Classical Guitarist Traverses 'Hemispheres' Originally from Iran, classical guitarist Lily Afshar stayed in the United States after the Islamic revolution in her homeland. Like her life, her music crosses continents. Hemispheres, Afshar's fourth CD, explores the Persian influence on her work.
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Classical Guitarist Traverses 'Hemispheres'

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Classical Guitarist Traverses 'Hemispheres'

Classical Guitarist Traverses 'Hemispheres'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of classical guitar)

SIEGEL: The guitarist is Lily Afshar of Memphis, Tennesse. She teaches guitar at the University of Memphis. Lily Afshar is originally from Iran, but after the Islamic revolution, she stayed here. Like her life, her music crosses continents. This Fantasia on a traditional Persian song was written for her by composer Gary Eister.

(Soundbite of classical guitar)

SIEGEL: This is not an arrangement of traditional Persian song, its inspired by one.

Ms. LILY AFSHAR (Classical guitarist): That's correct. The Persian tune is called Bird of Dawn, or in Persian, Morgh-eh-Sahar(ph). This is a tune that I was raised listening to as a child in Iran. The tune has quartertones in it, which on this CD I play on this Persian instrument, the sehtar.

SIEGEL: Now is sehtar, is that simply Persian for sitar? Is it the same instrument that we hear -

Ms. AFSHAR: No, no, no.


Ms. AFSHAR: Most people mistake that. Whenever I say I play the sehtar, they say, oh yeah, I know Robbie Shankar, and that's not it. That's the sitar.

See the word tar means strength. It's a Persian word meaning strength. The other word that comes in front of the tar - seh or si - indicate the number of strings. Guitar is just another version of dutar, sehtar, sitar, you know.

SIEGEL: So while this is - you say this is really the first CD of Persian music written specifically for the guitar, the ground has been well prepared before you?

Ms. AFSHAR: Yeah. I wanted to bring Persian music onto the guitar. Then I realize that I needed frets, more notes. You know, I need quartertones. Because Persian music is made up of quartertones.

SIEGEL: So you actually have more frets on the guitar than you naturally would in order to get those tones?

Ms. AFSHAR: Yes. On this CD, I use quartertones in three ways. One, certain pieces require that there'll be fretlets, or little frets, on my fingerboard of the guitar. So I have added extra frets on my guitar. The other way is that I retune the open strings of the guitar down or up to a quartertone. And the third way is that in a Turkish piece, (unintelligible), I bend the strings in order to achieve the quartertone.

SIEGEL: You bend the strings?

Ms. AFSHAR: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Meaning?

Ms. AFSHAR: Meaning if this is the note -

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Ms. AFSHAR: I go -

(Soundbite of bending string)

Ms. AFSHAR: Just like in blues. We have E flat and then we have the note E.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Ms. AFSHAR: Like E flat.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Ms. AFSHAR: That's E. And quartertone higher than E flat -

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Ms. AFSHAR: Is this note. So you have three different notes.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

SIEGEL: Now you have tuned the guitar that you brought to the studio. You're speaking to us from Aspen, Colorado, and you've tuned the guitar so that you can play the piece by Reza Volley(ph) that was written for you. And I'd like you to pronounce the title of the song for us.

Ms. AFSHAR: The title is called Gozaar, which means passage.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Ms. AFSHAR: And that's the opening of the piece.

SIEGEL: It's very lovely.

Ms. AFSHAR: Thank you. I think, you know, the world is getting smaller and music, you know, we have access to all kinds of music from around the world now and there has to be some Persian music on the concerts, too, so this is my way of doing that.

SIEGEL: Now the world may be getting smaller, figuratively, but in your life spanned one of the greater and more strained distances we can imagine right now, which is you're originally from Tehran and you're now teaching guitar in Memphis, Tennessee, and you're going back to perform in Tehran.

Ms. AFSHAR: Yeah. I have my guitar and I'm a musician. I feel like an artistic ambassador. When I was in Iran, you know, finishing high school, I didn't know you could get a degree in guitar. It was just unheard of over there. And have I not come across Boston Conservatory, I don't know what would've happened to me.

SIEGEL: But then you pursued academic study very seriously. You went through a doctorate.

Ms. AFSHAR: Yeah. Well, I really worked hard in Boston. And while I was there, the revolution happened in Iran. The guitarists that I knew, you know, their biggest problem was that they had broken a nail. Cause, you know, classical guitar, we play with our right-hand nails. And then I would think about, gosh, you know, I'm losing my country, my family's all over the place. That was my problem. Their problem was the nails. So that's how hard it was.

SIEGEL: You speak of classical guitarists for whom a big problem is breaking a nail. You actually split a finger just before a very important recital that you gave.

Ms. AFSHAR: Well, I had always practiced 10 hours a day - ever since I came to America anyway - and I was preparing, basically, two programs for one concert. The day of the concert, this callus had opened up and would get stuck in the string and I couldn't play. So I had to get four stitches on my finger. That's the only concert I've ever cancelled in my life cause I couldn't play.

SIEGEL: People all over America are gripping their steering wheels and their fingers are hurting just hearing you describe that right now.

Ms. AFSHAR: You know what the funny thing is it didn't even bleed.

SIEGEL: But it's a rough business, this classical guitar? It's a tough life.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us about your music and your life.

Ms. AFSHAR: Okay. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's guitarist Lily Afshar. You can hear some songs from her CD, Hemispheres, at our website,

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