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Improvisation as ‘Other’: Creativity, Knowledge and Power – The Case of Iranian Classical Music

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020


This article traces the discourses which have dominated the musicological study of creativity over the last 50 years or so, focusing on the concept of improvisation and its relationship to composition, particularly as applied to musics outside the notated Western tradition. Arguing that such discourses have served specific ideological purposes, the author illustrates the ways in which these continue to be implicated in an essentializing and orientalist exercise of power over ‘other’ musical traditions. Considering the specific case of Iranian classical music, the author discusses the impact of Western discourses on concepts of musical creativity in Iran and, through detailed musical analyses, illustrates the problematic nature of such discourses in the context of this musical tradition.

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Musical Association, 2003

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1 Ruth Solie, 'Introduction: On “Difference” Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Solie (Berkeley, 1993), 120 (p. 11).Google Scholar

2 Lawrence Kramer, Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley, 1995), 34. Kramer writes at length on the political significance of alterity. See ibid., 260–1, for a comprehensive listing of relevant work in this area. Discussion of the broader implications of a postmodernist musicology and a critique of Kramer can be found in Alastair Williams, ‘Musicology and Postmodernism’, Music Analysis, 19 (2000), 385–407.Google Scholar

3 In the same way that many musicologists continue to discuss ‘features of composition and reception that are taken for granted as aspects of autonomous musical practice, as simply “the way music goes”‘. Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis, 1991), 16.Google Scholar

4 Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion and American Law (Ithaca, NY, 1990); quoted in Solie, ‘Introduction’, 2.Google Scholar

5 Philip Bohlman, ‘Musicology as a Political Act’, Journal of Musicology, 4 (1993), 411–36 (p. 419).Google Scholar

6 Solie, ‘Introduction’, 6.Google Scholar

7 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London, 1977), 27.Google Scholar

8 Musiqi-e assil literally means ‘pure music’ or ‘noble music’, and is also known as musiqi-e sonnati ('traditional music'). It is generally referred to outside Iran as Persian (or Iranian) classical music, but I prefer to use local terminology, particularly since in Iran the term ‘classical’ (klasik) denotes Western classical music. Most English-language writings refer to this music as ‘Persian’ classical music, and it is true that the music is historically rooted in Persian culture. However, over recent decades the music has broadened in scope and has come to be widely regarded as a national music (although the Persian associations are still strong). In Iran, this music is described as Irani ('Iranian'), and I follow this here. For background information on musiqi-e assil, including the history of the music, the reader is referred to Ella Zonis, Persian Classical Music: An Introduction (Cambridge, MA, 1973); Jean During, La musique iranienne: Tradition et évolution (Paris, 1984); and Hormoz Farhat, The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music (Cambridge, 1990). To clarify the distinction between ‘Iranian’ and ‘Persian’, the former indicates nationality, whilst the latter refers to the largest ethnic/linguistic group in Iran. Iran was of course called ‘Persia’ by Europeans and others for many centuries, but ‘Iran’ has been the internationally recognized name for the country since 1936 (and has been the local name for at least 2,500 years).Google Scholar

9 Another example of the ways in which our language is permeated with dualistic structures is the terminology ‘East'/'West'. The term ‘West’ usually refers to Europe (often excluding many of the former Eastern-bloc countries) and North America, and is based on an implied distinction between so-called developed/‘industrialized’ countries and the rest of the world. Some writers use the terminology ‘North'/'South’ to make the same distinction. Whilst the political significance of this way of dividing up the world has long been clear, such distinctions are becoming ever more blurred and problematic in an increasingly globalized world.Google Scholar

10 This repertory exists in a number of related versions and is essentially a collection of several hundred pieces known as gushehs (each of which has its own modal identity), which are arranged according to mode into the dastgāhs of Iranian music. The individual gushehs function rather in the manner of ‘fixed’ compositions, memorized by pupils and then used as the basis for creative performance.Google Scholar

11 Other commonly used terms include fel bedāheh (literally ‘spontaneously'), bedāheh khāni ('spontaneous singing') and bedāheh sarāi ('spontaneous recitation').Google Scholar

12 Edith Gerson-Kiwi, The Persian Doctrine of Dastga-Composition: A Phenomenological Study in Music Modes (Tel Aviv, 1963), 6.Google Scholar

13 John Beverley Nichols, Verdict on India (London, 1944), 134–6; quoted in R. Anderson Sutton, ‘Do Javanese Musicians Really Improvise?‘, In the Course of Performance: Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation, ed. Bruno Nettl with Melinda Russell (Chicago, 1998), 69–92 (p. 72).Google Scholar

14 According to Kramer, ‘music has been closely tied to the logic of alterity since the mid-eighteenth century at the latest’ (Classical Music, 35). There are also gender implications of the mind–body split created by the representation of Western composition as a cerebral activity. Thus, Lucy Green writes, ‘composition involves a metaphorical display of the power of mind. This cerebral power conflicts with patriarchal constructions of femininity to the extent that, when it is harnessed by women, it produces a threat to the sexual order.’ Music, Gender, Education (Cambridge, 1997), 88. Green discusses a number of ways in which women's music-making has been controlled by men. There are clear parallels with the kind of racial ‘othering’ discussed below. Like ‘ethnic others’, women were not considered capable of the kind of rational, cerebral thought required for composition. Just as colonial power was partly justified by appealing to an alleged cultural superiority, so McClary explains the rise of the ‘rational’ male composer as part of an attempt to control this arena and simultaneously to deny the role of the physical and sensual alongside the cerebral (Feminine Endings, 17).Google Scholar

