The adage about needing to learn the rules before breaking them is a finger-wag directed at young, ambitious artists, cautioning them not to stray from convention until they’ve reached their coveted but elusive destination: mastery. But could the inverse of that be just as true—that one needs to abandon everything they’ve learned in order to fully understand, appreciate, and internalize the mechanisms of a tradition? If such a principle exists, the adventurous Toronto-based proponent of Iranian classical music Araz Salek embodies it. When I first met him in January 2009 he was in the throes of this very process. It wasn’t that he had rejected his roots, but at that moment his artistic focus was the dismantling of his own preconceptions.
Salek moved from Tehran to Toronto—where he knew no one—in 2005, at the beginning of his career. Steeped in Iranian classical music since early childhood, he had acquired enviable facility on the tar, a lute native to that region and whose double-course strings and lamb-skin-covered body impart to its sound a resonant, golden-hued tone. Shortly after arriving, Salek’s online quest for musical collaborators amidst these unfamiliar surroundings led him indirectly to pianist and composer John Kameel Farah, whose virtuosic and unclassifiable solo work intrigued him. He soon began attending Farah’s events with regularity. One 2007 performance stands out. At that time Arraymusic occupied a tucked-away studio space in the Liberty Village neighbourhood, which was then a tangle of near-vacant industrial streets that are now lined with clusters of gleaming condo towers. You would enter from a parking lot nestled against a nondescript brown brick building, but first you had to press a mysterious button dangling from a window above (it lit a light instead of buzzing, so as not to disrupt any music in progress). Then you’d wait for someone to come and admit you through the forbidding steel door. Salek’s trek to see Farah play at the Arraymusic studio, and what he encountered there, were unlike anything he had experienced. The strange jolt of creative stimulus even made the entry procedure seem mundane by comparison. “I actually had goosebumps the entire performance,” he recalls, struggling to summon up the concert’s precise details. Though personnel and instrumentation have since faded from his memory, the pure sonic culture shock he felt in confronting this free-form music remains vivid.
The concerts he was accustomed to attending and playing always had been the fruits of arduous preparation mounted in large, lavish halls, so this ad hoc collision of artists in a dimly lit loft over not-so-legal beers felt liberating and resonated on a deep visceral level. He had spent many years honing his ability to precisely copy and shadow with his instrument the playing of others in ensemble; in free improv “the meaning of ensemble was completely redefined,” he enthuses. “They’re not playing the same thing or even trying to imitate each other!”
I later met him in a similar context—except this time he was doing the playing. The two of us had been fixed up for a sort of blind date on a program in the Toronto improvised-music series Leftover Daylight. With just a tentative hello between us, we sat down to perform. Yet that music we made carried palpable energy, enough to spark an enduring friendship and several future collaborations.

