Hafez Nazeri: 'A new kind of classical music'
Whatever you do, don’t describe 30-year-old composer Hafez Nazeri’s blend of traditional Iranian sounds and Western classical motifs as “world music.”
The mere mention of the folk genre — to which journalists and record labels have consigned him — caused Nazeri to balk during an interview.
“No, it’s not world music at all,” the composer said on the phone from his home in New York. “It’s a new kind of classical music that’s neither fully Eastern nor Western.”
On Oct. 3, Nazeri will appear in concert at the Pantages Theatre, featuring a mix of Iranian and American musicians in a performance of Nazeri’s Rumi Symphony Project: Cycle One — a project long in the works that sets the poetry of the 13th century Persian mystic Rumi to symphonic sounds.
The two-hour piece will feature vocals by Shahram Nazeri — Hafez’s father and one of the most celebrated singers in Iran. It will also feature members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
“I wanted to create music that balances the Eastern and Western influences,” the younger Nazeri said.
“Most of the time when composers try this, one culture is dominating the other. Somehow you feel the balance isn’t there.”
Born in Tehran to a musical family, Nazeri grew up with constant exposure to ancient music. (His mother and father are of Kurdish descent.) His early immersion in traditional sounds left him hungering for something new.
“Hafez is in a unique position because of his father,” said Ann Lucas, a ethnomusicologist at UCLA. “His father was very grounded in tradition but has become open to new ideas now. There’s a back-and-forth exchange of styles between them.”
In the Oct. 3 concert, audiences will get to see one of the younger Nazeri’s more recent innovations: a traditional setar (a Persian lute) with two additional strings intended to expand the instrument’s range. He has named it the Hafez.
“Thousands of people who play setar in Iran are against me,” he said. “They say why add two more strings to the instrument? But I don’t get upset with them.”
The composer also has his share of critics in the U.S. “I think his music is grandiose and pretentious,” said a professor in ethnomusicology in New York who wished to go unnamed. “I’m sure he’s getting commissions. There are a lot of wealthy Iranians out there who like his stuff.”
Nazeri seems to thrive on the criticism.
“If you keep the same traditions of 5,000 years ago, it means we are living 5,000 years ago,” he said. “I think that innovation should be a part of tradition.”
-- David Ng
"Rite of Fall: Mehregan." Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 7:30 p.m., Oct. 3. $30-$300. (800) 745-3000 or ticketmaster.com. Running time: 2 hours.
Photo: Composer Hafez Nazeri. Credit: Tom Betterton / Jenny Gage & Tom Betterton