Hafez Modirzadeh
Hafez Modirzadeh | Credit: Walter Wagner

“There’s a lot of symmetry folded into this,” says Hafez Modirzadeh about Facets, his album released last month by Pi Recordings. “The very last saxophone tone I play, on ‘Mato Paha,’” the penultimate track, “which is a slide from a B-flat to a B, is also the very first tone I played on my first record, In Chromodal Discourse, with Asian Improv Records in 1993.” There are “circles within circles” across the 15 albums recorded under his name and with others, “and it’s all intentional.” Chromodality, a term he coined and the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Wesleyan in 1992, has also been a primal intention of Modirzadeh’s as a composer and performer. “‘Chro’ signifies the spectrum of something,” he explains, “and the ‘modality’ has to do with a phenomenon of behavior, the chromatic system working in tandem with all the other modal systems of the world.”

Born in Durham, North Carolina, the son of an Iranian father and an Irish and Ashkenazi mother, Modirzadeh spent 30 years studying Persian traditional music with Iranian expatriate Mahmoud Zoufonoun (1920 – 2013), including the dastgāh system of musical modes (and its microtones), but not until he’d already been working as a professional saxophone player, “play[ing] doo-wacka-doo to make my dinner [and provide] for my family.”

He drew on his Persian studies for graduate work in the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA, and continued to pursue the parallel excitements of global musics and progressive jazz, including a long, like-minded relationship with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who’d developed his own alternative approach to tonality and ensemble dynamics. Modirzadeh was awarded two senior Fulbright scholarships, in 2006 to work with the traditions of flamenco in Andalucía and Gnawan music in Morocco, and in 2014 to research “chromodal adaptations of [composer] Kemal Ilerici’s Turkish harmonic system.” Now 59 and a music professor at San Francisco State University, he spoke with SFCV from his home in Santa Clara County.

Hafez Modirzadeh
Hafez Modirzadeh

Back when I was taking your world-music class at SF State, it seemed and sounded like you were trying to liberate us from the well-tempered foundation of much of Western classical and pop music.

You have Bach on one end and Debussy on the other — beautiful, organic, divine, sublime. Then in the middle you have this square of Classical and Romantic, the Industrial Revolution, colonialism, and quantification, which happened between Haydn and Wagner somewhere. There were Mozarts and Beethovens who could rassle and shape the form, but spirit had to be subject to the form. I can appreciate Cage and Cowell, who explored beyond this sound. But those 12 chromatic tones, man — whoever invented the half-step invented the half-human being.

So with Facets, you’re taking it out on the piano.

I remember once when Ornette [Coleman] was playing piano, he pointed to it and said to me, “This is an invention.” Then he pointed to my heart and said, “But you’re a creation.” And that was when I was trying to understand the alchemic genius of [Thelonious] Monk, to be able to take an equal-tempered piano and make it sound like another instrument. They call it equal temperament, but I think it’s better called “separate but equal temperament.” The colonialism and the capitalism is in quantifying everything. [The piano] carries with it the weight of colonizing minds, because it represents what I call “chromatic supremacy.” It has hegemonically usurped all these other beautifully shaded diverse tunings of all the indigenous peoples of the world, right?

For Facets, you seem to have literally loosened the bonds of the piano by retuning eight of its tones, in the second and third octaves above middle C.

In those five years after Ornette, I began recording, and Vijay Iyer [and others] just started showing up. Vijay was beautiful, because he had to work hard to climb and reach those plateaus, and he would take hours out of his time to fiddle around on retuning pianos. [On their 2021 Post-Chromodal Out! date for Pi Recordings] Vijay was one pianist with three tunings, on Facets there are three pianists with one tuning [Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, and Craig Taborn].


Those are three prominent players on the cutting edge of jazz and new music. How did you choose them?

I told Seth and Yulun [Rosner and Wang, owners of Pi Recordings] that I have a dozen friends [interested in working with the retunings], too many, and they said these were the artists they were particularly interested in, because they were familiar with their work. I also talked with Vijay, at Banff [the International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music]. And I’d already worked with Tyshawn.

And how did you choose the eight tones?

They were selected almost arbitrarily, but confined to the middle register. It took me about seven years to go through all the twists and turns and say, what can be heard by Western-oriented ears accustomed to a certain cultural intonation, and find a way to introduce just a few of those tones that won’t be too intimidating. Then to give it to great artists like Kris and Tyshawn and Craig. They couldn’t just go and play by muscle memory. But when they sat down to check it out, they were all just so respectful towards the instrument and the music.

The specifics of the tunings?

The range is specifically between 38.6 and 65 cents [where each semitone of the Western chromatic scale is divided into 100 cents].

And how are your compositions notated?

It’s Western staff notation. But for the tones that are not found in equal-tempered music, the eight that were tuned down were given a different symbol, an accidental. Persian traditional music has a “koron” [a triangle atop a vertical line] which is a high flat, and a “sori” [two vertical lines intersected by a wedge], where the sharp is lowered a bit. But these accidentals can be used to represent something that’s beyond the Western and jazz contexts and beyond the Persian context.

Which suggests your music has ethnic or cultural references, but is beyond them all.

