Persian electronic music and sound design with Arash Pandi

By | April 6, 2021

3_arash_pandi_red.thumb.jpg.397e6ceca6a5f68bdcfaca8e949b62f6.jpgPhoto: Cristina Marx.

Arash Pandi is a Copenhagen-based electronic musician, sound designer and teacher from Rasht in northern Iran. He is current with the album Exotic Paradox where he with self-programmed systems weaves together classic Iranian scales with sound synthesis to his unique form of ‘Persian electronic music.

Can you tell us a little about your musical journey?

– Absolutely! When I was a child, I learned the Iranian percussion instrument Tonbak and then took guitar lessons and played Nirvana, Radiohead and Pink Floyd covers in various bands. I studied to be an electrical engineer when I was nineteen with the hope of approaching electronic music, but when the education did not give as much as I wanted, I started reading on my own about electronic music, recording, mixing and mastering.

– When I moved to Denmark in 2013 to study sound design at Sonic College, my solo project grew. I remember there was a time when I felt very empty inside. I appreciated the music my classmates created, admired their talent and creativity, but I myself was not satisfied when I tried to create music with the tools they used – there was always something missing. At the same time, I crashed culturally and spiritually. It was during this time that the emergence of extreme semi-military Islamist groups, such as ISIS, and the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe. I did not recognize the image that people got of Muslims and the Middle East – it was so far from what I knew, how I grew up and who I was. It convinced me to turn to my roots and I began to learn more about Iranian music.

– There was quite a lot of music that was an attempt at “mixed culture music”, some kind of fusion, where synths or western instruments were mixed with traditional instruments or traditional singing. But I wanted to go to the root of the musicality, the scales and the techniques used in Iranian music and weave together its concept with electronic music.

2.arash_pandi_live_pa_alice_i_kopenhamn_red.thumb.jpg.fe8ea2835469ffbb1d767000b2fa9a1e.jpgArash Pandi live at ALICE in Copenhagen. Photo: Matthias Grandjean.

Your album Exotic Paradox is the result of this interweaving. How did you go about writing this album?

– It has been a long process. In 2016, I made a simple melody with FM synthesis built on one of the most popular scales in Iranian music and it turned out to work very well. When I heard the distorted and crispy synth sound playing a melody that is often played by classic Iranian instruments, I thought it sounded new and exciting. Then I knew that this was what I would continue to experiment with – to create electronic music based on Iranian microtonal scales, which thus contains tones less than the halftone. All song titles on the album are names of different dastgāh, ie scales, in the Iranian music system.

– To access microtonality in the Iranian music system, I used two different methods. One of them is a program that I programmed in Max / Msp, where I did fixed modulations of pitch-bend to access tones in the different scales. The workflow worked as if I was sending MIDI notes to Max / Msp, either with a MIDI controller or some form of sequencer, and then Max / Msp sent back another MIDI note into Ableton Live where I then did all the sound design and the composition itself. The songs Shur, Bayat Isfahan and Chargah are made this way.

– For the second method, I used the program Chuck which is a coding program for sound and music. In Chuck, I could easily use “floating numbers” as MIDI notes and make micro-moods of the notes. For example, on a scale where the note C would sound a semitone or a quarter of a semitone higher or lower, I could type 60.5 or 59.5 to tune it correctly. It made it possible for me to produce the notes that an Iranian composer wrote in his notes and then play around with the timing, pitch and sound design. Chuck also has a special way of working with time, which makes it very fun and easy to create different algorithms with different time settings and then apply different modulation to them. This can be heard at the end of the songs Dashti and in the middle of Dogah.

What other tools besides Max / Msp and Chuck would you say are most important for your work?

– I would probably say Ableton Live because it is such an incredibly versatile DAW and you can design your setup as simple or complex as you like. Then I use a Korg Kaoss pad, both for writing music and for live shows, which I like very much as it is limited with only 4 different sound banks. I do not use plugins so often but when I do it is plugins from NA, Eventbride, Soundtoys and N2O and I use Izotope to master music.

– At the moment I am also experimenting with two Iranian instruments; Daf which is a frame drum and Tanbour which is an old Kurdish string instrument.

Do you have any techniques you often use where you design sounds?

– Hum, well I work a lot with warehouses. One technique I use is that I take the same part of a sound, for example 2 guitar chords, and create several different channels with the sound. Then I adjust each channel by adding different reverb and delay, compress and distort, change pitch and so on and then pan them out. Then I lower the volume on all the channels and then slowly pull up each channel until I find a combination that I like. I think it’s a good way to see if the sound needs any effects or not, and if so – what kind of effect. I also really enjoy sampling different sounds and creating rhythms from them with my Kaoss Pad.

What happens to you now in the near future?

– Right now I have an internship on a farm in Denmark when I study organic farming. In addition, I work on an electronic composition with Daf and Tanbour on behalf of the Museum of Impossible Forms in Helsinki. I will also play a multi-channel concert at Lydfelter in Copenhagen on January 23.

Max / Msp
Chaos Pad

Live concert in Tehran:

Arash Pandi on Spotify:

Monday’s interview is a series there @Lotta Fahlen interviews interesting people on various topics in music creation, and is published every other Monday.