Features I by I 03.09.17

Sote is helping Iran’s experimental electronic music scene become a powerful cultural force

Sote, born Ata Ebtekar, is one of Iran’s foremost electronic musicians. Although he’s kown for his visceral releases on Warp and Sub Rosa, his latest, Scared Horror In Design, has a much more delicate touch. Oli Warwick spoke to the innovator about dance music in Tehran and Ebtekar’s commission for CTM Festival.

“Pre-revolution, post-revolution, in arts stuff, political stuff: Iranians are all about improvisation,” says Ata Ebtekar, also known as the Iranian electronic experimenter Sote. “It’s seriously part of the culture. If you ever come to Iran, at first you would think, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on with Tehran’s traffic? This is chaos!’ But there are rules within that chaos that everybody understands, that everybody’s improvising with, because they have to.”

Ebtekar believes it’s this instinct for overcoming obstacles and reacting to the environment that has helped lay the foundations for the buoyant Iranian experimental electronic music scene, as well as his own musical career. Ebtekar has moved around his whole life, but since returning to Iran four years ago he has been actively encouraging this distinctly modern musical culture, spurred on by a new generation of globally connected artists and the softening of post-revolution restrictions in the Middle Eastern country.

From his teens spent in Germany to his later studies in San Francisco, Ebtekar benefitted from exposure to techno and experimental music at a time when it would be scarcely found within Iran’s borders, but his artistic career, particularly as Sote, is more productive than ever since he returned to his motherland. While much of the Sote sound is rooted in abrasive, noisy digital production, his latest album on Opal Tapes, Sacred Horror In Design, finds him fusing his hyper-modern computer processes with centuries-old traditional Iranian music. It’s not the first time he’s worked with classical music, but the fusion on this LP, derived from a live commission by Berlin’s CTM Festival, is the most fluid and yet extreme combination of new and old that Ebtekar has managed to date.

“I came back to Iran wanting to make people aware of experimental electronic music, but then the presidential government was different and there was no scene at all.”

Photo by: Arash Bolouri

“I love Iranian traditional classical music,” Ebtekar says over Skype from Tehran. The connection is scratchy and the fluctuating, bit-crushed distortion on the call is fitting, as though he was sending his speech through one of his effects processes. “For the longest time I wanted to do a project again, but I did not want to repeat myself, and I did not want to exploit the political situation of Iran being a hot topic around the world.”

The CTM commission gave Ebtekar the necessary boundaries to focus his ideas with the 2017 festival theme Fear Anger Love, channelling his own experiences as a child in Iran following the 1979 revolution. Working with Arash Bolouri on santur (a hammered dulcimer) and Behrouz Pashaei on setar (an Iranian lute), he set about fusing the rich heritage of Iranian (né Persian) music with his own heavyweight sonics.

“I taped pick ups to the setar and the santur that go into my computer for processing,” Ebtekar explains, “but then there are microphones in front of them without any processing. This is what took me a couple of years – how can I make the untreated sound sit with the other elements so beautifully, in harmony, that in the end a lot of people can’t even tell them apart?”

While we talk, Ebtekar is in the middle of a seven nights-a-week residency at a theatre in Tehran, working on the sound design for Goft o Gooye Barjaay Maandegaan, a high-profile play starring and produced by Iranian movie star Baran Kosari. The unexpected gig came about as a direct result of his mission to promote experimental electronic music in Iran since his return.

In the challenge of finding venues to host electronic music events, black box theaters and art galleries have tended to be the most natural fit. It was while using one such black box called Off-Studio that Ebtekar met Milad Shajareh, the director of the play, who grew to love his music and asked him to collaborate as a live musical performer for the production. Ebtekar says it’s much easier now to bring left-field music to attention in Iran than when he had previously tried.

“About 12 years ago I came back to Iran wanting to make people aware of experimental electronic music, but then the presidential government was different and there was no scene at all,” he says. “There was nothing I could do. Doors were shut in my face. But when I came back four years ago things had changed dramatically. There were a lot of 20-something artists just starting out. I became friends with about 10 of them and we started our own festival.”

Ebtekar and his friends started work on SET in 2014, throwing the first annual festival in 2015 with a four-day program. Amongst those artists helping organize it are rising Iranian producers Siavash Amini, Tegh, Dipole, Idlefon and Umchunga. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but Ebtekar and the other organizers were adamant from the start that they would neither seek any private or government sponsorship, nor seek to subvert or challenge the authorities. Instead, they ensured every necessary administrative hoop was jumped through, and Ebtekar notes that the city hall and government were remarkably tolerant in permitting the festival.

