Ostad Elahi considered music as an essentially spiritual phenomenon and a tool for establishing a connection between the soul and the Source.
One should not limit music to a purely esthetic use nor solely take into account its formal aspects; rather, one should seek to hear those true sounds of music. Music should be considered as a means for establishing a spiritual connection, not as a goal in itself.
Although music does possess formal and esthetic dimensions that can be accessed through hard work and perseverance, it also has a spiritual dimension from which its profound effect originates. According to Ostad Elahi, among the elements of music that impact the soul is the personality of the artist, who naturally strives to master the technical aspects and execution of the music. At the same time, however, the artist should also try to assimilate the music to the point that he is not constrained by it and can freely hear and transmit the “true sounds of music.”
If music is played in its original spiritual state, a connection will be realized with the Source.
Ostad Elahi’s music has a unique structure that does not fit the mold of that which is taught in musical academies. He built the foundation of his music on a tradition that is several thousand years old and rivals the antiquity of classical Persian music. Using remnants of the limited but solid framework of the Ahl-e Haqq tradition and classical Persian music, the foundation he built is such that without sufficient concentration one cannot at times detect any traces of those underlying traditions. There can be no doubt that if the music of the Ahl-e Haqq had remained in its same simple and rudimentary state it would have been lost in the formidable onslaught of other musical styles.
Perhaps out of a sense of gratitude, then, Ostad Elahi based his music on that tradition, or perhaps he observed an authenticity and depth in their simple and basic melodies that bore the potential for the construction of such a solid and vast edifice upon them. So much did he expand upon this music that his compositions at times appear to be independent from their underlying framework. Thus, one can neither say that Ostad Elahi’s music is independent of its origins nor that it is completely dependent on it; rather, much like his innovative spirituality, in the realm of music he has also extracted both the quintessence of sacred music and its authentic and powerful traditional roots.
In the last few years of his life, after he had retired from the judiciary and settled in Tehran, his musical reputation began to slowly spread among experts in the field as great musical connoisseurs and artists discovered his music. One of them, a well-known musical master by the name of Musa Ma’rufi, wrote a detailed article explaining the profound impact of this music upon him, without mentioning Ostad Elahi by name.
I heard the tanbur of a great spiritual man who had achieved perfection in this art. His music so overwhelmed me that I felt as though I no longer belonged to this world. More astonishing still was that this music intoxicated me for several days and caused me to turn inward, to the point that I no longer paid any attention to the material world. When I finally returned to my normal state, I asked myself: ‘How strange, if this is music, then what is that which we hear daily?’
Ma’rufi’s article sparked the curiosity of other experts, and from then on renowned artists and musicologists—both Iranian and European—sought to visit Ostad Elahi and hear him play. For example, Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist and musical virtuoso, went to see Ostad Elahi in the 60s. Astonished by what he had heard, he later relayed the following in an interview in 1995:
This extraordinary musician was able to maintain a tension and concentration that I never imagined possible in the limited interval of a fourth or a fifth . . . it seemed extraordinary to me that one’s musical interest could be maintained within the scope of such a narrow interval. Never had I heard anything like it; it is the first time that I experienced such an effect. Never had I experienced a musical piece that stayed within the interval of a fourth for at least half an hour! It was very sensitive, very powerful music, and at the same time very precise and pure. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, its refined power, exactly like some sort of laser. . . .
Similarly, the renowned French choreographer and ballet director Maurice Béjart traveled to Iran in 1973 to render several ballets at the Shiraz Arts Festival. During this trip, he went to visit Ostad Elahi to hear his music. Afterwards he said:
Ostad Elahi was an extraordinary musician. He never played in public, nor did he ever make any recordings of his music or play for anyone other than those who were close to him. He played for me and truly opened a doorway to me. It is through music that I understood. . . . Ostad Elahi did not speak French, and I did not speak Persian. He played music . . . and I cannot convey through words what I lived or experienced . . . this encounter induced a great change in my life, in my existence, and in my thought.
Other musicians and music enthusiasts have also provided testimonials regarding the profound impact of Ostad’s music on them and its combination of incomparable technique and spiritual inspiration. Dr. Taghi Tafazzoli, a scholar and Director of the Iranian Parliamentary Library, was among Ostad Elahi’s admirers and visited him often. The following is his description of one of the gatherings he attended with Ostad Elahi’s family members and a few close friends:
Ostad Elahi began to play . . . in the semi-darkness of the room I could distinguish the heads of the participants swaying as they were joining his chant and repeating the words. These sounds and movements added to the fervor of the gathering and plunged everyone into a state of ecstasy and joy. The sound of the tanbur became fuller and more passionate, producing an amazing rhythm that resonated throughout the entire room. In the semi-darkness, one could trace shifting lines that would ripple and come together. Some were raising their hands and swinging them in a rhythmic manner. It was no longer an agitation, but a raging sea. An incredible fervor had taken hold of us . . . but the state of Ostad himself was even more marvelous. In the twilight of the room, his face was marked with an extraordinary splendor: he resembled a captain at the helm of a ship caught in a storm, intent on returning it safely to harbor. Then the music stopped. For a few moments, nobody could say a word and there was sheer silence. The atmosphere of the room was luminous and bathed in spirituality; it was a strange and ineffable state . . . a sweet scent lingered over the gathering.
Certain pieces of Ostad’s music are so complex that attempts to transcribe them have proven futile. Ruhollah Khaleqi, the Director of the National Academy of Music, visited Ostad Elahi a few times during the 50s to listen to his music. After several such visits, he decided to transcribe some of Ostad Elahi’s melodies, but soon admitted that the intricacies of the tanbur and in particular Ostad Elahi’s playing style were incapable of transcription, thus relinquishing his efforts. Later, in his book The Story of Persian Music, Khaleqi wrote the following about Ostad Elahi’s tanbur:
In the old days there were two kinds of tanbur: the tanbur of Khorasan and the tanbur of Baghdad. This lute featured two strings and was played using a pick with the fingers of the right hand; it is regularly played in Kurdistan today. Even in Tehran, one of the honorable judges who may not wish me to cite him by name plays this lute with the utmost proficiency and performs the ancient Kurdish melodies (which merit a separate discussion altogether) with absolute beauty. The names of these melodies are in pure Persian, and bear little resemblance to our contemporary music.