- Iranian Classical Music: The Discourses and Practice of Creativity by Laudan Nooshin
Within the last few years there have been a number of compelling books published on the subject of Iranian classical music (e.g., Rob Simms and Amir Koushkani, The Art of Ᾱvāz and Mohammad Reza Shajarian: Foundations and Contexts [Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012]; and Owen Wright, Touraj Kiaras and Persian Classical Music: An Analytical Perspective [Farnham, Surrey, Eng.: Ashgate, 2009]). Laudan Nooshin’s Iranian Classical Music: The Discourses and Practice of Creativity joins these books as it investigates creative practices in Iranian music from a unique point of view. Combining both analytical and ethnographic methodologies, Nooshin questions the improvisational nature of Iranian music, which for decades has been regarded as one of its most fundamental characteristics. This book draws upon over two decades of Nooshin’s research, observations, and reflections on the issue. Aware of its colonial roots, she goes beyond the improvisation/composition binary and focuses on a wider concept that unifies the two: “the creative impulse that makes us human” (p. 177).
In the first chapter, Nooshin introduces and criticizes discourses through which the concept of musical creativity has been approached by folk music scholars, musicologists, and ethnomusicologists. Although this chapter rarely refers to Iranian classical music, it provides a solid foundation for the discussions that follow. Her focus on issues of difference and power at the beginning of the chapter demonstrates how musical creativity has been used as a marker of difference. While composition has been associated with the West, and its (male) “composers” have been regarded as loci of creative agency, non-Western musics have been described as improvisational and its “performers” (arguably) unable to creatively compose. By concentrating on the improvisation/composition binary, she investigates the discursive fundamentals that created these two concepts and assumed them to be essentially different. Nooshin argues that this difference, perpetuated by both Western and non-Western musicians and scholars, has been reified through the composition/improvisation binary. She argues, “this reification of ‘improvisation’ as a category separate from other forms of creative practice needs to be rethought” (p. 21). The chapter closes with the book’s central question: “What would an approach to creative practice in Iranian classical music that went beyond the arguably unhelpful improvisation/composition paradigm look like?” (p. 27)
Chapter 2 focuses on how creative practice has been approached by musicians and scholars of Iranian classical music. Nooshin opens the chapter with a relatively brief but highly useful summary of important socio-historical events and trends that helped shape both the practice and scholarship of Iranian classical music. Nooshin discusses the fact that although Iranian musicians, according to tradition, are supposed to be creative and not repeat themselves, they are [End Page 532] also expected to stay within this tradition’s boundaries as indicated by the canonic repertoire, the radif. She shows that for the majority of Iranian classical musicians, especially the older generations, the ability to improvise and be creative is mostly associated with a musician’s talent, and is not something that can be learned. That God-given gift, however, can only be trained and nurtured through learning the radif. As Nooshin demonstrates, this relationship between creative practice and the canonic repertoire, or how closely a performance should stay within or stray from the radif, has been one of the most important issues discussed by musicians and scholars of Iranian classical music.
The author puts the radif at the heart of chapter 3, providing the reader with a comprehensive discussion of its history, roles, functions, and symbolic meaning within the tradition of Iranian classical music. She also offers an overview of how the repertoire used to be taught and learned and how it is done now. As an Iranian classical musician who has been through this process, her observations and descriptions resonate with my experience. One of the main points of the chapter is the discussion of how the radif functions as a basis...