Dinner with Sote

Dinner with Sote

Written By:

Dragoș Rusu

Published:

December 26, 2018

In September 2018, the Iranian experimental musician Ata Ebtekar, known on the music scene as Sote, presented his new live project Sacred Horror In Design (along with Tarik Barri, Arash Bolouri and Behrouz Pashaei) during Outernational Days 3. Their mind-blowing audio/video performance took place at Control Club on Sunday, September 23.

We were lucky enough to spend a few more days with Ata, while in Bucharest, so we organised a home-made dinner at a friend’s apartment and got to talk for hours about Iranian music, his new record label Zabte Sote, how the project Sacred Horror In Design was born and much more.



If music is about tradition, if music is about these habits, then it’s just a matter of getting used to this kind of new music. Who knows, maybe some time in the future this will count as traditional music.

2. Sacred Horror In Design

Photo credits: Arash Bolouri
Photo credits: Arash Bolouri

Dragoș: We would like to learn some more about the project Sacred Horror In Design. How did you come up with it? How did you envision it at first?

Ata 'Sote' Ebtekar: If you know a little bit about my musical history, this is not the first time that I’m doing electronic music with Persian elements. I have the album called Dastgaah and the album called Persian electronic music: yesterday and today 1966-2000 that was published as a double album with Alireza Mashayekhi, a pioneer of contemporary music in Iran. And there is Ornamental, an electro-acoustic album I made in collaboration with him and his orchestra, which consists of musicians using Iranian instruments and Western orchestral instruments. Basically, I have done a bunch of projects that involve Persian music. Sacred Horror In Design is not the first project of this kind.

I tried avoiding going into an Iranian themed project for a long time, because I considered that I didn’t really have anything to say anymore. I usually don’t like to repeat myself with any project. Some people don’t care about this, but for me it’s very important that whenever I work on music, it has to be something that was not produced before. Something new, something that I would like to listen to, that I cannot purchase, because it doesn’t exist.

Laura: How do you know something doesn’t exist?

Sote: You’re right. Maybe I should rephrase. Something that I have not heard before.

Laura: Because this is a recurrent question for me too; the one about the vast-volume of music that’s out there.

Sote: Of course, especially now that there’s internet and it’s much easier to search for music. So yeah, it has to be something that I haven’t heard before.

Laura: In theory, all the information that we absorb, from when we are born until the present, is stocked there somewhere, or somehow, in our brains. And we use this information in different manners. It’s a probably a sum of everything that has influenced you over the years.

Sote: Precisely. But when you talk about a composition, it does come out from all of that. But let’s say, if I had a sister close to my age, and if both of us happened to be composers, would we make the same kind of work? I would say definitely no. For me it has to be something that I haven’t heard before, this is still very important to me. It was like this when I was 15 years old, when I started making electronic music, and it is the case today. It’s always my priority, whether I program patterns, design sounds, do synthesis, or compose a complete piece, to come up with something completely unique.

Let’s get back to your question about “Sacred Horror in Design”. A couple of years prior to starting to shape the concept, Iran was a hot topic in the world, due to the nuclear case and reappearing relationship attempt with the West. I didn’t want to exploit that. I hated the idea of using that timing in my favor. I could have exotify many Iranian themed projects for personal profit, and it would make me an immoral famous person. So, even doing an honorable project was a challenge, as I was fighting with the social and political climate of that period. I remember I was talking about this a lot with a bunch of friends back in Iran, and struggling with this ambivalence of doing any Persian influenced work or not.

Fast-forwarding to 2016: I had a solo performance at CTM festival, and during that era I was mostly doing my solo stuff, which I’m still working on. I was trying to get back to my techno and noise roots, without using the conventional formulas of techno and noise music. The album from Morphine Records Architectonic and Opal Tapes’ Hardcore Sounds From Tehran are outcomes of that path of mine.

I remember telling Jan Rohlf from CTM about an idea of an Iranian electro-acoustic project that I had been working on for a while. Eventually, he asked me to do a commissioned work for the next CTM festival. That gave me a big push to focus and concentrate, and to finally stop complaining and being negative about this whole situation of me struggling with not wanting to exploit anything. So, I started thinking and experimenting in a more focused manner. With the albums Dastgaah and Persian Electronic music: yesterday and today, I tried deconstructing traditional Iranian music. I broke all the conventional scales and rules, and I made some new scales, new sounds and new instruments. If music is about tradition, if music is about these habits, then it’s just a matter of getting used to this kind of new music. Who knows...maybe some time in the future this will count as traditional music. I was very serious about that concept.

Dragoș: Was it also a political statement?