15 There is, of course, an intersecting dualism at work here between performance based on a notated score (including the performance of such music ‘from memory') and performance without reference to notation. The former is often referred to as ‘interpretation’ whilst the latter is usually included under the improvisation ‘umbrella’, even though in many cases musicians work from a rigorously memorized repertory which functions very much like a notated score. Although it is not possible to discuss this particular dualism in detail here, it should be noted that many of the general points made with regard to the improvisation–composition paradigm can also be applied to the ‘interpretation of a score in performance'/'improvised performance’ dualism.Google Scholar

16 Leo Treitler, ‘Medieval Improvisation’, New Perspectives on Improvisation, ed. Bruno Nettl (The World of Music, 33 (1991)), 66–91 (pp. 66–7).Google Scholar

17 Ibid., 67.Google Scholar

18 Ibid., 80.Google Scholar

19 John Sloboda, The Musical Mind (Oxford, 1985), 149.Google Scholar

20 Stephen Blum, for example, reports that for much of the first half of the twentieth century, ‘Africans were presumed to be “incapable” of forming or using musical systems.’ ‘European Musical Terminology and the Music of Africa’, Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology, ed. Bruno Nettl and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago, 1991), 336 (p. 25). Moreover, the musical mapping of such discourses was not restricted to geographically distant ‘others’. For example, the association of improvisation with lack of control and order was expressed through the almost hysterical polemic against jazz in the United States between c.1920 and 1940. Merriam considers the ways in which jazz was perceived by the largely ‘white’ establishment of the time and how such perceptions were publicly expressed: ‘Jazz, then, was associated with crime, insanity, feeble-mindedness, and other ills as a co-symbol of the degradation of a nation; but it was also looked upon as the symbol and instrument of individual physical collapse… . In this period, too, jazz came to be regarded as the symbol of barbarism, primitivism, savagery and animalism… . The composer, Sir Hamilton Harty, worried that future historians “will see that in an age which considers itself musically enlightened we permit groups of jazz barbarians to debase and mutilate our history of classical music …”.’ Also, writing in the New York Times, ‘a Dr. Reisner added that “Jazz is a relic of barbarism. It tends to unseat reason and set passion free.”’ Alan Merriam, The Anthropology of Music (Evanston, 1964), 242–3. It was not simply that jazz was regarded as ‘black’ music, but there was a perceived lack of control and rational thought which threatened the very tenets of Western civilization. Once again the dualisms (barbarian/civilized, passion/reason and so on) and their associations are clear.Google Scholar

21 I paraphrase here from Tenzer, who uses this expression to describe the ‘othering’ of Bali by Western writers. Michael Tenzer, Gamelan gong kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music (Chicago, 2000), 435.Google Scholar

22 Richard Leppert, The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation and the History of the Body(Berkeley, 1993), 116–17.Google Scholar

23 Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London, 1978), 43, 95.Google Scholar

24 Ernst Ferand, Die Improvisation in der Musik (Zurich, 1938). Richard Taruskin describes improvisation as ‘nine-tenths of the Renaissance and Baroque musical icebergs’. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford, 1995), 61.Google Scholar

25 Stephen Blum, ‘Recognizing Improvisation’, In the Course of Performance, ed. Nettl with Russell, 27–45 (pp. 3640). Blum reports on the debate which surrounded the use of these terms at this time, as regards both their translation from one European language to another and the question of what kinds of musical activities they might suitably be applied to (ibid., 38–9). Elsewhere, he traces the growing distinction between composition in notation and composition in performance during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. See Blum, Stephen, ‘Composition’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edn, London, 2001), vi, 186–201 (pp. 192–3).Google Scholar

26 Taruskin talks of the ‘zealously “anti-improvisatory approach” of modern Mozart scholarship’ (Text and Act, 289): ‘for to admit a performance practice that exalts spontaneous creativity over work-preservation, and that when exercised at the highest level can actually threaten work-identity, would violate the most fundamental tenet of our classical music culture, that of Werktreue’ (ibid., 283). He also comments on the irony that the so-called ‘authenticity movement’ did not create a single good improviser.Google Scholar

27 Ideas about which have proved surprisingly enduring and of which there are many examples in the literature. Writing in 1916, for example, Oscar Sonneck opined that ‘both “the [native American] Indian's musical system” and the songs of American Negroes were “ethnomusically too different from our inherited European system” to permit meaningful interchange in musical life and musical scholarship’ (quoted in Blum, ‘European Musical Terminology’, 22). According to Blum, ‘discourse along these lines continued for many years to ignore the work of cultural anthropologists and folklorists, as well as writings on music produced by African-Americans’ (ibid.).Google Scholar

28 For further discussion of the ‘work-concept’, see Goehr, Lydia, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford, 1992), and Blum, ‘Composition’, 197–8.Google Scholar

