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Zarathustra

By Sina Vodjani

Membran International. Hardback. 273pp. (+ CD and DVD)

ISBN 978-3-86562-739-1

Complete £30.00 Euros at Guild

DVD only £10 Guild

SACD only £9 Guild

 


 

To many readers of MusicWeb International the name Zarathustra will perhaps most readily evoke thoughts of Richard Strauss and his symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra of 1894. Strauss’s composition, of course, draws on Nietzsche’s appropriation of Zarathustra in his remarkable text, also entitled Also Sprach Zarathustra, written between 1883 and 1885.

The historical Zarathustra – sometimes referred to by the Greek form of his name, Zoroaster – was a religious prophet of quite extraordinary importance, the influence of whose ideas has extended, though place and time, to a degree that is nowadays seriously underestimated in most quarters. Actual adherents to the faith he established – usually known in the West as Zoroastrianism – are not especially numerous. There are perhaps 100,000 Zoroastrians in India - especially in Bombay, where they are often referred to as Parsis; there are some 15-20,000 in Iran, notably in and around the desert cities of Yazd and Kirman; there are smaller communities in Pakistan, and in Europe and North America.

Zoroaster lived in Eastern Iran, probably in the 6th century B.C. His teachings have a serious claim to be thought of as the earliest formulation of a monotheistic religion. Certainly his ideas exerted a real influence on later monotheistic creeds such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, especially as regards ideas about the Last Judgement, Heaven and Hell and the resurrection of the dead. Zoroaster appears to have been the first religious teacher to promulgate such ideas. His ideas, and their expression by his followers, shaped much later religious iconography – notably that of the angels. Central to Zoroastrianism was the idea that the creator Ahura Mazda was opposed by a kind of twin spirit, Angrya Mainyu, a source of violence and evil. Man is free to choose between these two spirits; but Good will eventually triumph. The potential dualism of Zoroaster’s thinking perhaps lay behind such later religious movements as Mithraism and the Manichaeans; perhaps even, through indirect channels, behind such medieval Christian heresies as the Cathars.

The student of Zoroaster and his - often unacknowledged - influence is reasonably well served by modern scholars. The great English scholar Mary Boyce wrote with both learning and direct experience of the Zoroastrians around Yazd, in a series of publications which included Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979) and her History of Zoroastrianism (3 volumes: 1975, 1982 and 1991). The opening sentence of the first of these makes what may initially sound like an improbable claim: "Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the revealed world-religions, and it has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith". Aspects of Zoroaster’s influence in the West - to leave aside what modern scholars now detect as its influence on modern Buddhism - are discussed in books such as The Image of Zoroaster: The Persian Mage through European Eyes by Jenny Rose (2000), J. Duchesne-Guillemin’s The Western Response to Zoroaster (1958) and, for readers of German, M. Stausberg’s Faszination Zarathustra (1998). A good place to start is Paul Kriwaczek’s excellent In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World (2002), an intelligent, well-written and wide-ranging account of a journey of personal discovery (currently available as an Orion paperback).

Now we have Sina Vodjani’s account – in three media – of his own odyssey towards Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism. Vodjani, son of an Iranian father and a French mother, was born in Iran (in 1954), in the beautiful city of Isfahan, and grew up in Tehran, San Francisco and Paris. Now living in Germany, he started his musical career singing pop songs and French chansons. He later studied classical and flamenco guitar. Much interested in religious traditions, he is not only a composer, but also a professional photographer and a widely exhibited painter. His extensive travels have taken him to India and Nepal amongst many other countries. He has made previous CDs on Buddhist themes, fusing oriental materials, including the prayer chants of Buddhist priests, with modern rhythms and sounds.

Here his music is to be found on both an SACD and as accompaniment to a DVD (each has a playing time of 72:05). The titles are as follows:

Prelude [1:33]

Choupan [6:58]

Ashem Vohu [6:46]

Dear Friend [4:57]

Sacred Fire [5:04]

Don’t Sleep [6:11]

Persepolis [6:07]

Chak Chak [8:09]

Dashti [5:24]

Wings of Love [6:45]

Be the One [1:56]

Emptiness [1:39]

Zarathustra [3:04]

Ahura & The Rising Sun [4:14]

Asha [3:15]

Both discs are embedded in the inside of the back cover of this very beautifully produced book. Vodjani’s text is relatively brief – and is presented in both German and English. Certainly it is no substitute for any of the kinds of volumes mentioned earlier. It presents a short overview of Zarathustra’s teachings and says something of his significance. It stresses the idea that "Zoroaster did not need to provide evidence of miracles or similar mystic events to spread his message; he appealed directly to the intellect, logic and common sense of his listeners". Emphasis is also placed on the role of ‘Asha’ in Zoroaster’s thought, defined here "that which conforms", a kind of universal law of creation, the principle which unites all things in harmony. Human understanding of ‘Asha’ can be approached through meditation and imagination, but also through obedience to the code of good thoughts, good works, good deeds" – the code which Vodjani’s book carries as its subtitle.

