In April, Cambridge concert-goers were spellbound to hear improvisations on Iranian folk song performed by two musicians in Downing Place United Reformed Church. One of the improvisers was Harry Sever, musical director of Cambridge Philharmonic Society, at the piano. But Harry was accompanying Rouzbeh Parsa, who brought with him an instrument from Iran. A bowed string instrument, sometimes known in English as the ‘spiked fiddle’. Its Persian name is the kamancheh.
I spoke with both performers, in separate interviews, after the concert, and asked about the stories of the melodies that they were improvising on. I have transcribed the words as they were spoken.
The kamancheh player
Rouzbeh Parsa: It was completely improvisations. The idea of my cooperation with Harry was about just having some improvisations together. Kamancheh and piano go very much together. Just before our concert, we planned structure about our improvisations. I use lots of melodies, some Iranian melodies we have. We have Iranian melodic systems like major and minor scales in classical music, and we also talked about the rhythm. After that, we just let our mind to flow.
Aidan Baker: I’ve heard that you’re composing a violin concerto. How is that going?
Rouzbeh Parsa: I’m planning to compose something orchestral, a violin concerto or kamancheh concerto. I’m working on it. But not many people know about my kamancheh. So one of my targets is that I want to introduce it to people and have a combination of classical and traditional Iranian music.
Aidan Baker: You’ve published two books. What can you tell us about them?
Rouzbeh Parsa: These two books are all about kamancheh, my main musical instrument. And one of these is for my kamancheh master, who lives in Canada now. My second book is about the Azerbaijanian kamancheh.
Aidan Baker: Is there anything that you’d absolutely like our readers to know?
Rouzbeh Parsa: One of my main purposes is that with music, we can make peace in this messy world. And I’ll just strive for that. And I really enjoy when people come to concerts and they are calm, and they are happy, and they are relaxed. I enjoy doing concerts and music is my everything.
Aidan Baker: Harry, the Brahms concert was initially publicised without Rouzbeh. What led to his being added to the programme?
Harry Sever: I know a guy who helps asylum seekers in the Birmingham area. He told me he’d met this young musician who’d just come into the area. We were planning this concert when Rouzbeh was based in Birmingham. He got moved to Manchester in the new year. So that was the initial contact.
Aidan Baker: What are the stories of the melodies that you and he were improvising on?
Harry Sever: When I play alongside Rouzbeh, I’m trying to find the kind of language that’s authentic. I’ve been listening to lots of Iranian music. I found myself working in a kind of folk idiom. I suppose the themes we’re thinking about are home and travel, and how to express that in music. We didn’t really plan anything – it’s all in the moment. From my perspective, all melody draws upon tradition. When I play, I’m thinking harmonically about both of our musical languages.
Aidan Baker: Now, finally, is there anything that our readers absolutely need to hear?
Harry Sever: The way that the government is marginalising and victimising refugees, and the language that they use – “Asylum shoppers” – it’s so in opposition to the story of what these people have gone through. Open your eyes to the fact that these are human beings, extremely capable, interesting, creative, talented people. We allow our government to treat them like a “swarm” – the awful language that they use dehumanises them. The more that we can do as a community to treat these people as human beings, the more we might find a way forward.
Harry had made this same point in an eloquent few words to the Downing Place audience. From them, there were nods and vigorous applause. Public opinion on migration remains mobile. People recognise the good things that migrants bring to this country, and sometimes politicians do too – but it’s still news when that’s seen to happen. East Anglia Bylines offers its very best wishes to Rouzbeh and his musical skills, and looks forward to hearing more from him.
For a flavour of Rouzbeh’s performance try ‘Freedom‘, which he recorded in the Guild Chapel, Stratford-upon-Avon, with Chris Long in November 2022.
DISCLOSURE. Aidan Baker is a member of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society.