29 Another problematic dualism which implies essential differences between music which is notated and that which is not. As Seeger points out, ‘in the first place, (music) writing can be learned only by oral-aural techniques; in the second, no conventional music writing can be read without them’. Charles Seeger, ‘The Music Compositional Process as a Function in a Nest of Functions and in Itself a Nest of Functions’, Studies in Musicology 1935–1975 (Berkeley, 1977), 139–67 (p. 154).Google Scholar

30 See ‘Improvisation, II: Western Art Music’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edn), xii, 98–128 (pp. 125–6).Google Scholar

31 An important exception to this was the influential work of Albert Lord (and his teacher, Milman Parry), who used evidence from the study of ‘oral formulas’ in Yugoslav epic songs to present novel ideas relating to the authorship and modes of composition and transmission employed in the Homer epics. Among other things, Lord argued that these formulas facilitated rapid composition in performance and made it unnecessary for musician-poets to memorize long epic works word for word. See Finnegan, Ruth, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context (Cambridge, 1977), 60.Google Scholar

32 Colles, H. C., ‘Extemporization or Improvisation’, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (5th edn, London, 1954), ii, 991–3 (p. 991).Google Scholar

33 Hubert Parry, ‘Composition’, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (5th edn), ii, 388–9.Google Scholar

34 Ingrid Monson, ‘Oh Freedom: George Russell, John Coltrane, and Modal Jazz’, In the Course of Performance, ed. Nettl with Russell, 149–68 (pp. 160, 163).Google Scholar

35 John Baily, ‘Ethnomusicological Perspective: Response to Sawyer's “Improvised Conversations”‘, Psychology of Music, 27 (1999), 208–11 (p. 208); Jeff Todd Titon, Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples (2nd edn, New York, 1992), 11.Google Scholar

36 For example, see R. Keith Sawyer, ‘Improvised Conversations: Music, Collaboration, and Development’, Psychology of Music, 27 (1999), 192–205, to whom Baily was responding in the quotation above. Similarly, Griffiths describes how this period marked an increasing experimentation with improvisatory practice by Western composers. See Griffiths, Paul, ‘Improvisation, II, 6: Western Art Music: The 20th Century’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edn), xii, 125. Corbett also considers the complex issues surrounding the orientalist discourses in the use of improvisation by contemporary experimental composers. See Corbett, John, ‘Experimental Oriental: New Music and Other Others’, Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, ed. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh (Berkeley, 2000), 163–86 (pp. 180–1).Google Scholar

37 Neil Sorrell and Ram Narayan, Indian Music in Performance: A Practical Introduction (Manchester, 1980), 113.Google Scholar

38 Ibid., 2.Google Scholar

39 As a result of which there is now a substantial body of writing on improvisation (particularly with reference to jazz and various types of Asian music), although not all explore the actual creative processes in detail. The reader is referred to (among others) Ferand, Die Improvisation, and Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music: An Anthology with an Historical Introduction (Cologne, 1961); Bruno Nettl with Bela Foltin, Jr, Daramad of Chahargah: A Study in the Performance Practice of Persian Music (Detroit, 1972); Bruno Nettl, ‘Thoughts on Improvisation: A Comparative Approach’, Musical Quarterly, 60 (1974), 119; David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand: The Organisation of Improvised Conduct (Cambridge, MA, 1978); Sorrell and Narayan, Indian Music; L'improvisation dans les musiques de tradition orale, ed. Bernard Lortat-Jacob (Paris, 1987); Jeff Pressing, ‘Improvisation: Methods and Models’, Generative Processes in Music: The Psychology of Performance, Improvisation and Composition, ed. John Sloboda (Oxford, 1988), 129–78; Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (2nd edn, London, 1992); Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago, 1994); New Perspectives on Improvisation, ed. Nettl (The World of Music, 33 (1991)); In the Course of Performance, ed. Nettl with Russell.Google Scholar

40 Judith Becker, Traditional Music in Modern Java: Gamelan in a Changing Society (Honolulu, 1980), 20; Bailey, Improvisation, 7; Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, 3; Ali Jihad Racy, ‘Improvisation, Ecstasy, and Performance Dynamics in Arabic Music’, In the Course of Performance, ed. Nettl with Russell, 95–112 (p. 103).Google Scholar

41 Sloboda, The Musical Mind, 138.Google Scholar

42 Ibid., 139, 149.Google Scholar

43 Similarly, according to Griffiths, the initial interest in breaking the boundaries between composer, improviser and performer in Euro-American contemporary music in the 1960s did not last long and ‘improvisation was rapidly reaffirmed as secondary to composition … once the 1960s had passed’ (Griffiths, ‘Improvisation, II, 6‘, 125).Google Scholar

44 Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, 17.Google Scholar

45 Whilst it has already been noted that some contemporary composers have used ‘improvised’ elements in their compositions, there is still a clear conceptual division between these two creative modes.Google Scholar

46 Mantle Hood, ‘Improvisation in the Stratified Ensembles of Southeast Asia’, Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology, 2 (1975), 2533 (p. 26).Google Scholar

47 Nettl, ‘Thoughts on Improvisation’, 1011.Google Scholar

48 Jean During, ‘Le point de vue du musicien: Improvisation et communication’, L'improvisation, ed. Lortat-Jacob, 33–44 (p. 34).Google Scholar

49 For example, Michael H. Goldsen, Charlie Parker Omnibook, Transcribed Exactly from his Recorded Solos (Atlantic Music Corporation, 1978), consists of transcriptions of improvisations by Charlie Parker from the 1940s and early 1950s.Google Scholar

