I first heard the balalaika in a short piece broadcast on a Tehran radio station some forty years ago. Mesmerized, I remembered the enchanting tremolo for three decades before hearing it again, this time awe-struck by Quartet Skaz’s marvelous album Balastroika.
Would it be possible to marry the warmth and delicacy, the brilliance and exuberance, and the fullness and strength of domras and balalaikas to Iranian music? Russian folk instruments are eminently suited to Russian folk music. But most Iranian music is different, in temperament, in harmony, tempo, meter, even in tuning.
And would it be best to use the flexibility of original composition to better showcase the instruments, or to forge a new connection between the folk cultures of the two nations by also presenting Iranian folk melodies to the Russian audience?
The latter choice seemed irresistible.
A truly wonderful feature of the folk music of Iran is the variety in styles and idioms across the country’s regions. To represent this variety, I opted for a larger number of shorter pieces. Selecting melodies from an assortment of 250, I mostly arranged the folk material without excessive additions. I hope that this has also helped minimize the risk of misrepresenting folk melodies, national patrimony, to a foreign audience.
The collection offers a sampling not only of the famous love songs, but also of the often chromatic turns of Azarbaijan, the sweet and seductive phrases of the Caspian coast, the lively dances of Kordestan and Lorestan, and the more robust temperament, quintuple meters, and pentatonic modes of the east. “Bandari” is a nod to the importance of rhythm in the music of the Persian Gulf coast, and a tongue-in-cheek reference to the tonbak, the much-loved Iranian finger drum. The dopa dance genre of Lorestan is represented twice. The first is a traditional rendition. In the second, having found Dmitri Shostakovich’s cryptogram in an Iranian folk motif, I took liberties to attempt a musical joke. An unusual piece, “Simorgh” is a musical representation of two birds dancing.
It was the earlier work of Quartet Skaz that had inspired me. That they took an interest in this project was a dream come true. Whatever merit my arrangements may appear to have is due entirely to their artistry. One thing is clear, in the hands of such masters, domras and balalaikas are not merely Russian folk instruments: they are universal.
I recommend listening in a quiet place at low volume. Sorrow should be as hard to hear as it is to bear.