“For the first event the turn out and reception was unbelievable,” he says. “It was people from all ages, from all types of backgrounds. Even people who we know never listen to experimental electronic music kept coming back the next day and saying to us, ‘this is amazing,’ ‘this is new,’ and ‘we need this.’”

While it may have been shocking to Ebtekar following his unsuccessful attempts to kick start a scene 12 years earlier, he also recognizes that for those who have been in Iran all along SET may just be the logical next step from more furtive happenings in private homes or hidden coffee shops. Either way, the most significant result of this new dawn for Iranian electronic music is its reception by the people.

“I believe that in the next five to 10 years Tehran is seriously going to be a hub for experimental electronic music,” Ebtekar says. “It’s not just the same people going to the same events. In a very gradual and organic way it’s growing. We keep seeing people from the arts scene, people from the theatre scene, people from the academic side… We see scientists at our events. Even the janitor who was taking care of one of the venues where we were playing was moved by it, and the next time he brought five of his friends. He seriously made a connection with the music.”

In a country where youth culture has been heavily restricted for so long, it’s significant when a cultural form such as this has an opportunity to reach a wider audience. The apparent softening of stance from up high is certainly aided by the lack of lyrical provocation in the music, not to mention the abstract nature of ambient, drone and noise. In comparison, a conventional dance music scene has a harder time taking root in Iran due to the illegality of men and women dancing in public together. However, Ebtekar considers the growth of the experimental electronic scene to be about more than a mere novelty reaction to a political paradigm shift.

“Iranians, overall, for the past several thousand years are big, big, big art and literature lovers,” he says. “You can see somebody who is illiterate, but he recites verses from [famous 14th century Iranian poet] Hafez on a daily basis during his daily life. That, in combination with the doors opening to all these new things like experimental electronic music, visual arts and digital media, is what’s working, and people are not taking this for granted.”

The rich legacy of Iranian culture permeates many aspects of Ebtekar’s work, first noticeable with the application of Persian scales to electronic production methods on the 2006 album Dastgaah. However it was on a visit to Tehran in the mid 00s (while he was still living in America) that Ebtekar’s relationship with the classical music of his country deepened considerably. While browsing in a CD store he heard the unexpected strains of electronic music fused with Persian elements playing over the speakers, revealed to be a forthcoming collection of early electronic works by celebrated Iranian classical composer Alireza Mashayekhi.

“He is a pioneer,” Ebtekar says. “He is the only serious contemporary composer in Iran, I would say. I had always loved his classical music, but I had no idea that he had done electronic music in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”

During the same trip, Ebtekar and his wife attended one of Mashayekhi’s concerts, and Ebtekar took the opportunity to introduce himself to the composer and enthuse over the significance of these trailblazing early recordings. The two struck up a friendship, and Mashayekhi gave Ebtekar access to his archive of recordings, resulting in the stunning 2007 compilation Persian Electronic Music: Yesterday And Today 1966 – 2006 on Sub Rosa. One disc features Mashayekhi’s previously unheard sonic experiments, while the second continues the work Ebtekar had started on Dastgaah. Their intergenerational collaboration did not stop there either, as Ebtekar went on to work with Mashayekhi’s own Iranian Orchestra For New Music on 2009’s Ornamentalism, using recordings of concerts and practices as well as archival material to form a wholly new album.

“[Mashayekhi] basically gave me freedom to deconstruct everything and come up with new compositions,” Ebtekar says. “Whatever I wanted.”

Ebtekar may be explicit in his own embrace of classical music, even as he contorts it to his modern approaches, but other producers in his peer group deny any influence from the old guard, preferring to frame their music in a wholly modern context. Young Iranians in the post-revolution era were still able to gain access to music from beyond their nation’s borders through the fertile pirate tape market. As with teenage rebellion in many other places, the kids kicked back against traditional classical music and embraced the forbidden sounds being brought in by those who had travelled to Europe, America and elsewhere. Rock and metal were the dominant sounds that filtered through this clandestine network, but Ebtekar soaked up a different kind of external influence.

