“Persian music is minor-key and very melancholic — it’s a form of the blues, and you can never forget that,” says Loga Ramin Torkian, musical director and guitarist of Axiom of Choice. Although the material on the L.A.-based group‘s new release, Niya Yesh (Narada World), doesn’t stray far from the melancholic zone, it‘s the kind of sadness that springs from joy rather than from pain or anger. Rooted in radif, the canon of Persian classical melodies and modes, the tunes also reflect the influence of Western-style songwriting and brim with adventurous improvisations, played on Iranian and non-Iranian instruments. The music can evoke verdant botanical vistas or waves of heat shimmering from the streets of a desert town. It’s contemplative and mournful, textured yet spacious, steeped in the mysteries of our spiritual selves and the quest for what the album‘s title translates to in Farsi — “a direct communion with God.”
Axiom of Choice takes an egalitarian compositional approach, encouraging self-expressive spontaneity within a limited amount of structure. “We have certain signatures that we come back to in compositions, and the remainder is all improvised,” explains Torkian. “It makes the band unique because you cannot take one musician out and put another musician in and expect the same thing. That’s why neither Mamak [Khadem, the group‘s vocalist] or myself ever call ourselves the composers. We create a scenario, and everybody is really a part of the sound and composing, adding their music to it.”
Martin Tillman, the group’s Swiss-born electric cellist, feels “like I can always come in half with what I feel and how I react to the music, and the other half is the structures, the themes, the skeleton of the song. What‘s really great is that there is so much freedom within the skeleton.”
Torkian’s inspiration for Niya Yesh‘s skeletons and scenarios is a small city in Rajasthan. “I travel a lot because of my business [he’s co-proprietor of the Koan Collection on Melrose], and one of the places that I like to go to as a safe haven when I‘m really burned out is Pushkar in India. It’s one of the sites that is still somewhat pure. There are no cars allowed, there‘s no alcohol, and it’s supposedly a strict vegetarian city by law. It‘s a place where a lot of different elements come together, and the environmental sound is always beautiful. So, inspired by that, I recorded some of the local musicians, brought it over, started to utilize that and put it in context with the other stuff that we had done here.” The album’s first and last cuts, “A Walk by the Lake” and “Memories of Pushkar,” resonate with the ambiance of that special place, be it a street musician‘s wailing shenai, children playing or the hypnotic clang of a temple bell.
But the album’s path of creation didn‘t stop there. Other critical tracks came direct from Iran. “We formed the compositions to some level, outlined the songs, and then Mamak took them to Iran, along with [co-producer] Mammad Mohsenzadeh,” says Torkian. “She did a recording with Mas’oud Sho‘ari, the setar [Persian lute] player, Shahab Fayyaz on ney [reed flute] and the accordionist Reza Asgarzadeh.” Since they didn’t have access to studios in Iran, the sessions were done at a friend‘s house outside of Tehran. Sho’ari‘s virtuosic turn on “Chaos of Paradise” adds another atmospheric layer to the emotional disturbances provoked by Khadem’s soaring, wordless ululations and her bandmates‘ melodic spirals and rhythmic cycles.
Khadem admits that she used to try and do too much with that prodigious vocal instrument of hers. “This album is a lot simpler than the first one [Beyond Denial, 1994], where I was more into complicated phrasing, which made it so busy, but now I’m able to give it more space.” Her success in painting potent mood pictures on “Ida,” or breathing life into Persian poetry on “The Calling,” while keeping it beautifully folksy on “Raindrops,” attests to her artistic maturation.
Torkian sees recording and performing as fulfilling very different roles. “One of the things we learned is that the usage of CDs has changed. People nowadays rarely put on headphones, close their eyes and just listen to music. They listen at work, while they‘re dining, talking, in the car, so you’re really working with the subconscious rather than the conscious. We write the music for our CDs considering that you have to be more into the subconscious. But if you bring that onstage, it‘s going to be very boring. When you are the focus point, when you have the audience sitting and watching, you can be much more provocative, more aggressive, use higher tempos, bigger improvisations. You must take risks.”
Axiom of Choice, with special guests Rubik Haratoonian, Mammad Mohsenzadeh, Ando Harutyunyan, Sandip Burman and David Stringer, performs at the Skirball Cultural Center on Wednesday, July 26, and Friday, July 28.