Composer Reza Vali will mark retirement with a pair of Persian music concerts at Carnegie Mellon
by JEREMY REYNOLDS
Nov 2, 2022
The rhythms of Persian traditional music defy Western music notation. They’re intricate and complex and give the music a fluid sense of motion.
Persian music is also mostly improvised, or made up on the spot, according to stylistic rules.
“In a way it comes closest to jazz,” said Reza Vali, an Iranian-American composer who writes traditional and cross-cultural music for chamber ensembles and orchestras like the Pittsburgh Symphony. He has also been recorded widely, most recently at the Smithsonian Museum, and has also published books on Persian traditional music.
The Babel Flute recently featured an article by Australian flutist Laura Chislett about my works for flute.
Western criticism considers Reza Vali as the “Persian Bartók”, given that he combines traditional work with modern compositional techniques, follows formal procedures and uses effective and enchanting rhythms.
"Whenever possible I spend a week of my summers at a chamber music course in Bennington, VT, swapping my critic’s pen for a violin bow. It’s a joyful experience — but humbling, too, as I struggle to match the sounds I produce to the ones I hear in concerts all year long. An embarrassingly large chunk of my coaching sessions are given over to tweaking the intonation of, say, Debussy’s String Quartet. So it was with awe and a pang of envy that I listened on Wednesday to the premiere of Reza Vali’s “Ormavi,” performed by the Carpe Diem String Quartet, whose members are here on the faculty.
The work takes its title from a 13th-century Persian music theorist and uses some of the ancient modes he codified. Where the Western scale is broken down into 12 equidistant steps, these modes are built from irregular intervals requiring the performers to internalize spaces that differ microscopically from the quarter tones sometimes called for in contemporary compositions. The resulting music was vibrant and richly expressive, with the quartet often acting as a single multihued instrument. Much of the music plays with — and slyly undermines — the concept of unison, with players tracing almost identical melodic contours or sustaining high pitches a hair’s-width apart. The resulting interference created washes of brilliant, throbbing color. Delicate pizzicato movements evoked the filigree wisps of Persian calligraphy.
The Carpe Diem players turned in a fiery and flexible performance that was astonishingly free given the unfamiliar tuning system. Here were four musicians who had thrown their hard-won concepts of Western intonation overboard in order to learn a new language to the point beyond fluency, where they communicated with eloquence and zest."
"Vali is a composer of wonderful clarity, precision and effectiveness."
"Reza Vali creates a music that appeals to the entire world."
"Leave all conception of belly dancing and new-age syncretism at the door in Reza Vali's 'Persian Folklore,' a thoughtful collection of compositions by an artist who has been cited as an Iranian Bartók in bringing a deep understanding of his native folk music in consort with Western classical techniques."
"Vali's eclectic craft makes him a unique voice on the contemporary music scene."
"Had Bela Bartók gathered folk material from Persia, his string quartets might have turned out something like Reza Vali's Folk Songs for a string quartet."
"Vali's pieces are haunting. They are also full of pungent sonorities, and ingenious combinations."
"Song by Iranian Reza Vali is an intriguing oriental-flavored voice and instrument duet for a single player, one of the most effective singing/playing wind pieces I've come across."
"Vali's String Quartet No. 2 is a bold, uncompromising emotional journey with motivic materials that undergo striking transformations…Every gesture in this dark, violent piece serves to advance the expressive content."
"Reza Vali's ear-opening 'Persian Folklore'…dominated the event, as a lion dominates a landscape of zebras. Urgent, cogent and tautly dramatic."
"Reza Vali's 'Seven Persian Folk Songs' ranged in mood from childlike simplicity to near terrifying force, in a highly successful blend of Western music with Vali's native Persian folk music."
"'Seven Persian Folk Songs' by Reza Vali is a memorable song cycle, with sensuous and beautiful sonorities as well as brutal forcefulness."
"'Four Persian Folk Songs' by Reza Vali were exotic gems…The songs made up a balanced set - the plaintive chant wail of the voice over steady drip of piano in 'Rain', the lusty vocals over raucous motoric piano dance of 'Kurdish Folk Song', the haunting sadness of 'Lullaby', beautifully sustained, and the harsh mockery, shrill anger and untamed percussion of 'Folk Song from Luristan.'"
"Reza Vali's 'Vazena' was not only a fascinating study of color, the majority of the timbres being bell-like or tinkly, but also had rich substance…The calm but mournful expressiveness, like the passing of events on the breadth of wind, makes the work all the more compelling."