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Reza Vali: An Iranian Composer to Watch and - of course - to Hear


By Maryam Pirnazar

Perhaps the most familiar quote about the East/West encounter is Kipling’s old “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Some beg to differ. Not only East and West are not new acquaintances (a little knowledge of history helps) but the twentieth century saw a great deal of experimentation in ways East and West do indeed meet. But perhaps it is in the twenty-first century that we shall begin to see the realization of the full potential of these encounters. Reza Vali’s music is a case in point.

Reza Vali

Reza Vali is an Iranian-born composer and Professor of Composition at the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. (See interview below.) Though having lived most of his life in the West and being educated in western classical music, Vali remains thoroughly Iranian, albeit a musical polyglot. He has been called the Bela Bartok of Iran as much for his affection for Iranian folk music as for his modernist treatment of both folk and classical Iranian music. In other words, Vali does not merely “draw upon” different musical traditions in his compositions, but pushes the boundaries of both and challenges the listener in the process.

Vali’s most recently released CD under the label BMOP/sound, “Toward that Endless Plain,” contains two sets of his earlier Folk Songs (Sets No. 8 and 14) as well as his new Concerto for Persian Ney and Orchestra. To the Iranian ears of this reviewer, the folk songs, performed masterfully and with touching sensitivity by mezzo-soprano Janna Baty, evoke the nostalgia of familiar tunes while acknowledging the dissonant and often alienated context in which they now exist.

Toward that Endless Plain

In the Concerto for Persian Ney and Orchestra, Vali juxtaposes the intimate sound of the Ney (the Persian vertical reed flute) against the layered and powerful sound of an orchestra. The result is a curiously harmonious dialogue between the alternately lamenting and joyful singing of the Ney and the roars and whispers of the orchestra. The two sometimes clash and sometimes echo one another, hinting at melodic and harmonic possibilities that leave the listener hungry for more.

Khosrow Soltani’s superb performance on the Ney remains true to the transcendent and sweet sound of the instrument, equally adept at evoking the longing of “avaaz” (a genre of Persian singing), the ecstasy of “samaa’” (the chants and dance of Sufis), and the light-hearted delight of “gher” (a playful dance in 6/8 rhythm).

After the 1979 revolution, a great number of Iranian musicians - composers and performers alike - have worked in exile or under restrictions at home. These conditions of isolation have greatly limited the relationship between generations of Iranian composers, and between these musicians and their Iranian audiences. It can only be hoped that changing times will bring greater enrichment of new Iranian music by the work of previous generations of composers who have done their share of exploring the possibilities afforded by encounters between Iranian and western classical music. There may also be new hope that the music of composers such as Vali will play at venues and by players whose familiarity with both musical systems will take the compositions to an even more nuanced level.

Interview with Reza Vali

Reza Vali was born in 1952 in Iran. He received his musical education in Iran, Austria, and the United States. He has received numerous awards and his works have been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Seattle Chamber Players, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, as well as the Del Sol Quartet and Cuarteto Latinoamericano. He is Associate Professor of Music at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.

I interviewed him recently via email.

Tell us about yourself - your educational and professional background, and your compositions.

I was born in Ghazvin and studied at the Tehran Conservatory from 1965 to 1969. In 1972 I went to Vienna and studied music education and composition at the Academy of Music in Vienna. After graduating from the Academy of Music, I moved to the United States and continued my studies at the University of Pittsburgh, receiving a Ph.D. in music theory and composition in 1985. I have been a faculty member of the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University since 1988.

My compositions include pieces for large orchestra, string quartet, piano and voice, and chamber ensemble. My music has been performed in the U.S., Europe, Mexico, Chile, Iran, Hong Kong, and Australia and is recorded on the Naxos, Albany, New Albion, MMC, Ambassador, and ABC Classics record labels.

Tell us about the Ney Concerto: How do you reconcile writing in Persian Dastgah to western harmony?

The musical material of the work is entirely derived from Persian traditional music. The tuning, rhythm, form, as well as polyphonic constructions such as imitation, inversion, and retrogradation relate to the Persian modal system, the Dastgah. Since the entire composition is based on the Dastgah system, there has been no attempt to reconcile the system with western harmony. All aspects of the composition are directly derived from the Persian system and the western musicians are asked to adapt to aspects of the Persian system such as tuning, rhythm, etc.

