Iran is probably not the first place one thinks of for electro-acoustic music. To be fair to our own prejudices, the two artists represented on Sub Rosa’s latest collection and singled out for their last compilation Persian Electronic Music: Yesterday and Today 1966-2006, have had significant contact with the West. Composer Alireza Mashayekhi studied electronic and computer music in the Netherlands, and Ata Ebtekar, also known as Sote, lived in San Francisco for 15 years.
Ornamentalism, despite its somewhat confusing title, is not a collaboration between the two but a new work by Ebtekar that disfigures and distorts many of Mashayekhi’s recent non-electronic works. These are executed with the latter composer’s blessing, as well as his orchestra on loan. Those outside the world of art music would probably call reconsideration a “remix” album, but Ebtekar refers to his treatments as “electrocutions”, a somewhat subversive moniker given Iran’s penchant for capital punishment. Still, this is probably an appropriate descriptor, as the tapes, oscillators, synthesizers, samplers, and other tools allow for an organic human-machine interface to materialize through the Muslim gauze of Mashayekhi’s constructions.
The processed orchestral sounds have an eerie sci-fi feel to them, not unlike Matthew Herbert’s facilitation of big-band music in his own work. “Little Tales 4point5”, the first of four interpolations of “Little Tales”, gets progressively more abstract as the disc continues and is at times like Carl Stalling imagined as a cybernetic beast, the cartoon-like violence of the digital sounds reacting against silence and circumstance with what can only be described as madcap lunacy. The Middle East influence of the album’s orchestrations is muddled, as it occasionally shows hints of flavor under the bursting electrical sockets on “Phonata Opus II remod” and “Tomus” (Mashayekhi has divided his time between music reflecting his heritage and multicultural preoccupations).
Some tracks on the album are easier to listen to than others, though Ebtekar can be thanked for the rare avant-garde quality of brevity on most tracks. Two such pieces don’t even exceed the 25-second mark. In a culture such as Tehran’s, a track like “Pearly Gates” likely won’t be taken as much other than a critique, as it’s definitely not as inviting as one might expect Jannah to be. There’s a host of demonically dark material that Pita, Prurient, or Xenakis would surely admire, and at the very least, credit should be given to Ebtekar for taking his sounds to places. Ornamentalism is a fascinating treatise on the universality of atonal noise and the decaying barriers wrought by technology.