Over a decade ago, the same year that Los Angeles suffered a devastating 6.7 earthquake, musical tectonic shifts were taking place for an Iranian-American musician named Shahrokh Yadegari. Behind his Santa Monica home was a Jasmine tree with a sweet scent so strong it filled the entire block. Maybe that is why a mockingbird decided to build its nest on top of Yadegari’s house. “It would sing every night from ten at night to ten in the morning. Absolutely perfect wonderful singing,” Yadegari recalls. “But it would keep me up all night!”
Yadegari—who was active in the disparate fields of computer music and traditional Persian music—decided to record the bird’s beautiful songs. He wondered what would happen if he played the sound back to the bird. “The bird was so excited to hear its own singing… it was like a totally new world,” explains Yadegari. “Everything changed: his energy, his performance. I spent hours doing this, sometimes playing two tracks back. It got to the point where, if I was telling the story to a friend, I could get the bird to sing on demand. And I wondered, ‘What if I could do this with acoustic musicians too?”
He went about building a software program dubbed Lila to replicate and expand on this experience with acoustic musicians. “The same thing happened with acoustic musicians,” exclaims Yadegari. “The moment I give the song back to them, they do these things that really have this eternal energy and joy. You hear the pleasure in it.”
The result is Migration (LilaSound Productions), a recording with Keyavash Nourai, a Tehran-born violinist who has also pursued a dual music career: Persian traditional and Western extended technique. “Before this,” says Yadegari, “I would never sample acoustic Persian music because I felt like I didn’t want it to come together with computerized music for arbitrary reasons. There had to be an organic connection.”
“Lila” is an old Sanskrit word meaning divine play, the play of destruction and creation, or the play of presence in the moment. Lila, the instrument, uses simple analog processes ( e.g., loop, delay, ring modulation, and feedback) which are precisely controlled in real time during a performance. On Migration, which was not created with overdubbing or editing in the post-production phase, Yadegari uses Lila to sample and transform the acoustic material played by violinist Nourai and plays it back. The violinist can improvise layers of more material on this newly created sound. This becomes a continual and circular process. Because of the precise real-time control of Lila, Yadegari can accompany and respond to the acoustic material, while the acoustic performer can have the same form of musical freedom which he enjoys in a traditional setting.
In developing Lila, Yadegari intentionally sought to create an instrument not based on Western musical notions, but on concepts consistent with Persian traditional music. “What has been attempted here is to produce a work in which electronics and the computer play important structural roles without any substantial deviation from the Persian traditional musical form,” says Yadegari, whose collaboration with Nourai uses the Radif, a traditional Persian improvisational music form that draws on hundreds of old melodies, each with their own set of guidelines of ornamentation and cadence.
“The concept of notes and scale is something we in the West have accepted and it’s hard to think any other way about music,” explains Yadegari. “Within Persian music, even tuning is up for debate. A person can pick up an instrument and say ‘I don’t like this fretting’ and they change it. The subtle differences in tuning may define a musician’s signature sound. My instrument, Lila, allows for something like that, because all the ideas in the software are based in this concept that almost everything is negotiable.”
Lila also takes into account a different concept of harmony. “In the West, we understand harmony as something that is instantaneous,” says Yadegari. “A chord is a combination of three notes played at the same time. But there is also a type of harmony that comes from mixing the melodies. You don’t think, ‘How does this note falling on that note sound?’ You think about melodies on top of each other. It is associated with the Call and Response form in Eastern music. An instrumentalist responds to a vocalist and then they mingle with each other. Following, leading, going in and out of each other’s melodic lines.”
Just as Yadegari’s multi-track experiment with his resident mockingbird drew on longstanding song form to create something new, his collaboration with violinist Keyavash Nourai does the same. “Keyavash is a breed of Persian musician who is connected to the roots of Persian music,” describes Yadegari. “He has an old form of aesthetics that you don’t hear very much anymore. It is a calm aesthetic in which you don’t create excitement without preparation; you don’t have surprises. That gives it a very introverted quality. It is difficult to connect this aesthetic to Western music. Yet he has also studied Western music ranging from classical to jazz forms.”
“It’s not that easy to find acoustic musicians who are comfortable to go as far as I have gone with Keyavash,” continues Yadegari. “His experience with extended technique [playing instruments with unconventional techniques] allowed him to push certain limits. And playing with Lila gives him the possibility of doing things that he cannot do within the context of Persian traditional music.”
Yadegari and Nourai believe that people do not give as much attention to music as they used to. Whether because of computers or the dominant song form, it is more difficult to get somebody’s attention for any length of time. But both musicians enjoy the process of longer pieces. “We want to build and go into a sonic world with our music,” says Yadegari. “That is what we enjoy.” Ironically, the computer enables the pair to play in an older style but with new expressions.
“I remember one old master once told me, when he was teaching me a goushe (melodic form within a dastgah), ’I taught it. You learned it. Now you make your own version.’ He was saying that now I own it too. By learning the melodic form, I became a part of the tradition and could gently adapt it,” concludes Yadegari.