Performer-Audience Relationships in the Bazm

Mortezâ Varzi, Margaret Caton, Robyn C. Friend, and Neil Siegel

The Institute of Persian Performing Arts

Presented at the 1986 meetings of The Middle East Studies Association

Boston, Massachusetts

November, 1986 Copyright © 1986 by the authors. All rights reserved.

Abstract: The bazm is an intimate party at which refreshment and musical entertainment are provided. The role of the musical performer at the bazm is to establish a rapport that provides the proper environment for musical performance by means of an emotional and spiritual connection with the audience. The success of a bazm is largely dependent upon the ability of the performer to create a sense of unity among the participants.

This paper describes the traditional dynamics of the bazm, the establishment of communication between the performer and the audience, the relationship of poetry and mysticism to music, and the function and effects of music at a bazm.

  1. Introduction

One of the most significant characteristics of Persian traditional music is its emphasis upon the relationship between the performer and the listener. This relationship has developed both because of the spiritual nature of the music, and the spiritual needs of the Persian listeners. In this paper, we examine the origins of the spirituality of Persian traditional music, and show how this influenced the performer-listener relationship in one of the most traditional musical settings, the bazm.

  1. Origins and Development of Persian Classical Music

Iranian traditional music and poetry have their roots in religion. The oldest form of Persian poetry, sorud, began as Zoroastrian hymn singing. Throughout classical times, urban musical performance developed in two distinct settings: (1) at the court of the shâh, his princes, and the parties (bazm) of the nobility, and (2) at performances of passion shows and religious gatherings, ceremonies, and mourning periods. These latter could be either public or private events.

Music in the first category included the use of a wide range of musical instruments, and featured both group and solo performances, rhythmic and non-rhythmic pieces, and reng (dance music). The music of the second category employed a narrower range of musical instruments, usually limited to drums, neyqarâney (a kind of clarinet), bugle, horn, and chains at the mourning processions. Music and poetry in this category were mainly based on the stories related to the martyrdom of the descendants of Ali, the fourth Caliph, who was also the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law.

Perhaps as a result of Iran’s turbulent history, two apparently parallel, but in fact opposing sets of religious beliefs have developed in Iran; namely, Shiism and Sufism. Music and poetry played a great role in both. Mosques and Sufi temples, called Khânagâh, grew in number through competition. Religious and Sufi ceremonies and rituals gradually took the shape of social and musical events, one in the open, the other behind closed doors. The music of the Khânagâh made use of more traditional musical instruments to the extent that some of them, like Çoghor and to some extent ney, became exclusively associated with spiritual music.

Most of the classical singers performed both religious and secular music, but generally received their training from and started their singing in religious music. Symbolism in poetry helped the singer use more or less the same lines of poetry for both types of performance. Secular poets sang of carnal love; when a Sufi poet talked of the “beloved”, he meant God.

  1. Persian Perspective on Persian Classical Music

For Persians, music is not exclusively an entertainment; it is spiritual as well as social. That is why even during those periods when music was banned by Islamic authority, it was still easy for music to find a secure home in religion itself.

Persians consider the spiritual content of their music very important. They point to the moderate climate, the clear and starry nights, the fragrant floral scenes in the traditional rose gardens, and the enchanting love songs of the nightingale, and like to think that these have combined to make the Persian people very emotional, poetic, and passionately in love with music. They also like to view themselves as being dreamers, somewhat impractical, always eager to shed tears, and not so firmly down-to-earth. They speak of Persians being “in love with love”; if they have no human love to shed tears for, they will shed tears for love of God. Perhaps as an example of this character are the distinctly Persian “passion shows”, called taziye. In any case, while these claims are difficult to assess, such themes are rampant in the poems and song lyrics that the Persians cherish.

It is certainly clear that many Persian musicians viewed playing music as an important, perhaps even sacred, activity. They speak of music being the language of God. Some performers always performed the Muslim prayer ablution before playing music (this practice persists today among Persian and Turkish Sufi musicians). It is a Persian belief that when God created Adam out of clay, He whispered love musically into his ears and thereby gave him life. Hâfez, the immortal Persian poet, says in one of his ghazals:

“The message of your love was whispered to me yesterday, my breast is still full of music.”

