeks with other setar musicians, led by Lotfi in 2005. During the workshop, Lotfi recommended to Borjian that he work with Taghavi, who was one of the musicians in the workshop. Taghavi and Borjian have been working together since. “I’ve been very fortunate,” Borjian expresses.
Taghavi recalls that he “liked Emad’s eagerness to learn and his talent and love for this traditional art. He is a fast learner and practices vigorously. The fact that he has decided to study music is even more heartwarming and makes me even more eager to teach him everything I have learned and know.”
As for their lessons together, each session is different, namely due to Taghavi’s teaching style. He resists the traditional tendency to drill and teach sequentially, and believes that as a teacher, he needs to “see things in detail and to see the bigger picture. If there is a ripe opportunity of something new which Emad can learn, I’ll go there.” In their sessions, Taghavi senses what Emad needs, be it working with him on a specific composition or introducing Borjian to a specific composer. Over time, the sessions ultimately serve to make multiple connections in the effort to grasp the complexity of the traditional Persian Classical Radif.
Taghavi reflects: “You can always reach a deeper level of anything by just repeating it. The reason this music needs to be taught and learned one-on-one is because repeating something not only helps you memorize—which is not the ultimate point—but helps to understand different levels of meaning. Lotfi told me: ‘What you need to do is to learn the Radif. There is nothing else in the world to learn. Once you learn it, you have to have the ability to throw it all away.’ That is an incredible task. The Radif is so incredibly structured that it is really hard to learn the Radif and then say, ‘OK, I’m going to add something to this Gushe.’” To achieve this level of musicianship, he continues, “[is] going to take time, practice and practice and practice and practice. Until your last breath, you are learning new things about the same thing you have dealt with for so many years.
“Every classical artist understands that regardless of what anybody does, there is a need for the original to exist, because we always look back at the original thing in order to create a new thing. How much can we stretch the tradition? It all has to do with how much understanding one has of the original. We must understand an art form so it stays, so that generations after generations need to take a look at the original in order to create a new thing. Ultimately, the Radif is nothing but a grammar. If you learn this grammar, you can write your own poetry, a novel… it’s up to you. But you cannot write a thing without understanding or using grammar… I talk to Emad about this all the time.”
Taghavi and Borjian follow an oral tradition of playing together without notation, grounding their approach on the Radif, much in the way in which Lotfi taught Taghavi without notes. In addition to moving away from a conservatory-based approach, using notation and adhering to sequential drills, Taghavi considers his work with Borjian as having “a more classical approach than musicians in Iran because in contemporary Iran, the concept of everything being traditional can be seen a horrible thing. There’s a sense that when you are here [in California], you need to have some more connection to your roots and your tradition, but you can’t ignore the fact that you are not living there. You are living here.
“I try to remember what it was that I needed when I was learning, more than anything else. And see if that person sitting in front of me needs that kind of guidance. I learn a whole lot more about music when I teach it. When I tell my students something, I have to be sure about it. I always push myself to realize it more. What do I need to understand so that Emad doesn’t have to struggle for ten years to understand? If I understand this, then I can teach this to Emad, and of course Emad will take it to another level and teach it to someone else.”
“Emad has made me a better musician and a better teacher. I know his potential and how serious he is. He pushes me to be a better teacher and an even better musician. I always looked up to my teacher as someone who taught me so much, not just about music, but about life. So I try to do the same thing. With Emad’s friendship, honesty, and drive to learn in the best possible ways, I have to be on my toes at all times. When our sessions start, it is not necessarily about me teaching anything. We play music. Throughout those hours we are performing, I point out concepts. More than anything else, he is here to get from me what I have received from my teachers. He makes me work harder at what I have to relay to him.”
Emad describes Taghavi as “a great teacher because I like his approach to music and his style. When I first started studying with him, I thought it was a mixture of Lotfi’s and Alizadeh’s approach, but it is actually more complicated than that. He has a personal signature to his approach which appeals to me. The friendship that Kourosh and I have established is far beyond a teacher-student relationship. When I sit in front of Kourosh playing music, he makes the atmosphere friendly and relaxing. I like his style of music and the way he thinks about life. Our playing feels natural, and it has really affected our music.”
Borjian’s progress has been “incredible” in Taghavi’s eyes, and Taghavi hopes to bring the musicianship of Borjian and a few other students in California to a level where they can perform work as a setar ensemble, something he has always dreamt of. Borjian has already performed several times at the College of Marin student recitals and has arranged an Alizadeh composition for a string quartet, which has been performed by the College of Marin’s Department of Music faculty. He believes that his studies with Taghavi are all about strengthening connection to his heritage: “I never had a chance to go back to what I had learned in Iran, to revisit. Kourosh’s teachings are all about understanding. Working with setar helps me connect with my Persian cultural roots.”
If indeed—as the late, great Ostad Abolhasan Saba has noted—two audience members are too many for a setar, implying a powerful intimacy linked to the instrument, two musicians like Taghavi and Borjian playing setar together perhaps could not be sweeter.