“Lessons from the Ostad”

Bruno Nettl is a key figure in ethnomusicology and musicology. Bruno Nettl was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930, moved to United States in 1939, studied at Indiana University and the University of Michigan, and has taught since 1964 at the |University of Illinois, where he is Professor Emeritus of Music and Anthropology, continuing to teach part-time. Active principally in the field of ethnomusicology, he has done field research with Native American peoples (1960s and 1980s), in Iran (1966, 1968-69, 1972, 1974), and in Southern India (1981-2). He has served as president of the Society for Ethnomusicology and as editor of its journal, Ethnomusicology. Nettl holds honorary doctorates from the University of Illinois, Carleton College, Kenyon College, and the University of Chicago. He is a recipient of the Fumio Koizumi Prize for ethnomusicology, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This article was requested by Ali Zarrin to describe Professor Nettl’s personal experience with renown grand master of Persian music Dr. Nour-Ali Boroumand.  The article has been translated in Persian by Ali Zarrin however, the original version of this article is posted here for the first time with the kind permission from Professor Nettl.


Outrageous Coincidences.

I have spent most of my life working in the field of ethnomusicology, which is usually considered to be a subdivision of the discipline of musicology (research about music), a subdivision concerned with the study of the world’s music from a comparative, that is relativistic perspective, and it is also the study of music as a part of culture, that is, the anthropology of music. It might be proper to say that we call ethnomusicology should really be considered the larger parent of discipline, while what is usually called “musicology,” the study of the history of Western classical music should be the subdivision. But however we make these definitions, ha field of ethnomusicology has certainly developed a set of methods and approaches, and as l had the privilege of studying classical music in Iran over a number of years and hope that my use of these methods and approaches made it possible for me to contribute something to the understanding of Persian music.

But of course the contribution has been reciprocal, and so I want to suggest that what I may have learned about Persian music, and the ways in which I was directed to learn about Persian music, greatly changed my understanding of music as a whole, and particularly my interpretation of the Western classical music in which I grew up.

I have always felt that life is a series of outrages coincidences, and indeed, I first came to Iran by coincidence. I had spent my earlier years in academic life studying the music of the Native Americans, and also the folk music of the midwestern rural and urban societies, but as an ethnomusicologist I had not had any direct contact with any of the classical music outside the Western, and I felt that this was a gap in my background. Also, I knew that the musics of India, Iran, Turkey, and the Arabic cultures depended heavily on improvised performance, much in contrast to Western classical music, with its emphasis of great works by great master composers. As chance would have it, the university where I was teaching (and still do), the University of Illinois, had just established a cooperative relationship with the University of Tehran to further exchange and collaborative work, and I was friendly with the man who was in charge of maintaining these programs, Professor William Archer. Bill Archer found a way to invite me to come for a month of initial exploration, and on June 1, 1966, I landed at Mehrabad, and was met by Bill Archer, who had just taken up residence in Tehran.

Meeting the Ostad.

Throughout my work on Persian music, my main teacher and guide, both directly in lessons and indirectly through his ideas as they began to make sense to me later, was Professor Nour-Ali Boroumand, who was also called “Nour-Ali Khan” by his friends, and simply “the Ostad” by his awstruck students, and “Dr. Boroumand” by others because he had studies medicine and, although not completing his studies, liked to give medical advice especially to foreigners who often had the kind of intestinal problems of travel abroad.  In the course of my life as a music scholar, he has been one of the most influential people.

No doubt in a culture in which each musician may explain the system on his own way (and this is true of Persian music and of Western music as well), my approach to Persian music reflects his particular way of looking, at his own culture.  If there is a “Boroumand School” of Persian music, I definitely claim a place in it.  But I came to him again through coincidence.

