When did you know you wanted to become a musician?
Before I discovered the oud I had been playing piano in kindergarten for about 5 years, but this didn't satisfy me very much, so I stopped and decided I simply wanted to experience music as a listener.
Then one day when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I saw a video of a very famous and wonderful Iraqi oud player named Naseer Shamma. I remember this experience very well. I hadn't heard the sound of the oud before this video, and it was a special moment for me—the deep tone of it, the way he played it, even its shape and the history behind it... at that moment I said to myself, 'this is the sound I've been looking for, and I have to play it.'
My interest continued to grow as I learned more about the instrument through my own research, and by the age of 10 I knew that music was going to be my vocational future.
My mother not only allowed me to study music in school, but also continually supported me in this way. I began to play the oud with Mohammad Firouzi, a prolific Iranian musician, as well as many other masters, and went on to study Persian traditional music at Tehran University.
Persian music is a very ancient art form... what is it like playing in this style today?
Well from my point of view I'm not simply keeping something old or ancient alive, but am also trying to develop it further. I believe one's attitude in music is very important, and personally it's not enough for me to be merely preserving some sort of tradition, because I think in that way it would feel like being in a museum.
Of course Persian music is indeed a very ancient art form, yet like many traditions it has also changed and evolved throughout time. I prefer to see it as a root that connects me to the past... a tradition I can explore and find new ways to relate to the present, and a vehicle through which I can express my own feelings and ideas.
Overall I'm really happy I can represent and introduce Iranian music to the world (traditional music as well as my own), and in fact it's not just about introducing, but sharing the whole of my culture with my audience, including its art and aesthetics.
Can you speak a little about the role of improvisation in Persian music?
Improvisation has an essential role in Persian music. Its approach is based on the interpretation of traditional modes (musical scales called dastgah), which contain different feelings and principles created and passed down to us by the maestros over generations.
Learning to play and interpret these modes requires not only developing technical mastery as a musician, but also a deep knowledge and understanding of their unique characteristics.
What is the method by which these dastgahs are learned (i.e. orally, or through written music)?
The traditional repertoire (or Radif) is transmitted orally from teacher to pupil, line by line, piece by piece. This process takes many years. By exploring each dastgah, you'll experience different moods and particular meanings. This can be a very personal process, depending on one's individual character and feelings.
When you have a good understanding and perception of the Radif —not merely by committing it to memory, but knowing it deeply— you're able to subliminally abstract the basic principles the music contains, revealing a range of compositional possibilities to draw from at the time of performance.
It's very similar to the way we speak a language—once you have an understanding of the grammar and how to construct sentences, you are free to choose your own words, and arrange them in a way that expresses what you're thinking about in that moment. In this way you are still faithful to the Radif, but at the same time you can create your own structure and interpretation that allows new things to emerge based on it.
What is the inspiration behind your first solo album, Gahan?
The name Gahān is the plural form of gah (or dastgah—mode). The idea of modulation in Persian music (transitioning from one dastgah to another) has always been very interesting and exciting for me. I'm really enthusiastic and curious about discovering new and uncommon ways to modulate, and find it challenging to do so in a way that's both innovative yet still relatable to more common approaches.
If you look at the names of the tracks on the album, you'll find three metrical pieces called zarbi (one of the rhythmic forms of Persian traditional music), and then six non-metrical tracks titled First Gah, Second Gah, and so on... these pieces explore the possibilities of modulation.
The basic idea is that you can do modulation in three different degrees. The first degree always occurs somehow inside the Radif, and involves working with partial melodies (sentences, phrases, and paragraphs) called goushe. Each dastgah contains several goushes, which can be highly developed, or brief and simple, which is more common.
While playing a mode, goushes change for moving, development, and modulation, but at the end of the dastgah you'll come back to the main mode of the piece.
The second degree (which is more common) is related to the first one, but you can modulate via a goushe from one dastgah to another that shares similar structures and intervals.
Listen to Yasamin perform both first and second degree modulations, transitioning between modes 'mahour' and 'nava', and later to 'dashti':
The third degree, which is more interesting for me and the most uncommon, is to find a way to modulate not via the goushes, but through a common tone shared between two different modes.
There's a certain hierarchy among the functionality of tones leading to the composition of a dastgah; so while playing in a particular mode you can emphasis a single tone, and then try to find a functionally significant place this tone holds within a different dastgah, using this as an entry point to transition between the two modes.
The last track on the album, titled Bigah (which means without any kind of fixed gah/mode), is an attempt to do modulation in the third degree:
This overall concept (modulation in Persian classical music) was also the subject of my bachelor thesis in university. Of course this was only my first study of this topic, and I'm continuing to explore it through new projects and works.
Are there any particular goals or aspirations you'd like to accomplish through your music?
It's very important for me to experience new and challenging things, both in traditional as well as contemporary contexts. Today I travel a lot, and collaborate with other musicians whenever I can. Since I've made this decision, my horizons have expanded.
I try to work with artists from many different backgrounds and cultures, and find experiencing different kinds of music and sharing new points of view changes my attitude and aesthetic thinking, which is very interesting for me. Because of this I now devote part of my work to creating a fusion of various musical styles.
I'm also interested in working with electronic composers and sound artists, and would like to combine the oud and electronic music in performance.
Because of these interests I've started to work less with traditional Iranian classical ensembles, and more on my own music. Today there are only a few oud players in Iran playing Persian music as solo artists, yet I feel there are still many sounds and experiences waiting to be unlocked and explored through this instrument... so ultimately I'm looking for anything that will help me to continue growing as an artist, and follow my own creativity and inspiration.