There’s an oft-told anecdote from the life of King (Shahanshah) Khosrow Parviz (570–628), which is considered to embody the function and significance of music in Iranian culture, and which provides further insight into what jarred Salek so much in his first encounter with improvised music. Among the king’s most beloved possessions was Shabdiz (Midnight), his black and famously fast stallion. The king adored him so much, he proclaimed that if Shabdiz were to die, the consequence of announcing his death would be immediate execution. Upon the horse’s eventual demise, the royal equerry, scared for his life, entrusted court musician Barbad with his lethal secret. At the king’s next feast, Barbad unveiled a plaintive melody, prompting the monarch to inquire aloud if Shabdiz had died. Barbad had prepared his clever response: “Shahanshah saith thus!” and with that, no one met the king’s fatal sentence.
Barbad’s legendary ability to communicate specific information through music, Salek tells me, is upheld as the pinnacle of musical artistry in Iran. While performers aspire to imbue the ostensible abstraction of music with absolute meaning, audiences also seek an objective truth over an individualized, subjective journey.
Whenever Salek’s uncle Tofigh Iranparvar would arrive at family gatherings, it was as though he were accompanied by a mysterious celebrity. The wide-eyed Salek would watch intently as his uncle drew the finely crafted wooden curves of his tar from the case, and then one day his parents gave him one of his own: a custom-made half-size instrument. At age eight—young for a budding tar player—he began private lessons under Iranparvar.
Salek is keen to dispel the belief that Iranian classical music is an oral tradition, and his diverse training—with some of the music’s most accomplished exponents—corroborates this assertion. After Salek spent three years establishing his foundation in playing by ear, his new teacher, the esteemed Ustad Hooshang Zarif, took him in a new direction. Zarif, who taught at the national conservatory, mentored artists of international renown such as Hossein Alizadeh and Dariush Talai. He was also a strong proponent of notation and, according to Salek, taught radifs (collections of repertoire) that were long and intricate enough to preclude memorization.
While under the tutelage of his third teacher, Arshad Tahmasebi, Salek would tape his lessons and review them repeatedly at home; but after five years working together, Tahmasebi weaned him off recording. “He would play something—twice or three times maximum—and would expect me to learn it on the spot,” laughs Salek, recounting Tahmasebi’s rigorous approach, and adding that he also forbade Salek to play through any of the music until he got home.

Where free improvisation offers some a sense of limitless self-expression, for Salek it became a laboratory: he would dissect his aesthetic world view, subject the strictures prescribed by his teachers and peers to unusual experiments, and even engineer a controlled dissociation within his musical identity. Even now that he has returned to a more traditional practice, he’s quick to cite the lasting effects those exercises produced.
“That notion of alienating yourself from the instrument—there is merit in that. I think that’s something we all should do quite often,” he states. “There is a lot to learn from that—even just how the instrument makes sound.” More critically, Salek also credits this self-imposed alienation and experimentation with revealing a wholly personal rationale for working within the Iranian tradition. “I’m playing the music I play now because that’s what I chose to do,” he states emphatically. Traces of his foray into improv remain, and audibly so. “With pretty much all the modal music concerts that I play, I never rehearse the part where I’m supposed to do a solo—I never even think about it,” Salek says matter-of-factly. Although spontaneous extemporization is historically part of Iranian classical music, nowadays improvising is neither compulsory nor even conventional—much as with cadenzas in the European tradition. “This is something I probably would not have done if I was not exposed to this sort of music [free improv],” he asserts, explaining his former reliance on meticulous premeditation.
As his playing embraced the instinctual and intuitive, careful self-subversion evolved into probing curiosity. In 2011, a visit to Labyrinth Musical Workshop, held in the village of Houdetsi on the island of Crete, suddenly aligned this thirst for improvisation with his musical heritage. Founded in 1982 by celebrated multi-instrumentalist Ross Daly, Labyrinth is an annual event that enlivens its unique locale with focused instruction and concerts of music representing various global traditions. Salek had been invited to perform there by longtime friend and collaborator Pedram Khavar Zamini, a brilliant percussionist and a member of Labyrinth’s teaching faculty. Salek couldn’t help but totally immerse himself in the festival’s intercultural vision of modal music, and he rapidly uncovered connections he had never before considered. For instance, despite the common genealogy and similar inner-workings of Iranian and Ottoman music, Salek maintains that these connections are all but abandoned by mainstream practitioners—including him. “No one ever told me, ‘Listen to this Turkish music’—even in Canada,” he laments. Leaving Crete, he felt greater clarity and a richer sense of context; the following year, he returned to both perform and teach. This trip precipitated the formation of the quartet This Tale of Ours, with Ross Daly himself (on lyra, tarhu, and rabab), Khavar Zamini, and Cretan musician Kelly Thoma (lyra). The group, which is still active, blends Ottoman, Iranian, and Cretan musics through traditional and original compositions. In 2017 in Toronto, Salek established a satellite of Labyrinth, which has already featured a remarkable cast of international talent and is poised for expansion.
Multifaceted musician Jonathan Adjemian was a student of Salek’s in Toronto, but their enthusiastic philosophical conversations soon blossomed into a friendship and professional partnership. He’s now Labyrinth Ontario’s administrative director. Historically, he says, this constellation of musical traditions resided in interconnected hubs that included Lahore, Isfahan, Istanbul, and Damascus. Prior to the rise of ethno-nationalism, ideas and musicians flowed freely between these centres, rather than being tethered to national identities. “We’re now in a moment where that kind of mobility is happening again” Adjemian asserts. “The GTA [Greater Toronto Area] ought to be one of these centres for this kind of music, because we have the people here. Even if you just look at the demographics of the city, the idea that European classical should be given a different kind of treatment than classical music from other places just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The diasporic experience is key to Salek’s singular outlook and has worked to his benefit. “You’re not that connected with the living culture of the music through, radio, TV, and concerts; you’re a little bit separated from that,” he says. “Being away, being disconnected, kind of gave me the opportunity to dig into the older material.” He intimates that this outsider status has also sensitized him to the Westernization that’s afoot elsewhere in Iranian classical-music circles. As an avid collaborator both within and across stylistic and cultural boundaries, he’s by no means a purist, but for him there’s genuine cause for concern. “When you post something on social and you want the world to see it, you write it in English,” he says, “And that’s what I feel like is what’s happening with the music.” He relays a troubling anecdote about a new student arriving from Iran for his first private lesson. Upon inspecting his pupil’s tar, Salek noticed that it hadn’t been set up to play the korons (quarter-tones) characteristic of many Iranian scales. The student nonchalantly informed him that his former teacher had said that those extra frets weren’t necessary anymore.

