Album Review: Ramin Roshandel & Jean-François Charles — ‘Jamshid Jam’

Since the 1960s, it seems the University of Iowa School of Music has loosened up about what is allowed and appropriate music for which one can get a Ph.d. Composition — in a good way. There’s always been a raffish, crusty side to the department going back to Peter Lewis’ Scorpio Concerts from the 1970s. But this less traditional ferment happened alongside the work of more traditionally oriented composition professors. Now, what was experimental 40 years ago becomes mainstream practice, without entirely losing its wild edginess.

Jamshid Jam is a very modern stretching of music composition. Ramin Roshandel’s performance on the album is improvised, combining his live playing of the Persian setār with digital electronic processing by Iowa professor Jean-François Charles. There is no score, only the performance. The digital processing patches they use incorporate randomness. But they clearly take their time tuning these systems to have musically useful outcomes.

There are no “sharp stick in the ear” freakouts to the way the digital effects vary randomly, and in fact change becomes, paradoxically, a constancy. Nothing repeats, exactly, but as Marvin Bell would say, it repeats “inexactly.” Summed with Roshandel’s free interpretation of the Persian improvisational style, they make music that is never the same twice, yet satisfies in a “same but different” way as through-composed, written composition.

It is experimental in process, but not in performance. Iowa City musician Gabby Vanek (another Iowa alum) recently said of her improvisations “…if I didn’t practice it I don’t know if it’s going to work.” Roshandel & Charles rehearsed these pieces before recording official versions of them. Each piece reflects a well-worked out musical aesthetic, with distinctive tonality and timbre. But it’s exciting that other performances also exist, giving live audiences something new and unique.

The novel improvisational vocabulary is rooted in Persian classical and traditional music. Charles samples and plays back the setār in real time, sometimes shifted in pitch, or played back in sections. While Charles is remixing, Roshandel is listening, playing into the digital effects, accompanying them and imitating the digital stuttering.

On “Ch​ā​h​ā​rg​ā​h” the electronics are radically transformed fluttering sounds, so divorced from their original sonic context that one can’t tell if they began with the setār, or some other found sound. “Bay​ā​t​-​e Tork” uses frozen granules of the setār sound as drones, similar to the Indian tambura, a drone instrument.

The digital sound processing may be off-putting to listeners more in tune with traditional “classical” music — but this particular music wouldn’t exist without modern computers and software like Cycling 74’s Max/MSP, which is the digital tool of choice in the UI’s electronic music program.

Jamshid Jam is both novel and accessible to an adventurous listener. In fact, given the importance of improvisation in those musical traditions, using computers is a natural progression. When anyone can download a setār app on their phone, there’s no going back to the strictly analog world for this music. To extend and transmute something traditional in new ways continues the tradition without upsetting it.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.