The greater part of Vodjani’s book is taken up by some quite magnificent photographs of many aspects of Iranian life – photographs of people and buildings, including mosques as well as Zoroastrian buildings, photographs of the often stunning landscape, mountains and lakes, salt deserts and meadows; there are images of bazaars and bakeries and many aspects of Iranian life. By including pictures of Islamic life and buildings, Vodjani perhaps intends to make the point that beneath the obvious Islamicisation of Iranian life there is a substratum of Zoroastrian tradition and mindset – Zoroastrianism was, after all, the official religion of the great empire of ancient Persia – which survive still, and which even now condition many dimensions of life in Iran, helping to define and create its people’s sense of their national identity. That, at least, is the impression I have carried away from the time I have spent in Iran.

Vodjani’s photographs are often magnificent – indeed they are perhaps the best reason for getting hold of the book. There are large-scale shots of landscapes, and beautifully detailed studies of architectural or decorative details; there are gorgeous pictures of flower meadows and unpretentious pictures of bakers at work.

About Vodjani’s music I have slightly more mixed feelings. At times it is little more than mood music and sometimes the insistent sounds of synthesiser and (politely) rockish beats rather overwhelm any very fully Iranian feeling. Yet there are some lovely passages played on the ney (the traditional Iranian flute) and the oud (ancestor of the lute). There are passages from the gathas (the Zoroastrian hymns). As is evidently Vodjani’s method all are fused and laid on top of one another; there are moments when Persian words and English words are sung almost simultaneously – so that neither is fully audible. Vodjani is obviously a musician of considerable talent – but for my tastes I would have preferred to have heard his musical ideas, his musical impressions, separate from the traditional sounds and elements, rather than fused in this way. Still, I have no wish to deny that there are some beautiful and attractive moments. The music works especially well as soundtrack to the DVD. The musicians involved should certainly be credited. They are: Mobed Mehraban Firouzgary, Mobed Sirus Hormazdi (Avesta Prayer Recitation); Roma Majumdar (bansouri flute); Pasha Hanjani (ney flute); Ali Pajuheshgar (oud); Shahriar Monazami (komancheh); Hamid Saeik Bahai (daf); Sina Vodjani (guitars, sitar, tar, setar, piano, bass). The whole was mixed and engineered by Vodjani, also using Persian vocals from samples provided by the Iran Music association.

The images which this music accompanies on the DVD are often very beautiful and always very interesting. There is, though, one significant drawback. There are not – or if they are there I couldn’t find them – captions of any sort, so that much remains unidentified and unexplained. I am fortunate enough to have travelled fairly widely in Iran, and to have a wife who grew up in Kirman, one of the Zoroastrian centres in Iran. I was, therefore, able to identify and put a name to much of what I saw, in terms of places and buildings, and to recognise the significance of some of the activities filmed. But not all viewers will be able to do so, and it is a shame that what is, in so many ways, a striking panorama of Iranian life and landscape – concentrating on the Zoroastrian thread, but showing much else too – should leave some viewers puzzled rather than informed. All viewers will surely enjoy the visual feast put before them – whether in looking at the fabulous decorative patterns on the mosques of Isfahan - one of them, though this isn’t mentioned, built on the site of an earlier fire-temple - or getting a rare glimpse inside an active Zoroastrian fire-temple and the streets and corners of the Zoroastrian quarter of Yazd; the great bridges of Isfahan, the Sī o SéPol and the Pol-é Khājū; the glorious central meidūn (or square) of Isfahan - though the city is nowhere identified on the DVD; tea-houses, wild-life, flowers, craftsmen at work, superb landscapes and much, much else. The whole DVD is richly enjoyable.

Sian Vodjani’s Zarathustra offers an introduction to Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism which may well whet readers’ and viewers’ appetites for more. Those whose interest is stirred will certainly want to read more, so as to get beyond the necessarily simplified view which Vodjani’s brief text has to settle for. But his evocation – especially visually, in the photographs and the images on the DVD, and in the best of the music on the SACD – of a world very unfamiliar to most in the west and increasingly demonised and falsely represented by those in power in the west, can be warmly recommended.

Glyn Pursglove

 


 


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