Mighty voice of Iranian Historical Leader Hassan-i Sabbah Reverberates in Laibach’s Alamut

21. 09. 2022

By Ali Ameri

In Alamut, the new symphonic work by Laibach, the mighty voice of Hassan-i Sabbah, the ‎enigmatic, charismatic founder and leader of the Nizari Ismaili religion in ancient Iran, reverberates ‎from the depth of centuries and finds a vigorous voice rendered by the ever-controversial Slovenian industrial avant-garde ensemble. ‎

The intensity of the show is such that it would be best to let the work sit for some days after viewing while the audio-visual spell lingers, and only then try and offer an impartial judgment of it, particularly when one – like almost all the other attendees of the show – has a justified and strong inclination toward the performance.

Backed by the London-based group a/political, which advocates unconventional, radical art, the Slovenian enfants terribles have collaborated with a group of talented young Iranian musicians, including the composers Nima A. Rowshan and Idin Samimi Mofakham, who joined hands with Laibach’s composer on the project, Luka Jamnik, and performed their symphonic work with an orchestra helmed by the Iranian conductor Navid Gohari.

Structured in ten movements, the show begins with an eerie atmospheric sound, as trumpets seem to announce that something massive and ominous is coming, a sense which is only intensified by violin crescendos, and then we are led creeping into another dark, Laibachian landscape.

The performance crosses the eras from ancient Iran, the land of poetry and wine, where the verses of the poetess Mahsati Ganjavi and quatrains of the philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and poet Omar Khayyam – who I believe was the world’s first existentialist philosopher – flow and are inscribed on screens with the Persian Mo’ala script, which although it has profound ancient artistic and religious roots, was only created in recent decades and has a number of modern features. 

Based on the composers’ aesthetic decisions, Persian musical instruments are not employed, and the Iranian music in the performance is mostly the songs and lullabies sung by the Iranian vocalists Sara Akbari Makouei, Niloofar Nedaei, Tahereh Hezaveh and Mohammad-Hossein Majd Taheri.

Here, the Persian lullabies that have been passed on for generations, and constitute a part of Iranian folklore, remove the dust of time and with their elegiac overtones are sung on the stage of Križanke, Ljubljana to voice the sufferings, sorrows as well as joys of childhood and motherhood, as experienced over the course of several centuries.

The show ends with one of these lullabies, while the Iranian songs also convey the philosophical notions of Khayyam and passionate verses of Mahsati Ganjavi, articulating the desires and torments of houris (maidens) in the Secret Gardens.

On the other side of stage, Milan Fras – Laibach’s bass singer and front man  – uses Hasan to represent yet another massive imposing figure. Here he warns, cautions and offers philosophical conjectures, in such a way that stirs the blood of us Iranians and stimulates our sense of ‎nationalism.

He impersonates a determined, fierce leader, a knowledgeable man, a great tactician who with his sermons, fighting and cunning could liberate at least a part of his country from the domination of foreign occupiers, the Seljuk Turks, and establish a state which lasted almost two centuries after his death.

The visuals are stunning too, as expected from a Laibach show, and this one is one of the best in the entire oeuvre of the band. However, the addition of the Iranian Islamic architecture would perhaps enhance the impressive space of the Alamut show even more. 

Here, the Laibachian motifs are at work again. The auteur theory which was first presented by French film scholars and filmmakers of La Nouvelle Vague in the 1950s, which stresses recurrent themes and motifs in the work of a filmmaker, applies just as well to his remarkable band’s career, in which again and again they shed light on the mechanisms of power, and the machinations of totalitarian establishments.

For this project, I witnessed how the members of Laibach were eager to be informed of ancient Iranian culture, particularly in the 11th century AD, when the real events of Alamut took place. They thus ‎drew on various elements of Iranian art and culture of the 11th and 12th centuries. Furthermore, accompanied by Darko Brlek, the Director of the Ljubljana Festival, they visited the remnants of the ‎Alamut Fortress in the Iranian Qazvin province to obtain a broader ‎grasp of the space and deeper impressions of that era of Iranian history.

When I first listened to the demos of Alamut several months ago, I felt that after some changes the concluded work would be one of the landmarks of Laibach’s career. I suppose Alamut is the band’s most eclectic, most postmodern work, one open to various layers of interpretation, and thus a piece that stands above the mere representation of a historical narrative.

In this pastiche the warriors of Alamut, faceless human figures, spectres on the Earth in the horrific vastness ‎of the universe, face the fascist criminals represented in a Laibachian visual interpretation of Picasso’s Guernica, all in the midst of an ensemble of sixty accordion players at the show, with Khayyam’s mathematical pyramid, unresolved theorems, wandering planets, eternal problems and‎ the never-ending labyrinth of ‎being that always continues….  

Alamut is not Laibach’s first salute to the realm of Iranian art and thought. Their critically acclaimed 2016 album Also Sprach Zarathustra, created for a theatrical ‎production of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‎features the ‎ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra as the protagonist, and once again presents the ‎German ‎philosopher as he introduces his key ideas through the interpretation of the character and remarks of the Iranian ‎prophet. 

Here, the same concept is at play:Laibach’s interpretation of Hassan-i Sabbah is rather faithful to Laibachian notions, which here are influenced by Vladimir Bartol’s Nietzschean concepts, with the writer himself inspired more by the ideas of his mentor, the Slovenian Nietzschean philosopher Klement Jug, than historical facts.

Obviously, the Alamut written by this eminent Slovenian writer is mostly preoccupied with notions of fighting against fascism and the struggles of the TIGR movement, rather than the reality of Alamut and Hassan-i Sabbah, as revealed in historical documents.          

We have many examples of historical figures who appear in art based more on the mindsets of their creators than what the historical texts offer. Spartacus, ‎Napoleon, Danton, Beethoven and Lincoln are only a few examples of such figures presented by artists like Arthur Koestler and Howard Fast, and in cinema by John Ford, Luchino Visconti and Andrzej Wajda, who in many ways differ significantly from the history record. But no matter, as long as a ‎work of art is expressive and coherent, it can justify its breaking of historical facts within ‎the logic of its own narrative. ‎

In Iran, Bartol’s Alamut has already been warmly welcomed. At least three Persian translations of the novel have been published, and a third one, which has been reprinted six times and now is rarely found in bookstores, is a confirmed bestseller.

Earlier at the Alamut press conference held in June in Ljubljana, I said that it is a West-meets-East project which may contribute to bridging the gaps between those two mainstays of civilization, culture and art. Now, with a new phase of the Cold War as well as a real war already underway in Europe, and the concert in Tehran that was supposed to serve as the premiere of Alamut still undecided, we must ask to what extent can such goals still be achieved? Or perhaps it doesn’t matter, since the ever combative Laibach leave no stone unturned in working to achieve their goals, and work with all means to succeed: ” Terrible is the god who guides us‎.”[1] 

[1]. The final couplet in the Meditation II movement of Alamut