Santour master and contemporary composer Kourosh Zolani’s works are shaped by history, and represent his lifelong attempt to harness and ultimately reconcile the tension between opposites. Utilizing eastern motifs and western harmonies, he strives to bridge the gap between comfort and change, belonging and self-expression, timeless tradition and contemporary possibility. Zolani’s orchestral compositions for the Santour embody a distinctly contemporary approach to an age-old musical tradition. Little known outside of Iran, the Santour is the predecessor of a number of hammered string instruments, including the modern Piano. The composer has performed his innovative works in venues as diverse as Washington’s Kennedy Center and the Roman ruins at Jerash.
Born to a traditional farming family in the remote mountain village of Sangesar, Zolani grew up speaking Sangsari, an ancient, endangered dialect of Sanskrit whose very existence is little known even within his native Iran. He was born during a time of great cultural change, during which his previously isolated village began integrating into the broader culture of contemporary Iran. This cultural ferment exposed him to the novelties of running water, electricity, and contemporary Iranian culture, and introduced him to the timeless grandeur of the Persian classical repertoire. While retaining an abiding love for his roots, he began to avail himself of the expanded horizons offered by classical Persian music.
His musical journey eventually took him far from his sleepy home to the bustle of Tehran. There, he perfected his craft under several of Iran’s leading Santour luminaries, and learned the principles of classical Persian and Western composition. After maturing under the mentorship of his elders, young Zolani started to develop his own, more contemporary voice as a composer. As he continued to grow, he began to compose pieces that exceeded the technical capabilities of the instrument he had spent half a lifetime to master. To accommodate the demands of his intricate compositions, he created a new chromatic version of the Santour, which had remained unchanged for centuries. In addition to expanding his range of expression as a soloist, Zolani’s innovative design allowed him for the first time to incorporate western orchestral accompaniment into his pieces.
In 2002, Kourosh relocated to Los Angeles, were he has continued to compose new orchestral and solo works. To augment his classical training, the composer soon attended UCLA’s film scoring program. This experience left him keenly interested in musical texture and mood, lending a distinctly cinematic quality to his recent works. Around this time, Zolani also adopted an increasingly experimental approach to composition, and quickly found that his musical vision had surpassed the technical capabilities of his signature chromatic Santour. In order to redefine the instrument once again, he enlisted the help of friend and serial inventor Mohssen Behrad. In its current form, the Behrad & Zolani Santour allows for an even greater expressive range than his original chromatic Santour, due to a new mechanical tuning system that allows for live tuning and key changes. These improvements have allowed Zolani to seamlessly fuse elements of multiple western orchestral genres with the percussive, dazzling power of the piano’s ancient eastern ancestor.