An Interview with Mahan Esfahani

By · Photography © Marco Borggreve · Date 04/06/2017

Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani was born in Tehran in 1984. Known increasingly for his dynamic programs combining 20th and 21st century works with music from the 16th-18th centuries, his approach to the instrument stands out in contrast to the traditional associations of the harpsichord with the historical performance movement.But that’s not all he talked about with VAN. Over coffee on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Esfahani expressed that he didn’t simply want to do an interview cataloging his musicianship and career as “outliers.” That said, he went on to offer some insights and opinions of certain trends and strains of the historical performance movementtrends which not only have affected the interpretation of music, but have more far-reaching consequences as well.

VAN: In an interview with Die Welt last month, you said you believed that “there is a link between foreign hate, right-wing politics, and the way the harpsichord has been robbed from the mainstream by historical performance.” Would you be willing to expand on this?

Mahan Esfahani: How much time do you have?

Do you think that the harpsichord is falling prey to nationalist narratives?

Yes I do. I’ll give you an example. I remember going to the Bruges festival and competition, where I was giving a recital. In socializing with some of the young players at the competition, it was apparent that the competitors fell into various “camps” delineated by nationality.

How so?

From the way the students talked, it was apparent that the camps were not so much separated by schemes of regional variation so much as concepts of national ownership over playing. The most identifiable were the Dutch and French camps, whose adherents had very strong opinions about students of other nationalities. If you did not adhere to a certain strain of performance style associated with the historical performance movement, criticism was cast in specifically nationalistic terms. If another competitor’s playing didn’t fit nicely into the box of the mainstream of the historical performance mimesis, it was considered weird and questions would be raised. The first question anyone would ask was, “Whom did they study with?” or “Where did they study?”—implying that there are “schools” of playing associated with nationality.

It was sickening to hear students from the Low Countries and France simply dismiss some beautiful performances by other competitors as being poor “because the Russian school is all just technique.” How the fuck do they know?  Are they saying that Russians are unable to feel this music in the same way or interpret it as they see fit? If so, what the hell do I do as an Iranian?

So it’s as if there’s a sort of monopoly in the harpsichord world?

Absolutely. It’s one where predictability is valued over individuality. At my own recital in Bruges, I remember that the Dutch and French students all stayed away, but were happy to inform me that their teacher thought my own performance style was “unique.”

I’ve heard leading figures in the harpsichord world give recitals that were played as if someone had died. Personally, I’d rather have dental surgery than hear recitals such as these, but there are those who applaud the fact that “you always know where you stand with them.” Really?! Could you imagine going to bed with someone like that, always knowing where you stand with him? “OK, see you same time, same place next year!”

As these narratives get more insidious, it not only starts to affect musicianship at the instruments, but starts to decide who and who doesn’t get invited to play recitals, all based on assumptions about musicianship and nationality.

Is this only a European phenomenon, or is it manifest elsewhere in the world?

No. In the United States there’s a bizarre harpsichord Stockholm Syndrome that has arisen from American Francophilia and romanticization of the Netherlands. The desire to play “more French” or “more Dutch” than the French or Dutch do has created this scheme of inaccessibility. It’s gotten to the point where if you haven’t studied in France or the Netherlands, or studied with a teacher who studied in either country, then you’re on the outside. I mean, culture should be open; culture belongs to everybody. How dare anyone dictate what any culture should and shouldn’t do because it doesn’t fit into your scheme of what you think things should sound like?

For our readers, could you clarify what a “French” style is to the harpsichord world?

It’s the sort of vague and limp-wristed style one hears on many recordings today, almost as if the players are afraid of their instruments. Christ! Gluck’s “Orfeo” was originally performed with 12 double basses, eight flutes, and eight oboes, but if you performed it that way today, the historical performance world would get upset, because it doesn’t fit the normative mold of a highly articulate and languid style—the style that makes you think “Get on with it!” when you hear it.

But how is that problematic musically? Surely we all make musical decisions in tandem or in contrast with the composer’s “intent.”

It’s problematic because the assumption that many of these players make is that they are actually reviving a bygone playing style, when in fact they are just entrenching contemporary narratives based on their narrow experiences of music and culture. If singers were to take the same over-articulate approach to their art, they would be booed off the stage.

You seem to be implying that the harpsichord world is very insular.

Yes, and that the cultural and musical insularity are intertwined. The obsession with articulation and with this “French” style of harpsichord playing has resulted in a “harpsichord language” that is largely disconnected from any other musical schemes. The language is disconnected from the larger world because those who speak it really don’t speak other languages; experience other music; go to hip-hop performances, listen to bluegrass. Because they don’t know black people, because they don’t know diversity—many harpsichordists only know about food from the wealthy Dutch harpsichordists of the 1960s who supposedly knew about wine because they knew about the harpsichord.

What is there to admire about any scheme of musicianship which has been confined to a narrow portion of Northern Europe, and prides itself on excising itself of the Enlightenment to become more “objective”? How is that objective or historical in the least? Was the Enlightenment so bad? The Enlightenment freed slaves, the Enlightenment gave equal rights to women!

In my mind, every cultural experience sheds light on your music making. When you say that new information does not change how you look at things, that’s not objectivity—it’s conservatism.

Most people see the early music movement as having a lot of progressives in its ranks from the 1960s onwards.

Sure, you get videos and pictures of shoeless Dutch musicians standing around without a conductor. But this isn’t a form of activism or even iconoclasm if the people on stage have set up a scheme of exclusion. It’s play politics, like many trends of the 1960s. One of my favorite quotes by composer Morton Feldman is “Pop Art is Socialist Realism for white people.”

You’ve talked about race and nationality, but what implications do such trends have in terms of class?

There’s a certain pride taken in being “anti-professional.” It’s ironic because more often than not, European orchestras choose their members democratically, while early music ensembles serve to exhibit their conductors’ stances on various minuscule performance issues. This isn’t politically progressive in the least, but is part of the mindset among musicians who pride themselves on not having to make a living off of what they do. It’s not dissimilar to the increasing trend to applaud Byron over Dickens, because Byron was “free from economic constraints” while Dickens had to count his words in order to meet his publishers’ needs.

But aren’t harpsichords rather rare? And expensive?

Yes, but having money doesn’t mean you can’t be aware of what it means to be different, or even iconoclastic. Having funky hair or playing a little bit of jazz doesn’t make you iconoclastic if your harpsichord playing is perfectly orthodox. These people can perfectly well talk about harpsichords at 200 Hz and certain types of quill plectra and matters of left hand articulation, but they say that anyone who doesn’t [focus on these details] is pandering. Harpsichordists of this type are able to decry someone for being unique because they don’t have to be—they don’t have to live and support themselves off their art.

Do you see it as important to break down these barriers?

Yes. For too long, since the World War II, this instrument has been monopolized by a narrative which is exclusionary. I promise that I will do my best to challenge that. ¶