Iranian producer* Sote (AKA Ata Ebtekar) has become an important, internationalising force in the experimental electronic scene. His 2002 release ‘Electric Deaf’ – a frenetic slice of Drum’n’Bass – was released on Warp Records, since then he’s expanded his musical claws into more introspective works that also showcase a greater influence from his home country, most recently on Sacred Horror in Design (released via Opal Tapes). Not only is Sote producing intense, engaging music, he is also a co-founder of Tehran’s SET, a series of events exploring the avant garde.
Regularly bridging the gap between East and West, it was no surprise MusicMap.Global caught Sote perform at this year’s TodaysArt Festival in The Hague with a Dutch and Iranian band of collaborators. Journeying between the sublime and full-frontal sonic attacks, the show convinced us to reach out to Sote to discuss the Sacred Horror project, the role of improvisation in his work, and Tehran’s experimental electronic scene.
MusicMap.Global: Let’s first talk about your recent performance ‘Sacred Horror in Design’ at TodaysArt festival, which you performed alongside Arash Bolouri, Behrouz Pashaei and visual artist Tarik Barri. What was the concept behind the show, and how did this grouping form?
Sote: I had been thinking about doing another Persian influenced electronic music project a couple of years prior to Sacred Horror In Design. However, I was struggling with concepts and aesthetics not being proper and honorable from several angles. I didn’t want to exploit the whole hot Iran topic either. I definitely did not want to repeat myself with my experimentation of Iranian music and electronic music on previous albums such as Persian Electronic Music – Yesterday and Today, Dastgaah and Ornamental/Ornamentalism.
I had mentioned to Jan Rohlf (CTM director) that I had been working on an Iranian electro-acoustic audio/visual show (mostly in my head). When CTM Festival and Goethe Institute commissioned me to put it together I became focused and there was no escaping it anymore. Finally, I knew that I wanted to compose for an Iranian electro-acoustic performance with Iranian instrumentalist performing live (the key word being ‘performance’). Initially, I wasn’t thinking composing for an album, contrary to my previous work.
I started with a long list of Iranian musicians, at one point, working with a whole Iranian ensemble crossed my mind, but it really wouldn’t have been very practical due to deadline limitations… Ultimately, I chose Arash Bolouri and Behrouz Pashaei because they’re both very talented musicians and most importantly are very open to challenging musical and sonic trial and error scenarios outside of their comfort zone.
Tarik Barri was suggested to me by Jan Rohlf, whose work I was certainly aware of and always respected the fact that each one of his collaborations with other artists looked completely different from the other. Jan introduced my work to him, I met with him once at his Berlin home discussing ideas where I expressed what I wanted to do musically and sonically, and we clicked and decided to work together.
We continued our collaboration online via emails and file sharing. I composed and rehearsed with the two musicians in Tehran, sending excerpts to Tarik.
About 10 days before the CTM premiere, I went to Berlin to be under one roof with Tarik, where Arash and Behrouz joined us a week before the actual show, and we rehearsed together every day.
My collaboration with Alireza Mashayekhi’s ‘Iranian Orchestra For New Music’ involved a whole orchestra worth of acoustic instruments (Iranian and Western). But you’re right, most of my work is usually all synthesis, this is where my passion lies. However, as long as I feel that I have something substantial to say through electro-acoustic methods then I will incorporate acoustic instrumentation within my compositions.
A friend of mine said that the recordings feel very process/improvisation based, but to me they feel quite structred, as did the live performance. Which one of us is ‘right’?
You’re both right actually. As I already stated, ’Sacred Horror In Design’ before all else was constructed for a performance. Overall, Iranian music is very much improvisation based. However, my personal interests in music alway are about structures at the very end. In other words, even in my most extreme experimentation phases, the final work, I have to compose.
A couple of the pieces started out as improvisations during the rehearsals, but eventually turned out to be a fixed idea.
Of course during the performances, I’d like to leave room for some improvising for the traditional musicians, and I obviously do some processing in reaction to the acoustic instruments. All in all, this dialog of the traditional instruments and electronics are of utmost importance.
Talk to us about the history of noise and experimentalism in Iranian musical culture. Who inspired you to become involved with electronic music, and who else in your vicinity is dealing with these sorts of sounds?
I have highest respect for Alireza Mashayekhi, who is a pioneer of avant garde music in Iran. However, my exposure to electronic music started during my childhood in Iran around the revolution era where I started being interested in strange electronic sounds of various recorded music on cassette tapes that I got my hands on. During my teenage years in Germany, this matured via my obsessive listening to Electronic Body Music of the early and mid ’80s and eventually my involvement started in high school making electronic music.
A film called Raving Iran gained quite a bit of attention recently, and garnered some special screenings. I haven’t seen the film, but the trailer seemed to frame the story as people essentially risking their lifestyles for their love of music. How recognisable is this scenario to you?
I haven’t seen the film either. Along with most of the above mentioned artists, we are actively performing and making music here in Iran and our lives are definitely not in danger.
You’ve lived in Iran, Germany, the U.S., and are now based in Tehran. Very broad question, but how has each of those moves shaped you, and changed/enhanced your perspective on your home country?
This could be a very long answer, but I think one of the most important outcomes is the fact that I have a deeper appreciation for the positive elements of my cultural heritage.
In previous interviews you’ve discussed organically expanding the experimental scene in Iran, bringing diverse audiences into the fray. How do you think the European events you’ve played recently compare with your events in Tehran, do you think the audiences there also need ‘expanding’?
In general, I find the audiences at our SET Experimental Art Events as well as other events in Iran more attentive than the Western part of the world. This does not mean that I find the European audiences or events to be problematic or in need of any major improvement.
I absolutely adore and admire how European governments support art and culture so vastly. If anything, the American government needs to pay more attention to art and culture instead of all the nonsense and hypocrisy they waste their time on.
Interview by Nicholas Burman
*Edited 19/10/2017. The article originally stated that Sote was “Iranian born”. While he is Iranian and spent a majority of his childhood in Iran he was actually born in Hamburg.