The Music of Ostad Elahi
A lecture by Prof. Jean During, Director of Research in Ethnomusicology, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), published in Cahiers d'Anthropologie Religieuse, No. 5, Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne
Before anything else, I would like to repeat the beautiful phrase that Professor Morris quoted to conclude his lecture on Ostad Elahi's system of thought:
I have spoken to each person within the limits of his or her understanding, but I have not yet told anyone what lies in my heart. (Traces of Truth)
Perhaps that which he could not express with words he said through his music. If Nour Ali Elahi was called "Ostad," it is because he was truly a master in the highest sense of the term, as we have witnessed throughout the course of this symposium. This title, however, is all the more fitting when it references his music, as he had attained a level in this art that is truly noteworthy.
My aim is to present some aspects of his music that are shared with eastern music and to expose his musical genius, particularly in playing the sacred lute known as the tanbur; I will also allude to the importance he attributed to music in his personal approach to mysticism. Indeed, although music was one of the major aspects of his life and practice, Ostad Elahi's art cannot be dissociated from its spiritual dimension. Music was naturally the language of his soul, a means to communicate with the supersensible and, in particular, to share his experiences and express that which cannot be stated in words. Numerous witnesses can attest to the exceptional impact his music had on its listeners during the gatherings that were convened in his home with close family members and friends.
Yesterday we heard several excerpts of these accounts from Maurice Béjart and Yehudi Menuhin. Hearing such accounts raises the following question: how could such a brilliant and charismatic musical genius have passed through this century so discretely?
While it is true that the cultural context of the east favored the confidential practice of music and held a suspicion of all forms of publicized or demagogical musical expression, in this case I believe the real reason lies in Ostad Elahi's personal ethics, which rejected all forms of pride and egotism, and his efforts to live a life of temperance marked by anonymity. It wasn't until the 60s that his artistic reputation began to spread, in particular among musicians and music lovers, after the publication of an article by Musa Marufi, a well-known master of traditional music who wrote: "I heard the tanbur of a great spiritual man who had achieved perfection in this art. His music so overwhelmed me that I felt as though I no longer belonged to this world. More astonishing still was that this music intoxicated me for several days and caused me to turn inward, to the point that I no longer paid any attention to the material world. When I finally returned to my normal state, I asked myself: 'How strange, if this is music, then what is that which we hear daily?'"
From then on, Ostad Elahi's music captured the attention of musicians. Ruhollah Khaleqi—Director of the National Academy of Music as well as a musicologist and music historian—referenced Ostad in his famous book on contemporary Persian music. However, in deference to his wishes, he did not cite Ostad by name, referring to him only as a "judge." Concerned that this music and its guardian will perish with time, Khaleqi attempted to transcribe the repertoire of what he called "the sacred melodies of ancient Iran that have little resemblance to our contemporary music." After several unsuccessful attempts, however, he realized that the finesse and subtleties of Ostad's playing did not lend themselves to transcription and abandoned the project. I can tell you that I have also replicated this same disappointing experience.
Fortunately, a small part of Ostad's playing and compositions have been recorded and preserved, two CDs of which have been produced to mark the occasion of this symposium. In addition, he also passed on his repertoire to one of his sons, Dr. Shahrokh Elahi. The publication of these CDs is not merely a nostalgic homage to the music of Ostad Elahi, but rather a contribution to humanity's artistic heritage. Contrary to what was thought in the past, this music was not destined to remain confined within the limits of the ritualistic context from which it emerged. Indeed, because of its spiritual origin and purpose, this music knows nothing of cultural divisions. It is, then, neither of the past nor of the present. Rather, as with all masterpieces, it transcends time or, dare I say, lies beyond time, for it pulls us away from our familiar space.
In addition, while Ostad's artistic approach was as exceptional and original as his spiritual path, his ideas about the profound meaning and ultimate purpose of music are general in the sense that they are not limited to the musical forms they privilege. His conception of music is in no way the result of theoretical thought or speculation, but is based entirely on personal experience and its impact on listeners.
An entire book could be dedicated to explaining these aspects, and I hope it will not be too long before it is written. I will limit myself, then, to an overview of certain musical specificities of Ostad Elahi's work. But first, I will provide a brief account of his biography that will shed light on some specific aspects of his work.
You may already know that Ostad Elahi grew up in an environment that for centuries was a cradle for spirituality and asceticism, where there were ceremonies dedicated entirely to the practice of sacred music, invocations, chants, dances, and rhythms accompanied by the tanbur. This ancient instrument dates back thousands of years, though in its current form it is estimated to be approximately two thousand years old. Its consecration, however, dates back to the 11th century. Consecration is the appropriate term here, since the great charismatic saint Shah Khoshin, who lived in Lorestan, adopted it for the first time to accompany the hymns at prayer gatherings. From that time to the present, the tanbur has remained as a sacred instrument in the tradition of those seeking the truth in the regions around Kurdistan and Lorestan and as such is played only for devotional purposes, regardless of whether its content is ritual-based or not.
