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Lily Afshar's guitar sojourn in Iran

By Mostafa Mousavi Sabet
TEHRAN, June 13 (Mehr News Agency) -- At the foot of Tehran's northern mounts in Velenjak, Lily Afshar's family still lives in a flat where they lend a room to the head of guitar studies at the University of Memphis in Tennessee for her master classes for Tehran's guitar aficionados.

Lily Afshar
It is difficult to imagine that Afshar, who once was a student of Andrés Segovia, is happy about having to hold courses in such a space. However, music teachers prefer this experience to dealing with the official restrictions on holding music courses.


Every year, Afshar picks up her guitar, packs here bags, and leaves Memphis for her motherland to entertain her compatriots with some performances, to hold courses for classical guitarists, and finally, if possible, to call on her relatives.


A few years ago she criticized classical guitar playing in Iran, saying that she planned to contribute to the development of the genre in her homeland.


She is currently in Tehran to conduct another series of master classes as well as to perform concerts arranged for her sojourn in Iran.


Afshar will be performing solo concerts at Tehran's Niavaran Cultural Center on June 14 and 15 and then the Vienna-based Iranian flutist Forugh Karimi will join her for duet performances at Vahdat Hall on July 7 and 8.


She is also scheduled to do a concert tour of Iran, with performances in Gorgan, Mashhad, and Shiraz.


"I have some contacts here helping me arrange the courses and the performances," Afshar told the Tehran Times.


On the level of classical guitarists in Iran today, she said, "I think they are progressing. Their playing skills have improved. They pay attention to points that they neglected before, and this is very important," she added.


However, she believes that she should do more than just holding master classes once a year.


"Thus, I am writing a book on methods of guitar playing the students can use in my absence," she explained.


The thirst for taking lessons from Afshar, who became the first woman in the world to gain a doctorate of music in guitar performance, which she received from Florida State University, is not limited to Iranian students.


"Many students come to the University of Memphis specifically to study guitar with me. They have listened to my works and are familiar with my style. They also know that I have an open mind to music and don't just play pieces from the Renaissance or the 20th century. I play pieces from all over the world. I try new methods. They come for all of these things," she said. 


Afshar has given many solo, chamber, and concerto performances in the United States, Britain, Ireland, Canada, France, Jordan, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and South America and has participated in many international music festivals, which brought her several awards. She also conducts guitar master classes during her touring.


"Everything is different there (in the U.S.), because there is access to everything. Classical music concerts are frequently performed and students can enjoy a miscellany of high-level concerts every night. However, they don't feel they need to work hard," she said.


"But Iranian students are industrious. They want to learn everything. They are thirsty to learn, and teaching them is very interesting for me," she observed.


Some say that the emergence and reappearance of different genres of music in the West has caused a decline in the popularity of classical guitar. However, Afshar rejects this view.


"Classical music has its own listeners and fans. Many people who listen to blues and jazz also pay attention to classical guitar when they find someone who plays it well," Afshar said.


"At present, many electric guitar players shift to classical guitar because the classical guitar has some characteristics that the electric guitar lacks," she added.


Electric guitar is played with a pick and many effects influence its sound, but classical guitar is played with the nails, which is very personal, due to the way the player cuts the nails and uses them on the strings, she explained.


Afshar has been influenced by Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), who reestablished the guitar as a major instrument for concert music. She was among the twelve international guitarists selected to play for Segovia in his master classes at the University of Southern California.


She became interested in guitar through a Segovia record, she said.


"Solfeggio is the most important thing I learned from Segovia. He was 94 when I performed for him. He didn't play guitar very much any more. Thus, when he wanted to teach something to me, he sang the melody like a song and asked me to match it. I will never forget this method, so I encourage my students to learn solfeggio in the very beginning," Afshar said.


"Devoting much time to learn to play a sentence was another important thing Segovia encouraged me to do. At 94, he made no haste, but I was very young and hurried. He stressed paying attention to breathing, musicality, expression, and sentences," she explained.


Afshar's attachment to Segovia led her to accomplish a task that the maestro had left undone due to his age. She recorded the sheet music written by Italian-born U.S. composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco inspired by Los Caprichos, a series of etchings created by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco de Goya. Thus her first album, "24 Caprichos de Goya, Op. 195", was created in 1994.


"However, Italian composer Angelo Gilardino published the sheet music with some editing, but I did my own editing of the sheet music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco and recorded '24 Caprichos de Goya, Op. 195'," she noted.


"Segovia had told Castelnuovo-Tedesco that the music would be one of the important pieces for guitar and encouraged him to transcribe the notes," Afshar said.


Afshar infrequently releases recordings. Her other credits include "A Jug of Wine and Thou" (1999), "Possession" (2002), and "Hemispheres" (2006).


"I am a perfectionist. Works should be entirely perfect in my view. If you frequently release albums, you may dislike them and have regrets. Thus I record my works over and over again and listen to them and improve them until reaching the point where I can no longer listen to the piece, and then I realize that it's perfect," Afshar said.