Dr. Boroumand had just that year begun to teach Persian music in the Music Department of the University of Tehran.  The University had not had much music.  Like most European universities, it did not teach music directly, as something to be performed, but at most in theoretical and historical context.  The renowned Ali Naqi Vaziri had though music in the university, but under the rubric of aesthetics.  Eventually, a department emphasizing Western music was established, and a kind of annex of Persian music was also added, under the leadership of the distinguished musicologist Mehdi Berkechli– who, however, was actually a professor of physics.  In 1965, Dr. Berkechli persuaded Dr. Boroumand, who was rather opposed to the idea of being regarded as a professional musician, to join the faculty and to teach his version of radif.

At it happens, the second day of my stay in Iran 1966, Boroumand and some of his colleagues were to give a final exam, to the first class of students of the radif.  They had studied, I believe, three dastgahs (the entire radif course took four years).  But I knew nothing, about any of this, or about the history of music in the University of Tehran, and I had not heard of Boroumand or of anybody except that I had once met Dr. Berkechli at an international meeting.

Somehow, Dr. Berkechli had heard tat I would be in Tehran and invited me to be an honorary member of the examining committee.  Bill Archer, himself very interested in music, brought me to the University, and we met in a small room.  Having learned no more Persian than “hale shoma chetoor-ast” and “khoda hafez” I had no idea what was being said.  At one point, however, a youngish man (it turned out to be the now very famous musician and scholar Dariouche Safvate) led in an order gentleman who was obviously blind.  “It’s the Boroumand,” Bill Archer whispered to me.  “Who is here?” asked Boroumand, and I was introduced as a visiting American.  “Does he speak Persian,” he asked, and when told that I didn’t, asked “only English?” I volunteered that I spoke German, and Boroumand began immediately and with great pleasure speaking to me in excellent German, asked me to sit with him when we entered the examining classroom, and as the exam moved along, explained things to me.

Boroumand had studied medicine in Germany in the late 1920s but had e=rather suddenly become blind, and near the end of his studies he had to return to Iran, giving up medicine and eventually devoting himself mainly to music.  Nevertheless, he loved the German language, whose command he kept up, taught German in College, and I have a feeling that he took me on eventually as a student because he could speak German with me.

It was in this exam that I first heard about the radif.  I had seen it mentioned in some books, but just what this concept implied was not clear to me.  The notion that one studied and memorized a large body of music– which in fact sounds improvised– and then uses it not for performance but as a basis of improvising and composing, that was a very new and strange idea to me.  In the exam, however, students appeared one by one, and Boroumand would ask each to be play this gusheh or that daramad, gently correcting and encouraging, so it seemed to me.   I don’t know any more who the students were, bit I think among them were some musicians have become very prominent in the world of Persian classical music today.  But the first person to be examined was a foreign student from Japan, Gen”ichi Tsuge, who had, it seems, a serious effect on music at the U of Tehran.  Mr. Tsuge (he went on to get a Ph.D. in USA, and to teach at Wesleyan University, and is now professor of musicology at the distinguished Tokyo National University of the Arts) had come from Japan on a fellowship for Middle Eastern studies, but said that he wished to study music, a field not really represented at the university.  It was said that his coming, as it were, was the final bit of energy needed to persuade the University to institute Persian music seriously.

Mr. Tsuge was, so Boroumand said, a stellar student, and later during my month-long visit, he was very helpful to me.  I found eventually that he was studying music with several teacher and it as from him that I came to understand the concept that each musician had his own radif, as it were, but that all of them claimed to go back to the radif of the renowned Mirza Abdollah, son of the court musician Ali Akbar Farahani.  Each musician claimed authority, but later I discovered that most radifs had the same content, that the differences were more characteristically differences in terminology and designation.

Clearly, however, Dr. Berkechli and his colleagues at the University of considered Boroumand’s radif to be the most authoritative.  When I returned to Tehran two years later, I found that this authority was disputed by some musicians.  But today, it is my impression that his version of the radif is regarded as the one most clearly descended from that of Mirza Abdollah.

I learned what I could in my month in Iran, found that musical life in Tehran and in Khorasan (where I visited for a week) was rich and complicated and full of contrasts with musical life in America, and determined to return when I could.

Nour-Ali Khan in America.

