Masters of Persian Music:
Hossein Alizadeh and Kayhan Kalhor

Two of Iran’s most celebrated soloists joined forces in this performance of Persian classical music recorded at the Freer Gallery in 1997. In solos and duets, they explore the improvisational styles and emotive expressiveness unique to Persian music. Hossein Alizadeh, on the tār (Persian lute), has received two Grammy nominations, recorded more than two dozen CDs, and composed original soundtracks for award-winning feature films. Kayhan Kalhor, on the kamāncheh (Persian fiddle), was a founding member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad ensemble, earned three Grammy nominations, and recorded with the ground-breaking ensemble Brooklyn Rider. Alizadeh and Kalhor are accompanied by Pejman Hadadi on dombak.

(Photo by Mohammad Kheirkah Zoyari)


Persian Classical Music

Hossein Alizadeh, tār
Kayhan Kalhor, kamāncheh
Pejman Hadadi, dombak

Recorded in concert at the Freer Gallery of Art on March 15, 1997.

0:00–20:15 Solo: Hossein Alizadeh, tār
Gusheh (melody) dād-o bidād in dastgāhs (melodic modes) māhur and homāyun
20:40–35:40 Solo: Kayhan Kalhor, kamāncheh
Improvisation in dastgāh-e navā
36:02–1:20:30 Duet: Alizadeh and Kalhor
Improvisations in bayāt-e tork and dastgāh shur
1:20:50–1:28:30 Duet: Alizadeh and Kalhor
Improvisation in bayāt-e isfahan

Notes on the dastgāh and gusheh performed in this concert generously provided by Hesam Abedini (University of California, Irvine).


Persian classical music

The repertoire of Persian classical music is known as the radif (row), which the late musicologist Bruno Nettl called “the principal emblem and the heart of Persian music, a form of art as quintessentially Persian as that nation’s fine carpets and exquisite miniatures.” The radif includes approximately four hundred individual pieces, each called a gusheh, which are divided into twelve groups, each called a dastgāh. A performance from the radif begins with an introduction, which presents the melodic mode of the particular dastgāh chosen by the artist. After the introduction, the soloist performs various pieces from that dastgāh, often modulating from the mode of the introduction to other modes. A cadential motif often links one gusheh to the next, bringing the listener’s attention back to the dastgāh’s basic mode. Because it would take too long to perform all the pieces in any one dastgāh, a modern performance usually features a selection of the more striking pieces from the group.

The artist’s process of selecting which pieces to perform, and in what order, is part of the improvisatory nature of Persian music—but more important is the musician’s interpretation of each gusheh. The performer alters and embellishes the gusheh at will, and renders it in a different way each time. Responding to their feelings at the moment, musicians create highly personal and intimate renditions of each gusheh by varying and adding to it.

The ideal state of mind for this improvisation is one of total immersion, as if the musician is possessed by the essence of the mode or rhythmic cycle; musicians lose their sense of being a voluntary participant in the event. The performance thus becomes unpredictable even to the performer. On such occasions, improvisation reaches its height. From this experience comes the idea that music originates from an outer source, for which the performer, through virtuosity, is a mere vehicle.

This Performance

Notes on the dastgāh and gusheh generously provided by Hesam Abedini (University of California, Irvine).

Solo: Hossein Alizadeh

Alizadeh performs a unique hybrid composition that combines melodic material (called gusheh dād) from one mode (dastgāh māhur) with different melodic material (called gusheh bidād) from a separate mode (dastgâh homāyun). The result is a gusheh he calls dād-o bidād.

The melodic mode called māhur is similar to the Western C major scale, but starting on G with a final on C, while the mode called homāyun begins on E-half-flat with a final on G and incorporates A-half-flat.

Solo: Kayhan Kalhor

Kalhor improvises in the melodic mode (dastgāh) known as navā. In Western music terms, this dastgāh begins on D with a final on G and incorporates B-flat and E-half-flat.