50 Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, 97105.Google Scholar

51 John Rink, ‘Schenker and Improvisation’, Journal of Music Theory, 37 (1993), 154 (p. 2).Google Scholar

52 Ibid., 3.Google Scholar

53 Ibid., 41.Google Scholar

54 Hood, ‘Improvisation in the Stratified Ensembles of Southeast Asia’, 26.Google Scholar

55 Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, 221.Google Scholar

56 Ibid., 495.Google Scholar

57 Kartomi, Margaret J., ‘Musical Improvisations by Children at Play’, New Perspectives on Improvisation, ed. Nettl (The World of Music, 33 (1991)), 53–65 (pp. 55, 63).Google Scholar

58 Indeed, it might be argued that publications which focus on the theme of improvisation, bringing together writings on different traditions (for example Bailey, Improvisation; L'improvisation, ed. Lortat-Jacob; Nettl, The World of Music; In the Course of Performance, ed. Nettl with Russell), further reinforce the reification of ‘improvisation’ as a particular type of music different from ‘composition’.Google Scholar

59 Blum, ‘Composition’, 187–8.Google Scholar

60 Tenzer, Gamelan gong kebyar, 435.Google Scholar

61 Tenzer writes: ‘The linkage is an orientalism: another trope of the “timeless” East, recalling also Geertz's characterization of Balinese time as a “vectorless now”.‘ Ibid., 375; see Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), 404.Google Scholar

62 Kofi Agawu, ‘Representing African Music’, Critical Inquiry, 18 (1992), 245–66 (pp. 256, 249).Google Scholar

63 Agawu, ‘Representing African Music’, 266.Google Scholar

64 Minow, Making All the Difference, 3; quoted in Solie, ‘Introduction’, 2.Google Scholar

65 The term was first used in East Africa as an all-encompassing label to refer to migrant (and late settler) workers of South Asian origin. The eventual appropriation of this term in Britain as part of a process of empowerment and the subsequent emergence of a new British ‘Asian’ identity is discussed by Gerd Baumann in Contesting Culture: Discourses of Identity in Multi-Ethnic London (Cambridge, 1996), 149ff. Incidentally, this term continues to alienate those who originate from other parts of Asia and who do not identify with the category of ‘Asian’ as used in Britain today.Google Scholar

66 Gregory Smith, ‘In Quest of a New Perspective on Improvised Jazz: A View from the Balkans’, New Perspectives on Improvisation, ed. Nettl (The World of Music, 33 (1991)), 29–52 (pp. 31–2).Google Scholar

67 See in particular ibid., 38–9, 49.Google Scholar

68 Kramer, Classical Music, 266. The position of ‘other’ does of course have its advantages, such as the licence to deviate, but this is within a hierarchical framework in which it is always clear who is ‘on top’ (ibid., 62–3).Google Scholar

69 Monson, ‘Oh Freedom’, 156.Google Scholar

70 Quoted ibid., 157.Google Scholar

71 Ibid., 163.Google Scholar

72 Ibid., 162.Google Scholar

73 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London, 1993), 407–8.Google Scholar

74 The main focus of this article is a discussion of the orientalizing effects of Western discourses of creativity as they have been applied to ‘other’ musics, using specific examples from musiqi-e assil to illustrate the problematic nature of these discourses. Whilst the social, ‘ideological and cultural meanings attached to improvisation by performers and audiences’ (Monson, ‘Oh Freedom’, 149) within Iran itself are important (but poorly documented) aspects of the tradition, detailed discussion of this lies outside the scope and central focus of the current article. The main aim of Section II is to examine briefly the impact of the relatively recent dualistic discourses on the ways in which creativity is discussed and written about in musiqi-e assil and to establish the broader context for the analytical discussion which follows in Section III.Google Scholar

75 Blum, ‘Recognizing Improvisation’, 2836.Google Scholar

76 Ibid., 32.Google Scholar

77 The term badihe was in use by the twelfth century, but seems to have been applied primarily to the poetry which was being sung rather than to the music itself (ibid., 29).Google Scholar

78 Two factors are important here. From the early years of the twentieth century and with increased momentum during the Pahlavi period (1925–79), the social arena was dominated by a struggle between proponents of modernization and increased contact with the West on the one hand, and more traditional factions on the other. From the 1960s in particular, modernization and Westernization became closely linked in a discourse controlled through government institutions and later particularly through the media. Music was an integral part of this discourse, in which musiqi-e assil became a symbol of the traditional way of life and was generally represented as inferior to Western music, which was often referred to as musiqi-e ‘elmi ('scientific music'). Secondly, the association of notated composition with the cerebral was significant in a society in which the dualism of mind and body has a long history, and this further served to elevate the status of the composer working with notation. Many of these composers were (and still are) trained in Western techniques and styles of composition (including electro-acoustic music), and a number have written compositions for Western-style ensembles whilst drawing on Iranian influences in their music. Bruno Nettl, for example, discusses the work of Ali Reza Mashayekhi and Dariush Dolatshahi in The Radif of Persian Music: Studies of Structure and Cultural Context (Champaign, 1987), 125, and Kay Kaufman Shelemey profiles Reza Vali's 1998 Flute Concerto in Soundscapes: Exploring Music in a Changing World (New York, 2001), 251–6. A similar situation is found elsewhere in Asia. Tenzer, for example, discusses the emergence of Indonesian musik kontemporer beginning in the 1970s (Gamelan gong kebyar, 436–9).Google Scholar

