Q&A with Farzad Amoozegar, Iranian Music Program Director, and Alireza Ardekani, Executive Director of the Farhang Foundation

11 min read

The School of Music is proud to announce Professor Farzad Amoozegar as the new Director of the Iranian Music Program. His appointment represents the continued partnership between The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and the Farhang Foundation, an organization dedicated to celebrating Iranian art and culture in the community. The Foundation’s support has enabled Professor Amoozegar and his colleagues to establish courses and collaborations that connect School of Music students with the local and global Iranian musical community.

In his new capacity, Professor Amoozegar will oversee the creation of the Iranian Music Minor, as well as organize a series of conferences and workshops on aspects of Iranian music performance, aesthetics and ethics. Professor Amoozegar holds dual doctorate degrees in ethnomusicology and anthropology, and is an experienced performer of the Iranian musical instruments tār—a double-bowl-shaped, six-stringed instrument—and setār—a pear-shaped, four-stringed instrument.

The Farhang Foundation’s Executive Director, Alireza Ardekani, connected with Professor Amoozegar for a Q&A. Mr. Ardekani attended USC, where he graduated with high honors with a B.A. in communications from the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, and a minor in cinema and television from the School of Cinematic Arts. He brings more than 19 years of experience in organizational leadership to the Farhang Foundation. A proud Iranian American, his deep love for Iranian history and culture arises from his extensive explorations of the country.

The two had a wide-ranging discussion about Professor Amoozegar’s passion for Iranian music, his teaching philosophy, and his future plans for the Iranian Music Program.

  • Alireza Ardekani: Where does your passion for Iranian music come from?

Farzad Amoozegar: Since my childhood, I have had a special relationship with Iranian music and poetry. My formative years were spent in Iran learning to play the tār and the setār from my grandfather. I fondly remember the first time he called me into his music room and handed me a setār. I had just turned 6 years old and connected with the beauty of music through the liveliness of the melodies and poetry he played and sang. My grandfather often spoke about his “great fortune” to learn from ustād Abolhasan Sabā (1902–1957), calling him “a remarkable master” and referring to his music as “breathtaking.” He was adamant that musicians should follow Sabā’s beliefs and practices. Gradually, I learned various setār techniques from my grandfather, but what was even more valuable to me were the musical stories he told me, some of the gatherings he took me to, and the visits from his musician friends. Through my grandfather, I found a passion for music that still keeps me fascinated with and in awe of the tār and setār.

There is an intimate relationship between Persian poetry and music. My father, a professor of Persian literature, was a great lover of poets such as Sa‘dī and Hafez. With him I learned to recite and memorize both classical and modern Persian poetry. My father was also interested in the Rubā‘iyyāt (quatrains) of Omar Khayyām, an 11th-century philosopher and poet. Through the poetry of Khayyām, I was inspired to think about life and human existence. For many Iranians, Persian literature becomes the means to acquire good manners, advocate for justice and humanity, exalt knowledge and art, to find love in the Divine and cherish life’s delights, and to contemplate human existence. For me, it also has the added inspiration of experiencing how music and poetry merge into a beautiful melody and rhythm in performance.

  • How has the context of Los Angeles influenced Iranian music and culture? What emerging trends do you see?

The influence of Los Angeles on Iranian music and culture exemplifies the manner in which culture, media and diaspora have combined to create practices and identification that responds to the complexity and sophistication of Iranian music. UCLA and other academic and cultural institutions in the greater Los Angeles area have provided a platform to showcase many performances and exhibits of accomplished musicians and artists who are recognized throughout the world. The unique position of Los Angeles as home to the largest diasporic Iranian community allows our program to find local musicians with expertise in the traditional, popular as well as other styles of music. The variety in Los Angeles’s Iranian musical community also allows those who have been trained in different musical styles to come together to produce new and engaging works.

The other influence Los Angeles has, and I believe it is a trend that will continue to develop, is the desire of second-generation Iranians to learn about Iranian music and culture. Today, Iranians live in large numbers from San Diego to Ventura County, with an especially visible population in the Western Los Angeles. This Iranian community is diverse and its youth represents the process of adaptation alongside the continuation of the musical practices and culture. The Iranian community in Los Angeles is producing works that speak to their need, place and time. This intersection produces unique and engaging works of art. This uniqueness has been central to my development of the Iranian Music Minor and its courses. Younger L.A.-based Iranians will continue to develop new musical styles based on aspects of the Iranian culture that has been passed on to them. Meanwhile, the thriving art and cultural sensibility of Los Angles will continue to nourish and showcase musicians and expertise in a variety of Iranian musical styles. 

  • When did you first pick up an Iranian tār and setār, what inspired your continued study of these beautiful instruments?

As I mentioned, my grandfather was my first music teacher in Iran. He taught me the basics of plucking techniques and a number of short melodies on the setār. After I immigrated to Canada, I had the good fortune of becoming a student of ustād Mohammad-Rezā Lotfī’s (1947–2014) at age 14. My music training with Lotfī began in a small, beautiful house in Berkeley, California. For eight summers, I traveled to California to learn under Lotfī by taking part in his weekly music classes and also by simply being there when he spoke about music or decided to play. There were many instances, either late night or early morning, when he would begin to play the tār or setār and then discuss his views on music. Living with him was a classroom for me; it meant that I had direct access to a master who had become increasingly spiritual in his life and music. Lotfī enjoyed telling his students stories from the past, and these narratives shaped my perception of music-making as a young person growing up outside of Iran. In many ways it was a rediscovery of my Persian roots, with countless beautiful instances of awe and inspiration, but also at times, a feeling of discomfort and loss.

 In my early twenties and after finishing my bachelor’s degree, I had decided to move back to Iran, embarking on a professional music career while immersing myself once again in Iranian culture. I am profoundly grateful and honored to be a student of Hooshang Zarīf, Atal-Allāh Jankouk, Masood Shāreaī, Arshād Tahmāsbī, Ramin Sodeif (vocal) and Pashang Kamkār. My time in Iran as a music student and later as a performer was profoundly shaped by the expertise of Soodabeh Sālem. She is a brave, female master musician, and an exemplary role model for any young musician. I am grateful to her for her time and insights, but more importantly, for her dedication to being a powerful advocate of music in Iran. After 12 years of studying and performing under the guidance of various Iranian master musicians, these instruments have become an inextricable part of my life. I seek these instruments for joy, comfort and inspiration, time and again.

  • Your educational resume is quite impressive, with a double Ph.D. in anthropology and ethnomusicology. Can you share with us a little of your educational journey? What led you to this point?

Lotfī always stressed to me the importance of music scholarship; when he took me on as a student, he wanted me to be certain I would pursue an academic education in music. During my undergraduate years, at the University of Toronto, I was encouraged by Professor James Kippin, an anthropologist in the Music School, to learn the core theories in ethnomusicology and explore courses in the anthropology department. In addition to learning Western music theory, ethnomusicology and anthropology became central to my studies. I graduated with a double-major in music theory and history, and cultural anthropology.

I have always strived to balance my academic studies with my development as a musician. After I graduated, I returned to Tehran to gain invaluable experience as a student and a performer. I stayed in Tehran for four years, after which I decided to return to Canada, where I studied at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I first obtained a master of arts degree in ethnomusicology, with a concentration on Iranian music and poetry. As I was finishing my degree, I embarked on a music tour, where I played music in a refugee camp for children. This experience led me to pursue an M.A. in anthropology.

I earned my first doctoral degree in ethnomusicology writing about the judgment of beauty that incorporates an array of ethical queries conveyed through a language that is heavily entangled with Islamic revelations, mystical beliefs and traditional values in Iranian music. I am also a trained psychological and medical anthropologist. My doctoral degree in anthropology centers on the accounts of Syrian refugee children who now live in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn. It focuses on the children’s narratives of their treacherous flight out of Syria into refugee camps, their accounts of their daily lives in the New York area, and their views about the future. Each child has had similar experiences, coping with the tragic loss of family members and friends during the Syrian Civil War. Music and art play a significant role in their accounts and are a thread from their past to their current life.

I could not have asked for more with my current position at UCLA. As the director of Iranian music, I have the chance to bring my academic and artistic background in conversation with my daily tasks and future goals.

  • You bring a wealth of unique experience and knowledge to the Iranian Music Program at UCLA. What perspectives and lessons are you hoping to share with students?

I believe that a classroom is a place for elevating knowledge of students’ specific passions and interests and helping them nurture a strong and broad foundation of the complex intellectual terrain of Iranian music and more generally music-making. Central to my teaching philosophy is the examination of meanings, intentions, thoughts and references in relation to the values derived from beliefs, practices and discourses in Iranian music. I employ ethnomusicological, anthropological and performative approaches in my teaching that encompass in-depth descriptions of theoretical concepts, alongside the experience of conducting fieldwork (e.g., the Iranian Popular Music in Diaspora course with a mini ethnographic requirement). I believe that my multidisciplinary training will help advance both the abstract theoretical issues and the descriptive and reflective approaches I have learned as an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. My teaching brings these issues into the classroom not as conclusions, but always as questions. I attempt to stimulate enthusiasm among students about the potential of research to interrogate the issues that matter to them.

The study of Iranian music follows the School of Music’s mission to combine an interest in music as an art form with questions about how musical art and practice relate to other aspects of culture, society, politics, identity, gender and economics in Iran. My main goal has been to create a curriculum that invites the students to take both a theoretical and a hands-on approach to issues of Iranian musical practices, with a sound approach informed by ethnomusicological theories. These courses effectively combine an interest in music as an art form with questions about how musical art and practice relate to other aspects of culture. The courses aim to address how scholars in the field understand the interplay of music and culture, as the student will learn about ethnomusicological studies and approaches—many developed at UCLA. These courses are complimented by practicum courses that provide students with a hands-on approach to issues relevant in Iranian music such as improvisation, mode, rhythm, dance, pedagogy and poetry. These courses bring the rigor of scholarship in conversation with the experience of music-making. They offer interested students an opportunity to further explore Iranian music history, language and performance practices, thus providing a wider context of Iranian musical tradition.

  • This academic year has looked quite different due to COVID-19. What have been the highlights of teaching Iranian Popular Music in Diaspora this year?

This course examines a range of musical styles that have emerged in conjunction with the mass exodus of Iranian musicians to Los Angeles after the 1979 Revolution. It is divided into five sections concerning Iranian popular music and the diaspora spanning from the early 1980s to today: a) “collective memory” of the homeland in exile; b) the commitment to the “restoration” and “maintenance” of the old homeland; c) “identity,” a sense of personal or collective belonging to Iran and/or the United States; d) “transnationalism,” the global outreach of Iranian musicians in Los Angeles through concerts, television programs and recordings around the world; and e) “digital diaspora,” the global proliferation of music without the presence of a community (e.g., hip-hop as a medium for community empowerment and the recent impacts of digital media and social networking). The main goal of the course was to develop awareness of differences and commonalities among a variety of Iranian popular musical practices, in the contexts of diaspora, politics, identity, globalization, gender and cultural belonging.

The highlight in teaching Iranian Popular Music in Diaspora was the high level of engagement among the students. The students are eager to learn about different styles of music that according to them “resonate” with the need and voices of the youth. The students searched online and made connections to local musicians in Los Angeles, then we listened to their music and even invited one of them to participate virtually as a guest speaker. Los Angeles, as the home away from home for Iranian music and culture, provides the chance for the students to reach out to the community to discuss and interview musicians about their music and more. Post pandemic, this course will have a mini ethnography component for the students to engage with the community and for the community to be invited to UCLA. This course also highlights my intention to expand beyond Iranian traditional music. As important as the Iranian traditional music is, there is a need to balance this wonderful tradition with new and unique styles of music.

The most immediate challenge due to COVID-19 has been the lack of face-to-face meetings. I believe that music needs to be played and experienced together. Zoom meetings create a space to listen to music and discuss various issues, however, there is a lack of togetherness that music-making requires. For our class, we used video recordings prior to class meetings that concentrated on a specific style or technique so we would then come to class more aware and attuned to the specific issues we needed to discuss. Also, theoretical music classes need to be accompanied by ensembles and the experience of playing music. In the future this class will be complemented by an Iranian popular music ensemble.

  • Looking ahead, what are you most looking forward to during the 2021–22 academic year and beyond?

I am working with colleagues to create an Iranian Music Minor. I finished working on the curriculum during the fall of 2020, and the formal review process for approval has begun. I am eager to begin advertising for the minor as soon as it is approved. The courses are designed to be engaging to students without any prior music knowledge, and at the same time, aim to develop interest among students in the School of Music. The proposed Iranian Music Minor will provide the opportunity for students to engage with and study under talented Iranian musicians and scholars. I am very excited about the quality of instructors available to us at UCLA. The vibrant Iranian artistic community here has many years of experience in performance, music education and scholarship, and is an indelible part of the vibrant Iranian community in Southern California. This connection to the local community is an essential quality for our course offerings. There is a dynamism and intellectual openness among the instructors that is very exciting.

I also look forward to the conferences, symposiums and workshops that I will be organizing for the next academic year and beyond. For example, we are offering a series this spring on three topics: a) women and gender, b) aesthetics and beauty in contemporary practices of Iranian music, c) issues on the radīf (the traditional repertoire of the classical music of Iran). Workshops, conferences and symposiums will be an important way to engage with faculty members at UCLA, reach out to artists and experts in Sothern California and also provide the students and young Iranians a platform to present their artistic work.

Directing the Iranian Music Program is a culmination of a lifelong pursuit for me. As a teen living in Canada, I searched for teachers and experts to direct me so I could learn Iranian music and become more familiar with the Iranian culture. This has not always come easy. This program provides everything I sought. At UCLA, I am able to utilize the wonderful resources, like the archive and concert halls, to record and document local Iranian artists, while inviting internationally recognized musicians to present their work and views on campus. For me, a central question in the development of the curriculum has been how to design courses that speak to the fundamentals of Iranian music-making (the radīf), yet also offer a chance for students to engage with relevant contemporary practices of Iranian music-making. In addition, the course offerings invite a consideration of Iranian music alongside Persian poetry, dance, visual arts, architecture, calligraphy and cinema. For instance, it is vital to provide a space for Persian dance(s) to be discussed, examined and performed in tandem with Iranian music-making.

I believe that UCLA’s School of Music, combined with the faculty, the vibrant Iranian community in Southern California, and the generous donation and support of the Farhang Foundation is an amazing and transformative partnership that will doubtless thrive and develop in the years to come.