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This weekend the Gene Siskel Film Center is screening Sounds of Silence, an interesting documentary that explores the difficulties of making pop, rock, and hip-hop music in Iran today. Following the war with Iraq in the 80s—which took the lives of about a million citizens—Iran experienced a crazy population boom, and now almost 75 percent of the population is under 30. It’s no wonder with such a generational imbalance that the kids are thirsty for some cultural activity that speaks to them rather than their elders. The filmmakers present a wide variety of opinions from young Iranian musicians, most of whom talk about how hard it is to make music under such a culturally conservative, repressive regime, though they all seem fairly determined.
The storytelling is pretty good; the problem with the film is that the music is almost all bad. I’m sure if their limited exposure to outside music explains why so much of the rock music these musicians play evokes bad 80s memories, or if it's just that the filmmakers weren’t particularly interested in aesthetic concerns. A much more interesting example of Iranian music was released a couple of weeks ago by the great Belgian label Sub Rosa. Persian Electronic Music: Yesterday and Today 1966-2006 devotes one disc each to Alireza Mashayekhi, widely regarded as one of Iran’s most important and daring contemporary composers, and Ata Ebtekar (aka Sote), a musician in his mid-30s who’s made records for labels like Warp and Spundae. Both of these guys are older than the subjects in the film; Mashayekhi came of age well before the Islamic Revolution—studying in Vienna and Utrecht—and Ebtekar, who was born in Germany, spent his youth both there and in Iran before moving to California for college (he now lives in Tehran). Regardless, the music is far more interesting than the washed-up sounds you hear in the documentary.
Mashayekhi and Ebtekar both use traditional Iranian musical systems, instruments, and folk songs as loose source material or inspiration, but nothing on this two-disc set sounded distinctly Persian to me, though my grasp on the organizing principles and traditional Iranian music is admittedly anything but sure-handed. The pieces by Mashayekhi (which range from 1966-82) are more rigorous and use complicated methods for composition and organization, while the Ebtekar disc (credited to Sote) seems more ephemeral: “What if a master ney player, tar player, setar player, santoor player and kamanche player were taken hostage by extraterrestrial life—put in a camp with state-of-the-art musical machines—and were told to teach improvisation to artificial intelligence. The music of Sote is the sound track to this scenario.” Riiight. Luckily, the music makes up for that bit of silliness. I should note that his work here is decidedly abstract, with little in common with his more dance-oriented material.