Over the years, mystics known and unknown have produced a repertoire of songs and instrumental pieces of which Ostad Elahi eventually became its guardian. How did this come about? He was born into a family of musicians, and his father Hadj Nemat, who himself was a skilled tanbur player, immediately noticed the precocious talents of his son and did everything possible to develop this gift. This was relatively simple to do, since Hadj Nemat's reputation as a sage with many wonders had spread far and had attracted numerous visitors, among which were musicians and tanbur players. As this young child had an extraordinary memory, he quickly learned the melodies one after the next; all he had to do was hear them once to memorize them. By the age of six, which is quite young for playing this instrument, he played quite well; by the age of nine he was considered a master of the tanbur, one before whom other masters would refrain from playing in accordance with custom and as a sign of deference.
But all this was merely the beginning of an astounding artistic trajectory that would bring him to the highest levels of this music and to the fountain of inspiration itself. One of the decisive factors was probably the twelve-year cycle of asceticism that he undertook under the direction of his father. It was during this time that he found himself in a profoundly spiritual environment, far from the clamor and attractions of the world, where his sole confidant was the tanbur. In the evenings when everyone went to sleep, he would close the doors to his room, turn off the lights, and play until dawn. Years later he would say: "In my youth, I practiced various forms of asceticism and devotion related to different mystical paths, but to no avail. I then set aside all of that and took up my instrument: veils parted and the Truth came to light."
From an aesthetic and philosophical point of view, this sort of testimony is very precious in the sense that it affirms the special character of an art and music that ultimately, far from the slogan of "art for the sake of art," serves as a paradigm of knowledge and as the essence of thought.
This remarkable period ended around the age of twenty-four. Shortly after the death of his father, he decided to leave behind the exceptional environment of his birthplace so as to adopt an ordinary life. He went to Tehran, in the tumult of the capital, where he met with the renowned mystics and musicians of the time. He thus had the opportunity to work with such individuals as Darvish Khan, who was perhaps the greatest musician of his time, and later with AbolHasan Saba. These renowned musicians considered him as their master with respect to the charisma and sheer impact of his music. During this period, Ostad Elahi learned to play traditional Persian instruments as well.
Ostad's attention to traditional Persian music contributed to the enrichment of his repertoire and his outlook on the music of the time. He had an instrument made for him that at first glance appears quite simple. It was a big tanbur with five strings instead of three, but with a different positioning of the frets in chromatic order; unlike the Western guitar, this positioning produced the three-quarter tones of eastern scales. He played this instrument in a manner that synthesized the original tradition of tanbur with that of traditional Persian music. Unfortunately, no one else was able to play it.
During his judicial assignments to various towns in Iran, Ostad would befriend the best musicians in each area and learn the best features of their work. That is why in addition to the tanbur, he also played the ney (flute), the kamanche (fiddle), the zamare (double flute), the daf (frame drum), and the violin.
From the point of view of an ethnomusicologist, I would first like to understand what really happened. How was this young child able to surpass this tradition, transforming and transfiguring it? I will set aside the elements of genetics and inherent genius. Around the age of 11, however, a profound internal transformation occurred following an unusual event. Thereafter it was as if he had access to another dimension, one in which the inexhaustible source of melodies and harmonies lies and all great musical traditions have evoked in various ways.
Returning back to the physical world, music is played with the hands and the body, and in this regard it should be noted that he was ambidextrous. His morphology was well constituted for the instrument and his hands were strong and powerful. I also think—and this is merely a personal assumption—that it was his keen sense of justice and equity that brought him to use all five fingers of each hand to play an instrument that had customarily been played with the two fingers of the left and right hands. Moreover, as he began playing the tanbur at a very young age, it is also possible that he naturally used all his fingers in order to have a broader range of motion on the neck of the instrument. In any case, he gradually developed a technique for the fingers of each hand that is virtually unmatched for playing this kind of instrument.
Another detail concerning his sense of equity lies in the fact that Ostad would strike certain notes with the left hand, deeming it insufficient that this hand content itself with merely placing the fingers at the frets to modify tones. He thus increased the instrument's technical field. Personally, I believe there is a continuity between gesture and ornamentation, between ornamentation and style, between style and esthetics, between esthetics and expression, between expression and intention, between intention and inspiration, and, ultimately, the mystical dimension, a process in which the body has its own rights and say.
