Parviz Meshkatian on the Radif of Persian Classical Music

Although music is an international language, every culture has its own musical dialect. Musical communication, like oral communication, evolves depending on the historical and social necessities of each culture.

The compilation of the essentials of classical, or traditional music of Iran has been attributed to the family of Agha Ali Akbar Farahani, and especially to Ali Akbar's sons Agha Hosseingholi and particularly Mirza Abdollah (d. 1918). This collection of all the materials which have been communicated and preserved by oral tradition, through many generations by the old masters, is called the Radif. Comparing the Radif with present-day folk music of Iran clearly shows how the scales and melodic characteristics of most goushes (melodic structures in the Radif) have many similarities to the melodies of the music of various regions of Iran.

The Radif can be divided into 5 different tonalities as follows:1.Mâhur (close to Major), 2.Homâyoun (close to Minor), 3.Shur, 4.Segâh, 5.Châhârgâh

The five tonalities of the Radif are divided into a total of 12 groups called dastgâh:

1. Dastgâh Mâhur1. Close to Major:
1. Dastgâh Homâyoun

2. Dastgâh Râstpânjgâh

2. Close to Minor:
2. Dastgâh Bayât-e Esfâhân

3. Ancient tonalities:
1. Dastgâh Shur

2. Dastgâh Abuatâ

3. Dastgâh Bayât-e Tork

4. Dastgâh Afshâri

5. Dastgâh Dashti

6. Dastgâh Navâ

4. Segâh Tonality:
1. Dastgâh Segâh

5. Châhârgâh Tonality:
1. Dastgâh Châhârgâh

These 12 dastgâhs are subdivided into 7 principle and 5 secondary dastgâhs:

Principle Dastgâhs:1-Shur, 2-Mâhur, 3-Homâyoun, 4-Navâ, 5-Segâh, 6-Châhârgâh, 7-Râstpanjgâh

Secondary Dastgâhs:1-Abuatâ, 2-Bayât-e Tork, 3-Afshâri, 4-Dashti, 5-Bayât-e Esfâhân

The first four secondary dastgâhs are derived from Dastgâh Shur and the fifth one, Bayât-e Esfâhân, is derived from Dastgâh Homâyoun. All the dastgâhs are made up of smaller groups, the maqâms (which are similar to modes in Western terminology).

The smallest elements in the dastgâh are the goushes (melodies). Among the goushes there are a few which, in the sequence of playing, change the tonality of the music, and these pivotal goushes usually have the same name as the maqâm (mode) in which they are played. Therefore, the melodic hierarchy in Persian classical music, goingfrom the general to the specific, is as follows:

Radif - Tonality - Dastgâh - Maqâm - Gousheh

The various maqâms which follow each other are all connected to the main dastgâh by a specific melody called foroud (literally "landing"). In every maqâm (mode) in a dastgâh there are three main notes which have specific functions:

1. Shâhed Note - The shâhed note (literally "witness") represents the center of the melody and all melodic movements revolve around this note.

2. Variable Note - The pitch of the variable note can change from a quarter to half a step. (Usually the sharpened note is played in ascending melodies and the original note is played in descending melodies.)

3. Ist Note - The ist note (literally "stop") is where the melody temporarily ends.

There are several similar goushes which are common in different dastgâhs, and can be used to make transitions from one dastgâh to another. There are also times that such a gousheh does not exist and if there is a need to switch dastgâhs, the musician must improvise a melody, according to his or her own taste and ability, and such that the change is not too abrupt and sounds pleasant to the ear. Such modulations are especially useful in singing where the vocalist is free to use any gousheh in any dastgah to better express the meaning of a poem. This way of singing or playing is called Morakab-Khâni (compound singing) or Morakab Navâzi (compound playing).

Since spontaneous creation is an inseparable element of the music of the east, and especially of Iran, the performer who has reached a high level of virtuosity is able to perform in a vast range of expressive manners. In other words, the musician may always perform the Radif of Mâhur in a generally similar form and sonic space, however, depending on one's mood and ability to create in the moment, one could give very different performances of Mâhur. Improvisation is this unique interpretation of tonality which in fact is the reflection of the musician's artistic vision, and emotional and spiritual necessities. Thus, each and every musician is able to discover and develop his or her own improvising and performing style.

The music of a culture, just like its language, goes through social and regional changes. The evolution is first brought about by the necessities of the society and later analyzed. Tradition is not a concrete and predefined concept, however, the needs of a society in thepassage of history change what is perceived as old or new. Therefore, the traditional music of a region will survive fruitfully not only when it expresses the current state of its people, but also when it is capable of shedding light on future paths. This is the traditional or classical musician's responsibility.

Parviz Meshkatian, 1993
Translated by Shahrokh Yadegari
Excerpted from the liner notes of KCD-108 Dawn