Having returned to the US in the summer of 1966, I decided to try to go to Iran in order to study for a year, beginning in the fall of 1968.  But meanwhile, the relationship of the Universities of Tehran and Illinois gathered force, various projects n the fields of psychology, anthropology, education, and librarianship began to flourish, and as I showed much enthusiasm for what little I had learned in one month mainly from Boroumand, I decided with the cooperation of my colleagues in musicology, to try to invite Boroumand for a month of teaching and consultation.  It took some doing, as you can imagine, and we had to find ways to mitigate Dr. Boroumand’s blindness and his very rudimentary English.  There were quite a few Iranian students at Illinois who might have done their share of hosting, but I felt that if he came, Boroumand should be concerned mainly with American students.  And anyway, at that time, Iranian students in North America showed very little interest in music.

To make long story short, Dr. Boroumand, accompanied by his wife, arrived after having spent a night in Frankfort and one in New York, and spent the month of May here in the isolated flat countryside of central Illinois.  I believe he loved it.  He often remarked on the attractive quietness of the small town, he enjoyed smelling the flowers and the nearby corn fields, and he got a kick out of being forced to experience new things without risk.

But he took very seriously his task of teaching American students about Persian music.  He gave a kind of mini-course which met some six hours per week, mainly for graduate students in musicology, and a number of lecture-demonstrations.  Mostly, he spoke in German, and I translated into English; but sometimes he would try in his rather elementary English, remembered from his days in Berlin; and sometimes our students knew enough German to follow.  And he demonstrated everything he told us on the setar.  Further, he allowed us to make recordings of large parts of the radif, and he gave some lessons to the distinguished scholar Dr. Stephen Blum, who was then a graduate student working with me.  I remember, however, two incidents from which I derived important insight.

On the fist day of his mini-course he began his lecture saying, “You know, if you want to understand Persian music, you have to understand the singing of the nightingale.  But as you don’t have nightingales in America, I brought you a recording.”  And before playing any of he many tapes of Persian music he had brought, he played nightingale singing for us for ten minutes.  The students were nonplussed.  But Boroumand explained: The nightingale doesn’t repeat itself; and Persian musicians, if they are good, also don’t repeat themselves.  He had used a powerful symbol, a symbol of the good and the beautiful in Iran, to make a major musical point.  Never mind that Persian musicians and nightingales actually do repeat.  He projected the ideal of music-making with the use of a cultural ideal.  I learned something about what was important in Persian music; but also how some societies use symbols to draw together the domains of culture.

When got ready to leave, I took him to a federal office to fill out some forms, and as he was blind, I wrote or him.  Occupation: should I write “musician?” No! He said vehemently; just put “professor.” Later, I got a long lecture about why it was not good to be officially a musician.  First, musicians are undesirable people: always late, drug addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, unreliable, always in dept; we hear these things said about musicians in many cultures, and Boroumand subscribed to that view, widely held in the Middle East.  But also: A professional musician has obligations and lacks freedom.  He must perform whatever dastgah his patron or employer desires, however long, etc., etc. He, Boroumand, an amateur, follows his own whims.  He is free to fly, musically, as he wishes–again, like the nightingale.  Freedom, non-repetition, bird-ness, and perhaps individualism and unpredictability (cultural and musical values I’ve described elsewhere), these all had a lot to do with each other.

I learned a lot from Dr. Boroumand in the course of the years I knew him, but these seemingly minor events which, however, provided me as time went by with important insights into the way one might relate music and culture, and the way one could find symbols used by societies to make this point, these events ended up as memories of great value to me.

A Student of Boroumand’s in Tehran.

A year later, my family and I landed in Tehran and spent a year living about a kilometer north of Takht-Jamshid Avenue in Behjatabad.  I studied radif with Dr. Boroumand, taking private lessons but also sitting on his radif class at the University.  In that class–and among the students of Boroumand two or three years later, I’m not sure I have it straight–were some people who later became the leading musicians of Persian classical music: Dariush Tala’i, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Dr. Dariush Dowlatshahi (who became a composer of mixed Iranian-Western music with a Ph.D. from Columbia University): Professor Majid Kiani, and others.

