Tell us a little about your background, both personally and professionally (in terms of film music). How did you first discover film music?
I was born in 1982 in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Though my father was not a professional musician, he was very musical and played the Santoor (the Iranian hammered dulcimer). He was a great music lover and used to listen to most advanced and serious Iranian traditional music and he had vast knowledge about Iranian music and musicians. So, I was somehow dropped into an ocean of music and that made me to learn know to swim in it, even before I even knew how deep it was. I owe almost everything that I have achieved later in terms of music to my father. I began learning music as a fun at the age of 5 with toy instruments and then at 9 began to study it seriously by learning naturally the Santoor, since my father also played it, and also the Persian classical singing, and the Persian structural theory of Iranian music called the Radif (the Sequences) or the modal and tonal structures.
Though I was basically starving to study in a conservatory and become a professional musician, but surprisingly my father hardly disagreed, for at that time it was very difficult for musicians to make their living financially. He wanted me to keep music for pleasure in my life not as a career … so I did. But perhaps because I was deprived of my one and only love, this made me somehow very greedy about studying music more than what even my father had expected me to. I have the good fortune of being one of the people to whom playing an instrument is very easy and natural. I learned ALL the Iranian instruments up to the age of 21. Then an accident drew my attention to the Classical music, and then I began learning non-Iranian classical instrument, the process which is still going on. I’m delighted to tell you that just 4 months ago I began studying 30th instrument as this year also the 30th year of me becoming a musician. So I can, in a way, claim that in the past 30 years I leaned approximately one instrument each year.
I did my BA in Business Administration. But since I was a boy the second thing that appealed me after music was learning different languages. So this made me also later to do my MA in Translation Studies and Linguistics.
I began composing as a fun from the age of 12 or so, but from the ages 18 or something I was already a composer but not for the orchestra. Only after I got to know and like the classical music, did I began learning composition seriously. From I thing around 24 I was a serious composer and I composed in almost all forms of classical music. From the 26 I had my own orchestra in which I also played and for which composed and arranged for. My Father died when I was 28, and after his death in such a state of shock that I dissolved my orchestra and stopped all my musical and even non-musical activities for almost two solid years, after which thanks to help of some of my musician friends I gradually restarted my musical activities but this time more as a researcher, writer, translator and specially lecturer.
My association with the beautiful world of film music began very early when I was 14 when I bought a record of the film music just out of curiosity. That album happened to be the score for Lawrence of Arabia by Maurice Jarre. I had not seen the movie yet, but I had heard the name of this movie from my father as great masterpiece. When I heard the first notes, especially the first timpani hits in that exceptional score, I was blown away almost instantly, by the power and beauty of it. I remember I listened the whole album 3 consecutive times in the first day alone. I think I am still carrying that first day effect till this very day. The effect which made me first to become a film music fan and then a film music critic almost two decades later.
This also taught me the biggest lesson about the film music in my life. As I said, at the time of listening to that score I had not yet seen the movie, but from the name I had just grasped that must have happen in Arabia and a desert atmosphere. When I listened to each cue and read the names I would envision that scene or sequence of the movie while listening to the music. When I finally managed to find a copy of the movie and see it almost 5 years later, I made surprising discovery. Almost every sequence that I had envisioned while listening to any given cue was to a large extent similar to what I had seen in my mind. This just proved to me two things: first, how really powerful a good film music can be and secondly, what miracles can a good film composer achieve.
Right after my first association to the world of film music after hearing Maurice Jarre’s masterpiece I passionately fell in love with film music immediately and began buying almost every film score available in Iranian market, which alas were very rare. Even those score that had been published were difficult to find, since they weren’t so many buyers for film music records and they were regarded as just prestige productions rather than money makers. So, to find some of these scores I had to go the publishing companies. Believe it or not, I remember even in one occasion the man in the publishing company took me his warehouse to find me certain score that I wanted. But as hard as it was, it paid off as I began to hear the works by great names like Miklós Rózsa, Jerry Goldsmith, Max Steiner, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, John Barry, Bernard Herman etc.