79 During, ‘Le point de vue’, 34 (my translation).Google Scholar

80 Nettl with Foltin, Daramad of Chahargah, 12.Google Scholar

81 As discussed by Laudan Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation and Re-creation in Persian Classical Music’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of London, 1996), 128–31.Google Scholar

82 Indeed, some musicians have even experimented with bringing together Iranian music and these other traditions, as for example in the music of Avizheh (a group whose members compose and perform a ‘fusion’ of Iranian music and jazz) and Ghazal (Iranian and Indian classical music).Google Scholar

83 Not unlike the situation in modal jazz from the mid-1960s, as described above.Google Scholar

84 Nur Ali Borumand (n.d., but probably some time in the 1970s), quoted in Jean During with Zia Abdolbaghi and Dariush Safvat, The Art of Persian Music (Washington DC, 1991), 204–5. Sha'bani, writing in 1973, expresses similar concerns about the effects of improvisation on musiqi-e assil, particularly when practised by less experienced musicians. He lists five ‘problems’ with improvisation, including the claim that ‘the performer is not able to present a profound piece of work through improvising’. Aziz Sha'bani, Shenasai-e musiqi-e Iran: Usul-e nazari-e musiqi-e Iran (Understanding Iranian Music), iii (Shiraz, 1973), 32 (my translation).Google Scholar

85 See Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 151–4, for further discussion of this topic, which lies outside the scope of this article. Mohammad Reza Fayaz also discusses the role of Western musicologists in promoting notions of authenticity in Iran during the 1960s, in ‘Bazkhooni-e Esalat’ ('A Look at the Notion of Originality in Iranian Music'), Mahoor Music Quarterly, 1 (1998), 93112. The debate over the role and extent of creative performance in musiqi-e assil continues today, at a time when the radif has become central to quasi-ideological discourses of canonical control and authority by traditionalists, a position which is challenged through creative performance by many (particularly younger) musicians. For example, see Ghader, Sarmad, ‘Bedāheh va shirin navāzi’ (title translated as ‘Improvisation and Certain Techniques‘), Mahoor Music Quarterly, 5 (1999), 133–6.Google Scholar

86 Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 137–51, examines the ways in which creativity is discussed both by musicians and in the literature.Google Scholar

87 Faraj Sarkoohi, ‘Goftogoo ba Hossein Alizadeh’ (‘Interview with Hossein Alizadeh‘), Adineh, 39 (1989), 33–9 (pp. 35–6; my translation).Google Scholar

88 Nelly Caron and Dariouche Safvate, Iran: Les traditions musicales (Paris, 1966), 19, 129.Google Scholar

89 Zonis, Persian Classical Music, 98–9, 125.Google Scholar

90 For further discussion of the implications of this see Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 128–31, 149–50.Google Scholar

91 Fereydoun Joneydi, Zamine-ye shenākht-e musiqi-e Irāni (The Basis for Understanding Iranian Music) (Tehran, 1982), 185–93.Google Scholar

92 The recent establishment of two scholarly music journals is indicative of a growing musicological presence in Iran, something which also owes a great deal to the work of the Iranian musicologist Mohammad Taghi Massoudieh. Massoudieh studied in Germany and returned to Iran in the 1970s, where he remained until his untimely death in 1999. After his initial interest in musiqi-e assil, Massoudieh spent much of the post-1979 period working on the folk music traditions of Iran. Massoudieh was a significant influence on an emerging generation of Iranian musicologists.Google Scholar

93 It is interesting to consider the impact of historical and political events on the trajectory of a particular field of study. Much of the musicological literature on musiqi-e assil available to us now was published in the 1960s and 70s at a time when scholarly thought in this area was dominated both by the dualistic composition–improvisation paradigm and by a largely structuralist approach. It was not until the 1980s that ethnomusicologists became more widely interested in generative aspects of music-making, by which time the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the events which followed had cut short what had been a growing musicological interest in musiqi-e assil. For that reason, very few studies of performance practice in this music lie outside the predominantly structuralist and positivist approach of 1960s and 70s scholarship. An important exception is the work of Nettl, who has perhaps done more than any other ethnomusicologist to challenge dominant discourses on improvisation. It is significant that the very period when Nettl was developing his ideas on this subject (as crystallized in his 1974 article ‘Thoughts on Improvisation‘) was also the time when he was working on material collected in Iran during the late 1960s.Google Scholar

94 Zonis, Persian Classical Music, 98, 139–47.Google Scholar

95 Manuchehr Sadeghi, ‘Improvisation in Nonrhythmic Solo Instrumental Contemporary Persian Art Music’ (MA dissertation, California State College, Los Angeles, 1971), 6574 (p. 71).Google Scholar

96 During, La musique iranienne, 202 (During transliterates as bedā'i navāzi).Google Scholar

97 Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’. This study compares 30 different performances of dastgāh Segāh and four different versions of the radif of Segāh, in order to identify shared material and to explore the ways in which musicians generate new material in performance. The renditions of Segāh analysed in this study span a period from the 1960s to the late 1980s, comprise performances by musicians of different ages and training lineages, singing and playing different instruments, and include live performances, commercial recordings and Iranian radio broadcasts. The study explores various aspects of the music, ranging from large-scale sectional organization right through to details of motivic structure.Google Scholar

