A Journey Through Tehran: Andreas Spechtl Steps Out Of His Comfort Zone
“The taxi driver charges 50.000 to the gates of freedom. It turns out to be a four-exit roundabout.” These words, sprinkled as they are with a restless, persuasive sense of irony, made their way into a piece musician and composer Andreas Spechtl wrote in Tehran, Iran. While there he noticed something odd, which no one around seemed to pay much attention to. Taxi drivers, offering to drive people to the renowned Azadi Square, would simply shout out “Azadi!” at crowds. The word, of course, means “freedom” in Farsi. “Freedom! Freedom!” they were proclaiming.
So Spechtl recorded the drivers and used that in a composition he worked on, adding a new context to it. “I think your senses are much more vivid in new places, especially in cultural surroundings that are so different from the ones you normally live in. You tend to develop a different sense for even small, everyday life situations,” he tells me, over an email exchange.
Spechtl, who lives in Berlin, spent seven weeks in Tehran as part of a Border Movement Residency (BMR: South Asia). He reached the city in November last year, staying there till early January 2017. “The idea was simple,” he says. “I wanted to perform only music that I had actually written during my stay in Tehran. None of the old stuff; nothing I’d brought with me. I like these easy concepts that work as a kind of limitation, but are also open to adjustments. A strict frame, [but one] that guarantees complete freedom inside of it.”
As it turns out, he was quite productive there, managing to write some 50 minutes of music. “I still don’t know how these pieces work outside their original context, but perhaps I shouldn`t think too much about it and release them just as they are,” he says. In fact, Spechtl is even contemplating delaying the release of the album he’d already been working on, and putting out this stuff before. “I feel the urge that I shouldn’t wait too long to bring this album to life.”
Upon reaching, Spechtl chose to stay at the house of an author he’d been introduced to, which immediately threw him into daily life there; “I was not stuck in this alienating in-between-world of a hotel room.” He ended up meeting a whole bunch of people from the arts community in Tehran; not just musicians or artists but also students and journalists. But the most important individual he spent time with was Saba Alizadeh, a musician who acted as a curator of sorts during Spechtl’s stay. Alizadeh organised most of his performances, and Spechtl also used his studio to work on music. Along the way, the two ended up striking a good friendship and collaborating as well.
“One of the first things I usually do when arriving in a new city is trying to get to the highest point of it to observe this new place from above,” says Spechtl. On the very first day, he made his way to Milad Tower, the sixth-tallest tower in the world. The first few weeks were spent exploring the city, strolling around town, navigating traffic and learning bits and pieces of the language from taxi drivers, doing regular touristy things. He resisted the comforts of a daily routine, keeping himself busy with music and all the discussions about art he ended up having — “You find yourself in situations where you meet new people often; I was invited to someone’s house nearly every evening. It was quite a new situation for me.”
Spechtl’s first gig in Tehran happened a mere 10 days in. He’d only had time to work on a few “minimal sketches”, which led to a lot of improvising on his part, something he doesn’t often do at his live shows. Over the following seven weeks, Spechtl worked on those sketches, which gradually evolved into complete pieces. He’s started playing music on his own only recently, having been part of bands in the past (including Ja, Panik), so the idea of collaborating is still new for him. In Tehran, he recalls working with Ghazaleh E, Iranian pianist and composer, as a particularly memorable encounter. She had just returned to Tehran following a Border Movement Residency for which she’d spent two months in Berlin (BMR: Berlin). So the two performed together a couple of times: “We had a couple of improvised performances together, where we musically circled around the pieces she did in Berlin and the ones I did in Tehran,” he says.
One of those gigs happened to take place at a hairdresser’s salon, while another was at an abandoned bath in the north of the city. They intend to carry forward the collaboration, with plans of performing in Berlin in the spring. Further, Spechtl also played a lot with Saba Alizadeh. They spent time in Alizadeh’s studio, as well as his father’s studio in Karaj, a town an hour away from the city. “I recorded him playing the tombak, a traditional Persian drum, and the kamancheh, sort of a Persian violin [a variant of which, the kamaicha, is used often in Rajasthani folk music], for my pieces.”
There’s a generous smattering of different Iranian instruments in the music he worked on there. A lot of it is just Spechtl experimenting with the instruments and recording himself playing. “I of course couldn’t play them at all,” he says. “But I like this approach a lot, because the sounds and the music you get from applying your everyday techniques to this new world of musical instruments are so different from the results you normally get, yet you are still somehow connected to it. And it even changes your style of playing on your own instrument.” There’s ample experimentation in the music, particularly in terms of time signatures. Spechtl tells me how he was fascinated by the Persian percussion music and especially enjoyed their take on 6/4 and 5/4 rhythms, as opposed to the standard 4/4 style.
Putting his time in Tehran in perspective, Spechtl says; “I think experiences like this tell you far more about the place you’re coming from, than the actual place you visited. Seven weeks may seem like a long time, but in fact you can only get a glimpse of the city, the way of life, the traditions and modern approaches. For me, such situations work more like a mirror to the life and the culture I’m coming from, by putting it in a different light, shifting its focus and scrutinising its values. It can be very fruitful to expose yourself and your music to situations like this. I think every artist should do this from time to time. It’s all about leaving your comfort zone. In life and art.”
written by Akhil Sood
image credits: Andreas Spechtl