On Persian-Tuned Piano, and Not Knowing Anything

By Carl Wilson

I’m currently immersed in a project bigger than a breadbox (new version of the 20 Questions classic: “Is it bigger than a blogpost?”) for the first time in a while. While research is a pleasurable way to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge of a given field, what it immediately starts disclosing is how many other fields there are that to you are all gap: All ground, no figure. Existential vertigo is an easy reaction. The alternative is to enjoy your stupidity.

I’m indebted on that count to Jacob Wren, who posted the above in the sociable media earlier this week – a recording of early-20th-century Iranian musician Morteza Mahjoubi playing “Persian-tuned piano.” I thought that I had some inkling of the ways people had monkeywrenched pianos in the history of music – John Cage with his preparations, Conlon Nancarrow with his player-piano rolls, Terry Riley with just intonation, Thelonious Monk with his knuckles and Cecil Taylor with his elbows, etc. But I had never imagined the world of alternate tunings for a piano could be this vast.

Although I have a general interest in Iranian culture, I couldn’t say I know even a full-fledged smidgen about the operations of Persian music, even less than the almost-nothing I know about Arab music and the nearly-approaching-something I know about South Asian music. But I can understand that “well-tempered” pianos can’t play it, with its quartertones and mandatory wavers. So Mahjoubi and others began to find ways to retune and otherwise alter the instrument to approximate Persian modes (the radif system). It seems that many performers since have learned the method and still practice it today.

All this struck me as an intriguing early case of postmodernism, in which the traditional becomes a form of the avant-garde. So I went on a little Google hunt. I could find almost nothing written in English in about an hour’s search. This, compared to the overwhelming avalanche of information one finds on most subjects, was oddly soothing.

I invite you to try it yourself, but in case you haven’t the patience, the best two sources I found were here and in the explanation box accompanying this other YouTube video.

But perhaps you prefer to just glance at it and let it renew that Socratic sensation of wisdom-as-knowledge-of-ignorance? For now, me too – back to the task at hand.

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