“When I was in Iran during the revolution a lot of tapes that came to Iran were pop music,” he says. “I got exposed to things like Culture Club and Duran Duran. Some people are drawn to lyrics, some people are drawn to melodies. When I listened to Duran Duran I would always keep rewinding to the weird sweeps of synthesizers.”

After moving to Germany at age 11, Ebtekar was exposed to a much broader tapestry of electronic music. Depeche Mode became his favorite group and, later on in high school, he and two friends formed a covers band called The Persams with a repertoire that included songs by Nitzer Ebb, Front 242 and Skinny Puppy. By the age of 16 they had progressed to making their own music and ditched the vocals, but the band came to an abrupt halt when Ebtekar’s family moved to the US.

“The first time I listened to techno I was in San Francisco,” Ebtekar says. “I don’t know where, in a club probably. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is this? It’s so similar to what we [The Persams] were doing!’ So maybe if I’d stayed in Germany we would have been the Iranian Prodigy or something!”

His chance for chart dance stardom in Europe dashed, Ebtekar’s career instead took shape while he was in California, most notably once his older brother convinced his mother that a presumed career in dentistry was not where the young Ata’s talents lay. After enrolling on a sound art course at Expression College he quickly built on his experience with The Persams to embrace synthesis, digital audio, recording and production on a deeper level. While he was a student, and following a couple of 12” releases on Californian rave labels Rampant and Spundae, Ebtekar had an unexpected call from Warp Records owner Steve Beckett in response to a demo he could barely remember sending.

“I had to tell [Beckett], ‘I don’t know what I have sent to you,’” says Ebtekar. “At that time I was moving towards really crazy, noisy type of stuff and moving away from beat oriented music. He played the tracks he liked over the phone for me, so I could know what he’s talking about, and he said, ‘Everybody in the office is freaking out.’ I remember telling him I was totally over this stuff that came out on the record, but he was like, ‘No, no, we have to put it out.’”

“My roots are techno and I love techno passionately.”

Photo by:: Arash Bolouri

Unwilling to repeat the same trick when his interests had moved on to more experimental realms, the 2002 Electric Deaf 12” remains the only time Ebtekar has worked with Warp, although tracks produced at the same time have since surfaced on the 10inch04 release on Repitch Records. While they may be more danceable than later output, they’re still far from conventional tracks, steeped in digital distortion that aligns with the more abrasive qualities in Ebtekar’s more recent music. The albums Architectonic, Arrhythmia and Hardcore Sounds From Tehran, all released in the past three years, may position him outside the dancefloor for many different reasons, but that’s not to say the sound of Sote is devoid of club music influences.

“My roots are techno and I still love techno passionately,” he insists. “With Architectonic, Arrhythmia and Hardcore Sounds From Tehran, my mission was to channel the energy that once made the hair on my arms stand up, but without any formulas or conventional methods. I feel I’m still not done with that path.”

Outside of Iran, Ebtekar’s reputation is ever rising, and in October he will be making a second trip to Berghain. This time, he will be playing his live set on a Saturday night alongside the likes of Marcel Dettmann. He laughs when I ask whether he will cater to the techno masses or ramp up his confrontational sound on the night. “Definitely the second one,” he replies gleefully.

Back in Iran there is still much to be done. The work for SET and its satellite events continues unabated, framed in stark opposition to the fervent physicality of the Berghain dancefloor as a space where experimental music lovers absorb the sounds played to them without moving. Considering there is a thread of aggressive club music snarling at the heart of some of Ebtekar’s output, it begs the question of how to present such sounds in a place where igniting a dancefloor could jeopardise the emergent culture just as it’s hitting its stride.

“So far I performed in two different ways,” Ebtekar reveals. “Because it’s in a theatre setting, I sometimes did it with a visual artist, with some mind blowing visuals that really goes well with the music, to get the energy across and make it fun for everyone, or I performed it in pitch black rooms. That way I gave the audience the opportunity to move as much as they want without anybody seeing them. It was beautiful. If you had turned on the lights in the middle of my performance, you would have seen people just doing the weirdest moves.”

While Ebtekar and his peers may not agree with the strict regulations surrounding their creative pursuits, in adapting to the circumstances and improvising with the means available, they’re helping build a culture from the ground up. In a country where the arts run so deep and so far back into history, their revolutionary achievements can only get more significant from here.

Oli Warwick is on Twitter.

Read next: Lost recordings from pre-revolution Iran collected on vinyl for the first time



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