98 Gerson-Kiwi, The Persian Doctrine; Mohammad Taghi Massoudieh, ‘Āvāz-e sur: Zur Melodiebildung in der Persischen Kunstmusik’ ('Āvāz-e shur: Melodic Construction in Persian Art Music') (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cologne, 1968); Eckart Wilkens, Künstler und Amateure im Persischen Santurspiel: Studien zum Gestaltungsvermögen in der iranischen Musik (Regensburg, 1967); Sadeghi, ‘Improvisation'; Laura Jafran Jones, ‘The Persian Santur: A Description of the Instrument together with Analysis of the Four Dastgāh’ (MA dissertation, University of Washington, 1971); Nettl with Foltin, Daramad of Chahargah; Bruno Nettl, ‘Notes on Persian Classical Music of Today: The Performance of the Hesar Section as Part of Dastgāh Chahargah’, Orbis musicae, 1 (1972), 175–92; idem, ‘Aspects of Form in the Instrumental Performance of the Persian Āvāz’, Ethnomusicology, 18 (1974), 405–14; Jean During, ‘L'improvisation dans la musique d'art iranienne’, L'improvisation, ed. Lortat-Jacob, 135–41; Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’; idem, ‘The Song of the Nightingale: Processes of Improvisation in Dastgāh Segāh (Iranian Classical Music)‘, British Journal of Ethnomusicology, 7 (1998), 69–116.Google Scholar

99 See Khatschi, Khatschi, Der Dastgāh (Regensburg, 1962); idem, ‘Das Intervallbildungsprinzip des Persischen Dastgāh Shur’, Jahrbuch für musikalische Volks- und Völkerkunde, 3 (1967), 7084; Farhat, The Dastgāh Concept; Gen'ichi Tsuge, ‘Āvāz: A Study of the Rhythmic Aspects in Classical Iranian Music’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Wesleyan University, 1974); Nettl, The Radif of Persian Music.Google Scholar

100 Caron and Safvate, Iran; Zonis, Persian Classical Music; During, La musique iranienne and The Art of Persian Music.Google Scholar

101 Nettl, The Radif of Persian Music; Farhat, The Dastgāh Concept (a reworking of his Ph.D. dissertation, ‘The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Classical Music’, University of California at Los Angeles, 1966).Google Scholar

102 See During, La musique iranienne; ‘L'improvisation dans la musique d'art iranienne’, 139; and The Art of Persian Music.Google Scholar

103 Wilkens, Künstler und Amateure; Massoudieh, ‘Āvāz-e sur’; Jones, The Persian Santur; Nettl with Foltin, Daramad of Chahargah; Nettl, ‘Notes on Persian Classical Music’ and ‘Aspects of Form’; Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’ and ‘The Song of the Nightingale’.Google Scholar

104 For example, Sadeghi, ‘Improvisation’, 95–120; Zonis, Persian Classical Music, 104–25.Google Scholar

105 See Gerson-Kiwi, The Persian Doctrine, 38, 42–3; Sadeghi, ‘Improvisation’, 80–5; Nettl with Foltin, Daramad of Chahargah; Nettl, ‘Notes on Persian Classical Music’, ‘Aspects of Form’ and The Radif of Persian Music.Google Scholar

106 Sadeghi, ‘Improvisation’, 86.Google Scholar

107 Much of Nettl's work in this area appeared in a series of publications in the 1970s (including Daramad of Chahargah, ‘Notes on Persian Classical Music’ and ‘Aspects of Form‘), some of which were reprinted in the collected volume The Radif of Persian Music. Whilst the latter is primarily a study of the radif, there is some discussion of improvisation, particularly with reference to dastgāh Chāhārgāh (based on material originally published in Daramad of Chahargah). The chapter on Māhur also discusses the improvisational choices of musicians, but with regard to the selection and ordering of individual pieces (gushehs) within the performance rather than the internal details of each gusheh.Google Scholar

108 Nettl, The Radif of Persian Music, 64.Google Scholar

109 Sadeghi does include a brief analysis of two performances, the second by the author himself (‘Improvisation’, 130–5). This largely focuses on sectional aspects of the music, although there is some mention of motifs and various techniques discussed earlier by Sadeghi.Google Scholar

110 The radif of Mussa Ma'rufi, published in Mehdi Barkechli, La musique traditionnelle de l'Iran (Tehran, 1963). Zonis, Persian Classical Music, 115.Google Scholar

111 Sadeghi, ‘Improvisation’, 75–135, 136.Google Scholar

112 Nettl with Foltin, Daramad of Chahargah, 12.Google Scholar

113 See Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 115–20.Google Scholar

114 See Nooshin, ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 8091.Google Scholar

115 See Nettl, The Radif of Persian Music, 21–34, for an overview. Caron and Safvate, Iran, 112, and Sadeghi, ‘Improvisation’, 56–7, refer to the longer and more prominent gushehs of each dastgāh as shāh-gusheh (literally ‘king gushehs‘); at the other extreme are the shorter and less important gushehs. Between the two lies a range of gusheh types which writers such as Farhat, Sadeghi and During have classed in a series of tiered categories, but which Nettl characterizes as a continuum (The Radif of Persian Music, 24–9).Google Scholar

