Master of Persian Music: Hossein Alizadeh, tar and setar

Hear the ancient improvisational tradition of Persian classical music played masterfully by one of Iran’s greatest musical legends. Hossein Alizadeh is a two-time Grammy nominee, once for his solo album Endless Vision and again as a member of the Masters of Persian Music ensemble, with which he has toured internationally.


Hossein Alizedah, tar and setar
Accompanied by Majdid Khalodi, tombak and daf

Recorded in concert in the Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art, on May 30, 2002. This performance was presented in cooperation with the World Music Institute (NY).

Song Track
Part I 0:00–35:16
Part II 35:16–43:28


Hossein Alizadeh (b. 1950) is one of the most important figures in Persian music, with 27 recordings, two Grammy nominations, an international touring career, and original soundtracks for such highly regarded films as Gabbeh, Turtles Can Fly, and A Time for Drunken Horses. His formal training in the radif (repertoire) of Persian classical music began with Houshang Zarif and continued under Ali Akbar Shahnazi, NurAli Borumand, Mahmood Karimi, Abdollah Davami, Yousef Foroutan, and Saied Hormozi. He has recorded the entire body of the radif for tar and setar (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 in 1997 and 2002 and will perform there again on February 4, 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 acclaimed 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 has performed many of Alizadeh’s compositions, including New Secret, Songs of Compassion, the Grammy-nominated album Endless Vision, and the soundtrack to the feature film Gabbeh.

Alizadeh appears on 13 CDs as a soloist and on 14 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 his 2005 recording Faryad (as a member of the Masters of Persian Music), and again in 2006 for his collaboration with Armenian musician Djivan Gasparyan, Endless Vision.

Persian Classical

The repertoire of Persian classical music is known as the radif, or row, which musicologist Bruno Nettl has 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 400 individual pieces, each called a gusheh, which are divided into twelve groups, each called a dastgah. A performance from the radif begins with an introduction, which presents the melodic mode (maqam) of the particular dastgah chosen by the artist. After the introduction, the soloist performs various pieces from that dastgah, 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 dastgah’s basic mode. Because it would take too long to perform all the pieces in any one dastgah, 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.



The four-stringed, long-necked lute known as a setar has a long history in Persia and the surrounding region. The instrument’s predecessors were 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 setar 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 setar’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 tar differs from the setar in a number of respects. Unlike the ancient setar, the tar is a modern instrument unique to Iran, and first appeared 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. Also unlike the setar, the tar’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 26 moveable frets are made of gut. Because it is so difficult to craft, the tar is the most expensive of the traditional Persian instruments.

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


Podcast, notes, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager. Curatorial review by Massumeh Farhad, audio engineering by Andy Finch, and text editing by Joelle Seligson. Our deepest gratitude goes to Hossein Alizadeh for granting permission to podcast his memorable performance at the Freer Gallery.

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