Persians do not think that appreciating and understanding their music comes easy, or without effort; they feel that one must achieve a certain state of preparation before one can participate and contribute to the proper atmosphere of a bazm. This attitude has resulted in a fairly high level of knowledge about Persian music; a much higher level of knowledge, say, than the average American would have about Western classical music. They speak of seven conditions or steps necessary in order to understand the poetry of Hâfez; while they may not explicitly define an analogous set of conditions for understanding and appreciating Persian music, there is wide consensus that an unspoken such set must exist.

  1. Hâl

Before proceeding to a description of a traditional bazm, we would like to describe the Persian concept of hâl. This is originally an Arabic word which means “state” or “condition”. In the context of Persian music, hâl has acquired a mystical connotation. It refers to the spiritual mood of the audience and the performer. As we discuss later, one of the primary responsibilities of the performer is to comprehend and facilitate the hâl of an audience and the total performing situation.

Persians believe that there are certain mystical needs of the body; these needs can be filled both by meditation and by music. Music can change the listener, and take him out of himself, and in a mystical sense, join him with God. Hâlis the state where one is taken away from oneself. When one is conscious of oneself, the environment, the furniture, other people, and so forth, that is not hâl.

In addition to affecting the audience, music can also change the performer. In a state of hâl, the musician does things which are not necessarily planned, but just “come out” because he is not himself.

Hâl is not the goal, but the vehicle. The goal is a kind of understanding or reunion. There are two processes involved: one is to take the listener out of himself, and the other is to do things to him while he is there. Such an experience gives spiritual rest and relief; as though one has had a spiritual purgative and gotten rid of everything, and thereby become pure and simple. After the music the listener feels a great weight lifted from his shoulders. It purifies the listener by taking the soul out of the body, and lets the music do the work on the body.

  1. Preparing for Music at the Bazm

We now describe the bazm, a traditional setting for listening to Persian classical music.

The bazm is an intimate party at which refreshment and musical entertainment were provided; traditionally, this is considered one of the best settings for enjoying Persian music. The use of concert hall settings for Persian classical music is a modern, Western-oriented phenomenon, whose history extends back only about seventy to eighty years. In Iran, such concerts were generally attended by only a small minority of mostly Western-educated people.

Persian intellectuals have always looked down on religious ceremonies as something barbaric and reactionary; but since they also acknowledge the spiritual need for music, even they would attend a weekly evening bazm. The spirituality of the bazm was respected by both the audience and the performer.

The bazm always started on a very cold and formal basis. The only informal aspect of the beginning of the party was that the guests did not arrive at the scheduled time. It was as if the beginning of the evening were not of any significance. If one were to arrive on time, the hosts would be shocked and taken by surprise, simply because they would not be prepared on time either. It was the end of the bazm which no one would dare to miss.

The guests would start arriving individually, in couples, or in groups. Each related group would retire to a special corner of the guest room, minding their own business and carrying on with conversations that had been started before their arrival. The hosts also would largely leave their guests alone, running back and forth between the kitchen and the guest room, supervising or getting personally involved in carrying trays of tea, beverages, and snacks.

By that time, the party would look like the members of the Security Council at a break. Most of the faces during this time would be serious.

When the performer arrived, the seriousness would be swept away, and the heretofore divided group would form into a single communal assembly.

There might be some new faces in the crowd; for example, because of a new marriage in the family. Formal introductions would be carried out by the host, and the performer would usually keep a conversation with the newcomers in the hope of finding a previous link with them, which might take the form of a mutual friend, a distant relative, or even a mutual neighbor at one time or another. They had to make sure that they were not total strangers to one another.

Traditionally, the role of the performer was to communicate with the guests at a bazm both personally and musically in order to establish a rapport. This rapport was considered necessary in order to provide the proper environment for musical performance, through an emotional and spiritual connection with the audience. The success of a bazm was largely dependent upon the ability of the performer to create a sense of unity among the participants.