My lessons were enormously interesting to me but I don’t want to bore the reader with too many anecdotes.  The classes were interesting because I saw Boroumand at work transmitting his tradition.  One important point: he knew that the radif of Musa Ma’roufi had been published in notation, and that there were other noted publications, but he felt that this music must be transmitted orally, learned by hearing, and learned slowly–contemplated.  He said, “I know those students in my class are writing down the music as I play it, so they won’t have to memorize.  But the spirit goes out of the music when it is noted.”

But whatever freedom was available to the musician when improvising, the radif had to be learned with precision.  Boroumand had definite ideas as to what musicians had it right, so to speak.  About one, he would say, ” he know it very well, almost as well as I;” and of another, ” he has great technique, but he doesn’t know the radif”.  He was extremely critical and was eager to preserve the purity of Persian music.  Several times he told me the story of Golpayegani, the popular singer, who had been brought to Boroumand as a boy to study classical music.  Highly talented and hard-working , Golpayagani nevertheless began to sing popular songs with their musical and cultural mixes, to make lots of money, and eventually Boroumand dismissed him, saying that he didn’t want a student who didn’t devote himself exclusively to classical music.   to Golpayegani became very famous, however, and ironically, while I as in Iran, a film about him, Mard-e henjare-ye tala’i (“the Man with the Golden throat”) was showing at many theaters.

The Thin Strand of Tradition.

I spoke with Boroumand about the problem occasioned by the presence of Western music, by the intrusion of modern technology, by the introduction of new social contexts.  he was somewhat unhappy; he had, after all, worked very hard to learn and then to preserve and transmit the radif of Mirza Abdollah, he wished to preserve its stylistic purity so that it would continue to symbolize important cultural values of Iran.  He saw himself as a thin strand that tied this old tradition to whatever might come after him, and he took on teaching the radif at U of T, or coming to America to explain none of this being very comfortable for him, as a kind of patriotic duty.

In the course of my work in Iran, I recorded performances by many musicians.  And since I was interested in finding out how the system of improvisation worked, I tried to learn parts of the radif– particularly the dastgah of Chahargah– and also to record as many musicians playing dastgah of Chahargah as possible, in order to see how they differed and how they were alike in their interpretation of (or improvisation upon) the radif, Boroumand had trouble understanding why I was doing this, when I could learn everything from him, the most authoritative source.  I tried to explain, but the idea of finding out about cultural norms and regularities as against simply learning the right, the ideal way seemed incomprehensible to him.

Then, one day, he said, ” I know why you are recording all these people; you are going to write a book in which you explain why I am better that they are.”  He had something of an ego, I knew that; but I think he was just being honest in maintaining that he was the central thread of a authenticity.  Nevertheless, I blanched a bit: a “book”? I hadn’t planned a book anyway, and I knew that was often every concerned about preserving intellectual property.  “I hadn’t really thought about writing a book, at least so far,” I said.  “Oh, but you must! You must explain to people in America and elsewhere about our music.”

He wanted people elsewhere to understand Persian music.  It had, to him, a very unique character among the world’s musics, some of which he knew or knew about.  “We have twelve dastgahs, “he said.  “Everything that can be expressed in human emotion can be said in this musical system.” “(I am paraphrasing, of course.)  “In Western music, you have only two modes”  (major and minor).  “And in Arabic music, there is only one.” I didn’t argue but asked about the music of India, with its hundreds of ragas.  “Oh, that’s really very exotic music, we can’t understand that,” he replied.  But several times he said (in German), “you know, Dr. Nettl, it is really something extraordinary and fine, something quite unique, this radif we have created in Iran.”

