Iran’s Majesty and Decay: An Interview With Sote

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon.

Tehran’s Sote aka Ata Ebtekar and I go back over a decade. I was already a big fan of Persian Electronic Music: Yesterday And Today 1966 – 2006 (Sub Rosa, 2008) when Ebtekar reached out to me about a potential cassette release on my then label, Digitalis. It was one of those dream submissions and Sonic Within was released. His work has only grown denser, more expansive, and memorable since.

2020’s MOSCELS is one of the great albums from the last decade with its intricate corridors and impossible textures. I’ve listened to it dozens of times and it continues to reveal new aspects of itself. Last month, he released Majestic Noise Made in Beautiful Rotten Iran, his rawest, most intense album yet. Intense and cathartic, it’s an album the commands listener’s focus as it blitzes through eight cleansing tracks. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to ask Ebtekar more about it and the paths he took to get there.

Majestic Noise Made in Beautiful Rotten Iran is out now on Sub Rosa. Sote can be reached via his website. He also runs the Zabte Sote label which focuses on experimental music from Iranian composers and can be found HERE.

First things first, how are you and your family holding up after these last two years? 

We’ve been OK for the most part. However, the combination of the pandemic and sanctions against the Iranian people has been crippling and disastrous. So, our general psychological state is not super positive. However, the only way forward is to be hopeful and productive in order to provide a sane and serene family environment.

Okay, since I’ve been a fan of your work for so long and, full disclosure for readers, worked together many, many years ago on a tape release, I’ve often wanted to ask you about how you got started and all that, which is typically how I like to start interviews anyway. So first off, what are some of your earliest memories of music and sound growing up?

Since childhood, I was attracted to unusual sounds in early 80s pop music. I had no idea what synthesizers were at that time, but I was drawn to their sounds and would keep rewinding my cassette player to the parts that sounded most out there. I was not interested in the verses and choruses, but in the overall soundscapes and sonic mood of the music.

And from there, how did that interest grow and develop into you starting to learn to play and compose music?

Three years after the Iran-Iraq war, my family decided that it would be in my best interest to move to Germany. (I was born in Germany but lived in Tehran until the age of 11). In Germany, during my early teenage years, I shifted from listening to pop groups such as Duran Duran and Culture Club to Depeche Mode, The Cure, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb.

In high school, I along with two other friends started a band, initially, covering and performing songs from the groups I mentioned and then eventually doing our own original material with synths, keyboards, cassette players (as samplers), and found objects (as drums and percussion). We made instrumental electronic music without having heard of or knowing anything about Techno, but in actuality, it was very close to it. 

Fast-forward to the end of the 80s, again because of family matters, I moved to the United States and concurrently electronic dance music exploded in Europe. So, had I stayed in Germany and continued with my band, I might have become a completely different type of electronic music artist…

In California, my taste developed more and more toward extreme experimental music. I decided to change my major from pre-dental to sound arts and eventually years later, I taught electronic music and other sound-related classes at a small private sound art college before moving back to Iran eight years ago.

The new album really hit me emotionally. In describing it, you talk about how personal the album is and how it even veers into self-therapy territory. I definitely think that comes through, but I wonder in what ways making this album has helped you and what it was about this process that was different from previous works that steered you into this space?

It was created in the past two years during the pandemic and towards the end of Trump’s presidency. I had been bombarded with various political and social matters, constantly thinking of and experiencing the downfall of humanity.

On many occasions during the initial composition period, I found myself in deep sorrow, to the point of crying while creating the music. So, I took this state of being and decided to make a ‘personal’ album without worrying about a specific concept.

Once this decision was made, I found out that I was feeling much better post recording sessions. And I took it even further by consciously creating melodies, harmonies, and patterns that would help me with emptying loads of gloomy emotions. 

Majestic Noise Made in Beautiful Rotten Iran is an amazing album title. It says so much, but why did you decide to call the album this?

Because it’s the perfect summary of what this album means to me. Sonically, I wanted to make noise in the most sublime and musical way. 

The phrase ‘made in’ is used as a protest because anything produced in Iran would/could fall under sanctions.

I was born in Germany and I’ve spent most of my life in North America and Europe, but Iran’s beauty has always filled up my heart in a very nourishing manner. Unfortunately, despite all its amazing and wonderful features, it is literally decaying before our eyes on a daily basis…

I’m still having a hard time pinpointing this, but the synthesis techniques on Majestic Noise seem more out there in some ways, or maybe more visceral. What new ideas and techniques were you using with this record?

You’re absolutely right about it being more visceral compared to my past work.  

My approach to synthesis on this album was definitely more instinctual than technical because my priority happened to be channeling my feelings onto the actual compositions rather than the process to get there. The techniques utilized (FM, physical modeling, additive, subtractive, wavetable, and granular) were pretty much the same as my album MOSCELS with the addition of spectral synthesis this time around.

The new record is on Sub Rosa, a label you’ve done many projects with through the years. I’ve always been curious how you connected with them and how it worked out that this new record was released on the label?

The double album Persian Electronic Music – Yesterday and Today 1966-2006 by me and Alireza Mashayekhi was the reason I got in touch with them because they were probably the only label doing serious anthologies of early electronic, experimental, and noise music in the early 2000s.

