For we are all, like swimmers in the sea,
Poised on the top of a huge wave of fate,
Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.
And whether it will heave us up to land,
Or whether it will roll us out to sea,
Back out to sea, to the deep waves of death,
We know not, and no search will make us know;
Only the event will teach us in its hour.
The Shahnameh (Tales Of Kings) is the poem by Ferdowski from around 1000AD which interweaves the history and myths of Greater Iran in its 60,000 verses. One section of the epic poem is devoted to the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab, in which a young warrior of mixed Tartar/Persian descent goes into battle against the Persians. He ultimately comes up against his own father, who does not recognise him as his own, and who mortally wounds him with a spear. It is a tale which has obvious attractions for the displaced, the unwanted, those who do not belong. It was turned into an opera by Loris Tjeknavorian, a man who was born in Armenia, and who spent his formative years in Iran, but then exited pre-Revolution to live in Austria and the US. The latest artist signed to Touch is a twenty-six year old unquiet heart from Tehran named Sohrab, after the character from Ferdowski’s poem. Touch say that he “like so many, is displaced within his own country and occupies a similar internal cultural isolation”. The intolerance of musical performance in Iran in particular – his only gig prior to a recent Touch-sponsored event in Berghain being broken up by the Iranian police – understandably make Sohrab feel that he does not belong there. In fact, while he managed to assemble the album there, he is no longer in Iran, having since been geographically displaced to Berlin, where he is claiming political asylum.
The whole issue of Sohrab’s displacement inevitably takes on more significance when you hear his debut release A Hidden Place. As a piece of experimental electronic music, perhaps predictably it doesn’t sound recognisably like the product of Iran. But then again it doesn’t sound much like the product of any particular culture, country or scene. One thing you can say is that it somehow manages to resemble a Touch release or, more accurately, several Touch releases. The combination of field recordings with electronic soundscapes is perhaps most reminiscent of Biosphere, at least Biosphere in Geir Jenssen’s earlier more percussion-free days. Opening track “Susanna” trickles into view like a stream over smooth pebbles, its gently ebbing rhythm gradually being carried into increasingly expansive spaces. However as the piece progresses, odd noises emerge from deep in the mix, noises which sound like garbled snatches of communications, like misfiring mobile phone reception or even glitchy cable TV reception. These feature even more prominently, along with some harsh electronic hum, on “Pedagogicheskaya Poema” a track which is texturally more like BJ Nilsen’s Invisible City, an album which sketched an unidentifiable city through its networks rather than through its inhabitants themselves.
But it isn’t the rhythms or the textures which linger in the mind most: it is the moods, or rather the contrasts between the moods. A Hidden Place is at times quietly optimistic, but more often it feels pessimistic, even threatened. Around each and every neon-lit corner there is a shadow and a tangible mood of fear. The title track is a disconcertingly barren, wind-swept plain, only interrupted half way through by some yelling – perhaps excited, perhaps panicked – voices; the only time that the recognisably human intervenes on this otherwise conspicuously deserted album (the album’s artwork adds to this feeling of abandonment, with its photos of derelict buildings and empty, dark corridors). This isn’t even its most jarring moment: that belongs to the two seconds of scabrous static in the middle of the otherwise merely mildly menacing “Pedagogicheskaya Poema”, two seconds which make little sense in the context of their immediate surroundings, two seconds which feel like they have been excised and dropped in from elsewhere, a sudden and severe displacement which serves to remind the listener that nothing about where this record comes from or is going to can be taken for granted. It could be said that, as a result of all of these sudden switches in mood, A Hidden Place is slightly lacking in a sense of its own identity. But isn’t that, after all, where we came in?
The album finally bleeds onto the shore, scattering birds as it does, with the melancholic, echoing chord progressions of “Zarrin”. However, it is unclear at present where Sohrab will wash up. As I write, he is spending the festive period in a refugee camp in Brandenburg. He possesses some limited freedoms, the means to communicate, and the means to continue making music. What he is not in possession of is his own destiny, his fate being in the hands of the German authorities. I hope for a peaceful ending to to this particular stanza, and that he is able to build on the considerable promise shown in A Hidden Place.
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil’d circuitous wanderer – till at last
The long’d-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.