Why did you decide to write a Concerto for Persian Ney and how did you find a performer who would perform the piece with just three rehearsals with the orchestra?

The Ney is one of my most favorite instruments especially the Persian Ney which is performed using a special performance technique called the technique of Isfahan, named after the city of Isfahan where this technique was developed. Following the Isfahan performance technique, the performer has to put the instrument inside of the mouth, anchoring it on the front teeth. The teeth, the mouth, and the sinus cavities are used for the sound production. The produced sound is hauntingly rich and beautiful, full of overtone harmonics.

I always wanted to write a work for the Persian Ney but could not find a performer who would perform such a piece with the minimum rehearsal requirements of the American orchestras, three rehearsals and the concert.

I finally contact my wonderful friend of the Tehran conservatory days Khosrow Soltani since Khosrow is a fantastic performer of the bassoon as well as all European medieval instruments. It turned out that Khosrow plays all Persian wind instruments including the Ney. I happily set to work on the concerto and finished the work in a year and half.

Tragically, Khosrow’s wife, Farzaneh Navai, who was also my dear friend from the Tehran conservatory days, passed away right after I completed the Ney Concerto. Therefore, the Ney Concerto is dedicated to the memory of Farzaneh Navai.

What have you incorporated in the Ney Concerto from your background in western classical music?

The idea of using western instruments, the exact notation of the score and parts, which are precisely notated in western notation, the use of instrumental timbres, the concept of long-range design of musical forms, are all related to my background in western classical music.

The title of the Ney Concerto is “Toward That Endless Plain” which is also the title of the CD. What does this title mean and why did you choose it for the Ney Concerto?

The title Toward That Endless Plain comes from the following poem by the 20th century Persian mystic poet Sohrab Sepehri:

I must depart tonight.
Taking a suitcase,
(the size of my loneliness),
I must go,
where the mythical trees are in sight.
Toward that endless plain,
that always,
is calling me to itself.

The concerto consists of a prelude and three movements. The second and the third movements are connected through an interlude. Throughout the concerto, the solo Ney characterizes “the seeker” (Salek or Rahro in Persian), while the orchestra embodies the environment of the seeker (Vadi in Persian).

How do you notate a piece such as Ney Concerto?

Western classical musicians do not improvise. Therefore, all aspects of the music (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulations, etc.) have to be precisely notated. Every aspect of the music in the Ney Concerto is exactly notated. For transcription of the micro-tones, I use the standard notation of the micro-tones, the Sori and the Koron, which were developed during early 20th century by the Persian master Alinaghi Vaziri.

Given your background in western classical music, what inspired your interest in Persian Dastgahs?

My education at the Tehran Conservatory was completely western. Sadly, the Persian music system, the Dastgah, was not taught at the conservatory and we were trained in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. Not even a single note of Persian music or a single sentence about Persian music history was taught - nothing!! As if we were born in Iran by accident!

My involvement with the Dastgah came through folk music. Composing and studying Persian folk music, I came to realize that there is a strong connection between Persian folk music and Persian classical music and both are based on the Dastgah/Maqam system. The more I studied the Dastgah system, the more I realized that this is one of the most sophisticated and most complex musical systems in the world. Since 2000, I have completely broken away from the western music system (12 notes equal temperament, western musical forms, etc.) and my music has been since then based on the Dastgah system.

I have to mention here that my recent music, although based on the Dastgah, does not follow the Radif. Radif is the concentrated form of the Dastgah and is usually attributed to one of the masters of Persian classical music, such as the 19th century master Mirza Abdollah, or the 20th century master Abolhasan Saba. Radif is quite strict and has to be followed according to the performance practice of a particular master. Dastgah is the umbrella system, the superstructure, and can be used freely.

Which of your pieces have been performed in Iran?

One of my string quartets was performed in Tehran in 2004 and a solo guitar piece called Gozaar was performed last summer in Tehran by the Iranian guitar virtuoso Lily Afshar. Gozaar was written for Ms. Afshar and she has performed it in many of her guitar recitals in the U.S., Europe, Turkey, and Iran.

My work Folk Songs (Set No. 11B) was performed in Tehran on May 5, 2005 by the Armenian string quartet the “Ani String Quartet.”  The performance was part of a festival of Iranian contemporary music that took place in Tehran on May 5-7, 2005.

