Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Kurosh Ali Khan and the Cello in Persian Music

Kurosh Ali Khan playing a Persian cello improv on his prime-time television show, Kurosh Ali Khan va Dustan (Tehran ca. 1970)

I just wanted to post a brief Sunday Spotlight as I spent the afternoon/early evening seeing the LA Phil Live at the Cinema earlier today and I’m still gathering my thoughts about the whole experience.

Dr. Lloyd Miller (aka Kurosh Ali Khan), from what I understand, was primarily (or at least started out as) a jazz musician who eventually finished his doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Utah.  His focus was Persian music (his dissertation was titled “Music and Song in Persia” and I think I have a copy of it around here somewhere) and he spent some 7 years or so doing field work and generally integrating himself into the Persian Classical Music scene.  Miller even produced his own television series–a variety show–titled, Kurosh Ali Khan va Dustan (“Kurosh Ali Khan and friends”) during the 70s in Tehran.

A couple years ago I came across a clip from his show of him playing bedaheh navazi (literally “spontaneous playing” used by musicians to refer to improvisation) on the cello.  Of course, if any of you have been reading this blog, you’ll know that so much of the idea of improvisation in non-western cultures have very specific rules for the melodic development that this isn’t just a matter of freely playing in one of the many Persian radif.

But, as I said, I really don’t want to make this a lengthy post about Persian music theory and practice so will present the video instead for your listening pleasure.  The cello improv begins at 4:35 in the following video.

The cello didn’t make it into Persian Art music as the violin did, so there isn’t a tradition of playing Persian Art music on the cello (that I’ve come across yet, at least) and as you can see from the way Dr. Lloyd Miller is approaching the cello, it’s much more like how he plays the string bass in the clip immediately preceeding the cello clip.  And I suspect his bass training comes from the jazz background he has.

While I do play a number of Persian tunes in il Troubadore, most of  our repertoire happens to be “Persian Pop” –mostly Googoosh and Vigen Derderian tunes.  We do a couple of traditional tunes (e.g. Beshno Az Ney, Navoyee, Gole Sangam).  Of course, with my project Raks Makam I am developing a number of reng (traditional Persian dance songs) for voice/cello, so you folks may see some yet!

I did find a gorgeous arrangement of Khaleej-e Fars which has a cello obligato part performed by Ateen Khakpour (vocals, keyboard) and Sara Donaldson (cello) from a Nawruz (Persian new year) celebration in Dallas from a couple years ago.

Finally, I leave you with a video I took from a Nawruz I played last year with il Troubadore and Persian musicians.  Ehsan and Behrouz Kousari, Santoor and Zarb, both living in Muncie, Indiana where this celebration took place are playing some Classical Persian music.  Ehsan is playing on a Santoor he made himself!



Past Installments of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello


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