I would also like to remind you that the foundation of Ostad Elahi's music derives from an essentially oral tradition in which certain individuals who knew the sacred scriptures would chant them, and the tanbur—which initially had two strings and to which Ostad added a third—would be used to help them recall these psalmodies.
This music, then, is originally intended for prayer and meditation, and from an aesthetic standpoint does not surpass the level of ordinary music; it can be learned through simple imitation. The fact that it remained secret is due not only to its ritualistic status, but also because it was perhaps not of sufficient artistic interest for demanding music lovers. I have often heard and recorded music of this origin, and I can say that it is far from extraordinary. It's basis, nevertheless, is not banal: it is probably a remnant of an ancient culture that has been sheltered from external influences due to the closed character of the environment in which it was played. It is a music related to pre-Islamic Persian culture, with unique features that I have not found anywhere else in the East (meaning from Turkey to China) and is based on a scale of alternating tones and half tones.
Another specificity of this music that is perhaps even more surprising is its chromaticism, and I have evidence that it is an archaic scale belonging to the Iranian world. This kind of truly chromatic structure is quite exceptional in the modal landscape of eastern music.
These few remarks are intended only to stress the originality of the fundamental structures of this music. But in the hands of Ostad Elahi, the skillful combinations of different types of scales produces tones that are at times incredibly modern, breaking with all eastern modal habits. We are under the impression, then, that this music, which remains harmonious at all times (even when apparently breaking the rules of harmonies of modal consonance) adheres to other laws, the secrets of which the author alone held.
Consequently, Ostad Elahi gradually vivified, renewed, completed, and transcended this musical tradition on many different levels, including musical creativity in its particular sense that led to the composition of melodies, technical and stylistic contributions, transformation in musical tradition, and, finally, the impact of his art on its listeners.
I have to limit my discussion to technical and esthetic aspects and then touch upon a few spiritual aspects. As far as Ostad Elahi's creativity is concerned, it was demonstrated best by his compositions, arrangements, ornamentation of traditional melodic schemes and their development and variation, and especially the improvisations that constituted his most notable modes of creation. At the same time, he also codified more than 75 modes or melodic types that serve as the basis for these famous improvisations.
To these modes were added about a hundred brief melodies called zekr or sarband that are comprised of hymns with lyrics, some of which are quite ancient. Ostad Elahi expanded a great number of these melodies, most of which he created, revived, or recreated himself, though he has never claimed any as his own due to his modesty.
The repertoire of Ostad Elahi is considerably larger than that of the most qualified tanbur players we find in these regions. The existing recordings and tapes attest to this, notwithstanding that fact that these tapes are but a small part of what he played, and by his own admission merely a fraction of that which he played throughout his childhood and youth. We have at our disposal, then, only the tip of the iceberg.
Another aspect of his creativity was his mastery at renewing and recreating. Each time he played the same piece, one would have the impression he was playing a unique piece that had all the characteristics of a perfect model. For instance, if one were to ask you which version of the Sheykh Amiri mode was best, you could say it was the one you just finished hearing, or you could just as easily say it was the previous one; in reality, they were all the best renditions. A traditional musician always has a model. When students come to see him, he teaches them this model and when he plays he elaborates around the same models. The height of an art, however, is reaching a point where each rendition becomes a model itself.
Ostad Elahi's musical discourse was constantly irrigated with new ideas, and repetition was limited to what was necessary for maintaining unity. This characteristic is seen in a different light when one recognizes that in their traditional versions, these pieces are comprised of no more than two or three themes that are repeated mechanically. Their expansion and embellishment, as heard on the recordings, are the creations of Ostad Elahi; Yehudi Menuhin confirmed this in his interview yesterday: "I listened to him play for half an hour on a range of five notes. His melodies never extended beyond four or five tones, meaning that he was able to captivate his audience within an extremely small space." For Yehudi Menuhin, who has heard music from all over the world and was himself adept at playing Indian music, this was extraordinary.
Ostad Elahi greatly emphasized the spiritual dimension of music. He always said that one should not limit oneself to the science of music, for it is when you go beyond the repertoire and technique that inspiration emerges. Nevertheless, I will explain a few technical aspects of his music.
Ostad Elahi innovated and modified all the techniques he needed for what he sought to convey. He added a third string, which seems of little importance, but in fact changes everything. Indeed, he could now produce heterophonic effects, meaning that sounds start to become interwoven.
He developed heterophonic elements and aggregates of homogeneous notes that have nothing to do with chords. Rather, it is a question of meeting points, of notes encountering each other and producing astonishing harmonies that he has named "celestial harmonies" or "celestial notes."