Sote: It was more like a statement towards traditional Iranian “purism”. I’m generally against all “purists” notions. “Oh, we can’t touch the traditional scales... “. It was more about that. With Sacred Horror In Design, the idea was to keep the tradition, to keep untouched, unprocessed and not deconstructed the Iranian scales and the spaces between the notes and the actual sounds. And then compose electronics, contemporary high-end sound design and synthesis, and have these two be at an equal value, be in harmony, and without overpowering one or the other. That was the concept and the challenge. So, when you listen, at times, you cannot tell what’s synthetic and what’s acoustic. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. And even if there is processing involved, keeping the Iranian elements intact is essential.

Dragoș: What about the visual dimension of the project? Did it come later on or was it there from the beginning? It’s so immersive!

Sote: It looks like it’s part of it, right?

Dragoș: It’s like an additional instrument.

Sote: Exactly! This started as a commissioned audio/visual project for CTM festival. It later became an album. I met Tarik Barri in Berlin. Jan sent him my music and he liked it. I remember going to his place with Jan at some point and talking about this. I started making the music by myself and later on asked Arash Bolouri and Behrouz Pashaei to join the team. I would send Tarik bits and pieces online, and he would start working on them and send back material. Ten days before the premiere, Arash, Behrouz and I went to Berlin, and we pretty much stayed together in the same place for a week. The major part of the work was done already, but that was an important period to make everything come together.

Yesterday (e.n. Outernational Days 3) the audience was great! With this project we usually perform in bigger venues, bigger halls, with a bit of a distance from the audience. But at Club Control, they were right there in front of us! We really felt that. They were so reactive and they gave us a lot of energy. It was good, it was awesome!

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3. The Contemporary Iranian Scene

Photo credits: Arash Bolouri
Photo credits: Arash Bolouri

Dragoș: You were telling me earlier about Zabte Sote, the label that you recently started. Can you give some insights about this?

Sote: This is something that I’ve been planning to do for a long time. I’ve always wanted to have a label that can be a platform for Iranian experimental musicians. I encountered some problems in the process, in the past 5 years since I moved to Iran. Sadly, I wouldn’t be able to make any international transactions with the banks due to the sanctions against Iran. Also, the unreliability of postal service in Iran would be a major issue as well, and it would be almost impossible for me to start a label. I didn’t want it to be just an online label. I wanted to have a proper label with physical releases that I can actually ship internationally. So, this was on hold for a while.

Recently, after the two releases on Opal Tapes, I developed a friendship with Stephen Bishop, the label’s owner. Simultaneously, many Iranian artists were sending me music to listen to, to give them feedback. That was happening more and more often, and in the surrounding area of the “scene”, I would see these people making this amazing music. So, I thought that this should definitely happen. Plus there were many Iranians living all over the world making experimental electronic music. So, I realised I have this big network in front of me, and it would be the right time to do something. I decided to write an e-mail to Opal Tapes, with this basic idea that I want to curate a label with my vision and artistic direction. I obviously needed somebody in the Western part of the world to handle the distribution and production for me, because I couldn’t do it from Iran. So I sent him the e-mail, and he responded in less than 5 minutes saying ”Let's do it! When can we start?”. I thought that it would take several months, because he has already many projects going on. But his positive attitude and wonderful energy made the whole thing come together rather quickly. Overall, Zabte Sote to me could also be a sign of peace and hope for Iranian composers working towards a “scene” for experimental electronic music and getting their work heard by an international audience.

Aurel: You're mentioning the contemporary music scene in Iran. What about the past 10 or 20 years ago?

Sote: Thirteen years ago, I moved from Northern California to Tehran for the first time, with the intention of starting a scene or spreading the word of experimental electronic music to the local people. And to be honest I moved back to California after about a year, because I couldn't find anyone making electronic music at that time. The artists active today were still in their bedrooms trying things out and learning. And I think it’s a beautiful thing that most of those people are on the first Zabte Sote release, which is a compilation called Girih: Iranian Sound Artists. They're very literate and self-educated in the field of electronic music They didn't just download a software and started copying Western producers.

In my opinion, one of the most important things about electronic music is knowing the history; what happened in Detroit, Berlin or London, with various movements, with IDM, jungle, drum n bass, drone, noise, academic music etc. Knowing the theory or listening superficially is not enough. And if you talk to these new Iranian artists, they know about that stuff, and that's why their music feels right. It’s authentic. It takes years for this to happen, but right now the scene is growing really fast, and it's growing roots.

Fortunately, the social and political situation has been loosening. At first artists had to perform underground, in houses. Then they moved into coffee shops, but without permits, because in Iran you have to get a permit in order to perform publicly. However, because of the loosening of the cultural situation in Iran and because of the reformed system, young artist have had the opportunity to perform more often than ever before in their life time. When I moved back to Tehran five years ago, we started talking about doing something, the whole coffee shop thing turned into small theater black box events. One important factor is that from the beginning we didn't want to do an underground thing. We wanted to do it by the book with an official permit so, it could survive on a long term.

