Abbas Akbari

Soor, In Search of Silence

"Whose melody set fire on my warp and weft"


Before you read this short writing and see the instruments in this book, I find it necessary to remind you of something: what follows is the documentation bearing witness to the path walked to the production of the instruments. Documenting has always remained the very principle that I’ve put ample emphasis on in whatever I’ve done. This is worth noting as essential especially amid the barrage of various contemporary media, with cyberspace in particular, where they wrap the creation, development, and interpretation of everything within the shroud of doubt, ambiguity and blind imitation. What is inferred from this writing is my personal view, and is at least the position I consider for music; the position that shares boundaries with Arthur Schopenhauer’s saying that puts: ‘Music turns an entirely blind eye to this world as though it can remain eternal, even when there’s no other world, and this cannot be attributed to any other art’. His saying undoubtedly represents a certain type of music that he explicitly delineates in his philosophy. To me, one of the things that epitomizes Schopenhauer’s saying is the sounds that are heard from what I’ve produced. The sound these instruments make are the ones released in the air quite boundless and infinite. The memos and documentation that follow this introduction depicts the path as well as the names of the people that eventually resulted in making the instruments.

Fictional yet Enchanting

18 years ago, when I was busy making a vessel on the pottery wheel, the radio was on and I simultaneously and quite suddenly overheard a fictional story of an Egyptian potter who had made a vessel centuries ago in the ancient Egypt. The story was about a vessel. The narrator was telling a fictional story that said the researchers and archeologists of the Egyptian ceramics had come across an article that had bulging grooves and lines made by the hand touches of the potter that looked peculiar. Observing the bulging lines, the researchers had come to the idea of putting the vessel on the pottery wheel and nudging a needle like that of the gramophone on it to listen to the inherent sound the bulging lines made when touching the needle. The astounding part of the story was about the replay of the Egyptian potter’s voice. Aimed at praising the ceramics and the Egyptian potter, the story was in fact telling that the potter had recorded all his emotions as grooves and lines on the vessel’s body while singing and making it on the wheel. Although the story was a fictional one, it had some striking objective representations for me because I have seen, and still see, most frequently that potters whisper some songs when making something on the wheel. Pottery stands among the rarest man-made arts and handicrafts that are interwoven with music when it is being made. Carpet weaving, though, is of the same status in Iran’s history and culture.

Identical Experiences

Exceptions are rare as most potters typically tap their vessels on the body when they are unloading the kiln. The tap is made to make sure, in the first place, whether the vessel is perfectly fired or not; something that is known from experience when the tap produces different sounds. Besides, the tap is made for another reason, that is, the potters’ musical treatment of the vessel as well as their interest in hearing the particular sound the vessels make upon tapping after firing. Accordingly, every vessel is normally tapped separately because, depending on its shape, thickness, type of soil, firing temperature, being glazed or unglazed, etc., it produces a different sound that comes like a euphonious musical piece to ears. As far as I remember, I myself have been doing this for the last 24 years.

More Serious Musical Experiences with Clay

In 2008, one of my B.A. students at Faculty of Art and Architecture, University of Kashan, who had worked on ceramic with me, chose ‘The Ceramic’s Voice; An Attempt to Make and Introduce Ceramic Musical Instruments’ as his thesis subject under my supervision. His name was Farid Mostafanejad. He was a student to me when it was all about ceramic but when it came to music, he proved himself as a master to me because he, despite his age, had labored on Iranian traditional music for years and had mastered playing some Iranian instruments. Although B.A. theses are normally not taken serious from the viewpoint of research, thanks to their audacity, they sometimes open a new vista to their addressees; something you expect to see in either M.A. or doctoral theses. Farid’s thesis was of the same quality and character to me. I do remember that I felt like being a student like him and had an insatiable appetite for learning the subject, esp. its practical aspect. As the thesis required, we made different ceramic instruments, with some of them made for the first time as special. Making some ceramic whistles and installing them on a pitcher’s body to unite them into making a sound together was a new experience endeavored in that project for making one of the oldest instruments ever.