So when I compiled Mr. Mashayekhi’s early electronic music to be on one disc and my own work of Persian electronic music on the other, I proposed the project to them and they immediately accepted it and the rest is history. Upon completion of this new album, I sent it to several places and got five different release offers from some wonderful labels, but Sub Rosa was the quickest and could offer me a relatively fast release date…

I have to ask about MOSCELS quickly because it’s honestly one of my favorite records from the past decade. I listen to it and I always think it has this childlike wonder to it in the sense that you created these sounds and combined them in ways that feel limitless, the way a kid’s imagination has no boundaries. But then you do that in such a refined and elevated way. It’s truly incredible to me. So I just wanted to ask, what was the idea that set you off down the path that became MOSCELS, and what were you going for when you were composing it?

Thank you very much. It means a lot to me. MOSCELS is very dear to me also.

Unfortunately, it was overlooked probably due to the pandemic. However, when Peter Rehberg (Pita) chose it as one of his favorite albums of the year in 2020 (before his passing), it was such an important reassurance for me to get his stamp of approval. I believe he along with Daniel Miller (founder of Mute) are the most important label curators of our time concerning quality electronic music. And this is why I dedicated this new album to him by the way. I truly miss him.

Anyway, MOSCELS is a made-up word, which is the combination of (physical) Models & Oscillators. As the name implies, it is an all electronically generated work. There are no acoustic instruments utilized, and it is mostly with physical modeling, FM, and wavetable synthesis techniques.

My main focus was on the harmonic and melodic content of the musical composition via calculated sonic interwoven layering and thinking of an imaginary electronic orchestra. Technically, I didn’t want to use any acoustic instrumentations like my previous two electro-acoustic projects (Sacred Horror In Design & Parallel Persia). I also didn’t want to do synthetic rhythmic material like my previous works such as Hardcore Sounds From TehranArchitectonic, or Arrhythmia.

I chose the name MOSCELS because I simply liked the sound of it, plus the pronunciation is the same as ‘muscles’, which can be symbolic of many things, both positive and negative.

The compositions were geared toward the balance of dark and light harmonies and melodies. I purposefully went for a very harmonic musical structure in parallel with controlled dissonance. 

The fact that we always have to deal with big boys’ masculinity who rule the world and are damaging it in a very serious manner, played a role in the music. Muscles would remind us of masculinity, which could be problematic when dealing with chauvinism and bigotry. And I would think about these matters on a daily basis prior to and during the writing. I was going through an emotional rollercoaster constantly thinking, it’s all about who is stronger and who can bully who. Who can oppress who… It seemed nobody could do anything about it anymore. Nothing was under the table anymore. Everything was all straight up in your face, with no shame. 

It was plain sad and scary.

Muscles represented oppression, but they can represent beautiful things too, such as health, life, growth, and progress. Oscillators, to me, represented life, flow, sound, beauty, and continuity. They could also represent repetition and the cycle of life.

Anyway, this is where I was at when working on MOSCELS

How do you differentiate the work under your own name vs. Sote? Are any new non-Sote solo works or collaborations coming up? Think there will ever be any other collaborative work with Mazdak Khamda?

There is no difference between the names as they’re both me. 

I’m working on three new projects at the moment consisting of all electronic, electro-acoustic, and yes, one big project with Mazdak Khamda along with additional amazing musicians, but I need funding for it to be able to properly do it.

You’ve also dipped your toe into the NFT world recently and minted some of your own works. How has that experience been for you and what do you see as the upsides of it? It’s still a world that I can’t get my head around!

I look at web3 as an opportunity for reform and a possible new balance worldwide. A path to decentralization is attractive on its own, but it will also challenge and force powerful institutions (private and governmental) to rethink their ways of handling matters. 

We’re in need of power distribution in all areas of society and I think this could eventually happen via blockchain technologies. I still haven’t found a functional way to present my art through NFTs, but I’m looking and I don’t want to be negative against it just because I haven’t found an answer yet…

What’s happening with Zabte Sote right now? I am continually floored by the great music coming out of Iran and from Iranian ex-pats. I think this is the sixth interview I’ve done since Foxy Digitalis came back last year with an Iranian artist and I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface.

Zabte Sote has been on temporary hold due to the state of the music industry and its effects on small labels. Opal Tapes who kindly supported me with the label because I couldn’t do any physical format production and shipping being based in Iran due to sanction related matters has been forced to rethink its own way of existing, and unfortunately, we will not be able to work together from this point on. 

I am definitely continuing with Zabte Sote. I just have to figure out how to do it from within Iran. I may have to bypass cassette tape production for a while and go all digital…

Zabte Sote’s purpose and main goal has always been to provide exposure to the lesser-known Iranian experimental electronic artists to the international music community. 

I still get contacted by so many talented artists for advice or as pure label submissions, and I think I can help a little by releasing music that truly moves me via putting the word out to my best ability as well as using other methods such as curating label showcases in festivals all over the globe, as well as introducing artists to international event promoters like I’ve been doing in the past several years.   

Let’s end on a positive note… What are you most hopeful about in 2022?

I can’t say I’m hopeful about humanity, but I believe everything happens in cycles…

Hopefully, 2022 falls into a new positive and lengthier period so, we can take a break from all the bullying, deaths, and pandemic-related matters and focus on progress and improvement in general.

I’m always hopeful about my family and our experiences together.

I can’t wait to present my work in a live context as an audiovisual show with Tarik Barri as well as pure audio performances on amazing sound systems.

I’m working on new Zabte Sote projects with some new fantastic artists as well as a couple of label showcases around Europe…  

And finally, I’m looking forward to new exciting electronic music from all corners of the world.

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon.