Fusing musical cultures – A Persian orchestral project featuring Hezar Ava Ensemble and Corda Spiritus chamber orchestra

John Varney
| July 31, 2014

“We were able to communicate our musical message to both “sides” of the audience equally, which had been one of our goals – to create a true fusion of Western classical and Persian musical idioms, without sacrificing either.”

The idea that one should move around the room and touch the elephant in as many different ways as possible led me to the thought that one’s knowledge corresponds to one’s access to that which can be known, that our culture represents a window of access, and the more varied cultural experiences we have expand our window space.

Following extensive experience in Latin American music, the blowing of the winds of change saw me invited to play in a new, Brisbane-based, Persian music ensemble, Hezar Ava Ensemble – recently formed by Dr Pegah Varamini, an Iranian musician trained in the traditional arts by one of Iran’s top composers,  Ali Jafarian.

What most attracted me to this ensemble was the high level of musicianship and dedication of the members, including individual levels of virtuosity, improvisatory ability, conversance with traditional modes and commitment to a very high level of concert performance.

Rather than taking on Western influences, I would suggest that the ensemble maintains, while firmly rooted in Persian tradition, an open dialogue with these. It is happy to emulate aspects of Western musical development, aiming to create new music, but always from a Persian perspective.

Pegah’s approach consisted of writing basic arrangements to be read, adapted, rearranged and often learned from memory for the santour and tar.  Some would be further elaborated by the “western” instruments, the violin and double bass, while Pegah largely improvised her part. The percussionists, mainly on daf and tonbak, followed the score applying their knowledge of the traditional rhythms.  Every rehearsal item was recorded and emailed to the members.

This approach can be compared, for example, with that of a Turkish ensemble, Dijla, in which I play, which relies on the enthusiasm for the music and knowledge of the excellent, mainly Australian, participants. The arrangements, mostly of Turkish songs brought to the ensemble by the vocalist, are usually jammed and the fruits of consultation are recalled at further rehearsals and performances.

A series of concerts with Hezar Ava Ensemble, including for Brisbane City Council and University of Queensland, saw its standard quickly rising and the need for new challenges.

Photo Credit: Hamed Hassanzadeh.

Following a concert, which Pegah attended, by an excellent chamber orchestra in which I play, Corda Spiritus, conducted by Stephen Wu, she suggested how great an idea it would be to unite the Persian ensemble with the orchestra. Stephen was quite receptive, proposing that we include it in the place of a concerto in a concert. We agreed, a date was set up and work began.

The repertoire was selected in a four-movement suite format, beginning with a work, Chang-e Roudaki by Rúholláh Khadeghi (1906-1965), from the Persian symphonic repertoire developing in the 1940s[i]. This was to be followed by Hosn-e Yár, a slower, thoughtful original composition by Pegah. A bright love song in waltz time, Sarmast, and Dokhtaroo, a popular folk song completed the programme.

The arrangements initially were expansions of those that Pegah had already done for the ensemble, except for Sarmast which was based an arrangement I had done of the piece for violin and piano, from a transcription of the melody by Pegah. The first task was to harmonise the pieces with an end to accompanying them with a full string section, also replacing the piano, which we omitted for this concert. Harmonisation of Persian music can be a contentious point considering that traditional music is usually monodic and accompanied by a drone[ii].

At weekly meetings, Pegah and I worked through, painstakingly agreeing on harmonisation[iii]. The model for this avoided obviously Western techniques, like cycles of fourths, but focused on finding series of triads which suited the mood of the melodic phrases and still sounded Persian. Then we worked out complete string accompaniments, not leaving a passage until we were both happy with how it sounded. Pegah would start to work with the traditional instruments using an exported audio file, weaving their playing through the fixed backings.

We then expanded the arrangements to include winds and brass[iv].

We tried a little genuine experimentation including some use of polyphonic counterpoint. In this we sought to create original models based on Persian rhythmic and melodic patterns. Also, in a chanted Avaz  section, instead of using the usual tonic drone in free time, I set, in the strings, a four bar section in fixed time based on the tonic and a fifth,  adding some neighbouring notes to give an impression of harmonic movement. This remained as a low level backing behind the traditional free vocal improvisation.

When we finally reached the rehearsals other challenges included the fact that the orchestra found the feel of some of the rhythms quite unusual, so I devised a way of conducting the distinctive Persian 6/8 that would incorporate its 3/4 polyrhythm: 1-2-34-5-6.

My conducting pattern for Persian 6/8

Fig.1 My conducting pattern for Persian 6/8

Both the ensemble and the orchestra had to work very hard to succeed in amalgamating the different ways of understanding rhythmic phrasing.

These were some of the challenges that took much effort to resolve, and the overall performance, at St Andrews Church, South Brisbane on 25 May 2014, was very well received.

One interesting point is that ensemble musicians asked members of the audience, both Persians and Australians, their thoughts afterwards and all were very appreciative – in particular the Persians considered it to be excellent representation of authentic Persian music, so we were able to communicate our musical message to both “sides” of the audience equally, which had been one of our goals – to create a true fusion of Western classical and Persian musical idioms, without sacrificing either.

[i]    the work of progressive composers has moved on significantly from this point, the music still has a basic elasticity w Khadeghi was a disciple of Ali-Naqi Vaziri (1887– 1979), a pioneer of the integration of Western compositional and educational techniques into traditional Persian music.[ii]    Even thoughhich one must take great care not to stretch beyond its breaking point, thus becoming something which is culturally unrecognisable

[iii]   This was bar by bar, which often, but not always, consisted in my bringing the suggested workings that I’d set out during the week, Pegah making a counter suggestion or a view that a passage simply didn’t reflect the spirit of the music, and then we’d come to an agreement.

[iv]   This would entail a slightly different use of how the traditional instruments were to be used so, although by no means back to square one, it was certainly a new path.

Title Photo Caption: Hezar Ava Ensemble with Corda Spiritus: Foreground, from left: Ingrid Real , Saman Azadi, Mojdeh Kholghi,  Mohsen Solhdoost, Omid Rahimi, Stephen Wu (director, Corda Spiritus), Pegah Varamini,  John Varney Background: Corda Spiritus Orchestra. Photo Credit: Hamed Hassanzadeh.

Article Photo Caption: Hezar Ava Ensemble performing at “The Legend Never Dies” concert in honour of Ali Jafarian, 30 November 2013, at Univertiy of Queensland, Brisbane.  From left: Pegah Varamini (piano, vocals, musical director), Ingrid Real (violin), Omid Rahimi (vocals, daf), Mojdeh Kholghi (percussion), Mohsen Solhdoost (tonbak), Saman Azadi (santour, tár), John Varney (double bass). Photo Credit: Hamed Hassanzadeh.


  1. William Sharp

    are you the John Varney that came up with the concept of showing rhythm on a wheel?

    If so, when, and are you the only one, or is there an earlier history of this notion, devised by someone else?

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