Aurel: Were the authorities responsive?

Sote: Yes. I mean, we are lucky that we are doing experimental electronic music without any words. As long as there are no words they don't have to worry about any political stuff. We’re not dealing with dance music either, so we can have performances in seated venues. Even if some events are at standing venues, the government doesn't have to worry about anybody dancing due to the nature of the music we’re mostly dealing with. These activities gives hope to the young generation who six or seven years ago wouldn’t have been able to participate in such events. Now it's possible to start a small organization, a small festival and ask for event permits. When we started our artist-run festival SET Fest, a lot of Iranians we're asking us ”How did you do it? Did you really get a permit? This crazy experimental music gets an official permit?”. And that gave a lot of people motivation to go and do it themselves as well. Events still get cancelled though. But not only in electronic music. It happens with traditional music too. Even for the best-known traditional musicians it has happened that the night before the concert, or on the evening of the concert, the government shuts the whole thing down. Sometimes it's corruption involved, sometimes it's competition. But it doesn't mean that people will stop.

4. Tehran

Photo credits: Arash Bolouri
Photo credits: Arash Bolouri

Laura: Did you have musicians in the family? You grew up with music around you?

Sote: No. My parents were not musicians, but definitely appreciated music and art. My uncle is an Iranian poet (Amir Houshang Ebtehaj aka Sayeh) and pretty much a living legend among Iranians. So, art was definitely an accepted and essential part of our family.

Dragoș: Did you see the movie Raving In Iran?

Sote: I didn't see it, I don't want to see it. To me it looks like a propaganda movie, focusing on negative things. I focus more on the positive things and working within the limits to change something on the long term. There is already propaganda from the Western media against Iran. I'm not saying ”Let's lie about the problems in our country”, but I don't think films like that are constructive. There is some truth in them, for sure. But the way they present subject matters to the audiences that have no idea of what's going on is not so positive. They watch such movies and get a distorted version of what's going on.

Irina: The propaganda element in this movie lies in these two DJs who are coming to Europe and they see it as the land of freedom.

Sote: Now it's easier for people to travel outside of Iran, because after the revolution, during the war and even for some years after, it was very hard for regular people to travel. Not that the country was completely closed, but now there are a lot of European tourists coming in and a lot of Iranians traveling to Western countries. Both this circumstance and the internet have an influence on the movement as well.

Irina: Was it a political movement that allowed this?

Sote: The political reform, yes. It happened about 10-12 years ago. But for the last 5-6 months things are getting bad for Iran; the financial situation is collapsing. The Iranian rial has lost huge value. The dollar/euro value has quadrupled in the last few months. Regular prices are going up too, from milk, to fruit, to goods, to toilet paper. And it's going up by the day. And it seriously looks like war time. There's no actual war, but this is how it feels.

It's not like I'm negative, it's just that I don't know what will happen anymore. Before, I could say everything is moving towards a positive direction, that Tehran is going to be a hub for experimental electronic music in that region, and I still believe that. But I can't honestly say that everything is going to be alright. Everybody thought that Trump is going to attack Iran, and he didn't. He had a surprise, and this was his surprise... And it's working. And I don't believe that it's only him or the US government. We all feel that it has to come from within Iran too. Somehow, many sides are involved in all this.

Dragoș: Do you play often in Tehran?

Sote: Yes.

Aurel: What kind of audience is coming to your shows there?

Sote: All kinds, which is a super cool thing. A wide range of age groups from all sorts of backgrounds come to our shows.The first time I performed in Iran I was ready to clear the room or to be thrown at objects in worst case scenario. But it was one the most positive experiences out of all my performances. After the show, people came up to me and were thankful, and these were people that had never heard not only experimental, but they had never heard electronic music before. They were so positive about it and were appreciative of the experience, and they kept coming back to other events. I think that is part because of the music being interesting, and them being exposed to something new. Especially for Iranians, who's country was closed for such a long time. On the other hand, I believe this is partly because Iranians have a deep connection with arts and culture from centuries ago. Whether it is poetry, calligraphy, painting or architecture, Iranians are big art lovers. So, to them now, experimental sound is an exciting thing.

Irina: Are the events big?

Sote: Anything from 50 people to 300 people. But experimental electronic music is like that in San Francisco too. The first one in 2015 was 80 to 100, but we did four nights of sold out shows in a row.

5. Segaah (Live at CTM 2017)

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and editor in chief of The Attic, as well as artistic director of Outernational Days festival in Bucharest, and allround music adventurer.

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