Electronic music is in a paradoxical situation in Iran. In a country where every musical genre has suffered from restrictions over the past few decades, making even the most mainstream genres difficult to maintain, electronic music has had a surprisingly lively and vibrant presence. Through online platforms such as Soundcloud and Spotify, Iranian electronic musicians have found their target audience. In addition, a small society of passionate listeners has developed in recent years, even creating their own Tehran-based festival and annual electronic music prize in collaboration with two major universities in Tehran. The supposedly “abstract” nature of this genre and its more intellectual (or elitist) audience also paved the way for it to pursue its livelihood without fear of censorship.
My first experience of electronic music performances in Iran was at a festival in Tehran, TCMF, in a black box originally designed for theatrical performances. What stood out from the performances of this festival – and from most of the records of electronic musicians in Iran – was the question of identity: how to face the limitless world of electronic music using their “own” Iranian musical heritage? How not to get lost in this endless maze of options, in a genre that has been developing in its cradle for years?
This concern for “identity”, which sometimes resembles an uncertain fear of becoming a kind of person in today’s intertwined global musical horizon, is reflected in the constant inspiration of Iranian classical and folk music musicians. . This concern shaped the ideas of many electronic works in Iran. It is significant that the first renowned electronic music composer was Dariush Dowlatshahi (b. 1948), an Iranian tar player and classical musician, who started writing electronic pieces in the 70s. He had his own style of playing tar, the main instrument of Iranian classical music. Alongside Alireza Mashayekhi (born in 1940), he is part of the first generation of Iranian composers of electronic music. Until now, electronic music composers have adopted many aspects of Iranian classical music, ranging from simple conceptual inspirations to the direct application of melodic and rhythmic patterns. However, some artists of the third generation of electronic musicians have cut this connection, as they now see themselves as an established part of this international musical network.
Ata Ebtekar, aka Sote, the Iranian-American musician, is one of the second generation of electronic music composers in Iran. Born in 1972, he has released eleven albums to date and is known as one of the genre’s most influential figures. Although he said he was looking for “music without a specific culture”, he tried to deal with the musical heritage of his homeland in his works. This is particularly evident in documents such as Dategah (2006), Parallel Persia (2019), and Holy horror in design (2017). In these works, he uses classical Iranian instruments, modes, phrasings, rhythmic patterns and melodies, modifying and reshaping them in a distorted synthesis via electronic sounds. This extracts new meanings from the usual delicate sounds we expect from Iranian classical music: sounds of melancholy, nightmarish horror, exotic morphs and altered timbres. In Sote’s works, Iranian classical music is deconstructed and then reconstructed in a new order, in a new context shaped by electronic sounds and techniques.
Unlike those three aforementioned albums, Sote’s new recording, A majestic sound made in beautiful rotten Iran (2022) does not directly refer to Iranian classical music. Almost all the tracks have a similar formal structure: they start with a short riff that lasts until the end, with some slight sequential shifts. Although Sote describes his work as “harmonically maximalist”, some of the pieces have a mantra-like minimalist approach, immersing the listener in the atmosphere of the music. The texture becomes denser, more complicated and more tumultuous as each track progresses. Different layers are added to the initial riff, sometimes disturbing its calm with their anguish, as in ‘Forced Absence’ and ‘I’m try but I can’t reach you father’, and sometimes making it more lively and fresh, as in life”. The absence of any explicit reference to Iranian music makes this record an effort to experiment with various qualities of electronic sounds and rely on internal musical structure rather than electronic interpretations of Iranian music. In this direction, A majestic sound made in beautiful rotten Iran remember architectonics (2015) more than other works by Sote. However, the pieces are shorter and the formal structure is clearer, linking it to popular musical genres. This provides another link between Sote’s recent work and minimalism. In this disc, we are confronted with a different version of Sote. Unlike most of his works, he uses musical and sound elements that are easier to identify.
What is interesting A majestic sound made in beautiful rotten Iran is the specific song titling pattern that works as a guide to understanding the tracks as well as implying the personal dimension of this record. In ‘Forced Absence’, the added sonic layers oppress the initial riff, hiding it under an avalanche of sound. In ‘Life’ we are apparently confronted with a sound story of an individual’s life. In “I try but I can’t reach you father”, the hasty character of the piece and the playful timbres in the woodwinds of the piece create a dreamlike atmosphere, in keeping with the nostalgic and personal title of the piece. In this record, Sote has a different musical character, showcasing himself rather than providing another interpretation of Iran’s musical heritage. Unlike his earlier works, in Majestic noise…he answers the question of identity by looking inward – both through his music and his personal life.