Iranian cinema: Film music
The Sound of Music
by Massoud Mehrabi
Cultural experts from 24 countries gathered in Qazvin (a city in north Iran) in November 2009 to witness unveiling of the first string instrument of the world, which is known as the Iranian harp and has been rehabilitated by UNESCO. The instrument, which dates back to 4,000 B.C., has been unearthed by explorers of the University of Chicago after discovery of a collection of historical objects on the hills of Khuzestan province. A picture of the world’s most ancient orchestra has been also inscribed on one of the discovered objects.
What is known today as the Iranian music has been disconnected from its glorious past. Invasion of the country by foreign peoples has brought about frequent changes to its culture and civilization and has eliminated some aspects of that civilization. Most of those changes occurred after invasions by the Alexander and, especially, Arabs. Arabs brought a new religion with them. Iranians gradually converted to Islam and, in return, Arabs got their hands on a trove of science which was far beyond their imagination. Before the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722) which was based on the Shiite branch of Islam as well as the Iranian identity, original arts of Iran, from stone cutting to music, had been crushed under pressure of previous rulers. It was under the Safavid rule that the Iranian music was revived to the “extent” that was allowed by tolerant religious leaders. Music grew in line with the Timurid musical school which was in vogue at that time. Of course, musicians were so afraid of the lay people that they sometimes diminished the size of their string instruments so as to hide them in wide sleeves of their cloaks. Painters also reduced the size of their paintings to the level that their works were later called “miniature” by western orientalists.
Since early 20th century, Iranian musicians tried to break new grounds far beyond old traditions. They classified the repertoire of traditional music, which had been handed down from one generation to the next, under new systems, but they failed to distance from 19th century melodies and tunes. This was when cinema made its debut as a 20th century phenomenon.
Film music in Iran should be studied in the context of such a historical background.
Before sound was introduced to movies in October 1927, Iranian movie theaters screened foreign films which were imported from Europe (especially Russia) and the United States in the same way that was exercised in western theaters. For a long time, “motion picture” was amazing enough to obviate the need for sound. After films were made with intertitles, a new profession came into being in Iran which was known as dilmaj (a Turkish word meaning “interpreter). A dilmaj was a person who stood close to the movie screen and read out intertitles to the audience. Some of them were cunning enough to adapt story of those films to Iranian stories, thus, indigenizing them in order to attract more viewers. There were also better movie theaters where intertitles were first translated into Persian and were then replaced for original intertitles. Musical players were gradually invited into theaters. If a dilmaj happened to be also a musical player with a pleasant voice, it would have been a great boost to the business of theater owner. Although music for silents was first played by pianos (Alexander Levin and his wife, both Russian immigrants, played the piano for the first time at Mayac movie theater of Tabriz), piano was not the favorite instrument of Iranians and, before long, gave way to original instruments like tambour, tar and traditional drums.
Short after introduction of sound movies, the phenomenon extended to the Iranian cinema through Lor Girl (Abdolhossein Sepanta, 1932). However, that film, which had been made in India, was actually devoid of film music in its true sense. Since sound recording had been done on the set, both leading characters sang sounds accompanied with the Iranian string and percussion instruments and piano. In his second feature, Shirin and Farhad (1934), Sepanta hired Mostafa Nouriani, a skillful violin player. For his next three films, all of which were shot in India, he ordered Amir Hosseini and Alinaqi Vaziri (famous masters of the Iranian music) to compose scores. Unfortunately, no copy of those films is available to allow judgment about quality of their music.
Although no feature films were made in Iran between Sepanta’s last film (1937) to The Storm of Life (1948), film music greatly prospered. What saved the Iranian cinema was popularity of composers and mostly singers among people due to rapid development of radio (followed by concerts and cabarets). Ruhollah Khaleqi (conductor), Abolhassan Saba (composer), Hossein Tehrani (percussion), Morteza Mahjoubi (piano), and Gholamhossein Banan (singer) were all among the most popular and most famous names in the original Iranian music of that time and all of them were involved in The Storm of Life. After that film and that year, there was no popular singer and dancer unless they played a role in the Iranian cinema. Apart from low-key presence of masters of the original Iranian music, the mainstream cinema of Iran was at the service of composers, singers, and dancers from cabarets. Therefore, cinema-cabaret was a common term used by all people, from the general public to intellectuals.
After development of modern Iranian cinema in 1960s, film music was revolutionized at the hands of creative musicians like Morteza Hannaneh, Hormoz Farhat, Ahmad Pezhman, Fereidoun Nasseri, Babak Bayat, Farhad Fakhreddini, and especially, Esfandiyar Monfaredzadeh. Scores composed for The Husband of Ahoo Khanum, The Cow, and Qaysar are brilliant examples of that development in 1960s, which continued until the end of 1970s in artistic films of the Iranian cinema.
One year after the Islamic Revolution (1979), music was almost shut down in Iran, so that, up to two or three months into 1981, revolutionary and religious ballads (without music) and occasional marches played in the absence of string instruments were only forms of music allowed. Religious ulema and political leaders came up with different accounts on music and the result was a ban on music. That situation was only toned down through fatwas issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and mediation of people like Ataollah Zahedi, who was both a religious figure and familiar with film and music. Instead of the Iranian National Music Center, Tehran symphonic orchestra and philharmonic orchestra, which had been already shut down making their players jobless, Revolutionary Ballads and Songs Center was established and hired few musicians who had not left the country yet.
Cinema played the same role for post-revolution music that radio had played to help the Iranian cinema get to its feet many years ago. Music returned to the society through cinema by some of those aforementioned prominent musicians. After a long, bumpy road, the Iranian film music has now reached an admirable high; though, still missing the melody of its 6,000-year harp.
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