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Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976)

In 1976, when then-32-year-old Iranian filmmaker, poet, and painter Mohammad Reza Aslani asked the composer Sheyda Gharachedaghi to score his debut feature, Chess of the Wind, he sent her tapes of traditional mourning music from the Bushehr province of southern Iran. Aslani heard in this music a hallucinatory quality he wanted for his film—the propulsive drumming of the dammam and senj seemed not just to evoke the spirit of the dead, but indeed to rouse them from their graves. But merely to imitate this music, Aslani told Gharachedaghi, would not be enough. Instead, he asked if she could use her training in Western art music (she had studied at a conservatory in Vienna) to create a new, atonal interpretation, applying techniques of dissonance and seriality onto folkloric instruments to suggest the clashes between tradition and modernity and the spirit and the body—themes he was exploring in his film. Gharachedaghi responded with a score featuring haunting spindly reeds and flutes, prepared piano with thumbtacks pinned onto the hammers so they make the strings sound like a giant oil drum, and the screams of the sheypour, a traditional horn instrument that Gharachedaghi pushed to its absolute extremes—so much so that, the writer Ehsan Khoshbakht notes, its sound in the film evokes both “the howls of a wounded elephant” and “Ornette Coleman visiting a holy shrine in Iran.”

Set in the 1920s, Chess of the Wind takes place almost entirely in a large, resplendent house, where multiple characters from various social classes jockey for power. Sampling as freely from Bresson and Visconti as from Persian philosophy and miniature painting, Aslani’s rigorously formalist vision irked critics at its Tehran premiere, never received an official release, and was subsequently banned after the 1979 Revolution. It was only in 2020, after Aslani’s son miraculously discovered a 35mm print of his father’s lost film in an antiques market on the outskirts of Tehran, that the film was finally able to be appreciated in a new restoration, which played worldwide to great acclaim. Aslani, still in Tehran though relegated to working on commercial documentaries after the film’s fallout, was bowled over by the response. “We can’t say where fate comes from,” he remarked, “but we can say how it was delivered to us.”

The American label Mississippi Records has also helped breathe new life into the film, releasing its soundtrack as a standalone LP. In typical arch-modernist Aslani fashion, however, what’s presented on this release isn’t a faithful reproduction of the original score. It’s an entirely new audio work, assembled in the style of musique concrète by the director, who remixes and reorders music, soundscape, and snippets of dialogue from both Chess of the Wind and Therefore Hangs a Tale (1974), an earlier short.

Gharachedaghi’s music does indeed evoke the work of Coleman (particularly his fabled recordings with the Master Musicians of Joujouka), and Albert Ayler’s ensemble recordings featuring violin, particularly in its technique of extending vernacular instrumentation to levels of pure physical sound. It also clearly references horror-movie scores. This is all the more evident in Aslani’s new mix, where he threads in the sounds of cackling laughter, howling wolves in the night, smashing glass, gunfire, grunts (of pain or pleasure?), and the harsh thuds of bodies rolling down steps. Never too literal, Aslani juxtaposes soundscape and music suggestively, extending and reframing the narrative and philosophical ideas of Chess of the Wind by layering sounds over sounds into a kind of stream-of-consciousness flow. The result is something just as madcap, ambiguous, and avant-garde as the original film was, almost 50 years ago.