Date: April 5, 2018
Location: Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin.
Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, tombak and daf
Sandwiched between two Parsifal outings in Berlin is a recital by Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, an Iranian-born, Berlin-based percussionist now regarded as the world’s foremost virtuoso of tombak, a goblet-shaped hand drum widely used in Persian music. Tombak musicians snap and scratch their fingers on the drumhead to create sound. A wide variety of timbre is created by changing: fingering velocity, the duration of touch on the drumhead (a kiss vs. a snap), and contact friction (skin vs. fingernail). Mortazavi revolutionized tombak playing by introducing new techniques by the dozens, including heavy use of finger knuckles, use of one’s thumb to “divide” the drumhead into two sides with different tensions and therefore distinguishable pitches, and extensive use of the side of the drum for antiphonal clicks. In other words, Mortazavi has redefined tombak playing as an interaction between any physical structure of the drum instrument and any physical structure of the human hands. It is hardly surprising that Mortazavi’s unconventional playing has drawn the ire of traditionalists, who consider the pure art of tombak playing gravely endangered. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the new inventions introduce a richer texture of sound with heightened expressive capabilities.
The evening performance did not have a stated program – the proceedings seemed to be a direct result of Mortazavi’s, as well as the audience’s response to his music. In addition to tombak, Mortazavi also played the daf, a tambourine-like hand drum. In fact he played with two of them, one of which included a web of metal rings clung to the rim to effectuate breeze-like metallic jingles. All his pieces were constructed with multiple cycles of varying dynamics, surging to great heights and then receding to dark, hushed valleys. His fingering varied from a meticulous series of light tapping to a rapid firing of uninhibited fury. Using nearly all his fingers (except thumbs), he created perfectly aligned rolls of notes with a machine-like consistency. By changing placements of his palm on the drumhead, tones swerved from high to low, sometimes falling off a cliff on a whim, other times sliding slowly into an eerie oblivion. Some of his solos lasted well over fifteen minutes, with undulating dynamics, long plateaus of fiery jubilations, and cascading sets of tonal features. Mortazavi’s music is not, and probably not meant to be programmatic, but the rugged mountain ranges of the Zagros come to mind. Mortazavi was humorous too: after a long languish, he would end a piece with a crisp beating of the side of the drum or a comedic brush of the drum body’s decorative grooves. Or he would bookend a ravishing finish of blazing intensity with a lazy snap on the drumhead.