Duet: Alizadeh and Kalhor

The two soloists improvise in the dastgāh known as bayāt-e tork, with additional material derived from the dastgāh called shur. The mode bayāt-e tork begins on C with a final on F and incorporates B-flat and E-half-flat. Dastgāh shur begins on B-half-flat with a final on D and incorporates half-flats on E and A.

Duet: Alizadeh and Kalhor

The artists improvise in the dastgāh known as bayāt-e esfahan, which begins on D with a final on G and incorporates F-sharp, B-flat, and E-half-flat.


The four-stringed, long-necked lute known as a setār has a long history in Persia and the surrounding region. The instrument’s predecessors are depicted in West Asian bas-reliefs from the second millennium BCE; an eighth-century Persian terracotta figure, now in the Louvre, shows a man playing a similar long-necked lute. The instrument was first described in written documents in the tenth century—when it was known as a tanbur—in treatises by the Arab music theorists and philosophers al-Farabi and Safi al-Din. It was mentioned in Persian poetry as early as the twelfth century and first appeared in Persian paintings about four hundred years later.

The original setār had only three strings; a fourth string was added to the modern instrument as a drone. Its curved sound-box is made entirely of white mulberry wood, and the walnut neck is fitted with moveable frets of twine. Small holes are carved into the wooden face and sides of the sound-box to improve its resonance. The setār’s soft, delicate sound makes it ideal to play in secret, a necessary feature in an Islamic Persian culture that long disapproved of instrumental music. From its earliest depictions to the present day, musicians have played the instrument using the forefinger.


The unusually shaped, six-stringed tār is a modern instrument unique to Iran, and it first appears in Persian paintings and photographs as recently as the nineteenth century. Its double-chambered sound-box, developed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, is modeled after the ancient rabab, another lute. The tār’s sound-box is covered by a very thin sheepskin parchment. This makes the instrument especially sensitive to the touch of the plectrum, which is traditionally made of metal and inserted into a ball of gum. The twenty-six moveable frets are made of gut. Because it is so difficult to craft, the tār is the most expensive of the traditional Persian instruments.

The Kamāncheh

The Persian fiddle (kamāncheh) originated in Central Asia. Its popularity spread east and west along the caravan trails and trade routes of the Silk Road. In the Arab world the earliest reference to such an instrument is found in a tenth-century musical treatise by the scholar al-Farabi. The term kamāncheh first appears in Persian literature in a twelfth-century poem by Masud Sad Salman. In China, literary references to bowed lutes played by nomadic tribes date to the Song dynasty (960–1279). The Freer and Sackler collections include several sixteenth-century Persian paintings depicting the kamāncheh being performed for Bahram Gur, a king in the fifth century.

—Notes on Persian music and instruments adapted by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts, from Jean During et al., The Art of Persian Music (Washington, DC: Mage, 1991); Hormoz Farhat, “Iran,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie (Macmillan 1980); and Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard 1973).


Hossein Alizadeh

Hossein Alizadeh is one of the most important figures in Persian music, with twenty-seven recordings, two Grammy nominations, an international touring career, and original soundtracks for feature films. He has recorded the entire body of the radif (traditional repertoire) for tār and setār (Persian lutes) based on the interpretation of Mirza Abdullah. Alizadeh received his bachelor’s degree in music composition and performance from the University of Tehran and later studied composition and musicology at the University of Berlin. He has taught at the University of Tehran, the Tehran Music Conservatory, and the California Institute of the Arts.

Alizadeh’s solo career has taken him on tour throughout Iran, North America, Europe, and Asia. He appeared at the Freer Gallery for this duo concert in 1997 and again in solo recitals in 2002 and 2012.

He is a former conductor and soloist with the Iranian National Orchestra of Radio and Television. In addition, he worked closely with the Shayda Ensemble and established the Aref Ensemble. His first professional experience in Europe was playing in the orchestra of the Bejart Ballet Company for Maurice Bejart’s ballet Gulistan. Alizadeh established the Hamavayan Ensemble in 1989 with a new approach to traditional Iranian choral singing. Accompanied by traditional instruments, this ensemble performed many of Alizadeh’s compositions, including his film scores.