Tell us more about your compositions before the Dastgah period and the series of compositions called “Folk Songs”

The main focus of my music before 2000 was Iranian folk music.  I started collecting folk music when I was a student at the Tehran Conservatory, an activity that I have continued to the present day, and I have a large collection of Persian folk music consisting of tapes, cassettes, and CDs.  This is not a musicological undertaking because I am not a musicologist.  I have used Iranian folk music as raw material for my compositions.

In 1978, I wrote a piece called Four Persian Folk Songs for voice and piano. The success of this piece encouraged me to continue composing pieces based on Persian folk songs. This was the start of a continuing cycle of Persian Folk Songs and I have composed 16 sets of these folk songs encompassing close to one hundred songs. Each set consists of four to eight songs. The early sets were for voice and piano. Then I started expanding to composing songs for voice and orchestra, voice and chamber ensemble, and instrumental pieces without voice (songs without words). Because of their simple forms, folk songs are great raw material to be superimposed on a western harmony or even a modern harmony and orchestration.

The current CD includes two sets from my Folk Songs cycle. Set No. 8 which is for voice and chamber ensemble, and Folk Songs Set No. 14 which is for voice and chamber orchestra. Folk Songs (Set No. 8) was composed in 1989, and Folk Songs (Set No. 14) was written in 1999.

I imagine that it is especially difficult for a composer like you to have his pieces performed. Have you experimented with electronic production of your music?

Since I cannot play a Persian instrument, I started developing a computer-based Persian keyboard, called the Arghonoon, on which I can produce the sounds of western instruments as well as Persian instruments and tune them to the microtonal scales of the Persian Dastgah/Magham system. I have established the hardware/software components of the instrument and have been able to tune various western instruments (such as flute, harp, strings, etc.) in Persian tuning, effectively creating a Persian orchestra out of digital samples of the western orchestra. Arghonoon is able to create the Persian intervals with precise accuracy and is already solving many of my problems dealing with the Equal Temperament of the western instruments. In its final stage of development, Arghonoon will be able to produce the sounds of all Persian instruments, western instruments, and many other Asian, African, and Latin American instruments, and it will be able to produce any type of interval tuning with precision and accuracy.

What pieces are you working on now?

I have recently finished a piece for orchestra called Ravan which is a commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and will be premiered in February 2014 in Pittsburgh. I am working right now on a piece for micro-tonal trumpet and orchestra for my colleague, the trumpet virtuoso and member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Neal Berntsen .

Last but not least tell us about The Center for Iranian Music (CFIM).

CFIM was founded by Dr. Bijan Elyaderani and I in 2010. It is based in the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University and is dedicated to preserving and promoting Iranian music. This includes traditional music (the Dastgah system), folk music (regional music of Iran), contemporary music, and commemorative and religious music. It achieves its goals through education, community engagement, and Iranian music conservation and promotion.

In March 2013, Carnegie Mellon University’s College of fine Arts and School of Music presented the CFIM’s opening concert. The concert was a tribute to the Master of Santoor, Dr. Driush Saghafi, and featured performances by Dr. Ramin Saghafi and the renowned Carpe Diem String Quartet. For more about CFIM please visit


Reza Vali was born in Ghazvin, Persia (Iran) in 1952. He began his music studies at the Conservatory of Music in Tehran. In 1972 he went to Austria and studied music education and composition at the Academy of Music in Vienna. After graduating from the Academy of Music, he moved to the United States and continued his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, receiving his Ph.D. in music theory and composition in 1985. Mr. Vali has been a faculty member of the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University since 1988. He has received numerous honors and commissions, including the honor prize of the Austrian Ministry of Arts and Sciences, two Andrew W. Mellon Fellowships, commissions from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Kronos Quartet, the Seattle Chamber Players, and the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, as well as grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as the Outstanding Emerging Artist for which he received the Creative Achievement Award. Vali's orchestral compositions have been performed in the United States by the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the Baltimore Symphony, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and Orchestra 2001. His chamber works have received performances by Cuarteto Latinoamericano, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Kronos Quartet, the Seattle Chamber Players, and the Da Capo Chamber Players. His music has been performed in Europe, China, Chile, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Australia and is recorded on the Naxos, New Albion, MMC, Ambassador, Albany, and ABC Classics labels.

NPR featured Vali’s Ney Concerto on June 30, 2013:

Vali’s commercially released CDs may be obtained from Amazon by searching his name under the category of Classical Music.

About the author: Maryam Pirnazar is a writer and publisher in the San Franciso Bay Area. 

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