By Azadeh Karimi and Ali Eshtyagh
Mohammad Reza Mortazavi is an Iranian percussionist once described by a German TV channel as “the fastest fingers in the world.” Growing up in Isfahan, he began taking drum lessons when he was six years old, and was so prodigiously gifted that his tombak (percussion) teacher gave up teaching him after three years. Four years later, when he was only 10, young Mohammad Reza won Iran’s national tombak competition.
He now lives in Germany, where he is better known than in his native Iran, and where he has performed at Berlin’s Philharmonie, one of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Mortazavi plays the instrument with such intensity that he puts a spell on the audience. Kayhan London caught up with him for a conversation about music.
Q: What are some of the elements that can influence a performance?
A: Everything is energy, and certainly energy influences the performance. When I began studying music, I would practice endlessly. After a while, I realized that the hours I spent practicing the notes and maintaining discipline were completely correlated with the joy and love that were burning inside me.
During a performance, when my excitement and emotions are fully flowing, I respond to the audience, and try to reach a shared emotional place. Even though my music is very distinctive, I try to reach beyond the limits of my notes. I do not wish to be bound by a specific beginning or end. The energy of the audience has definite influence over me, and their response has a direct effect on how I perform.
The encounter with the audience is like standing in front of a mirror. The reflection in that mirror influences the music that I play. I am always searching to find a balance and a rhythm that capture the mood in the room. My goal is to reach a timeless and universal state of mind.
Unlike a metronome, the human pulse is flexible and not held to a fixed beat. My pulse is the metronome of the moment, and it is not confined by time or space. Every pulse has its own frequency and manifests itself in real time. I aim for the music to flow through me, unencumbered by any rules pre-programmed in my head.
I have performed for audiences of various nationalities and cultures, and believe that music is a universal language. We share a common humanity, and we can participate in an instant in the beat of the tombak. I am not playing the tombak in solitude. The audience and I share a common pulse. Sometimes a member of the audience may even feel as if they are dictating the beat.
Q: As a musician, was there a turning point in your career that led you to place such emphasis on the concept of energy transfer?
A: Going all the way back to childhood, I have never been a believer in boundaries. My grandfather used to play professional backgammon in Isfahan. I was captivated by the game, and came to believe that luck had its own workings. I noticed a connection between the dice and the player and the emotion of the moment. Backgammon redefined my outlook on life.
I came to believe that everything comes from within. I searched for happiness in my own being. The instrument became a vehicle to communicate everything that I could not say. I consider it my first language.
Q: What is your relationship with music circles in Iran?
A: I emigrated because of the contradictions that I was observing in their midst. Music cannot evolve and grow in circumstances where even the most enlightened traditional musicians are selfish and ambitious. Music is love, and love knows no boundaries. Those who lay down rules to control this love are imposing a dictatorship. Unfortunately, the present atmosphere in traditional music contradicts the mystical claims of the musicians performing it.
Q: What kind of resistance did you encounter when you started introducing new musical structures to the traditional tombak beat?
A: I faced a lot of criticism, but it only exacerbated my desire to pursue my passion for the tombak more vigorously. Restrictions and constraints are everywhere, because the system wants to control beliefs, values, and standards. But if I cannot be free in music, where can I find freedom?
We live in a world that functions based on criteria established by the system. Take money as an example. It is a useless piece of paper that the system has put a certain value on. It is a means of control, and it has to operate efficiently.
Before emigrating from Iran, I devised a marketing strategy for myself. Marketing is a vehicle to connect with the audience at large. When I was growing up, I would buy cassette tapes from the record shop. It was the marketing of the work of the musicians that helped me discover new horizons, and it had a great influence on my worldview. There was always a kind of skepticism associated with marketing and how it would contaminate the music. I have come to the conclusion that if one wants to act against the system, one has to act from within it.
Q: Are there any undiscovered aspects to your musical instrument of choice, the tombak?
A: I still view myself as being at the threshold of this adventure. I have not attained anything yet, and that’s why every album is different. My album “Codex” was released in 2013, and I have been on tour with it. Currently, I am concentrating on the concept of this album, and my music is following that trajectory. It is much the same as looking through a microscope and becoming absorbed by the wonder of the detail. Once you get hooked, it’s hard to look elsewhere.
Q: How do you teach your approach to the music to your students?
A: I have abandoned musical scores and theories for several years now. My conclusion is that in musical education, theories and scholarly terminology do not guarantee quality sound; they actually hinder and confine the music. These days, especially in the developing world, staying within the established structure of music brings prestige and credibility to the musician, when in fact, music is scarcely compatible with titles such as professor or doctor.
What I strive for in my classes is to ignite a passion for music in my students. I believe that the student should feel comfortable enough in the classroom to express him or herself in full confidence. That is the only way to progress, and the teacher is responsible for creating such a space.
Q: How have you reconciled tradition and modernity?
A: Something that is novel and has an impact on society will be considered tradition in the future. Music, in its essence, is not confined by time. I think that tradition and modernity will converge and prove that they are all one. Having played the tombak for so long, I realized that the left and the right come together at some mutually convenient point. when the movement and balance of the hands merge naturally into a beat, and a state of ecstasy is attained. That moment is similar to the spinning top that seems to stay in place even as it twirls rapidly.
Q: The foreign media have identified you as being one of the world’s fastest pair of hands. How important is this for you?
A: I am not responsible for any title that is given to me. I can say that it is the pulse that drives me. It rises from within and picks up speed and pulls back when it is spent. I do not perform to impress people with the speed of my hands.
Q: Other than your own, what music do you listen to?
A: I listen to any tune that is interesting. I have no particular preference.
More sounds from Mohammad Reza Mortazavi