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"Calligraphies"; Three Persian String Quartets by Reza Vali

By Pejman Akbarzadeh (Source: CHN)
The Pennsylvania-based Reza Vali is one of the very few Persian (Iranian) composers in the West who has had the chance to have his works performed by prestigious ensembles and orchestras around the world. He was born in 1952, studied at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, Vienna Music Academy, and the University of Pittsburgh. Vali has been a faulty member of the school of music at Carnegie Mellon University since 1988. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as the Outstanding Emerging Artist for which he received the Creative Achievement Award.

Reza Vali
The previous CDs of Reza Vali’s works which have been released in the United States include “Persian Folklore” (performed by Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestra) and “Flute Concerto” (performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project).
Vali’s latest CD is entitled “Calligraphies” and is released by the Albany Records. It includes three string quartets which were composed in 1992, 2000 and 2001. The quartets are inspired by Persian traditional as well as folk music:
String Quartet No. 2
String Quartet No. 2 was written for and dedicated to Cuarteto Latinoamericano and was first performed in Pittsburgh on April 7, 1992 by Cuarteto Latinoamericano. This work demarcates a new period in Vali’s music: a departure from the modernist musical aesthetic which dominated his works during the 1980s and a gravitating toward a tonal-modal based musical syntax profoundly influenced by Persian folk music.
String Quartet No. 2 follows the classical quartet form. The first and the fourth movements are in sonata form. The second movement is a Scherzo, and the third movement is a slow movement titled Funebre. All four movements are interrelated. The basic structural element of the entire piece is a motivic cell of a half step (E-F) which is heard at the beginning of the first movement. This motive is expanded, transposed, and superimposed upon itself throughout the first movement.
In the second movement, a perpetual motion based on the basic cell creates the accompanying background for a folk song played by the first violin. The solo violin emerges again in the middle section to play an anguished improvisation on a folk melody.

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The third movement, Funebre, is written in memory of the composer’s father.  Persian/Middle Eastern and European/Western concepts of "grieving for the deceased" are continuously superimposed throughout Funebre. The solo violin represents the passionate, wailing, and dramatic aspect of grief, which is common across the Middle East, whereas the string accompaniment represents the subdued, somber, and inward feeling of grief which is common in Western cultures. The pitch structure also represents this superimposition of two cultures. The solo violin lines are continuously Persian/Middle Eastern whereas the string accompaniment plays "Tristan" harmonies throughout the movement.
The fourth movement is a summary of all the compositional elements of the quartet. The basic cell E-F is expanded to E-F-G which becomes the opening motive of the movement. In addition, motives and themes of the previous movements are presented and juxtaposed throughout the fourth movement.  In the coda, the string instruments ascend to their highest registers converging on a unison "F" before concluding on the note "E" and therefore restoring, in retrograde, the basic cell E-F. 
Calligraphies and String Quartet No. 3 also denote aesthetic and stylistic shifts in Reza Vali’s music. In these pieces, the composer has moved away from the Western musical system (e.g., Equal Temperament tuning and Western forms) and has based the structures of these compositions on the Persian (Iranian) musical system, the Dastgah.
String Quartet No. 3
String Quartet No. 3 was commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and written for Cuarteto Latinoamericano. The commissioning of the quartet was sponsored by Mrs. Faria Vahdat-Dretler in memory of the founder of Tehran Symphony Orchestra, Parviz Mahmoud. It was first performed by Cuarteto Latinoamericano in Tucson on February 6, 2002.
The musical material of the composition is derived from Persian traditional music. The modal characteristics of the piece, as well as the tuning, rhythm, and form, relate to the Persian modal system, the Dastgah. The composition consists of three continuous movements (Largo, Molto Allegro, Lento) played without interruption.
The entire string quartet is based on the Persian mode of Nava which is one of the oldest modes of the Persian modal system. This mode is elaborated throughout the first movement by the solo viola.
The second movement is based on a folk dance. The tempo is fast and asymmetrical. Although the second movement sounds Western, it is entirely derived from permutations of different segments of the Nava mode.
The third movement is a variation of the first movement. It refers back to the Nava mode. The quartet as a whole elaborates different parts of the Nava mode which were stated by the solo viola in the first movement.
Calligraphies was written for Cuarteto Latinoamericano and completed in July 1999. It was premiered by Cuarteto Latinoamericano in Mexico City on May 18, 2000 as part of the International Forum for New Music Festival.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano

The musical material of the composition is entirely derived from Persian traditional music. The tuning, rhythm, form, as well as polyphonic constructions (such as imitation, inversion, retrogradation) relate to the Persian modal system, the Dastgah. The basic mode of the Calligraphies is the Persian mode of Shoor. 
Calligraphy No. 1 is based on a short melodic/rhythmic segment called Hazin.
The name of Calligraphy No. 2 (Zand), as well as its modal characteristics, is derived from the Persian mode of Bayat-e Zand. Calligraphy No. 3 is based on an asymmetrical rhythmic cycle (called Aksak) which is found in the folk music of
Persia (Iran), Turkey, and other countries across the Near East.
Cuarteto Latinoamericano, the performer of the pieces in the CD, was recently nominated for two Grammy Awards. This ensemble performs both classical and contemporary repertoire, and has specialized in performing the works of composers from the Americas.
About the author: Pejman Akbarzadeh is a 26-year old pianist and writer in Tehran. He is a member of "Artists Without Frontiers" ( and representative of "Persian Gulf Online Organization" ( in Persia (Iran).

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