Peyman Heydarian is both an award-winning music scientist and a santur virtuoso, performing a multi-ethnic repertoire to a global audience. Kristina Spencer discovers how his career is a testament to the affinity between science and music
Born in Shiraz, Peyman Heydarian moved to Tehran when he was 18 months old. Music was the thread that ran through his childhood; he remembers dancing to Bandari music and singing along to Googoosh, one of Iran’s biggest stars (his mother was a fan). The Iranian Revolution happened while Heydarian was a young child and “for a short time there was a breeze of freedom”. Peyman and his friends collected revolutionary songs they overheard and then repeated them to each other.
The revolution brought cultural as well as political change, and the music of the Shah period fell out of favour. Virtuosos were banned from performing, musicians were required permits to carry their instruments and there was an almost palpable thirst for music. It was during this period that Heydarian discovered his passion. How did he manage? “I was listening to everything I could get my hands on!” This, too, was limited. Although Western classical music was the easiest to find — the musician cites Mozart and Beethoven as some of his favourite composers — Iranian pop music was banned and precedence was given to the revolutionary anthems. “I was playing the piano and I was mindful that someone could hear and then come and search our house. I had the feeling I was learning something precious, but it wasn’t permitted by the government.” Heydarian quickly notes that the revolution also brought improvements as well, pointing out “what I am now is a result of all those restrictions.”
Encouraged by his parents, Heydarian studied electronic engineering at Shiraz University. And yet his passion for music never wavered; the university orchestra, which was shut down after the revolution, was brought back to life and in 1998, Heydarian organised his first ticketed concert. Conducted in Persian and Kurdish to an audience of 450 people each night, Heydarian led the band playing the santur, a stringed instrument of the hammered dulcimer. “It was quite ambitious to expect my first concert to sell 900 tickets,” he admits. “And we sold out.”
It was later, during his master’s degree in Tehran, that a thesis supervisor suggested that he apply his engineering background to the study of music. By 2016, he was defending his PhD thesis in musical signal processing, proposing a new approach for the computational identification of Persian music.
As a musician and a scientist, Heydarian has developed innovative tuning systems and performance techniques in order to play a multi-ethnic repertoire on a santur. The instrument can be traced to multiple traditions and is played in 19 countries around the world, so Heydarian used to struggle to play an international repertoire on the instrument. “Santur doesn’t have all the notes and semitones, so when I tried to perform songs from places like Italy, Greece, Scotland and Ireland, I realised that I needed to add to the existing possibilities.” That’s when he determined to create a universal santur tuning system for the musical traditions he was covering.
In an era when musicians are often “called out” for cultural appropriation, Heydarian is aware that his international approach can be viewed as contentious. To him, it is crucial “to be faithful to each tradition. Each time, I try to put myself in that character. I study different cultures: food, original music, books. I try to highlight the common cultural elements and differences. I study music in culture and the philosophy behind songs and lyrics.”
And when it comes to applying science to art, Heydarian points out that “science is the basis for music.” Until now, he’s applied his learning to musical analysis, but he hopes one day to develop an electronic santur. His next project, a personal music recommendation service, will take him to Australia for a year, but in the meantime, he still performs with his santur around the world. In Scotland, he played “in a nomad tent, a lovely place to play music. It was one of my best experiences — I’ve played there three times so far.”
Heydarian will be performing at SOAS University of London on the 10th of July
Main image courtesy of Sarhang Hars. Images courtesy of Peyman Heydarian