Alizadeh appears on thirteen CDs as a soloist, on fourteen with an ensemble, on eight film soundtracks, and in a series of instructional recordings and books. His orchestral works include Riders of the Plains of Hope, Revolt, Ney Nava, Torkaman, Raz-O-Niaz, and Song of Compassion. His film scores include Gabbeh, A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), and Turtles Can Fly (2004). He is a two-time Grammy nominee for Best World Music Album, first for the 2005 recording Faryad (as a member of the Masters of Persian Music), and again in 2006 for his collaboration with Armenian musician Djivan Gasparyan on Endless Vision.

Kayhan Kalhor

Kayhan Kalhor, kamāncheh (Persian spike fiddle), has performed for audiences around the globe. Born in Tehran, he began his musical studies at the age of seven. At thirteen, he was invited to work with the Iranian National Orchestra of Radio and Television where he performed for five years. When he was seventeen, he began performing with the Shayda Ensemble of the Chavosh Cultural Center, the most prestigious arts organization in Iran at the time. He has traveled extensively throughout Iran, studying the music of its many regions, in particular that of Khorasan and Kordestan.

Kalhor has toured the world as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestre National de Lyon, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He is cofounder of the ensembles Dastan, Masters of Persian Music, and Ghazal (with sitarist Shujaat Khan). In addition, he has composed works for Iran’s most-renowned vocalists, Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Shahram Nazeri, and he has performed and recorded with Iran’s greatest instrumentalists.

A composer of music for television and film, Kalhor was featured on the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, and he collaborated on a score with film director Osvaldo Golijov. In 2004 American composer John Adams invited Kalhor to give a solo recital at Carnegie Hall as part of its Perspectives series. That same year Kalhor appeared on a double bill at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Kalhor’s compositions appear on the three recordings by the Silk Road Ensemble, of which he is an original member. His commission for the Kölner Philharmonic in Germany premiered in 2009. Three of his recordings have been nominated for Grammy Awards: Faryad, Without You, and The Rain. His CD Silent City (with Brooklyn Rider) was released on the World Village label in 2008.

Pejman Hadadi

Pejman Hadadi performs on dombak and daf, the two drums of Iranian classical and folk music. For thirty years, he has taught traditional styles of dombak playing and Persian rhythmic cycles to students in the United States, Europe, and Iran. He twice received the Durfee Foundation Master Musician Award for the dissemination and propagation of Persian music in the US. He has also composed music for dance, which he has performed at international festivals with master musicians, dancers, and choreographers.

Hadadi was born in Tehran in 1969 and began studying dombak at age ten with Assadollah Hejazi and later with Bahman Rajabi. His other influences include Hossein Tehrani, Nasser Farhangfar, and Morteza Ayan. He added the frame drum daf to his expertise by studying the recordings of Bijan Kamkar. Since immigrating to the US in 1989, he has collaborated with the ensembles Oshagh and Nava, performed with Hossein Alizadeh, and, in 1995, joined the renowned Dastan Ensemble, with whom he performed around the world. In 2000 he cofounded the Iranian percussion ensemble ZARBANG with whom he performed at festivals and in concert halls in Europe, North America, and Hong Kong. His recordings with this ensemble include Rengineh, Call to Love, and Middle Eastern and World Percussion. Pejman has also performed and recorded with Shahram Nazeri, Homayoun Shajarian, Kayhan Kalhor, Parisa, Shujaat Hussain Khan, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Hossein Omoumi, Ali Akbar Moradi, Hafez Nazeri, and Matthaious Adam Rudolph.  In 1999 he founded Neyreez World Music Institute in southern California. He was commissioned for an original work by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and performed with the Chorale at Disney Hall.


This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by Andy Finch and Suraya Mohamed. Photographs of the musicians by Mohammad Kheirkah Zoyari and Ali Boustan. Web production by Gio Camozzi and Torie Castiello Ketcham. Copyediting by Ian Fry. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performances at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

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