It’s more of a human idea, where we’re trying to understand how we can coexist while keeping the integrity of who we are. It’s important to understand that Facets is a “disintegration” of Arabic maqam and Persian dastgāh, and that what I’ve abstracted from them are the tones. These tones breathe new life into Western intonation, so we write new music with it, inflected with Persian or Arabic ornamentation and phrasing. But as I progress, you also hear what I’ve gleaned from listening to Southeast Asian music, especially gamelan and a particular instrument, the suling [bamboo flute]. When I studied with Danny Kalanduyan, the great Filipino kulintang musician, I could still find some of those same tones that were not part of Western intonation.

But people do not connect this with me, because they look at my name or what I look like and they say, “Oh no, he’s from Iran.” You’ve got partials of your ancestors resonating in you. But they skip right over the influence I had since I was 18 years old, playing in Lou Harrison’s gamelan at San Jose State University.

And it gets into the racialization which has been part of the marketing of the jazz tradition.It gets back to identity politics, and it tends to marginalize this music. I did embrace the heritage of my father, who was from Iran, but well before that I didn’t know who or what I was, I was only in love with the jazz tradition and I wasn’t thinking about race or gender.

You’re heard on tenor sax on a bit more than half of the tracks on Facets. How does the sax deal with alternate intonation?

[The late jazz saxophonist] Sonny Stitt showed me some Lester Young alternate fingerings when I was 16 and he’d be playing with Red Holloway at Christo’s in Oakland. On a saxophone, you’ve got all these keys and sound holes, and just by opening or closing a tone hole, you can create a shade, or a muted sound. If a person plays both fingerings for an F sharp, you’ll get a higher sharp. Five or six years later, when Zoufonoun showed me tones, I had to find more alternate fingerings. On Facets, my saxophone is just accompaniment.

But you’re also credited with composing almost everything on the album, except for “Facet Taborn” and “Facet Sorey,” which are Craig’s and Tyshawn’s improvisations. And there are a couple of Thelonious Monk tracks, “Ask Me Now” and “Pannonica,” which are also heard in variations on “Facet 34 Defracted.” What’s the connotation of facet? You’ve written 39 of them, over the course of several albums.

Vijay put it well in his liner notes: it’s like facets of light. [In Iyer’s own words: “as if we are indeed admiring the facets of a gemstone, each surface reflecting a universe.”]

Listening to your takes on Monk, I take also on what you said about his transforming the piano into a different instrument, and in particular his trademark chromatic movement.

On every one of my recordings — I don’t know how many, maybe a dozen now — there’s always Monk in there. He’s a great inspiration, intervallically.

And you based your “Facet 32" on Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 25, which you, like Wanda Landowska, referred to as the “Black Pearl.” Glenn Gould, talking about his career-bookending performances of the Variations with Tim Page, said about the 25th, “I don’t think there’s been a richer lode of enharmonic relationships any place between Gesualdo and Wagner.” That seems to position Bach, like Monk, as another fellow traveler with you.

Hafez Modirzadeh - facets

Bach was a mystic, like Satie, Monk, [jazz pianist] Bill Evans, and certain Turkish composers, especially [Melik Ertuğrul] Bayaktrarkatal, whom I studied Turkish harmony with, in 2014. I listened to Bach, for a while, almost as much as Monk, and when I heard Gould slow down on the 25th [variation], I said, that’s a good vehicle! I gave Craig Taborn the same instructions I gave for the Monk pieces: play the melody in the left hand, out of the way of the area where the eight retuned tones are, and in the right hand, play “shimmers” where the [retuned] tones are close together.

I hear those clusters as a new sound, not only off the well-tempered scale but with their own sets of overtones. Besides detouring from Western classical and jazz conventions, you seem to have ventured beyond your “post-chromodal” work with Vijay to something post-post-chromodal.

I didn’t want to call it “chromodality” any more; it doesn’t have to have a name.

Is there a future in this, whatever it may be called, for the rest of music-making?

There are so many talented young musicians out there crossing over in every category now, so they don’t feel that they have to be gatekeepers. This is another offering that might inspire them to say, let me take a [tuning] hammer and find my own resonance. I hope others will try retuning traditional instruments and bringing in new ones, as long as they’re not doing it as a novelty or to create an image for themselves.

What about you and your music?

Thollem McDonas is releasing an album as well, of music we did earlier. And Myra Melford, I had a session with her, and sessions with Rebeca Mauleón, Dee Spencer, Gwendolyn Mok [the great classical pianist from San Jose State], Dahveed Behroozi, Leo Genovese, Peter Apfelbaum — what I want to say is that everybody who approached this music, they were friends first of all, and they trusted the project, and it was beautiful to watch, sacred moments.

And Western classical music?

Anything in equal temperament sounds clichéd to me. It sounds flat. And I wonder why anyone in the world wouldn’t have the imagination to get off their lazy butt and go ahead and start something. They fall into chromatic supremacy because they’ve been brainwashed and indoctrinated.

So you’ll have to stay a musical activist, inside and outside the academy?

Let’s see who gets on board, and what the destination is. I’m just going to chill out for a while, and play for myself. I’m a grandfather now! Facets is the completion of a project that goes back about 30 years, and I’m so happy with the reviews we’re getting. [Laughs.] But the greatest success I’ve had in my own house is, over dinner, I can put Facets on, and for at least the first six or seven tracks, it’s good background music — until we get to Tyshawn’s solo. And then it’s stop eating, listen, and pay attention.