Some Years Later

In recent years, I’ve made many ceramic vessels, besides some sculptures, as I put a premium on vessels in Iranian culture. Three years ago, Mohammad Bahabadi, an artist friend of mine, came to my small studio in Tehran where I gave him a few of the vessels as a show of friendship. Some months later, he made a phone call to me saying that he had produced some sounds from my vessels with musical capabilities. Giving his compliments and kudos, he asked me to watch the file he’d sent and wanted me to concentrate more on it. Downloading the file was not made possible for me, and I prejudged him assuming that he had felt surprised and thought he’d experienced something brand-new simply by tapping the vessels on the body which is something regular and tasteless to potters! And immersed in my life routines and based on my prejudgment, I forgot what he said until some months ago when Hamed Edalat, an M.A. student, urged me to make some vessels for making a metal instrument like hang drum. As I knew how to work with clay and due to the experience I had gained earlier through making an ceramic instrument during Farid’s thesis, I pointed out that it was impossible to make a metal instrument like that one from clay. Despite all this, I, quite delighted, did as he requested but everything went according to my predictions and we failed in our endeavor. A few months later, Hamed came to my class at the end of the term with a handle and a ceramic bowl and started making sounds out of the ceramic bowl, something similar to the way Buddhists play their metal vessels. That enthused me a lot. It was then I remembered Mohammad! Thus, I went to download and play Mohammad’s file and another one Mojtaba Mousavi, the other friend of mine, had sent showing Mohammad playing. I watched Mohammad play with one of the vessels I had given him several months earlier. I felt ashamed for my prejudgment and failure at making the vessels with a musical perspective as he had persisted. Consequently, I called him saying that I’m going to engage myself in making them. This coincided with Farid visiting me again in Kashan as a friendly reunion after many years; a meeting that ended in him getting Hamed to know. Visiting Hamed’s workplace in Kashan’s bazaar, Farid saw him playing. He published the performance on his Instagram page, and quite unaware of the repercussions, he robbed the potential of its desirable future, hence letting some people duplicate a trivial bland copy of the musical capability, likewise any other poor treatment of artistic works done in cyberspace. I told him that I wished he had waited a little bit more, but it was too late. However, I was of the conviction that such tasteless insipid duplications would not go beyond a simple ceramic vessel, and from my experiences of working with clay and taking into account the qualities of clay in comparison with those of metal, I knew that I can make ceramic instruments out of these sound-making vessels in their entire precision.

In the Streets of Bhaktapur

When somewhat tied up with turning the vessels into an instrument with practical capabilities for music, I received an invitation letter from Nepalese Siddhartha Foundation for a month-long residency, workshop and exhibition in Kathmandu. It came at the time when universities were open and I couldn’t withdraw from my classes for a month. Besides, I had just come back from two other events in Turkey and Armenia. Despite all this, and as I believed that for carrying out any research it’s essential for one to put oneself in the situation, I accepted the invitation and decided to take at least some days off work both to attend the workshop and exhibition and also to meet my main reason in particular which was field research on Buddhist metal bowls with one of the world major centers being Bhaktapur and its temples. I packed for the trip and took off. During the workshop and exhibition, I took the chance to go to Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the city whose Hindu and Buddhist temples and music I was in search of here and there. I bought some small metal vessels and paid attention to their treatment in Buddhist culture more than anything else because I thought that knowing the qualities would pave the way for making ceramic sample instruments and for mixing them with Iranian culture. However, of all the vessels that I had taken to Siddhartha Gallery, I chose one while other works of mine were on display, played a piece with it, and finally used the vessel as a sculpture entitled ‘A Tribute to Siddhartha’ before flying back to Iran.

Developing the Vessel into an Instrument

Thanks to the quality of metals, esp. in some special alloys, metal bowls make it absolutely possible for one to produce musical sound, but the ceramic vessels explained above are not as useful as their metal counterparts because clay is basically something different from metals in producing and conducting sound. But I knew that the defect could be fixed. I was in search of the solution to the problem when one day I took the only vessel remained from the set I had bought three years earlier and put it on a test. The vessel had a hole in the bottom and I knew that it could make possible the release of the sound caused by the vibration of the body off of the vessel. I had made the holed set of vessels before to challenge the usage and beauty I was looking for. The negative space in the bottom of the vessel solved the problem, anyway. I developed the idea gradually and made the production of different sounds possible by piercing small and big holes in different distances around the vessel. In addition, I found out how to produce musical notes of high precision by controlling the body thickness as well as the holes’ diameter.

The Wooden Part of the Ceramic Instrument

To produce sound, metal bowls are played with a simple wooden handle. These handles had also been used for the ceramic bowls before this collection was made. But I put a premium on the aesthetic aspects of the ceramic part as equally as I did on the wooden part. That’s why, I developed these small simple handles into the handles originating from Iranian ancient images, still with their ergonomic quality. Accordingly, with the handles put on the edge of the instruments, their shape, unlike their appearance, took a visual sculpturesque structure.

Visual Artistic Music

My persistence on the visual structure of the instruments is not confined only to this collection. Although I’m not a music expert, I hear a piece of music merely from a visual aspect for my personal taste, hence watching a musical performance looks more interesting to me. In my opinion, the action and reaction of the instrumentalists and singer, and even the shape of their instruments, are as important as the auditory structure of music. As a result, what I’ve made is first seen and then heard whether appearance wise or when being played. In playing the ceramic instruments, unlike the metal bowls, the wood does not turn around the vessel; the ceramic instrument itself turns around the wooden handle simultaneously. Providing negative space in these instruments not only added to their music potential but also made possible some various ergonomic performances with different movements that enhanced their charm unlike what was seen in Buddhist metal bowls at their sitting inactive position. I believe that this resembles both Iranian music culture and at least what I’ve been in search of more closely.

