Expanding the scope of sound and the setar: meet composer Ramin Roshandel
Known for his work as the composer on experimental dance films such as Athens International Monthly Art Film Festival finalist “Hyperdistanced” and “Mammal Hall,” as well as the collaborative visual art projets Walking on Sol, The Status of Pietà and Between the Cracks, masterful musician and composer Ramin Roshandel continues to expand the scope of the setar’s sound and possibility.
On October 18 Roshandel released “Jamshid Jam” in collaboration with Jean-Francois Charles, an innovative album that weaves together traditional sounds of the setar with the modernity of live electronics in unique dialogue between two instruments that offers a vision of the future.
With Roshandel on the setar and Charles behind Spectral DJ, a musical software that has been specifically programmed by Charles to work with the turntable, the two “combine haunting melodies and ancestral rhythms with live sampling and remixing to create a new imaginary folklore.”
“There are moments in which one instrument leads and the other one accompanies, but the main structure of the album is an attempt to create an innovative texture based on the sounds of the two instruments,” explains Ramin Roshandel.
“Each track is a different journey and has a different aura. There are moments in which electronic sounds get bigger and louder until they dissolve the sound of the setar into itself. There are some other moments in which it is as if the setar is reciting a poem.”
Named after Jamshid, who according to Persian myth was the inventor of music, Roshandel and Charles create something of a new musical language in “Jamshid Jam,” with the four-movent album taking us through a process of the setar and AI powered Spectral DJ getting to know one another, at some points arguing for space and individual creation, and ultimately, finding balance and harmony.
“In one of the concerts, as well as in the track ‘Segah’ in the album, music starts with a crackling, noisy texture which morphs into a series of harmonics played by the setar. After a few minutes, some tones that are more familiar to our ears start to emerge– this whole process was a metaphor for music being invented,” says Roshandel.
The album, which has already received the Silver Medal Award from the 2022 Global Music Awards, is the result of an ongoing collaboration between Ramin Roshandel and University of Iowa Professor Jean-Francois Charles who met in 2017. Together the two have performed concerts across the U.S., at venues such as The Englert Theatre in Iowa, during Maryam Taghavi’s show at the Chicago Artists Coalition, and the New York City Electroacoustic Improvisation Summit last Spring. Roshandel was also the setar soloist for the premiere of Jean-François Charles’ opera, “Grant Wood in Paris.”
When asked about what listeners can expect from the album, Roshandel says, “One could expect to listen to a combination of Persian classical music along with electronic sounds but on a more profound level, the electronic sounds sometimes appear as some sort of meta for setar; one hears them transposed down or up, slowed down or sped up, or in a completely new timbre with a totally different texture while the setar has moved on to the next section.”
Originally from Iran, where he spent a decade teaching setar, composition and music theory before coming to the U.S. in 2017 to work on his PhD, Roshandel continues to create a bridge between the traditional and the innovative through his individual work and continued collaborations with numerous other musicians and cross-disciplinary artists from around the world.
In recent years, Roshandel has contributed his collaborative genius to several site specific projects, such as “The Parking Spaces” interactive listening experience, which earned the Public Art Matching Grant from the City of Iowa City, and the Iowa Arts & Culture Resilience Grant, as well as the dance film “Mammal Hall,” which was presented earlier this year by the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.
Described as “a polyphonic, sensory study of museums and the questions that arise as we wander through them,” the film is a cross-disciplinary collaboration created by Ramin Roshandel, director Auden Lincoln-Vogel, and choreographer Stephanie Miracle, during their residency at the the Museum of Natural History in 2021.
In the film, for which the team received the Arts Across Borders Grant, Roshandel uses sound to heighten the viewer’s experience by guiding their attention to the connection between Miracle’s choreography and the unfolding narrative as they pass through the museum’s different exhibits.
One of the things that makes Roshandel such a uniquely talented composer, musician and collaborator is that, while he brings countless years of training and a deep understanding of the history and fundamentals of the setar and Persian music to the table, he is not restricted by his knowledge. Instead, it is his knowledge coupled with a unique creativity that runs in his blood, which allows him to push the boundaries and enter new territories.
“Sometimes knowledge and virtuosity can make collaboration difficult as those skills often hinder a certain amateurish curiosity that allows people to explore together. With Ramin, though, I have very much found the opposite to be true. He can do anything, at least everything we’ve thought of so far, and is more than happy to indulge our outlandish suggestions,” says director Auden Lincoln-Vogel.
“Ramin’s good at what he does because he’s been doing it for so long, but has not fallen into a single niche. Somehow he finds ways to move from one mode of working, one instrument, one type of music, and transfer it to others, sometimes working on multiple projects in very different modes at the same time… It does not seem that, for him, there is any contradiction between using his setar to play a traditional concert one night and, the next morning, using it to record squeaks and taps for a film’s sound design.”
Born into a family with a luthier father and a well known painter and sculptor for an uncle, Ramin Roshandel was immersed in the arts at an early age. While Roshandel now lives in the U.S., he has not forgotten his roots. Over the past few years, he has used his genius in collaboration with other artists, such as Nima Bahrehmand, to shed light on both culture myths, as well as the current turmoil in Iran, through works such as Walking on Sol and the Status of Pietà.
With Bahrehmand handling the visuals and Roshandel behind the sound, The Status of Pietà which, along with Walking on Sol, was showcased at different festivals including Digital Natives in Tbilisi, Georgia, Open Air Media Festival in Iowa and the Midway Fair in Chicago, is a video-art piece that attempts to reflect on the situation both of the artists grew up in.
“Both Nima and I were born in the 80s in Iran during the war between Iraq and Iran. Since then, this part of the world has not faced peace at all. I think it’s needless to say how the situation of this region has and is still impacting our lives, as well as millions of others. The piece is a 5-minute long video that consists of a series of AI-generated images of wars. The sound and music try to resemble and respond to the video by making an abstract version of the sound and music we would possibly hear if we were there in the region,” explains Roshandel.
“Between these images, we see the black screen for a few seconds and when I was working on the music, I decided to fill these black spaces with a piercing and maybe disturbing sine tone which I thought might resemble how disturbing and brutal the situation for millions of civilians in the middle east has been.”
In addition to his numerous artistic collaborations as a musician, Roshandel has also made quite the name for himself as a sought after composer, with his personal work being performed by artist such as by Anna Elder, Will Fried, Daniel Schreiner, JACK Quartet, Ensemble Dal Niente, Kamratōn Ensemble, and LIGAMENT duo.
“I think whether a musical piece has lyrics or not, it’s capable of making a direct connection with everyone’s heart,” says Roshandel when asked about why music is such a powerful medium.
“For example, right now there is a feminist uprising in Iran, which started a few weeks ago and has been followed by a series of nationwide anti-government protests across the country during which, a musician named Shervin Hajipour released a single song called ‘Baraye’ which means ‘For’ or ‘For the sake of’ in Farsi and it implies all the reasons for which this movement as happening. Soon after that, the song got 40+ million views on Instagram and has become the anthem of the movement all across the world among the diaspora and its supporters.”
In addition to the release of “Jamshid Jam,” which is now available on all online platforms, Roshandel is currently working on a series of electronic pieces for an album that is inspired by the recent feminist uprising in Iran.