What do Bach and Behzad have in common?

A few nights ago, an American friend here, who upon learning my brother and I were trained in Western classical music, asked me why was this genre of music so popular in Iran?

This made me think what, for example, Johannes Sebastian Bach and Kalam ud Din Behzad (the legendary 15th century miniaturist) have in common.


After reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, I came to appreciate the philosophy of miniature painting in a completely new light. In Islam is it traditionally not permitted to paint the likeness of people, thus the (primarily Muslim) art of miniature always focused on depicting “the form” of humans. This neo-platonic idea of capturing perfect form, for example of the horse, has a mystical aspect in that the artist’s ego has to disappear before the perfect form can flow from his hand. This idea was reflected in the belief that the best miniaturists are blind: ones who practiced drawing so much that their sight (i.e., individuality) is sacrificed on the path of art.

Of course, the magic of the art of artists of this tradition (and that of Sufi poetry in which strict rules apply to the weight and rhythm of the poems), is that their creativity within the clear bounds of their art form reaches such heights that defy human possibility. It seems creativity is best stimulated by the rules and limitations that surround it.

Likewise, there are many rules in Classical music and each accent, tonality and rhythmic action have to be precisely thought out. And, yet, once a piece is known inside out, slowly the artist transcends the rules and finds a new dimension to express his or her creativity through. Masters of performance, while playing Chopin and Schubert’s delicate piano pieces, know how to avoid prints on the snow by flying like birds above them! And masters of composition, swim through harmony and transition rules like dolphins!

Both Bach (and Beethoven and many other Western artists) and Behzad (and Rumi and many other Eastern artists) reflect this true artistry and mastery that can be very inspiring in many aspects of our lives.


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