SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Toraj Kiaras: Rose Without Thorns - home

Toraj Kiaras

Toraj Kiaras showed great talent and passion for music from an early age. He attended the Academy of Music in Tehran where he studied with Mahmud Karimi and Abdullah Davami.

He made his debut as a singer in Tehran at the age of 23 and went on to perform with the Ministry of Art and Culture ensembles, notably the Saba Ensemble directed by Hosein Dehlavi, and the National Ensemble directed by Faramarz Payvar, whose regular venue was the Roudaki Hall in Tehran. He performed at State visits by foreign dignitaries and royal ceremonial events, and toured Iran, abroad, and performed regularly on televisions with these ensembles.

He also performed at the 1st International Arts Festival of Shiraz in 1967 with the foremost masters of Persian music, and at the same event again in 1968 and 1969. Some of the top musicians he has worked with include Ali Akbar Shahnazi, Faramarz Payvar (santur), Rahmatollah Badi'i (violin and kemanchech), Houshang Zarif (tar), Hasan Nahid (ney), Hosein Tehrani (tonbak), and Mohammad Ismaili (tonbak).

Toraj Kiaras has lived in England since 1989, and since 1992 has taught classical Persian singing at the Department of Music, SOAS, and gives occasional performances in the UK.

A Note on the Dastgah System of Persian Music

Classical Persian music is traditionally sung solo with a single instrument accompanying. It is usually monophonic (there is one line of music), or the instrumentalist may accompany the singer heterophonically (there are two parallel lines of music similar in varying degrees) or in sequence as a form of echo. Much of the performance is unmeasured, with no regularly recurring pattern of accentuation. Improvisation is of the essence in Persian music and is the yardstick of a performer's artistry; the performer is also a composer-in-the-moment, a seeker and a vessel of inspiration.

Since the nineteenth century, Persian music has been organised into twelve modal systems. Of these, seven are called dastgah and five, being considered derivative, are called avaz. Each contains a variety of pieces that convey its mood, emotional landscape, and musical structure and which are usually played in a certain sequence, although in performance some are omitted due to time limitations.

Classical Persian poetry is written in strict metre, the structures of which influence the melodic line of the songs. It is the vocal art par excellence which expresses the mystical yearning of the Sufi poetic vision.

The Instruments


The ney, the instrument with the most association with mysticism in the Islamic world, and an instrument revered by the Sufi dervishes, is found in different forms in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian Art music.

The Persian ney is made of bamboo reed, with seven nodes, five finger-holes and one thumb-hole which produce the basic pitches.


The santur is a box zither of the Middle East, South-East Europe, and South Asia. It is a trapeziform case made of walnut wood, with strings fixed to high pins along one side, and wound round metal wrest-pins on the other, with which the strings are tuned. The strings are played by striking them with two hammers called mezrab, which do not rebound resulting in a controlled tremolo. 

Traditional calls for a delicate and precise tone-quality that is obtained with light hammers of hardwood. Some players wrap the ends of the hammers with felt to soften the impact. 


The tar is a plucked lute of the rebab family. The Iranian instrument, older than those of the Caucasian, is carved from a single block of mulberry wood and has a deep, doubled resonating chamber shaped like a figure '8'. The long neck has a fingerboard covered with bone, usually camel. On the lower skin, a horn bridge supports 6 metal strings.

The strings are plucked with a brass plectrum coated with wax, making possible both subtlety and virtuosity in the playing technique.


The tonbak (also known as the zarb) is the goblet-shaped drum of Iran, known since the early 19th century. It is the main, if not the only, percussion instrument in the Persian classical ensemble. It is made from a single block of mulberry wood, turned, and hollowed out.

The tonbak was originally used only as an accompanying instrument, but its technique was developed to such a degree by the master Hosein Tehrani (1911-76), who extended the range of strokes and sonorities played on the instrument.

The Songs

All the vocal pieces on this recording are sung to poetry by Sa'di, whose poetry has remained known and loved by Persians to the present day. The main poem is:

I love this lamenting moaning, burning,

Rending the heart.... so I'll let it pass

The day, whatever way it may.

O, but once again if I could see

Her face that thrills the soul with joy.

I'll thank till Judgement Day

My star's ascendant sway.

Dissatisfaction is the fate of all

Who want to sate desire's thirst;

The bite and blows of winter all

Must bear with grace, to reach the burst

Of spring's warm equinox.

Those men of reason who reap their wheat

Sheaf by sheaf, who gather up their grain

Are heedless of Layla's mystery, for that's

A gift of grace that Majnun alone knows

From withered fields, his crops burnt up.

Yet lovers who lose their faith

And world forfeit, a certain talent gain back

What puritans amassing rank and riches lack.


Yesterday - Sa'di - long ago fled.

Tomorrow's dead - for it does not yet exist.

Today left to you between this and that,

Is the sole precious commodity.