The connection was expedited by a common cultural background. Both listener and performer in a bazm were steeped in a poetic and philosophical tradition which bound together their expression and experience of the music. The performer’s communication with the audience and their common experience would provide the environment for potential inspiration, and a creative performer-listener relationship.

According to his awareness of the mood and needs of the audience at any one moment, the performer would draw from his storehouse of melodies, each of which have their associated moods; he would literally play on the emotions and spirit of the audience, drawing out of them sadness, remembrance, healing, or joy as the inspiration moved him. A prerequisite to this was improvisation, the creative ability of the performer.

An example of a traditional performer known for his exceptional ability to communicate with the audience was the late singer, Banân. He was noted for his ability to put across exactly the same feeling the poet had in mind. He did this by carefully choosing the right piece (gushe), the right ornamentation (tahrir), and the right amount of rest in between. Before performing, he would analyze the lines of the poetry so that when he sang a line, he knew exactly what it meant at various levels of interpretation.

This, then, was the essence of the traditional Persian musical performance. A Persian performer could not do a satisfactory job unless some kind of communication had already been established between him and his listeners. He had to mix with the crowd, acting as if he had a secret that he could share only with those with whom he has established some kind of emotional link. As soon as he had established this link with his audience, he would be ready to perform.

Before the music would begin, the guest room would gradually take on a different atmosphere. Furniture would be pushed aside, and lights reduced. Everybody would try to find a place on the floor as close as possible to the performer. With the candles burning in absolute silence, the performer would prepare himself to take his flight into the skies of divinity, making sure he felt secure about every individual in the audience. This was the most important moment in a performer’s life, his union with his God.

The musical selections would be meditative and transcendental; much of it would not employ cyclic musical rhythms. The performance would continue in this vein until the performer felt the listeners were fully satiated, some having shed their tears, lost in their thoughts and memories.

At the end of the musical performance, a dance piece would be played to bring the audience back to the present reality and to “break the spell”. Persians are very poetical and one can hardly find a person who does not know some lines of poetry by heart, which is used regularly as a part of daily conversations. They love dance and song. But, although some of them are very good at these performing arts, customarily they deny their skill, or even their knowledge of these things. They must be pushed into performance. But soon, they would get carried away with the dance music, and it would become difficult to stop them. At this stage everybody, skillful or clumsy, would be dragged into the dancing. This dancing would help them to release the emotional tension built up by the music, and would prepare them for the main meal, which was always the end of the entertainment, usually some time in the morning.

At the end of the party, the host would be apologetic to the guests, expressing his concern that their evening had been spoiled, that there had not been enough food, and that they had been deprived of their own meal at home.

  1. Conclusions

The traditional performance of Persian classical music involved many elements other than the correct production of notes and lyrics. The religious and spiritual roots of Persian classical music are reflected in the serious and spiritual intent of the bazm. Persians feel that one must achieve a certain state of preparation before one can participate and contribute to the proper hâl of a bazm. The performer plays a key role in assessing the emotional and spiritual state of the audience; he leads them to an emotional catharsis through his selection of appropriate dastgâh-s, gushe-s, tahrir, and lyrics.

It is clear from the preceding description of the bazm why concert performing situations and nightclubs would not be considered suitable replacements for the traditional bazm. Although traditional performers today do not eschew the concert hall (they usually do avoid the nightclub), they do not expect to create the same effect as at the bazm.

Fairchild wrote in 1904: “. . . one needs the setting of the orient to realize what these songs are: the warm, clear Persian night; the lamps and lanterns shining on the glowing colors of native dresses; the surrounding darkness where dusky shadows hover; the strange sound of music; voices, sometimes so beautiful, rising and falling in persistent monotony — all this is untranslatable, but the impression left on one is so vivid and so full of enchantment that one longs to preserve it in some form.”


Fairchild, Blair. Twelve Persian Folk Songs. London; Novello and Company, Ltd., 1904, page 2.