Around the year 1999 or 2000 Internet became very popular in Iran specially among the younger generation and I bought my first computer, and I would spend most of the hours that I was free at home or in the office where I used to worked to find some more free film music albums on internet. Growing up in a closed country like Iran, Internet was almost like a great revelation to me. I could also use internet to read the biographies of my favorite composers, find more about their other works and also even see the faces of my idols for the first time. This became almost an obsession to me and one of the reasons why I decided to share my knowledge of film music with Iranian audiences many years later.
How did you begin your career as a film music journalist? Tell us a little about that history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
Till this moment I really refrain to call myself a film music “Journalist”. Because to me the world Journalist really implies, above all, “reporting” something, a film music event in this case. And this is not what I do or at least what I intended to do. I am a composer and professional musician who happens to be a great fan of film music, i.e. certain kind of music which happens to be used on a movie. To me the technical part of creating a piece of music, in this case a cue used for a sequence of the movie, is a lot more important than things that happen in the musical circle. Even though we both are very important and very much needed, but I think my function and hopefully contribution in this process should be assessing and analyzing not reporting only.
The effect that a score finally has on the movie or the relation between the music and the movie has always been of the secondary importance to me. That’s why I call myself a film music “Critic” rather than a “Journalist”. I guess this debate has always existed between musicians, that which one should be the primary concern of a musical mind … the artistic value of the final product or the technical virtuosity involved or need in the process of making. If we go a little further than the realm of film music we can also see this debate in broader context too. On hand we had we had we had one school of thought of people like Isaac Stern, who said: “I play the violin to play the music, I do not play the music to play the violin”. On the other hand we had people like Natan Milstein who said: “I love the violin more than the music itself. I love playing even when I’m tuning and no music has even started”. So these entirely different attitudes of mind have the right to exist with regard to the film music “Journalism” vs. “Criticism” too and I guess I belong the latter.
I know many of my colleagues may not share this view with me but I strongly believe that by analyzing the technical aspect of creating a piece of music which is supposed to be put on certain moving pictures, and discovering the mental process of great composer and his technical methods we can help a lot more to the progress of distinct art form of film music than to simply reporting news about it or even by getting ourselves more involved with the more directorial aspect of a picture, such as spotting, or how soft or laud the music should be over dialogue or natural sounds etc. while once more I admit that they are so important too and should be worked on. But I consider my function as a professional composer and music critic and I think is at least my job is to focus on these more unknown sides of film music to the public.
Since I am the first and only film music critic in my country, I have dedicated the last decade of my life to giving so many speeches on film music composers and writing analyses on film scores. Fortunately, the good response that I have received from my audiences shows that I must have done something right, because the public here, specially music students and even young composers have become just so eager to know more about this wonderful world which is so unknown to them. Especially about the great non-Iranian composers of the past and present who really helped this young art from reach its pick.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
Well this is a very general question and I admit it’s also very hard to answer. Because as the one and only Max Steiner, the man who so many people consider to be the father of film music, once said: “Music cannot save a bad picture”. The first thing here the movie itself. It has to be good or at least acceptable to some extent, so that the composer can really add up something to beauty that already exists as a ground. Even though in the history of cinema we had some few instances of failed movies being saved by the music, but I still think that those cases are just rare and exceptional simply don’t happen every time.
The film composer has so many restrictions to deal with … and I mean SO MANY. From the time, to the mood of the picture, the mentality of the director, producer or a host of production people he has to please, time limit etc. He should have also a vast knowledge of so many genres of music to be able to tackle any problem and produce any music for any given scene in any given geographical situation or any moment in human history that the movie happens in. You might need to produce a lush orchestrated symphonic score for one movie or even one sequence while you might be asked to write a Japanese piece for the next, a Jazz one for this and an Indian, south African, Rock, Electronic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Chinese etc. for the other. That’s how knowledgeable and versatile a good film composer should be. In fact that was one of the main reasons that I came to admire the film composers in the first place.