The use of all five fingers of the right hand is another technique resulting from Ostad Elahi's innovation; it is a fundamental movement that can only be mastered after three or four years of practice, which explains why few tanbur players have managed to integrate it, though many currently have an eye on this music. I will not enter into the details of these movements, especially since at Ostad Elahi's transcendent level, all movements become possible. According to many witnesses, when he was playing there was often the impression that several instruments were simultaneously playing.
What he did for the right hand he likewise did for the left: he developed a virtuosity that is incomparable to what I call "horizontal virtuosity," which consists in racing from one high point of the scale to the low point.
He developed a concentrated virtuosity, similar to working on a note with a laser, in order to extract its full potential. That is why even his most simple melodies explode in all directions. When one says that polyphony and harmony are the conditions for musical perfection, therefore, I say that there is still a lot to be done in ornamenting a few little notes, and this ornamentation itself is already polyphony.
With respect to these technical aspects, I would only like to highlight the point that all these innovations are the result of Ostad Elahi's integration and conversion of traditional forms, as well as his personal approach. Ostad Elahi didn't build something outside of a tradition; rather, in his work, tradition is a seed that has sprouted and is continuously and infinitely producing flowers.
The basis of this technical and esthetic research corresponds to a personal approach resulting from a high esthetic demand in the service of a mystical art with striking effects; it was never intended to prove anything. That same principle of probity and sincerity that was discussed earlier today causes one to play for oneself and for God. That is why we had to wait until the end of the 60s for this music to slowly and gradually resound in the artistic life of Iran.
In Ostad Elahi's art, playing style and gesticulation are not a skill intended to impress others. Rather, this virtuosity transmits a sense of excitement to the listener while the technical aspects are forgotten in the process.
Nonetheless, I would like to once more go back to the transcendent dimension of Ostad Elahi's playing technique. I do not believe that the hand is merely a docile worker at the command of sublime forms: something different is going on, something quite powerful that resembles what martial arts practitioners have described—the reality that there is a moment when one reaches a higher dimension that seems to transcend the laws of causality and physics. When a boxer trains for years and breaks a door with a punch, it is the perfection of physical force. But when a martial arts master breaks only the fourth brick in a pile of bricks with one blow, we begin to wonder and inquire whether there is some other form of energy at work. I hope you will forgive my audacity, for I realize I am overstepping my bounds as an ethnomusicologist of the CNRS, but one cannot extend the limits of knowledge if one does not push against the boundaries, and pushing against the boundaries is a form of transcending them.
Here, we arrive at a paradox that is at times noted by tanbur players after having heard Ostad play. Even when amplified, the tanbur does not emanate much sound in my hands. Yet, when Ostad Elahi played this instrument one could distinctly hear it amid the loud sounds of the sorna (wind instrument) and kettledrum.
By citing these examples my intention is not to prove Ostad Elahi's artistic value or his musical genius. Insofar as it is my duty to remain objective, one could object that many of the remarkable characteristics that have been noted—virtuosity, ornamentation, innovation, and improvisation—can also be found in other forms of music. But what remains remarkable is the conjunction of all these perfect qualities in one music and on different levels: uniqueness of creativity, innovation coupled with prolificity, originality of style, complete mastery, total freedom of expression, compactness coupled with simplicity, joy and ecstasy, etc., all merged into a clear and fluid tune. In short, beginning with almost nothing and ending up with almost everything.
But genius is such only insofar as an audience recognizes and identifies with it. There is no doubt that the music lovers who hear the published CDs of Ostad Elahi will side with the witnesses who have had the chance to hear and see him firsthand. In a sense, his contribution will remain a unique moment in the ancient tradition of the sacred tanbur, as well as a rare moment in eastern music in general.
On the other hand, something has no doubt survived in the traditional music, and the recent appearance of the tanbur in Iranian musical orchestras is one such minor effect. At the same time, we can rejoice in the fact that, although he had no pupils who were able to safeguard his musical heritage, he did pass on his art to his son Shahrokh Elahi.
It is highly unlikely that such a great and accomplished master in the realm of music will appear any time soon. In another time and in another era, it is certain that Ostad Elahi would have joined the ranks of musical legends such as the Greek Orpheus, the Persian Barbad, and the Indian Tansen (whom it is said died in flames because the maharajah forced him to play the raga of fire). Similar to these illustrious masters of sound, his music would have disappeared and the specificities of his character would have vanished into myth. But we are fortunate to live in an era in which it was possible to record his music.
It seems to me it has now become possible to answer the question posed some thousand years ago by another scientist of Iranian origin, Avicenna: "Faced with all the sciences I said: 'Here is man, but where is science?' Faced with music I said: 'Here is science, but where is man?'"