Iranian composer Hafez Nazeri’s Untold symphony opens with a bang — the Big Bang, to be precise. The first “cycle” of his ongoing Rumi Symphony Project, Untold is an attempt to represent the splendor of all creation. Nazeri, who was born in Tehran in 1979, claims to have invested upward of 5,000 studio hours in recording the work, which premiered in 2009. And Untold‘s opening moments — an all-encompassing cloud of percussive bass tones that soon give way to a gracefully rambling string ensemble — testify to an almost obsessive attention to detail. Untold‘s musical aspirations nearly equal its cosmic content.
Steeped in both the improvisatory tradition of his native Iran and Western classical music’s rich harmonic strictures, Nazeri takes a boundary-crossing approach, balancing the two and forging a “new sonic universe” altogether. Having lived in New York since 1999, Nazeri pursues a utopian alliance between East and West as well as science and spirit. The good news is that the results mostly justify Nazeri’s lofty ambitions.
It’s no coincidence that Nazeri’s moody opening chords in the “Atomic Peace” section of Untold‘s “Creation” chapter suggest the sustained double-low C heard in the famous introduction to Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Strauss based that 1896 symphony on a novel by Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher best known for his theory of “eternal return,” which also happens to be the title of Untold‘s fourth and final chapter. Nazeri also returns to the words of the Sufi poet Rumi as sung by his father, Shahram Nazeri, who popularized the 13th-century Iranian’s beatific verses by setting them to music in the 1970s.
Poetry is the cornerstone of Persian culture, and the sound of the voice dominates Persian classical music. In Untold, the voices of Hafez and his father represent the human heart of an otherwise uncaring cosmos. Hafez’s yearning, wordless voice emerges from the void in the “Dark Matter” section, early in the record. But it’s his father’s stronger, more expressive voice, improvising swooping, hiccupping variations around Rumi’s verses in the following chapter, “Life,” that is Untold‘s first convincing bid for greatness. Wailing above a five-voice choir vamping a catchy two-measure phrase, Shahram embellishes Rumi’s stanzas about flesh as the eternal “baggage” of spirit for nearly eight marvelous minutes. A string improvisation in the middle of this section epitomizes the composer’s East-West ideal.
There’s another sort of fusion at work here as well. The eponymous third chapter is a dizzying dialogue between Nazeri, playing a souped-up eight-stringed version of the traditional six-string Persian lute, and Zakir Hussain, generally acknowledged to be the world’s preeminent tabla hero. Nazeri designed his instrument himself, and named it the hafez after the 14th-century Persian poet with whom he shares a name. The racing music has the feel of an intense improvisation similar to jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain’s Indian-jazz project Shakti.
Nazeri juggles his hafez, choruses, tabla, vocal solos and stuttering string arrangements throughout movements titled “Detachment,” “Unity,” “Wonderment” and “Absolute Nothingness.” Fortunately, the absolute somethingness of his music offsets these abstractions. (The choral clouds of “Unity” might even remind you of Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother.”) Untold is formally ambitious but musically accessible and specific; Nazeri waters down neither end of the East-West spectrum.
“Eternal Return,” the final chapter of Untold, is performed entirely in the Nava dastagah, one of the 12 principal modes of the Persian musical system. This chapter’s six movements combine Eastern percussion (including percussionist Glen Velez’s frame drum), Hafez’s hafez, and Shahram’s voice with Western strings. The writing is optimistic, aspiring and often thrilling. Rather than reflecting Nietzsche’s notion of an eternally recurring Universal Everything, Nazeri’s return announces a homecoming to the sort of higher consciousness advocated by Rumi.
By the time Nazeri embraces Untold‘s final frontier, “Eternity,” he has introduced us to a sonic world that is neither Western nor Persian nor even the “completely new sound” promised in his liner notes. While attempting to express the universal, Hafez Nazeri has succeeded in creating something exquisitely personal. Here’s hoping he returns to it soon.