Also, unlike a freelance composer the film composer is bound to the subject and the exact time that he is hired to write for … no more, no less. Some people call is an advantage but some others including me consider this a very paralyzing disadvantage of this craft. If you are a freelance composer nobody forces you what, how or how long to write, while the poor film composer is like a lion in a cage. He has to be lion, sound and act like one, but he is just allowed and obliged to walk in a five square meter cage while preserving his dignity and without hearting his integrity as self-respecting lion. So those guys who made it, and made it good deserve to be regarded as great artists.
I believe if a composer is a good, knowledgeable, well-educated and experienced composer, most of the time is capable of producing good scores. Because he can channel his knowledge and talent into that subject and achieve a lot better result than a bad composer who happens to possess better sense of drama or have a better understanding of cinema for instance. And that’s why, as I said, I cared more about the technical aspects of composition than other ones.
I believe if, as a composer, you have good knowledge of harmony, counterpoint, form, musical history and specially orchestration, there’s always a higher chance for you to produce a better score than someone with great dramatic science and understanding of the picture but not enough technical knowledge to materialize and produce what is supposed to be achieved musically. Not that I deny those other aspects for making a great score ha … not at all. All I’m saying is a craftsman should know the craft well first and then go after the other intellectual aspects of the job. Unfortunately in recent years, maybe thanks to us critics, people are taught to intellectualize a simple craft even before mastering the craft itself. And again for part of this problem I point the finger at our own journalist/ critic colleagues. We have somehow taught the composers, that if they want a critic of their works or our acclaim they should be more philosophers than musicians. Some of our colleagues unfortunately have overestimated their own role in this process. So much so that they feel they have the right to condition the composers into approaching every single project as a philosopher not a creator of music, which in this case is not even alone like a symphony. I mean film music is not the so-called “Absolute Music” in which the composer has also the right to be a philosopher too. Here the music has to serve some other layers of knowledge i.e. pictures and dialogues.
I think the history of film music has shown that, from the earliest film composers who happened to be the founding fathers of the film music till now, almost all the great ones were good composers first and then good intellectuals and that’s what made the good film composers. There are so many instances of that, such as John Williams being the man who hated movies before composed for them or Ennio Morricone being so reluctant to even consider to write for films or Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Mikóos Rózsa who considered film music to be a lesser art form of art and somehow beneath their dignity to write for. But they all not only made it but became idols of film music because first and foremost they were good composers … pure and simple.
So for a good film music to be born first we need a good composers, and then of course, researching on the subject, having good relation and understanding with the director, liking the subject and even liking movies in general can help a lot.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today, specifically in Iran? Can you talk a little about the differences in approach to film music between western cinema, Iranian cinema, and in other parts of the region, as you see them?
Well the story of film music in Iran is a long one and it had its own ups and downs. I’m sure most of the people especially in Europe and Americas don’t know that Iran is one of the first countries in east which had cinema industry. Iran is the first country in the whole Middle East and even Africa that had a symphonic orchestra. And also I’m sure that most of those who even know the Iranian cinema outside Iran don’t know that Iran has had so many great film composers who have produced in almost all western genres of music as well as Iranian traditional and ethnic scores.
This really takes days and days to talk about the rich history of Iranian film music and the long list of our film composers. But generally as I said Iranian film music has experienced so many phases and several ups and downs. Like Hollywood we have also had our so-called Golden Age of Iranian film music. But I’m afraid from the late 90s and early 2000s things went downhill for our film music … or at least in my opinion that’s the case. And there are so many reasons for it. For instance, recording with a good large orchestra became so expensive and all of a sudden with the advent of individual recording and remixing the instruments with less players, synthesized scores, musical samples and so on, it made the producers to spend less and less on the film music. That’s why so many good composers could not stand this new situation and left cinema and in their stead came a generation very bad, illiterate and superficial composers who could just get the job done at any cost and with any minuscule budget.
Because, let’s face it, the producers are the real kings in cinema. If they decide that the film music is not that important to spend good amount of money on it then nobody can force them to do so. Even if you bring a good well-experienced compose in, still, there so many things that simply can’t be achieved with a bad or even good but small orchestra.
