Shared Musical Traditions Of Russia And Iran In 'East Of Melancholy'

Jul 16, 2014
Originally published on July 24, 2014 3:41 pm

Classical pianist and composer Tara Kamangar's new album, East of Melancholy, guides us along the border between Iran and Russia.

The two countries share a 1,200 mile border as well as a rich cultural history in the area of the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains dating back to 4000 BC.

In both countries, music has been a passion and articulation of identity.

Kamangar performs the works of Russian, Armenian, and Iranian composers and talks about what classical piano music can communicate that other music forms cannot.

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Classical pianist and composer Tara Kamangar grew up in central California's agricultural regions. Her father had given up medicine in Iran and become a fig farmer in the United States. You can hear the layers of her heritage for Persia's rich history which she brings to the concert halls of Los Angeles and New York.


LYDEN: in her new album "East Of Melancholy" she guides us along the 1,200 mile border that Iran shares with Russia - a rich history in the area of the Caspian Sea in the caucuses of mountains dating back to at least 4,000 BC. In both countries, music has been a passion and articulation of identities and also sporadically suppressed. You're listening now to "The Lark" composed by the father of Russian classical music, Mikhail Glinka.


LYDEN: Tara Kamangar joins us now from our studios in New York City. Tara, welcome to the program.

TARA KAMANGAR: Thank you, Jacki, for having me.

LYDEN: I have absolutely loved reading descriptions of these works. I've been lucky enough to visit some of that territory and I'm thinking of the poetry the migrations, the revolutions, both former empires. "East Of Melancholy" - elaborate on that just a little bit.

KAMANGAR: The title, "East Of Melancholy", I chose because it's the translated title of a book of poems by an Iranian contemporary poet Sohrab Sepehri. And I think it speaks to the fact that a lot of the pieces on the album are inspired by poetry - both the Persian and Russian ones.

LYDEN: Well, I also note in your work here that the Russian composers were really influenced by folk music from the Caucasus and there's a great quote by Glinka who lived between 1804 and 1857 he says love with us is always mixed with sorrow. There 's no doubt that our melancholy, our plaintive song, which is the child of the North, also has an oriental strain. Just listen to the Volga boatman's mournful song - one almost feels the Tartar's domination. And that's going back to the 19th century. So you're really drawing on strains of this mixing.

KAMANGAR: Yes, yeah I love that quote. There's a Russian proverb that says scratch a Russian and you'll find a Tartar. Also with Glinka it's interesting that he's known as the father of Russian classical music and he was also moving around a lot. He had a cosmopolitan upbringing and he was taught several languages as a child including Persian. And he went on to write the first opera sung in Russian based on Russian folk music and he inspired summary composers after him, even like Tjeknavorian wrote the 1st opera sung in Farsi.

LYDEN: Let's listen to the "Fantastic Dances" clip. This is the "Dance Of Elegy."


LYDEN: Tell us what's going on here.

KAMANGAR: This is a work by Tjeknavorian, he was born in Iran, but of an Armenian family, and who's actually the conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic for 10 years. And this particular sweep the fantastic dances was written when he was only 20 years old. I got the score directly from Tjeknavorian he's still really active in Iran he just finished the sixth Opera. And he's doing such amazing work under such restrictions. For example one of his operas it wasn't allowed to be performed in Iran due to the women and men not being able to sing together and they performed it as a puppet opera. And it's really - I have a film of it and it's really mesmerizing.

LYDEN: Wow. So here's a composer Mr. Tjeknavorian working under theses really difficult circumstances but he has at least managed to accomplish many many pieces. What was the effect of the 1979 revolution on the classical music in Iran?

KAMANGAR: So all the pieces on this album were composed before the 1979 revolution of course there's a lot being composed today but I felt that a lot of these works were being sort of forgotten. The effect of the revolution was that a lot of the best performers and teachers left the country and so there were few performers remaining in Iran to preserve and promote the works and also prior to 1979, there was a lot of funding going into Western classical music. For instance, they had the annual Shiraz Festival which was a music festival set in the ruins of Persepolis with artists coming from all over the world like for instance Houdie Menduin(ph), Shtaukousen(ph), John Cage, Ravi Shankai(ph) etc. etc. And after 1979 that was discontinued. And also even during the Iran-Iraq war there was really no music performance allowed during this time. The atmosphere was really kind of perpetual mourning. And actually selling pianos was even banned during that time.

LYDEN: Let's go to this track. I want to play little bit from Spartacus.


LYDEN: I had never heard of Aram Khachaturian and this ballet that we're hearing, Spartacus. This is one where there's a love theme. We are seeing the reunion of the hero and his wife and you write that it's in the style of a classical Armenian lament. A lot of lamentation going on in general. In these pieces.

KAMANGAR: Yes, and I think you can hear - in Armenian music you often have this descending chromatic line and you have that in this work. And I just love the harmony changes. This is originally a ballet and it was arranged for piano just a few years ago by a Brooklyn -based pianist Matthew Cameron. And at first I discovered this from a performance of his own YouTube before the score was actually printed. And I just fell in love with it I couldn't stop - I wanted a repeat. And actually learned from ear because the score wasn't available and I couldn't get in touch with him.

LYDEN: I'd like to be just a little personal - tell us a little about your own family. Your father left the practice of medicine in Iran before the revolution. You have two brothers, one of them Saular has quite a high profile in tech. How do they inspire you?

KAMANGAR: We're a very close family so I'm really lucky to have very supportive parents and many parents probably wouldn't like that their child becomes a musician, they prefer more stable profession but my parents are big music lovers. My mom studied the piano in Iran and my dad studied the violin and all Persian instruments. And he want to be actually a professional violinist and his father told him that musicians aren't respected enough in Iran so if you want to be a musician you should move West but if you stay here you should be a doctor. So I think for my brothers and I, we actually all play piano and violin and music is kind of what we all have in common as a family.

LYDEN: Has your brother Saular encouraged you to put these pieces on YouTube?

KAMANGAR: I kind of did that myself but I think he was happy about it. He is a great pianist himself and we played duets together. So he's always been supportive.

LYDEN: I just thought that as the former CEO of YouTube he might have, I don't know, done a work around or something for you.

KAMANGAR: That would be great I wish he could up my view counts.

LYDEN: Exactly. So when you perform these pieces now what kinds of audiences are you searching for in terms of their own backgrounds or age range of parts of the country?

KAMANGAR: I really would love for this music to be heard I think anyone who hears it will appreciate it and maybe be interested even to learn more about Iran I know some of my American friends after seeing Persian miniature paintings or reading Persian poetry they were inspired to learn Farsi or learn more about the country and that's always been the case for me for other cultures. And I'm hoping that the inclusion of the Russian Romantic composers, so the more familiar works, will encourage more people to pick up the album because I know that I probably wouldn't pick up a novel of completely unknown works but hopefully the Russian works will service as a good bridge to the Iranian ones.

LYDEN: Absolutely and I can say that there's a love story behind almost any one of these pieces and you've got a lot of those. This is classical music with a back story.

KAMANGAR: Yes I love that about it. I love knowing the story behind the work.

LYDEN: Let's go out on "Etude." Do you want to tell us a little bit about this piece?

KAMANGAR: Sure, that's a composition of mind I couldn't album. And I thought it fit into the album to the mood of the piece. Is definitely melancholic and restless. So I think it works with the flow of the album.


LYDEN: I've been speaking with classical pianist and composer Tara Kamangar. Her new album is called "East Of Melancholy" and she joined us from our New York bureau. Tara, thank you so much for speaking with us it's an exquisite album.

KAMANGAR: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.