Tom Faber meets the artists behind SET, a festival championing electronic music in the capital of Iran.
You can't go far on the tangled motorways of Tehran without getting stuck in traffic. It was late July and I was weary from another day of suffocating, 40-degree heat, but as we entered another gridlock, Ata Ebtekar was in a characteristically good mood. A car with two young men pulled up beside us, blasting out Persian hip-hop. Ebtekar turned to look at them, and couldn't resist analysing the acoustics of their vehicle which was rattling ominously. "That's an extremely sustained bass sound," he chuckled. The traffic lights changed and we left them behind, sailing towards a horizon of mountains and construction sites, the sunset turning the blue sky gold.
Ebtekar is one of Iran's most accomplished electronic musicians, and he had something to show me. As night fell we arrived at Azadi Square, the biggest in the capital, where a five-lane roundabout encloses the iconic Azadi Tower. A dramatic arch of blue-veined white marble, both modern and rooted in ancient Islamic design, it looks as if the stone has been swept into a graceful peak by a giant hand. Ebtekar calls the tower "a masterpiece." It's hard to see it and remain unmoved.
Azadi means "freedom" in Farsi. The tower was built under the last Shah in 1971 to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian empire, and has been the backdrop to much of the country's recent history. It was a gathering place for protestors in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and again during the Green Movement of 2009, when hundreds of thousands gathered to protest the contentious reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The tower wears this history lightly. All was peaceful as Ebtekar and I arrived, with fountains leaping and young people snapping selfies. A crowd was gathering to see an audiovisual display by a French artist, which would be projected onto the monument. We sat on stone benches that still radiated heat from the day's sun, and were joined by some of Ebtekar's musician friends. After lengthy introductions in Farsi by the mayor of Tehran, a woman gave a condensed English translation: "We are very excited to introduce this video-mapping performance, a technology which is very new, even in Europe."
After the Iranian and French national anthems, the show began. It was enormously underwhelming. The music was thin and formless. Ebtekar described it as "fifth-rate musique concrète." The visuals reminded me of the Windows 98 screensavers that hypnotised me as a child. There were numerous technical problems. When the performance was over, nobody clapped. They just left.
Ebtekar was pissed. "You have this amazing structure and you're not going to take it to the next level?" he said. "It makes me really angry that the government should spend money on something like this and when Iranians ask for funding we have to go searching at the Goethe Institut. Why not support artists in your own country?"
Even without government funding, a week later Ebtekar, along with a group of like-minded friends, would stage the fourth edition of SET festival, an audiovisual event far more ambitious and successful. They would play dance music in a place where dancing is forbidden. They would explode received notions of what "Iranian music" means. They would do this in collaboration with Berlin's CTM festival, boasting every relevant permission from the authorities. And they would do it in a magnificent concert hall directly underneath Azadi Tower.
Ebtekar's office is in a ten-storey building in central Tehran, built by his architect father 60 years ago. Family photos sit on his shelf, framed next to copies of Ebtekar's music on vinyl and heavy books with names like The Synthesizer and Electronic Music And Sound Design. In another room are two cabinets that still hold his father's architectural sketches. Ebtekar is 46, his dark hair and beard turning grey from the bottom up. He has the demeanour of a friendly teacher with a sly sense of humour—because that's what he is. When he's not working on music or touring, he teaches students how to produce on Ableton in this office.
Though his roots are in Iran, Ebtekar has lived most of his life abroad. Born in Hamburg, he spent his early childhood in Iran before his family moved back to Germany. There his early obsession with the strange sounds of '80s pop led him to start a teenage band who would practise covers of Front 242, Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb. At 17 he moved to California, where he got seriously into music production and secured his first major release, Electric Deaf, on Warp Records in 2002 under the name Sote. In Farsi, sote simply means "sound."