If you’re a jazz aficionado, you’ll immediately assume from the cool sound of contra-bass, clarinet-bass and brushed drums that the played track [here] is a west coast jazz from the mid 1950s. The carefully established musical textures and easy-going swing of the piece with some nice urban colorizations only make you more sure.
But take a look at the album cover and you’ll see every guess, except maybe the date, is wrong. Hard to believe, but what you’re listening to is a track by Aminollah Hussein, or André Hossein, the French-Iranian composer, famous enough in France for being the father to the French movie star and director, Robert Hossein.
|Early 20th century in Samarkand|
Not much is known about Hossein’s early life. He was born in 1905 in Samarkand, where his merchant Azari father had migrated to provide a more stable social environment for his family. Since childhood Hossein had a life-long interest in the ancient Persia and Persian culture, and as a part of that he learned to play the tār, an Iranian version of the lute.
Political turmoil in the region led to another migration to Moscow, and again his early musical education was interrupted by the chaos of the revolution, ultimately forcing the Hossein family to immigrate to Europe. Hossein continued studying music in Germany, married a Russian Jew and finally settled in Paris.
The Iranica Online notes Aminollah Hossein as a composer was “much inspired by traditional Persian music,” and his orchestral works are based on the ideas “derived from Persian impressions.” He was certainly a pioneer of the use of Persian musical scales and Persian melodies within the context of western music. Even the title of his numerous compositions, whether symphonies, concertos or ballets, reflect a deep passion for Iran: Symphonie Persepolis (1947), Symphonie Arya (1976), Miniatures Iraniennes (1975) and Sheherezade (1975), even a number of piano pieces based on the poems of Omar Khayyam.
Like the idealized France or America in much of literature, painting and cinema, there is a utopian Iran which only exists in the artist’s imagination and his or her imaginary recollection of a glorious past, a past that possibly never has existed unless in arts. Hossein’s inspirations derive from a romantic conception of Iran as the land of beauty and poetry, in another word, Persia vs. Iran. His attempt to bring Persian music close to the various forms of Western music was partially a search for his identity through what he saw as a cultural exchange between his adopted country and where he was born.
The revival of Hossein’s music in recent years shows how captivatingly the Iranian diaspora, by bringing his music back to concert halls, is trying to locate the same fragmented identity Hossein experienced 70 years ago. It’s as if his long-lasting quest has given Iranians something solid to hang onto. However, if Iranians, by renewing their interest in Hossein and reinterpreting his chamber music as something “Persian,” have made him one of their own, Americans can make a similar claim after listening to his jazz recordings.
How Hossein was exposed to jazz is still not clear, but his prolific film scores show a deep understanding of the history of jazz and a sense of playfulness in recreating both the sound of the past and keeping up with the “modern” trends of the time. He seems pretty much under the influence of people like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis and the French composer/saxophonist Barney Wilen. His son, Robert Hossein, was directing and playing in a series of commercial film noirs, gangster dramas or thrillers in which he combined the elements of the French cinema with the classical Hollywood genres, and more or less, that’s the concept his father followed in writing for the films.[see all the album covers here]
Though Hossein's jazzier film compositions are somewhat predictable, but they are never poor in quality or limited in imagination. In his music, like most of the better known film composers of the 1950s who were employing jazz music in cinema, the instrumentation with muted trumpet, brushed drums, walking bass and the crystal sound of the vibraphone was the sound of alienation and existentialism of the 1950s. On the other hand I would argue that his scores for films such as Le Jeu de la vérité (The Game of the Truth) should have paved the way for the popular “whistling” soundtracks of film composers like Ennio Morricone.
Hossein’s story is one of innovation, flexibility and absorbing various cultural elements, making something very personal and self-reflective out of each trait. Iran plays the role of a lost love throughout his career, a love kept alive by constant reincarnations in the music he composed. His jazz writings may not show any obvious influence from Persian music, but who can ignore the “coolness” of this cosmopolitan Muslim rivaling his contemporary West Coast jazz composers and letting the memory of his beloved country come out of every note?
The playlist I have compiled is a selection of the film music by Hossein for Robert's films, as well as other directors.
two pieces from this film are put back to back
Les Mentuers (1961)
Le jeu de la vérité (1961)
three pieces from this film are put back to back
La Loi des Hommes (1962)
Le Vampire de Düsseldorf (1964)
L'Homme qui Trahit la Mafia (1967)
Une Corde, un Colt (1969)