Unfortunately even most of the producers began to see this as an opportunity to decrease the overall production charges. They did not even realized how badly they were hurting their own movie, much less the Iranian cinema as a whole. But, anyways the damage was done and not until very recently did they realized that things have gone too far and got much out of control. Because the sheer amount of horrible scores that came out in this almost two decades made the public to hate the movies and begin to compare these movies with the so-called good old days movies with brilliant scores. I think from this point on and since almost the past five years or so we are gradually witnessing a complete shift of approach to good film music, hiring good composers and spending reasonable amount of money on good orchestras, players, and even better recording process. Not as much those glorious days of our film music history, but the shift seems very promising.
I’m glad to see that despite that dark period Iranian film music sun is again shining on Iranian cinema and these days I see, despite the world pandemic, the studios and composers and player are so busy in Iran. I’m just so happy to see that some of those old masters also have made peace with cinema and are composing for films again. Also there some young talents who are emerging every now and then in Iranian film music industry. But since the main Iranian cinema industry is unfortunately mostly state-run or semi-state-run, this blocks the way for many talented composers to get into this industry.
We also have an Iranian House of music, which controls almost all Iranian musical activities. We have even a union for Iranian film composers. I admit that I am very critical to both of these institutions and I have criticized them so many times on and off in Iranian press. Because instead of helping and paving the way for new talents for the past three decades they have become a close circle of musicians who scratch each other’s back and just keep things as they think has to be which is to protect their crown from any new comers and young talents. In fact thy have created so much resentment among Iranian musicians that they are regarded as the Iranian mafia of music. I know the term is very strong, but that is how unpopular they have become ever the years. They have also been one of the main damaging factors to the Iranian music industry, but I’m glad to see that thanks to many criticisms from the Iranian musicians even that is changing too. There are so many good rumors about total change in these foundations now and I hope they happen as soon as possible. Because I know how many new talents have already cued up behind closed doors to rejuvenate or even revolutionize the Iranian film music industry.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
If you mean non-Iranian International composers … of the dead ones … well … my immediate answer is the one and only Maurice Jarre. Yes he was the first composer who drew my attention to the film music, but that is not why I chose his and I choose him all the time. There are so many reasons for that and I have not only given so many lectures on that but I’ve also written about him over the years. He is beyond any doubt the best film composer I’ve ever known and it’s just so interesting that he happened to be the first one too.
I adore just his composition style … his incredible versatile orchestration, his great knowledge of world music and use of the most unknown world instruments in his scores, his great sense of melody and individual way of creating a totally separate counter melody which is as beautiful alone as it is underneath the main melody, his fabulous knowledge of rhythm in creating the most meaningful polyrhythm textures, his wonderful use of percussions and the his wonderful grooves, and last but not least his simplicity of composition, in that, it’s just so friendly to the ear. Nothing in Maurice Jarre’s Music really forces itself to your ears.
He had something in his music that like most of the works by great composers could never be put in words. Everything is just in a certain order, without any showing off whatsoever. There’s also an element of “Humanity”, if you will, in his music. His music is not only beyond any doubt the work of a genius but there is also great element of “Humbleness” there, which love very much. Maurice Jarre, in my opinion, was one of the most incandescent musical talents who ever came on the musical scene and he left us a huge body of works which I can only describe them as treasures for generations to not only enjoy but learn from.
About the living composers, there so many whose works I adore but if I’m to choose only one, then who but the one and only John Williams. The man who somehow saved the classical orchestral style of composition and put it on the map again. I adore his great knowledge of almost any genre of music there is, his great sense of melody, his so relevant music to the picture that bestows some magical element on the picture almost becomes undividable from the final product, his adventurous and daring experiments on every new score, etc. These things and many others in my opinion has made him almost a God of film music and beyond. He is also a wonderful pianist, very good and hardworking conductor and above all a very prolific composer of serious music which is a very rare thing to be in Hollywood. The fact that before becoming a composer he has actually worked, played, copied and arranged for most of the great Hollywood composers makes him an absolutely unique figure. Also the fact that he is such a humbled man, good human being, absolutely incandescent artist and very supportive to the young artists makes me adore John Williams as a man too, as much him as a great composer that he is.