116 See Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 228–84, and ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 98–9. Practising musicians also acknowledge a hierarchy, but rarely discuss the implications of this for creative processes.Google Scholar

117 See in particular the work of Gerson-Kiwi (The Persian Doctrine), Sadeghi (‘Improvisation’, 75–135), Nettl with Foltin (Daramad of Chahargah) and Zonis (Persian Classical Music, 104–25).Google Scholar

118 Treitler, ‘Medieval Improvisation’, 77.Google Scholar

119 Nooshin, ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 96–7.Google Scholar

120 For further discussion of the role of formulas within ‘oral’ traditions see Foley, John Miles, The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology (Bloomington, 1988), and Benjamin Stolz and Richard Shannon, Oral Literature and the Formula (Ann Arbor, 1976). With specific reference to music, James Kippen discusses formulaic patterns in the context of North Indian tabla playing in The Tabla of Lucknow: A Cultural Analysis of a Musical Tradition (Cambridge, 1988), and Treitler examines possible parallels between the transmission of the Homeric epics and Gregorian chant in ‘Homer and Gregory: The Transmission of Epic Poetry and Plainchant’, Musical Quarterly, 9 (1974), 333–72. Smith discusses the use of formulas by jazz musicians (‘In Quest of a New Perspective‘), as does Berliner (Thinking in Jazz, esp. pp. 227–30), who also refers the reader to other writings on the subject (ibid., 799–800, note 4).Google Scholar

121 Smith, ‘In Quest of a New Perspective’, 38.Google Scholar

122 Clearly, music created using notation also draws on a wide range of formulas. See Rudolph Réti, The Thematic Process in Music (London, 1961), Alan Walker, A Study in Musical Analysis (London, 1962), and Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, ed. Gerald Strang with Leonard Stein (London, 1967).Google Scholar

123 See Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 137–43.Google Scholar

124 Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 1998), 70.Google Scholar

125 It is interesting to note in this regard that although many of the authors mentioned earlier worked closely with practising musicians – Ella Zonis with Ruhollah Khaleqi, for example; Bruno Nettl with Nur Ali Borumand; Jean During with Dariush Talai and Dariush Safvate; while Manuchehr Sadeghi is himself a performing musician – their writings include little discussion of cognitive aspects of performance.Google Scholar

126 Whilst it is clearly not possible to present a detailed introduction to musiqi-e assil here, nor to examine aspects of the tradition such as learning processes and performance contexts (for which the reader is referred to Zonis, Persian Classical Music, During, La musique iranienne, and Farhat, The Dastgāh Concept), for the purposes of this discussion it is necessary for the reader to have some understanding of the terms radif, dastgāh and gusheh. As explained earlier, the radif is the complete canonic repertory of musiqi-e assil, memorized precisely over many years (usually in a number of related versions), and this knowledge forms the basis for later creative performance. The radif itself comprises 12 dastgāhs, which are collections of modally related pieces known as gushehs. The number of individual gushehs varies according to the dastgāh, but there are usually between 25 and 30 gushehs in each dastgāh. An improvised performance usually remains within one dastgāh, although there is a technique known as morakab navāzi in which musicians use modally related gushehs as ‘bridges’ to move between dastgāhs. In performance, musicians select and present a number of gushehs from the chosen dastgāh. The length of a performance depends on a number of factors including context, the number of gushehs selected and the extent of the musician's improvisations. Typically, nowadays, a performance will last somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour. Whilst performances may include ‘precomposed’ ensemble compositions, particularly at the beginnings and ends of performances, the discussion of this article will focus on the central section, known as āvāz (literally ‘voice’, ‘song’, a term used to refer to both vocal and instrumental renditions), which is usually performed solo (or with a vocalist accompanied by a solo instrumentalist) and generally constitutes the main part of any performance. In the case of ensemble performances, instrumentalists usually take it in turn to play solo and to accompany the vocalist (where there is one) in the āvāz section.Google Scholar

127 A useful analogy to the dastgāh/gusheh relationship is the series of modally related pieces in a Baroque suite. However, a dastgāh performance also involves a gradual rise in pitch (through the progressively higher tonal centre of each successive gusheh), with the music reaching a pitch climax towards the end of the performance before returning to the opening ‘home’ mode of the dastgāh at the end. Therefore, a complete dastgāh performance is usually ‘arch-shaped’ in contour.Google Scholar

128 Named after a town in south-eastern Iran, gusheh zābol is usually performed immediately after the opening darāmad section in Segāh; gusheh mokhālef is usually heard about halfway through the dastgāh.Google Scholar