Living in a North American context, Western accoutrements seem to hold little novelty for Salek. Instead, living here propels him to discover the eccentric or neglected corners of his own classical music. Iranian musician Rokneddin Mokhtari (1887–1970) is a current source of fascination for Salek, whose revisionist treatment of the composer’s Pishdaramad Shour illustrates the depth of his wondrous engagement with the literature through its careful, research-grounded amendments and artful embellishments. The pishdaramad form unfolds the different possibilities of one dastgah (modal system) through movement between its constituent array of interrelated modes. The shour mode usually indicates the home dastgah, yet to Salek’s bemusement it’s not the one that is heard at the beginning of most authoritative versions of the piece (no urtext of this work exists). It begins instead in the shahnaz mode, but to confuse matters further, the piece also prescribes a modulation there as well. Salek’s new version—a recording of which he intends to release commercially—corrects its opening to shour but also inserts an original refrain that he crafted to highlight the work’s formalism, which is a hallmark of Mokhtari.
The Dastgah Project is a more radical outlet for these same impulses. In 2016 Salek was hired by the Music Gallery to play in the GO Organic Orchestra. Led by American composer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Rudolph, GO features pliable cells of material that are distributed and animated through spontaneous conduction. Salek immediately saw the potential for integrating Iranian theoretical principles, and after exhaustive conversations and a visit with Rudolph in New York, he and Rudolph reemerged two years later at the Music Gallery furnishing koron-inflected sonic kernels to the playing of an eclectic cast of Toronto musicians. Salek is eager to invest in it further, because to him its artistic value is matched by its ability to broaden the imaginations of musicians and listeners alike.
A “person-to-person connection really defines Araz’s approach,” says Jonathan Adjemian, who attributes Salek’s drive for engaging and stimulating a musical community to a belief that “the best kind of learning happens when you have a bunch of people who are bringing knowledge to the table—ideally a really nerdy detailed kind of knowledge—and then are able to dynamically share that with each other by playing.”

All photos of Araz  Salek  by Green Yang. 

YouTube clip: This performance of Pish Daramad Bayat-e Shiraz and Reng  by Araz Salek (tar, composer) and Pedram Khavarzamini (tombak) is also available on the Musicworks 139 CD !

Find out more about Araz Salek here.