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Narrante is the fascinating ECM debut album of two Iranian musicians, Golfam Khayam and Mona Matbou Riahi, otherwise known as the Naqsh Duo. The guitarist and clarinettist, both born in Tehran, have established a shared musical language which draws upon their individual experiences with contemporary composition and improvisation and reflects upon – and transforms – elements of their homeland’s rich traditions…

“Music is about exposing a personal search and the freedom of experiencing,” says Mona Matbou Riahi. “Culture, language, landscape, people, memories and encounters…” The encounter between Matbou Riahi and Khayam has proven to be fortuitous, a meeting of players with compatible priorities, who had been travelling along similar paths. They founded their duo in 2014 and recorded Narrante in July 2015, in Lugano, where they met, for the first time, with producer Manfred Eicher, who had followed some of their music via tapes and videos. 

“The whole album has an invisible or discreet string running through it, which sews the tracks together,” Golfam Khayam explains. “But at the same time each piece is separate and has a different source, as a very personal glance at the roots of Persian music. Finally those sources are synthesized and integrated. It’s not ‘traditional’ anymore; it’s no longer from that zone. The freshness and purpose of improvisation come mostly from the Persian side, while the careful structure and careful crafting comes from Western contemporary music. We take these elements and try and figure out a formal structure or find a frame or plot which we can craft them into. Some of the pieces have open sections for improvisation and some are completely pre-composed yet sound improvised.” Both musicians explore extended techniques as well as the sound colour combinations available from acoustic guitar and clarinet, the ways in which “each instrument can vibrate the sound of the other, how clarinet can reflect itself in the guitar and vice versa.” 

Golfam Khayam’s primary field of activity has been contemporary classical music, which she studied in Tehran and, subsequently, in Cincinnati and Geneva with teachers including Dusan Bogdanovic, Clare Callahan, Nicolas Bolens, Victor Cordero, and Marc-André Rappaz. She has also made studies of traditional Persian music which led her to adapt some of its techniques for the guitar. Jazz, too, has been an inspiration. “I was intrigued by the way in which John Coltrane or Keith Jarrett could just play and create music: the composer and performer are not separate. And in my encounters with traditional music, there was the liberty which the performer has with his palette of colours. It was a challenge and dilemma for me: how can I convey this on my own instrument without fundamentally changing my musical zone?” 

Mona Matbou Riahi’s relationship with traditional music has gone through some metamorphoses. Growing up, she heard much of at it home (“my father listened to it all the time, and my mother sang it”), and when she first moved at age 17 to Vienna, had “a teenage revolutionary feeling” of leaving the music decisively behind. “There was a time when my listening consisted just of classical music and rock.” Then jazz singers and instrumentalists became important: Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and more. Encouraged by Vienna-based Brazilian guitarist Alegre Corrêa to participate in local jam sessions, Mona’s interest in improvising took wings. She went on to study improvisation and experimental music at university, participating in courses led by John Tilbury, Burkhard Stangl and others. 

“What I really love in improvising is the silence between ideas. I missed it in the jam sessions where everybody was playing all the time, but I found it in free improvisation, this mix of silence and ideas between the sounds: it was a good connection.”

In time, the wish to hear music from Persian sources also reasserted itself. “I started to listen to it with new ears, and not with judgement, a process of learning and searching with freedom. The music from Baluchistan was especially beautiful, really magical to me.” It was in attempting to “imitate the music’s landscape”, that Mona gradually found her own sound on the clarinet. Persian music subsequently informed the repertoire of the groups Gabbeh and Sormeh in which Mona participated. Sormeh recorded an album for Austrian label Lotus, and Mona sent a copy to Golfam Khayam who in turn sent her album Ravi, on the Hermes label, with re-interpretations and improvisations on Dusan Bogdanovic's compositions inspired by Persian poetry and culture.

Mona: “I listened and could really imagine guitar and clarinet together. We were somehow in the same musical space at the same time. When we play we’re like twins, in my eyes and ears. It’s a feeling I never had before meeting Golfam. She might bring in a composition or I might. But very soon her work is my work and vice versa. It’s our work. And it feels to me like writing poetry together.”

Narrante is the first ECM production to be issued simultaneously in European and Iranian editions. In Iran, it appears on co-producer Ramin Sadighi’s Hermes label. Sadighi has presented ECM artists in concert for a number of years, and has released earlier recordings of Golfam Khayam. 

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