129 In the case of zābol: shāhed: G; āqāz, ist and finalis E-koron; main tetrachord: E-koron to A-koron. In the case of mokhālef: shāhed and āqāz: C; ist: usually C, but phrases may also end on G or A-koron; finalis: G; main tetrachord: G–C. In musiqi-e assil, the octave is divided into 17 intervals, and the scales include pitches known as koron (approximately half-flat), such that E-koron lies between and . For example, on the highest string of the tār (long-necked lute), the whole-tone intervals C–D, D–E, F–G, G–A and A–B are each divided into three: e.g. C, D♭, D-koron, etc. However, it is important to note that these ‘microtones’ are never used on their own, but only in combination with other intervals to create intervals slightly larger than a semitone or a minor third. The semitone (E–F and B–C) is therefore the smallest interval in this music. For detailed discussion of the history of, and debates over, the scale systems of Iranian music, see Farhat, The Dastgāh Concept, 7–18. As already stated, Iranian music has a rich vocabulary of technical terminology relating to aspects of mode. These are as follows: shāhed (literally ‘witness') indicates the tonal centre of the gusheh; āqāz (literally ‘start') indicates the pitch on which phrases within the gusheh usually begin; ist (literally ‘stop') refers to the pitch on which phrases usually (but not always) end; finalis is used by some writers (but not by musicians) to indicate the final pitch of a gusheh. For further discussion see Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 171–2.Google Scholar

130 The aim here is not to analyse zābol or mokhālef (nor to discuss the relationship between radif and performance), for which the reader is referred to Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 238–44, 267–9 and 273–5, and ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 102–10. For further transcriptions of complete gushehs see ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 81–3, 87–9 and 104–6. With the exception of Example 10, all the transcriptions in this article are from live performances or studio recordings, and are my own.Google Scholar

131 Since this level of compositional detail is rarely discussed by musicians (or written about in the literature), I have developed my own terms and categories for discussing and distinguishing between different compositional techniques. See Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 292–307, for an explanation of the ways in which I have identified and categorized different types of extended repetition (A1, B1, and so on). The aim was not to replicate musicians' cognitive processes, but, on the basis of many years of studying this music, to identify and suggest possible reasons for patterns which emerged during analysis. Extended repetition is also discussed in Nooshin, ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 91–102, where the examples provide evidence for the abstraction of material and techniques mentioned above. Nettl and Foltin are the only authors to mention this technique: ‘Typically, a motif may be repeated twice, perhaps at different pitch levels, then expanded, after which a section of the expanded form is subjected to treatment similar to that described for the first motif’ (Daramad of Chahargah, 33). However, there is no discussion of how the technique is applied or varied by musicians in the context of specific performances.Google Scholar

132 See Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 292–5.Google Scholar

133 See Nooshin, ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 109–10.Google Scholar

134 See sound clips 1–2 at <>. Extracts from performances 1 and 2 (see Appendix B) respectively..+Extracts+from+performances+1+and+2+(see+Appendix+B)+respectively.>Google Scholar

135 See sound clips 3–7 at <>. Extracts from performances 3, 2, 4, 5 and 6 (see Appendix B) respectively..+Extracts+from+performances+3,+2,+4,+5+and+6+(see+Appendix+B)+respectively.>Google Scholar

136 See sound clips 8–12 at <>. Extracts from performances 3, 7, 8, 8 and 9 (see Appendix B) respectively..+Extracts+from+performances+3,+7,+8,+8+and+9+(see+Appendix+B)+respectively.>Google Scholar

137 Superscript (i) indicates that statement (2) of the initial idea is varied in relation to statement (1). Superscript (ii) indicates that the phrase extension occurs on (2) rather than (3).Google Scholar

138 This section is almost identical with section (1) in Example 1(b), from the same performance (and the same musician), apart from the fact that the main motif (x) (labelled as motif (y) in Example 2(b)) is slightly varied.Google Scholar

139 See Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 319–44, for further discussion of this.Google Scholar

140 See sound clip 13 at <>. Extracts from performance 8 (see Appendix B)..+Extracts+from+performance+8+(see+Appendix+B).>Google Scholar

141 See sound clip 14 at <>. Extracts from performance 2 (see Appendix B)..+Extracts+from+performance+2+(see+Appendix+B).>Google Scholar

142 See sound clip 15 at <>. Extracts from performance 1 (see Appendix B)..+Extracts+from+performance+1+(see+Appendix+B).>Google Scholar

143 Sequences are described here according to the number of ‘stages’ (or steps) involved (two-stage, three-stage, and so on).Google Scholar

144 See sound clips 16–17 at <>. Extracts from performances 10 and 3 respectively (see Appendix B)..+Extracts+from+performances+10+and+3+respectively+(see+Appendix+B).>Google Scholar

145 See Nooshin, ‘The Song of the Nightingale’, 96–7.Google Scholar

146 The only relevant terminology I have come across in this regard is the expression motif gardooni (literally ‘spinning out/turning a motif'), which some musicians use to refer to the development of motivic ideas in performance (see Nooshin, ‘The Processes of Creation’, 150).Google Scholar

147 In order to give the reader some idea of material in the canonic radif, which pupils spend so many years memorizing, Example 10 presents gusheh zābol from the taught radif of Nur Ali Borumand.Google Scholar

148 Tenzer, Gamelan gong kebyar, 427.Google Scholar

149 Ibid., 419–32.Google Scholar

150 Kramer, Classical Music, 38–9, 41.Google Scholar

151 See Kuper, Adam, Culture: The Anthropologists' Account (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 247.Google Scholar

152 Agawu, ‘Representing African Music’, 261.Google Scholar

153 Tenzer, Gamelan gong kebyar, 434. Tenzer makes these comments in the context of discussing the ways in which Bali is promoted as an exoticized tourist destination.Google Scholar

154 Kramer, Classical Music, 49.Google Scholar

155 Williams, ‘Musicology and Postmodernism’, 391.Google Scholar