CMU professor blends musical cultures

In pieces such as his Pittsburgh-inspired “Ravân,” Carnegie Mellon professor of composition Reza Vali fuses the Western music of his formal education with the Persian musical traditions of his native Iran to create a transcultural sound all his own. (credit: Courtesy of Reza Vali) In pieces such as his Pittsburgh-inspired “Ravân,” Carnegie Mellon professor of composition Reza Vali fuses the Western music of his formal education with the Persian musical traditions of his native Iran to create a transcultural sound all his own. (credit: Courtesy of Reza Vali)

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO)’s performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets was definitely the most heavily advertised event last weekend at Heinz Hall. But tucked at the beginning of the program was an event with local flavor: the world premiere of the PSO’s “Elements” series, a piece commissioned from five Pittsburgh composers by the Orchestra.

Among those five composers is Reza Vali, a Carnegie Mellon professor of composition and director of research and education at the Center for Iranian Music on campus, which Vali co-founded last year. Vali wrote one of the five movements in the piece, connected to the other movements by a common motif: the elements — fire, earth, wind, water, and metal.

Vali chose water. As a Pittsburgh composer, he’s inspired by the bodies of water that shape the city. His favorite is the Youghiogheny River, a wide body of water that flows into the Monongahela River, one of the three rivers of Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh is the city of rivers,” he said. “But I particularly like the Yough.”

The river inspired the name for Vali’s movement: “Ravân.” The title is a Persian word meaning “flowing,” but its root comes from the Persian verb ravar. Sound like an English word you know? “If you say ‘river’ in the Pittsburgh dialect, you get very close to that,” Vali said.

Despite his love of Pittsburgh rivers, Vali grew up on the other side of the globe. He was born in Qazvin, Iran, about 100 miles north of Tehran. When he was young, his father bought an accordion for his younger brother — but Vali picked it up instead. He was too small to play it upright, so he laid it on the ground, playing it by pushing and pulling it horizontally across the floor.

When he was 13, Vali read in a magazine that the great 20th-century composer Béla Bartók had collected Hungarian folk music. “The idea of collecting folk music really appealed to me,” he said. He began doing research of his own, recording the oral traditions of Persian musicians on cassette tapes. In his studies, first at the Tehran Conservatory of Music and later at the Academy of Music in Vienna, Vali immersed himself in Western music, but he eventually found himself drawn back to Persian music.

The Persian music system is called dastgah — a word that comes from the roots for “hand” and “place,” named for the act of pressing fingers to a fingerboard. After opening his eyes to dastgah for the first time, Vali said, “It kind of blew my mind.”

“Persian music intervals are different,” Vali explained. The Persian octave has 24 notes, as opposed to the 12 in a Western chromatic scale, so Persian musicians actually have more notes at their disposal than traditional classical composers. In the Western system, these would be called half-tones or quarter-tones: pitches that don’t count as “true” notes because they lie between the notes of the Western system.

But Vali faced a serious obstacle in his desire to pursue dastgah. In order to understand Persian music, he said, “You have to play a Persian instrument, and I couldn’t.”

As a trombonist, Vali was too practiced in Western music to easily pick up a Persian instrument. Furthermore, dastgah is an oral system; according to Vali, it takes 25 to 30 years to become a proficient Persian musician, just because the process of memorizing the music takes so long.

But Vali was determined. His solution? If he couldn’t pick up a Persian instrument, he would invent one. “I cheated,” Vali joked, explaining, “I wanted to know how the system really works.” Thus, the arghonoon was born — a silent keyboard hooked up to a computer, which uses software to send a pitch back to the instrument.

Vali’s work is now based primarily in dastgah. “Ravân,” of course, was an exception; writing a piece for Western instruments in Persian scales would essentially be asking those musicians to relearn how to play. “It would be a nightmare,” Vali said. Several Western instruments, like the oboe, don’t even have the capacity to play pitches between notes. But these limitations haven’t stopped Vali, or some of his colleagues. Vali recently struck a deal with Neal Berntsen, a professor of trumpet and chair of the brass division at Carnegie Mellon. Vali would compose a piece for Berntsen for trumpet, but only if Berntsen learned to play Persian trumpet.

Incredibly, Berntsen complied. He ordered a custom alteration to one of his trumpets, adding a fourth tab to the instrument. This tab could lower the pitch of a note by a quarter of a tone, allowing the trumpet to play the notes-between-notes dictated by the Persian system. The result was, as Vali called it, a microtonal trumpet.

With diverse pursuits in both musical traditions, Vali found himself immersed first in Western music, then in Persian music, and finally in a fusion of the two. As for his Persian trumpet collaboration with Berntsen, Vali hopes it will be ready for the Brevard Music Center Festival in North Carolina, where he hopes to premiere it this summer.