Forming a Band

I made the instruments, both the ceramic and the wooden parts, all by myself. And I made a lot of them because I aimed at having one single instrumental performance with a band including many instrumentalists. These ceramic instruments, provided that they’re played one after another harmoniously, make a unique special sound that can hardly be produced with other instruments. However, I believe that everyone should start from a small-sized performance. Making the set coincided with the opening ceremony of Kashan-Ceramic House that I had some responsibilities to undertake in. Therefore, the idea of having a musical performance at the curtain-raiser using the ceramic instruments flashed to me. So I decided to form a small band. Seyyed Farid Mostafanejad for his expertise in Iranian music and for his thesis that could join forces with this performance, Saeid Ahmadian for his singing, writing poems and directing experiences, and Hamed Edalat for his singing and playing experiences as well as taking part in introducing the bowls to me were the ones excerpted for the band. Mohammad Bahabadi was in another city but I made an appointment with him for an instrumental band-based performance. Mohammad was as an exception but it was of significance for me to form the band with those who had worked with clay alongside me besides their experience in music. And the fourth member was me for having mastered playing them with the passage of time bringing the ceramic instruments to completion. Yet, I directed the visual aspect of the performance and stayed away from the three-person band watching them play as a student myself because they were my teachers when it came to music.

Composing the Music Piece

We were not going to employ any appropriate content like poem in the first place because we were firstly supposed to have a single performance with the ceramic instruments engaging a lot of instrumentalists in a contemporary artistic atmosphere but when it came to minimizing the band, everything completely changed. Saeid sang part of one of his long poems in which there were some references to building a house to serve as a retreat. Synchrony of the poem’s content with the building of Kashan-Ceramic House persuaded me to bring in a poem in our performance. This is the piece:

Inspirited and ardent I am again
Making inroads into my imagination
You city residents! Treat the city as all yours
As I’m about to build a house facing the desert
Ecstatic and euphoric I sit in its retreat
Letting fire, water, and soil be my confidants
You fancy-free! Lend an attentive ear to me
As I’m about to play a heavenly tune

Then, in the midst of the rehearsal, Saeid added the following part to the poem which, according to him, was inspired by the making of the cup-shaped instruments.

I gave a hearty touch to the dull soil
And was unchained from every single thing
I brought into existence an alluring cup
Whose melody set fire on my warp and weft

Testing them out one after another, Farid chose two of the instruments that produced Fa and La notes. We agreed that I play the Fa-note instrument with Hamed doing the La-note, besides singing, and accompanying me at appropriate intervals. Saeid and Hamed were singing the piece together while setting the arrangement. Farid chose his Dutar to accompany the ceramic instruments. Farid, teamed up with Hamed and Saeid, was doing the arrangement during the performance and I, while being a player, was attentive about the visual aspect as a bystander. The first part of the performance begins with one of the ceramic instruments and goes on halfway through the performance with Dutar and the second ceramic instrument, being played on and off, and also Shushtari mode. Then, the finale comes with Bakhtiari mode bringing it to an end with the solo performance of the ceramic instrument. We planned to attend the small-band rehearsal three times a week before the main performance at Kashan-Ceramic House, and this is one of the fewest teamwork activities I am pleased and delighted to take part in.

The Musicians Rose from the Vessels

Every time I made an instrument out of clay, the picture of vessels made of Iranian ceramics was visualized before my eyes where an instrumentalist was playing. I thought what a great climax the synchrony of the instruments, the instrumentalists and clay, etched onto the vessels since the past, brought about in my work; as though they were revived, and thus, are going to be re-seen and reheard.

Soor, In Search of Silence

My close friends who were onto this performance always asked me jokingly about the name of the instrument as they knew that in spite of my interest, I had never had the chance to learn playing an instrument. But I had a serious answer for the humorously raised questions. I said that its name is Soor. It, in Persian, means rapture and bash but attributing it to an instrument with a constant trancelike vacuum-inspired silence-induced sound gives a drastically different character; that is, kind of personal rapture and celebration or sort of mystic retreat or state. The sound could represent liveliness and hustle but it lends itself more to the silence which reminds everyone of clay that I greatly respect. And I know that a large number of people, triggered by contemporary media, will turn to this instrument upon publishing this collection pretty soon. But I hope it will find its happy ending through some fact-exploring musicians long before any profiteering potter can treat it as trivial.

Abbas Akbari
Kashan, Winter 2018

1. Refer to Art and Aesthetics, Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical masterpiece translated by Dr. Foad Rouhani, Zaryab, 1997, p. 152.
2. This thesis was written to receive B.A. in handicrafts in 2008 at Faculty of Architecture and Arts, University of Kashan.
3. Refer to Vessel, a book penned by Abbas Akbari, Peykareh Publications, 2014.
4. This vessel belongs to the Collection of Lessons from Muhammad Ibn Abi al-Barakat Johari Neishabouri with an introduction written by Parviz Tanavoli which was published in spring 2015.