Sote : figurehead of electronic music in Iran

SOTE Sacred Horror In Design. Photo © Stefanie Kulisch
SOTE Sacred Horror In Design. Photo © Stefanie Kulisch

Sacred Horror in Design, or Persian techno apocalypseaccording to the Berlin-based CTM festival (who commissioned the performance piece for its 2017 edition), is Sote’s latest work. The electroacoustic composition (featuring Arash Bolouri at the Santour, Behrouz Pashaei at the Setâr and visuals of Tarik Barri) mingles Iranian traditional and electronic music. At Ultima 2017 in Oslo, Manifesto XXI met Ata Ebtekar a.k.a Sote, musician, composer and creator of the SET festival (Tehran).

SOTE Sacred Horror in Design (Opal Tapes), cover painting by Ala Ebtekar (
SOTE Sacred Horror in Design (Opal Tapes), cover painting by Ala Ebtekar (“Ascension”, 2007, Ink, watercolor & acrylic on book pages mounted on canvas, 131 x 206 cm)

Manifesto 21 – Sacred Horror in Design has been created for CTM 2017. How did you work the theme “Fear Anger Love”?

When we created the piece, we thought about the musical side of this theme (the idea of artistic anger) and the human side of it. One of the meanings of the piece is about humanity and what people do in life in the name of the holy. It might be a war, killing somebody, or doing something actually really good. But everybody thinks it is the right thing to do. And that is what is going on in the world right now.

I try to be abstract with all those concepts, but at the same time there is of course my personal anger in the way I think about it. I think of all of these horrible things that are happening in the world, in all these different countries, political systems, social casts and classes. Everybody think that they do the right thing in the name of the holy, or whatever the holy is. Nobody really thinks of the other angles. I wanted the music to kind of represent that.

How do you translate it into music?

There are a lot of contrasts, contradictory and paradoxical elements in this concept. I take contemporary avant-garde or experimental electronic music and this really ancient traditional Iranian music and I make it work in harmony together. My personal goal was to achieve a certain harmony with these two worlds. I did not want one to empower the other one. It was very important for me that they would work side by side without compromising either side. I did not want to deform or deconstruct the Iranian scale system. I wanted to keep the rhythms, the melodies, all the spaces between the notes in a very traditional way and at the same time to make it work with these very contemporary electronic patterns.

Preserving the beauty of tradition, yet being tolerant and acceptive to bending and morphing existing patterns into unique shapes, which eventually can become another form of folklore at a future time (Sote, Sacred Horror in Design, Statement preview)

For me it was important to work with patterns. Patterns overall in the Iranian art play a big role, and so does it in my music. I love patterns, I love polyrhythmic, polymetric, polytempic patterns. Same thing with this album! I did a lot of different layers of patterns which, I believe go all over our everyday lives in a cultural way.

How did it work with the visuals?

When CTM commissioned me to do this work it was suggested that I would work with the visual artist Tarik Barri who lives in Berlin. First we talked about stuff over email, then we met in Berlin. One of the examples I gave to him conceptually was the traffic in Tehran. This is crazy, but if you look at it from above, from a helicopter or a satellite, you see all those different patterns.

Sote Sacred Horror In Design. Photo © Stefanie Kulisch.jpg
Sote Sacred Horror In Design. Photo © Stefanie Kulisch.jpg

That is what I noticed for example in the piece “Sagaah”. The visuals made me think both of a mosaic and of an electronic circuit.

Yeah, all these thematics! To me this album is all about humanity, life, what is happening on every levels. What I wanted Tarik to do is to work with Iranian patterns, but that went beyond being Iranian patterns. It is all about maths, geometry. From a microscopic to a macroscopic level, everything connects. Obviously everything we do has consequences. Art, non-art, life, actions: everything is connected.

For my art it’s been always sure, there are themes and concepts, but at the end of the day I want the listener to make its own stories. I don’t want to tell them what this is about. I want to leave the work open and abstract, so that everybody from all those different countries make their own interpretations and connect to it in their own ways. That is one of the reasons why I rarely work with words and lyrics.

What was behind your creation of the SET festival in Tehran (2015)?

I was born in Germany, but I lived in Iran until the age of 11-12. After the revolution happened and the Irak-Iran war, I moved back to Germany with my parents for six years. Then I moved to California in the United-States, where I spent most of my life. About four years ago I decided to move back to Tehran. One of my goals was to help spreading the world of experimental electronic music in Iran. I got to know some of the young artists who were just starting out. The timing was perfect because it was kind of coming up in Tehran, they were doing performances in coffee shops. So we talked with these 8 or 9 artists (musicians, visual artists). We wanted to create a collective that would provide a platform to perform our own music on an Iran-based festival, but also for every people that do similar things in Tehran and other cities in Iran.

SET Festival 2016 Saffron Keira, Sote, Siavash Amini, Dipole, Umchunga
SET Festival 2016 Saffron Keira, Sote, Siavash Amini, Dipole, Umchunga

How was the reception of these events?

It was amazing! Actually the cool thing about the SET events is that so far we keep seing new faces, that we know they are not even into experimental electronic music, but they keep coming back. That’s a really good sign! Some of them I know for a fact that when they go back home they are not even going to listen this kind of music, but they want to experience the artform.

How does it work in Iran to build up a project like this?

In Iran, in order to do events, you have to get a permission from the government. You can do a lot of underground events but we didn’t want to do it that way. We wanted to do something that has a long-term life. The first of our annual events was a great success: four nights in a row, a wonderful reception and reactions of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Then it just kept going!

 So there has been no problem with the government?

No, we did it by the book. We went to the ministry of culture and got the permits for audiovisual events. Things have changed. About twelve years ago I went back to Iran trying to do the same thing. There was no scene, the presidential government was different. All the doors were shut in my face. But in the past four years with Rohani as a president things are opening up, as if they actually want things like that to happen, which is great! We take advantage of it. We are very independent and try not to get any sort of fundings from the government or even private sponsors.

We definitely try to work this dialogue between Iran and the International world

© CTM festival 2017

Can you tell us a few words about the collaboration between SET and the CTM festival?

The CTM 2017 premiere was actually a SETxCTM collaboration. During this evening, three Iranian artists played in Berlin. The next step is going to be when CTM will go to Iran. We are going to do it next year, probably. There has already been two European artists that came to perform in Iran in the past couple years. It is also very important for us and for the CTM festival to do workshops and lectures. We definitely try to work this dialogue between Iran and the International world.

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