The World of Persian Music and Poetry

Steve Blum, CUNY

Nowhere in the world is poetry more highly valued than in Iran, so it is not surprising that the singing of poetry is central to Persian musical culture. Furthermore, the values of music and dance are a major topic of Persian poetry, especially that of such highly musical poets as Rumi (13th century) and Hāfez (14th century). One of Rumi’s verses addresses the musician (motreb) as one who inspires ecstasy (tarab) and thus reveals the very essence of prayer.

Music is based on poetry in several respects. As they prepare a performance, singers choose lines from a number of poems in different poetic meters. They must next establish a compelling sequence of musical forms, tunes and rhythms, in order to dramatize shifts from one poem to the next. Intriguing connections as well as striking contrasts in the topics and images of the poems emerge as the musicians pass from one combination of melody and rhythm to another.

In every performance of classical music, pre-composed pieces with a steady beat in regular groups of two, three or four beats (like “measures” in Western music) alternate with passages called sāz (instrument) + āvāz (vocalizing) where the singer avoids a predictable beat while respecting the meters and rhythms of the verses. As the terms sāz and āvāz imply, at least one melodic instrument must improvise a response (javāb) to each of the singer’s improvised lines; for many listeners, these mutually supportive exchanges between singer and instrumentalist are among the most engaging moments of a performance.

Each line of verse has two complementary halves with a fixed arrangement of long and short syllables. Singers exploit that complementarity as well as various rhythmic features inherent in the verses, such as the distribution of identical or similar consonants and vowels, and repetitions of words, topics, images, and syntactic patterns. At appropriate moments, a singer will turn from sāz and āvāz to perform a pre-composed tasnif or zarbi. Those forms combine two types of meter, two ways of measuring time: the quantitative meter of the verses, and the regular grouping of a steady beat. Only the first type of meter is relevant in sāz and āvāz, and only the second is present in the instrumental pieces that may introduce a performance: the chahār mezrāb (“four-beat measure”) and the pish-darāmad. Zarbi takes its name from the goblet-shaped drum, called zarb or tombak, which always accompanies the singer in a zarbi, may well accompany her in a tasnif, and is no less appropriate in a chahār mezrāb.

After opening with an instrumental chahār mezrāb or pish darāmad (or both), a performance continues with several sections in which sāz and āvāz are followed by a tasnif or zarbi. The rhythmic momentum of the predictable beats in tasnif and zarbi yields to the singer’s request that we listen more closely to each syllable of a new poem as she begins a new section of sāz and āvāz. In these more introspective moments we recognize that singer and instrumentalist are improvising in response to one another, until the intimacy of sāz and āvāz once again gives way to the more extroverted sociability of a tasnif or zarbi.

Rumi’s poetry is ideally suited to both ways of experiencing time. Most of his lyrical ghazals were composed after his encounter in 1244 with the man who became his spiritual guide, Shams al-Din of Tabriz. Shams disappeared in 1248, and though Rumi continued to compose lyrics, his poetic activity in the final decade of his life focused on the creation of an extensive didactic poem, the Masnavi. Rumi preferred relatively simple poetic meters marked by repetition of short rhythmic figures that generates a dance-like momentum, and he may well have composed some of his lyrics while remembering or participating in the ceremonial dance of the Sufi order he headed.

The melodic modes of Persian music are organized in systems called dastgāh, each with several parts (called gushe) possessing their own modal and rhythmic characteristics. Beginning in one dastgāh, a musician may move to a second, then to a third, and so on, before returning to the point of departure.

For her performances at Asia Society on June 11 and 12 2009, Parissa designed a plan that began in the dastgāh of Māhur, modulates to Afshāri and then to Segāh, before returning to Māhur. The plan accommodated six rounds of sāz and āvāz followed each time by a tasnif or zarbi. For the sāz and āvāz Parissa chose lines from five of Rumi’s ghazals, plus three lines from the Masnavi. Lines from six more of Rumi’s ghazals were sung in the four tasnifs and two zarbis composed for these programs by Iman Vaziri.

Listen in on a sample of Parissa's track Man Gholame Ghamaram from her 2008 album, Simplicity:

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And read on to learn more about classical Persian music and the Rumi poetry Parissa sings.