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Album Of The Week

Looking Inward: Majestic Noise Made In Beautiful Rotten Iran By Sote
Kamyar Salavati , March 3rd, 2022 09:21

The latest album by Iranian-American electronic music producer Sote finds the artist taking a more personal route to the expression of his musical identity, finds Kamyar Salavati

Electronic music is in a paradoxical situation in Iran. In a country where every music genre has been suffering from restrictions in the last decades, making even the most common genres a struggle to maintain, electronic music has had a surprisingly vivid and dynamic presence. Thanks to online platforms such as Soundcloud and Spotify, Iranian electronic musicians have found their target audience. Besides, a passionate yet small society of listeners has developed during recent years, even establishing their own international Tehran-based festival and annual prize for electronic music in collaboration with two major universities in Tehran. The supposed ‘abstract’ nature of this genre and its more intellectual (or elitist) audience has also paved the way for the continuation of its livelihood with little fear of censorship. 

My first experience of experiencing electronic music performances in Iran was at a festival in Tehran, TCMF, in a black box originally designed for theatre performances. What was stood out from the performances at that festival – and most records by electronic musicians in Iran - was the question of identity: how should they face the unlimited world of electronic music using their ‘own’ Iranian musical heritage? How to not get lost in this maze of endless options, in a genre which had developed in its birthplace for years?

This concern with ‘identity’, which sometimes seems like an insecure fear of becoming a kind of nobody in today’s interwoven global music horizon, is reflected in the musicians’ constant inspiration from Iranian classical and folk music. This concern has shaped the ideas of many electronic works in Iran. It is significant that the first renowned electronic music composer was Dariush Dowlatshahi (b. 1948), a tar player and Iranian classical musician, who started to write electronic pieces in the 70s. He had his own style of playing the tar, the principal instrument of Iranian Classical music. Alongside Alireza Mashayekhi (b. 1940), he was of the first generation of Iranian electronic music composers. Electronic music composers have adopted many aspects of Iranian classical music so far, ranging from merely conceptual inspirations to directly applying melodic and rhythmic patterns. However, some artists from the third generation of electronic musicians have cut this tie, as they see theirselves now as an established part of this international musical network. 

Ata Ebtekar, aka Sote, the Iranian-American musician, is one of the second-generation of electronic music composers in Iran. Born in 1972, he has released eleven albums so far and is known as one of the most influential figures in the genre. Although he has said that he seeks “music without a specific culture”, he has attempted to deal with his motherland’s musical heritage in his works. This is specifically apparent in records such as Dastgah (2006), Parallel Persia (2019), and Sacred Horror in Design (2017). In these works, he uses Iranian classical instruments, modes, phrasings, rhythmic patterns, and melodies, modifying and reshaping them in a deformed synthesis via electronic sounds. This extracts new meanings out of the usual delicate sounds we expect from Iranian classical music: sounds of melancholia, nightmarish horror, exotic morphs, and altered timbres. In Sote’s works, Iranian classical music is deconstructed and then reconstructed in a new order, within a new context shaped by electronic sounds and techniques. 

Unlike those three aforementioned albums, Sote’s new recording, Majestic Noise Made in Beautiful Rotten Iran (2022) does not directly refer to Iranian classical music. Almost all the pieces have a similar formal structure: they start with a short riff which lasts until the end, with some slight sequential shifts. Though Sote describes his work as “harmonically maximalist”, some of the pieces have a mantra-like, minimalist approach, immersing the listener into the atmosphere of the music. The texture gets denser, more complicated, and more tumultuous as each track moves on. Different layers are added to the initial riff, sometimes disturbing its calm by their anxiety, such as in ‘Forced Absence’ and ‘I’m trying but I can’t reach you father’, and sometimes making it more lively and fresh, such as in ‘Life’. The absence of any explicit reference to Iranian music makes this record an effort to experiment with various qualities of electronic sounds, and to rely on the inner musical structure rather than the electronic interpretations of Iranian music. In this sense, Majestic Noise Made in Beautiful Rotten Iran is reminiscent of Architectonic (2015) more than other works by Sote. However, the pieces are shorter and the formal structure is more clear, linking it to popular music genres. This provides another connection between Sote’s recent work and minimalism. In this record, we face a different version of Sote. Unlike most of his works, he uses more easy-to-identify musical and sonic elements. 

What is interesting about Majestic Noise Made in Beautiful Rotten Iran is the specific model of titling the pieces which function as a guide to understand the tracks as well as implicating the personal dimension of this record. In ‘Forced Absence’, the added sound layers oppress the initial riff, hiding it under a hustle of sounds. In ‘Life’, we seemingly face a sonic story of an individual’s life. In ‘I’m trying but I can’t reach you father’, the hasty character of the track and the playful woodwind-like timbres of the piece create a dreamy atmosphere, in accord with the nostalgic and personal title of the piece. In this record, Sote has a different musical character, emphasizing himself rather than providing another interpretation of Iranian musical heritage. Unlike his earlier works, in Majestic Noise…, he answers the question of identity by looking inward – both through his music and his personal life.