Boroumand wanted this uniqueness to be understood abroad.  He didn’t want Persian Music to be regarded as just another of the world’s music, but he wanted its specialness to be understood.  But he also wondered whether outsiders to the culture could ever understand it.  To me he once said– perhaps exasperated by my incomprehension:  You will never understand this music.  There are things about it that any worker on the street will understand instinctively, which you will never understand.”  I told him I knew this; it was something ethnomusicologists have come to take for granted.  I only wanted to figure out its structure.  “Well, that you can probably do, ” leaving unsaid, “but maybe that’s not so important.”  He also told me that he had been uncomfortable playing Persian music in America.  In a way, he enjoyed it and liked the idea of carrying Persian music abroad.  But the music wasn’t the same, played outside the context.  To be performed and heard properly, it must be done on Iranian soil.  Boroumand had an ethnomusicologist’s feel for the relationship of music to the rest of culture.

Indeed, Boroumand was not happy with the performance of Persian classical music in new contexts–radio, modern concert hall, on tour abroad.  Actually, he confounded to me, Persian music could be properly played only in one’s home, for one’s own pleasure; or in a majles, at a gathering by a few people who would relax, eat, drink, and listen while the performing musician followed his mood and inspiration in musical freedom, the only constraints being the rules of the radif.  He told me also that ambience was essential, that such groups rarely invited outsiders, and while I was eventually taken along, I didn’t make recordings and tried my best not break the circle of privacy and devotion.  Again, these gatherings–the dowreh with its majlesi performances–seemed to Boroumand, like his radif, part of that thin strand of the tradition at its most perfect.

Any yet Boroumand knew that to survive, Persian music would probably have to change –to adopt Western notation, Western social contexts like concert halls and radio, Western-style music teaching, lots more.   Without actually going public, Boroumand was a major figure in a debate about the future of Persian music and Persian culture, a debate between tradionalists who wanted no change, modernizers who wanted to introduce changes in order for the tradition to survive in a modern context, and Westernizers–who were willing to give up traditional culture and music and switch entirely to the Western model.  His own attitude would have been that of a tradionalist, but he accepted–with some reluctance–certain changes, carefully considered. Boroumand felt that his rather conservative approach was losing.  After my return to USA, he wrote occasionally , using his German typewriter, sometimes complaining about the state of affairs.  I visited him several times, but the last time was 1974.  I was distresses to hear of his death in 1978, but he would perhaps been surprised at the attention he received.  A television program about his career mentioned his influence on musicians and scholars in Iran and abroad, and eventually, it turned out the at the thin stand of tradition that he represented grew broader and stronger, as some of his students became the leaders in a major Renaissance of Persian music, a Renaissance that is being carried out in Iran, and in Paris, New York, Los Angeles.

The World Turned Upside Down.

Studying with Nour-Ali Khan provided me many insights into Persian music and culture.  But also into the world of music at large.  I learned about the value of freedom, improvisation, unpredictability, and was able to construct a kind of picture of the musical world in which Europe and Iran work as the opposite ends of a continuum.  Persian musical culture is in many ways the opposite of the Western.

For example, in European culture, the concept of music is unified–everything that sounds like music is equally “music” (not necessary equally “good music,” however; in Iran, some music is classed as musiqi and some as khandan, and some is in-between.  In the West, the conception of music is that it is mainly composed pieces by great composers; but in Iran, the most significant music is improvised by great master performers.  In the West, music is mainly pieces, and improvisation is a secondary craft: in Iran, the central music is improvised and the composed pieces are peripheral.  Western music is quintessentially instrumental; but the most respected music in Iran is vocal.  In Europe, the most respected musicians are the full-time professionals; in Iran, at least in earlier times, the learned amateur musician had higher status then his professional colleague.  And so on.

I put these insights together only long after my last return from Iran.  The understanding that a major musical culture could exist with values almost opposite to those of Western classical music, provided me a new way of looking at the world’s music, and a kind of central point of departure for teaching ethnomusicology.  So I feel that I owe a great debt to Dr. Boroumand for teaching me not only about the music of Iran but also how to study the music of the worlds as a whole, simply to study music.

Bruno Nettl

March 28, 1995