How Persian folk songs fit right in
Music: Reza Vali says his Iranian-inspired pieces have Latin relatives and work well for Cuarteto Latinoamericano.
By BENJAMIN EPSTEIN
The Los Angeles Times
October 16, 1997
Reza Vali was born in Iran, collects and transcribes Persian folk songs and is one of very few composers writing Persian-inspired Western classical music.
So why is Vali's music opening tonight's program by Cuarteto Latinoamericano at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, an event described in promotional materials as "a concert of works by composers whose works are Latin-influenced"?
One reason may be that for more than a decade Vali and the members of the Mexico City-based string quartet have been colleagues on the music faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"We have become very good friends," Vali, 45, said by phone from his Pittsburgh home.
Vali also cites a deeper, musical connection, one that stretches decades further back in time, to his teenage years, when he became inspired by the melody-gathering field methods of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.
"Some people collect stamps, some people stones," Vali said. "I started collecting folk music."
Vali draws on his studies of Bartok to explain why his own music fits right in with the works of Heitor Villalobos, Joaquin Turina and Alberto Ginastera.
"The roots of Hungarian folk music are not just in Hungary," Vali said. "Bartok went to Turkey and North Africa, and reading his articles I realized that folk music is an international phenomenon. The folk music of Iran is connected not only to its neighbors', but to Hungary and Eastern Europe, even to Native American music down to South America.
"Folk music is really a timeless phenomenon. Musical ideas transfer from one part of the world to another via migrations. The Turkomans living in a region of Iran are Chinese in origin. Possibly they came with the Mongol invasion in the 12th century. Their music is not only connected to the folk music of China, but to that of the shamans of Siberia, and from there you can find similarities to Native American music--North American and South American."
Vali began his musical studies at the Conservatory of Music in Tehran. In 1972, he went to Vienna to study composition and music education at the Academy of Music. He earned his doctorate in music theory and composition in 1985 at the University of Pittsburgh.
He has written several works for Cuarteto Latinoamericano, well-known for championing the works of Latin American composers, and plans to write more. Besides their posts at Carnegie Mellon, violinists Saul and Aron Bitran, violist Javier Montiel and cellist Alvaro Bitran serve as quartet-in-residence at Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico City.
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Vali's first string quartet was composed for, and premiered in 1989 by, the Kronos Quartet. Other works have been scored for large orchestra, for piano and voice, and for electronic and computer media, but all are part of an open-ended cycle of Persian folk songs--either authentic or imaginary, i.e., those he composed--to which he assigns set numbers. He's up to Set No. 14.
The Cuarteto Latinoamericano will perform Vali's Set No. 11B, based on two folk songs, the first imaginary and the second originating in northwestern Iran, near Afghanistan. The set is a reworking for string quartet of a piece for four cellos commissioned by Ensemble Cello. (Appropriately enough, though Vali initially missed the irony, his favorite Persian dish before he became vegetarian was the meat plate known as chelo kebab!)
Vali recently has become very interested in Persian medieval music. He plans to research the subject in Iran and visit his family during a sabbatical next year. He continues to use the folk songs of his homeland as source material but no longer refers to his settings as Persian. The aforementioned migration of musical ideas only partly explains that decision.
"There is also parallel development and evolution, phenomena in music that are hard-wired into the human brain," Vali said. "The overtone series, for instance, goes across all nations, it is a human phenomenon. All the waters of the earth flow to each other--and folk music is somehow like this."
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* Cuarteto Latinoamericano plays at 8 p.m. today at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $14-$24. The program features works by Reza Vali, Villalobos, Ginastera, Joaquin Turina, Miguel del Aguila and Arturo Marquez. (714) 740-7878. Sponsored by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and Philharmonic Society of Orange County. (714) 740-7878.