At first glance, this particular Sub Rosa release looks like yet another anthology exploring the onset and evolution of electronic music, this time through the lens of a specific nationality. The release is called Persian Electronic Music: Yesterday and Today 1966-2006, a title that implies a thorough exploration of Iran’s most notable electronic artists throughout the last 40 years. One would also assume, via the title, that there would be more than two artists through which that exploration would take place. Not so — the small print on the cover actually identifies the two artists that this release is exploring: Alireza Mashayekhi, an early electronic pioneer, and Ata Ebtekar, who also records as Sote, here for the purpose of demonstrating the Persian electronic music of today.
Past even this little bit of oddness, a quick look inside at the first page of the wonderful liner notes included with Persian Electronic Music reveals something of an incongruity. Specifically, Mashayekhi’s CD is made up of pieces that he’d written throughout his career, as evidenced by the dates. The dates of Mashayekhi’s output as indicated here range from 1966 until 1982, a large span of 17 years that portrays the evolution of the artist, as he starts by breaking free of the molds that his predecessors built for him, and continues through unflinching experimentation to stretch the boundaries of what music is and what it can be. It’s very much in the realm of the modern electronic classical composers (the classical connection driven home by the inclusion of opus numbers), following in the footsteps of the experimentation of Cage and the musique concrète of Schaeffer and Varèse. Ebtekar’s portion of the release, however, looks as though it’s simply 13 “songs”, all probably composed around the same time, put together on a CD. They are not dated, and there are no particular indications as to why these examples of Ebtekar were any more symbolic of Persian electronic music than any other. It’s as if the second half of this release is simply a new Sote album.
There is one other, perhaps more minor bit of confusion that comes into play once the CDs begin spinning. The back of the CD contains the following description of the contents within:
From ALIREZA MASHAYEKHI to ATA EBTEKAR/SOTE the quantum leap of the very unknown electronic music composed in Iran from the Sixties till today.
Past the idea that the description is a fragment masquerading as a sentence, the notable portion of such a description is the use of the term “quantum leap”, as though the Persian electronic music of today was so far beyond that of its forbears as to be virtually unrecognizable as a derivative of such. The aural evidence, however, proves otherwise. The “quantum leap” in musical thought, as it turned out, was long before Ebtekar, and likely even before Mashayekhi had even begun to think about these compositions. Despite the difference of slightly better production and the evident use of more modern equipment, Ebtekar and Mashayekhi are often of a singular mind, combining noise and sound manipulation with the traditional instrumentation and melodic qualities of their homeland. In fact, it’s often the case that, given any track from the set (other than the most blatantly obvious of Ebtekar’s digital manipulations), one would be hard-pressed to tell if it was a Mashayekhi or an Ebtekar composition.
Despite all of the confusion, however, the music on Persian Electronic Music is fascinating. Mashayekhi’s output in particular is a wonderful listen, perhaps because of the wider scope that his body of work is given. Things like the stark contrast between “Shur” (from 1966) and “Mithra” (from 1982), which open the disc, are fascinating to listen to. Despite both of those works following similar templates — that is, they are both extended, beatless, often drone-esque compositions featuring traditional instrumentation and scalar patterns of the region — the subtlety and melodicism of “Mithra” is an obvious development over the instruments ‘n noise configuration of “Shur”. “East-West”, which, as its name suggests, intends to merge the conflicting sensibilities of the two hemispheres, turns out to be something positively barren and off-putting (in the best of ways). “Stratosphaere”, for its part, uses various bits of percussion at its base, coming up with something both of and ahead of its time via dated electronic effects and sound manipulation techniques.
In stripping away the educational / archival aspect of the release, Ebtekar’s side comes off as far less interesting. He is just as adept as Mashayekhi at making noise, and it’s true that he does merge that noise with sounds indicative of the geographical region in question, but none of it feels meaningful, nor is it groundbreaking at this point. Sure, the tracks do what they say they do, but when the descriptions of the tracks are as generic as some of the ones given to Ebtekar (example: the description of “Cry” reads “Based on an old, Iranian folk song.”), it’s difficult to see the point. The digital effects and glitchy touches in tracks like “Lovaz” and the frenetic opener “Miniature Tone” are nice, but somewhat uninspiring, and “Synthetic Overture (Satan’s Lullaby)” comes off as interesting more for the lovely traditional melody than for anything Ebtekar has done to it.
Despite the relative disappointment of the Sote side of Persian Electronic Music, however, the package as a whole is usually interesting, and the mere inclusion of Mashayekhi’s work makes the set worth more than a simple cursory glance. When one thinks of the music of the Middle East, one typically tends toward thoughts of traditional instrumentation, of tars and tonbaks, perhaps, and while those are present here, it would have been difficult to imagine the ways in which they would be used by these composers before hearing this release. Regardless of the flaws in execution, Sub Rosa is to be commended for releasing these archival and educational works, compilations that so often turn out to be, as a whole, even more fascinating than the listener would typically expect. In this, at least, Persian Electronic Music is no exception.