She has added "fretlets" to her guitar to afford her the opportunity to play quarter tones in Iranian dastgahs. (In Iranian music, dastgah is a set of notes, their features, and an associated group of traditional melodies that constitute the basis for improvising a performance.)


The first fretlet is under the sixth string at the 2nd fret. The others are under the three lowest strings at the 7th fret, and under the third string at the 9th fret.


Two pieces from the album "Hemispheres", "Gozaar (Calligraphy No. 5)" composed by U.S.-based Iranian musician Reza Vali and "Morgh-e Sahar" (The Bird of Dawn) composed by Morteza Neydavud, are in Iranian dastgahs.


Afshar's inclination toward Iranian music inspired her to learn to play the Iranian instrument setar (a small lute with a long neck, originally with three metallic strings, but the modern setar has four strings).



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Afshar on guitar


Q: What are the effects of serialism (twelve-tone technique) on guitar music?


A: There are only a few serialist pieces, for example Richard Rodney Bennett's "Five Impromptus" and Ernst Krenek's works. But serialism is not common anymore and it is not used anymore.


Q: How about its effect on guitar?


A: Well, this technique was interesting for guitarists; for example, to learn such pieces so they can analyze them. But it is an intellectual technique, which was used by Richard Rodney Bennett in his "Five Impromptus". He composed it very musically. It is not very soulless like other serialistic pieces. It is interesting that someone can be both serialistic and play emotionally. A guitarist should know about that era and learn what serialism is, but we have now returned to folk music and the era of serialism is over.


Q: Do you mean that aleatory music, which has no melody and is atonal, has no influence on classical guitar?


A: Aleatoric music greatly differs from serialism. These are techniques which guitarists should know about, but this technique has gone out of fashion. The era of minimalism is also over. We have come back to melodies.  


Q: How has modern music been influenced by modern art?


A: Modern art had a greater effect on guitar in the time of Picasso and Kandinsky. During the impressionism era we also had impressionistic pieces, which were composed by Villa-Lobos, but when cubism was invented by Picasso, serialistic pieces were developed by (Arnold) Schoenberg and (Anton von) Webern. But now everything has returned to the folk music of countries. For example, I play Iranian or oriental-themed pieces in the United States. These pieces are more popular than serialistic or aleatoric pieces. If I pick up my setar and perform on the stage, more people applaud me than if I play an odd or modern piece. Everything is becoming global and countries are coming closer together. People like to know about other nations. Nowadays, everything about Iran seems political there (in the U.S.), but it is very interesting for the Western audience when I play an Iranian instrument or piece or explain quarter tones and the application of fretlets on the fingerboard of the guitar.    


Q: How do you see the physical evolution of guitar? Will it change into another instrument? How important is the tone color of classical guitar? Will any instrument be invented which has the sound of guitar?


A: Guitar and its tone color will never change, because it has been institutionalized, because the renowned Segovia institutionalized it. Classical guitar is classical guitar.


Craftsmen are currently making guitars with a strong sound, but the tone color is the same as Segovia's guitar and it should be so. Otherwise, it would not be guitar anymore. The sound of classical guitar should be strengthened because concerts are held in big halls. The microphones of the amplifiers should also be fitted in a proper position so as not to distort the guitar sound.


The Australians are also working on a guitar with increased volume, but they changed the original tone and it does not have the desired sound. It has a plastic sound. I like the tone of Segovia's guitar, which is Spanish and warm. I began playing guitar due to its original sound, not for the volume of its sound.


Guitar makers have also begun bracing the guitar, i.e. fitting pieces of wood into the guitar to increase its volume.


My guitar has an extra C note on the upper part of the fingerboard and I have also added fretlets, because I like to highlight Iranian music in the world arena and standard guitar does not have that capacity. Therefore I added fretlets to it. The change is not fundamental and does not influence the technique, but it increases the capacity of the instrument.


Composers have begun to use various tunings for the guitar. They change the tuning of all six strings, not only one or two strings. Guitarists should adapt themselves to all these new changes, because standard repertoires are not common in concerts anymore.


Q: Will the new tunings change the guitar?


A: I did it in the U.S. and it caused a media frenzy and many magazines wrote about it. And even Thomas Humphrey, the creator of my guitar, told me that I should add more fretlets to my guitar. I also wondered why I had not done it before. There is no limit I think. The artist can do anything to the instrument, provided that the instrument remains classical guitar. I am loyal to classical guitar, and everything I do in this field will be in classical guitar's framework. I also try to use different techniques in playing classical guitar. For example, in Reza Vali's piece "Gozaar", I move my fingers on the guitar neck like a setar player. The use of such techniques is acceptable in classical guitar playing. I wonder why we stick to techniques that have remained unchanged for years. In particular, if we want to play traditional Iranian pieces, we have to change the tuning because the pieces can not be played on a standard guitar.


(Additional reporting by Melody Khadem)


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