In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Smart Agriculture
June 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 2
People everywhere rely on agriculture in one form or another – for food, animal feed, fiber, and other necessities. The summer 2022 articles describe precision indoor farming and alternative protein food systems, advances in food processing, genome editing, digitalization, sustainable and regenerative agriculture, the role of a circular economy, and the important role of policy.

An Interview with . . . Shahrokh Yadegari, Electrical Engineer and Composer

Monday, June 13, 2022

Author: Shahrokh Yadegari

RONALD LATANISION (RML): Good afternoon, Shahrokh. Thank you for talking with us. I understand you’re an electrical engineer, but you’ve taken tremendous interest in musical production and modern dance, which clearly go way beyond typical engineering. Tell us a little about your history and how you came to study electrical engineering and then how you made the transition from the engineering world to modern dance and music.

Yadegari.gifSHAHROKH YADEGARI: I’m from Iran. I was in one of the first groups who left in 1979 right after the revolution. I was on the first flight out of Iran because I had all my papers and visa and ticket.

In Iran, in general, you become a doctor or an engineer before you think of anything else. Music is usually not among the professions that you would pick for your life. So music was generally important for me, but I never thought about it in terms of my profession.

After I left, within about 3 years, I earned my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. One interesting point is that I never finished my high school. Purdue University knew my high school back in Iran and they accepted my 11th grade education for enrollment. It was very kind of them. To this day, I am very grateful to them because at that very difficult time they also provided a scholarship for me.

But when I graduated, I thought, ‘What did I do?’ Because as much as I am good in math and love engineering, I had this sense of art in me and I wanted something else.

While I was at Purdue I got interested in Unix, the operating system. It was not part of my studies since I was an electrical engineer, not a computer engineer, and at the time software engineering didn’t really exist so much. But I got very interested in it, and shortly after I graduated I started working in a computer company.

At the same time my musical interest grew. Maybe 7 or 8 years later, I heard about the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM), in Paris. I was searching for a topic to go back to school and do a PhD with some research in an area that was my passion. This was a way for me to mix my musical interests and my electrical engineering and computer science background. But at IRCAM I immersed myself in the world of music and decided I wanted to make music the center of my life and my profession.

RML: Did you say you practiced as an electrical engineer for 7 or 8 years?

DR. YADEGARI: Yes, although my electrical engineering was in communication, and I worked more as a Unix software kernel engineer. But the electrical engineering helped my process of research in computer music because computer music includes a considerable amount of digital signal processing and requires understanding of the physical properties of sound.

At IRCAM, it became clear that I wanted to follow my passion. Although it was somewhat of a long and slow process to change, I was lucky to meet a lot of fantastic artists. Sometimes I feel my life is more of a nonlinear dynamics process than a single function. At first, it was a matter of connecting computers and algorithmic composition. Over time, that connected me to critical theory, partly because the heart of my search was based on Persian poetry.

In Persian culture, with almost everything you touch, at the end you arrive at poetry. Especially in the arts—even things that you may not imagine, like carpet making, eventually connect to poetry; and Iranian music is fully based on poetical structures. In that sense, the poets of Iran are the philosophers. In the West the separation of poetry and philosophy goes back probably to ancient Greek times. But in Iran, to this day, the poets are revered as people who carry understandings of the culture and the deep ontology of what it means to come from that culture.

I was very attracted to the poetry of Omar Khayyam because he had a very scientific approach to understanding the world. He didn’t believe in anything meta-physical. He understood that we come from the earth, and we go back to the earth. In so many poems, he described the fact that, if you are holding and drinking from a cup of wine, you’re holding your ancestors and you’re holding what you will become. Be respectful of this cup. This is all symbolic as well. The cup comes from the earth which is the bodies of human beings and the wine in it is the soul of human beings.

If you look at the world without metaphysics, nothing exists. You cannot make any statement about anything except the friendship you have for somebody you love. And that love becomes the heart of poetry.

Khayyam left very little poetry. But so many of our poets are inspired by him.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Shahrokh, many of our readers will be familiar with Omar Khayyam, particularly the Rubáiyát. If people go to their shelves and pull out their copy of the Rubáiyát or Google it, will they find in it what you are talking about? Are there any particular passages, or any other works of his, that illustrate what you are describing?

DR. YADEGARI: Yes, it is in there, and there is a lot of writing about it as well. In fact, this became the heart of my PhD dissertation, on the union of poetry and -philosophy through self-referentiality.

When Khayyam talks about this idea of human beings coming from the earth and the earth becoming us, he is talking about the circulation of matter. His idea of the world, as I said, was very scientific—he was a mathematician and astronomer and extremely precise. He measured the time of rotation of the Earth around the Sun to, I believe, the 16th decimal. He came up with a calendar that is about 2 seconds every 32 years more accurate than the Gregorian calendar. Bertrand Russell said that Omar Khayyam was the only person he knew of who was truly both a scientist and a poet.

The connection here is that while I was searching on this path of connecting music and computers and the concept of algorithmic composition, I came across the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. It talks about recursion and I suddenly saw that this is exactly what Khayyam was talking about. I always thought about the relationship between sound and music, which in the arts generally become the message and the medium, or semantics and syntax, a separation of the content from the message.

All these concepts started me thinking about how I could incorporate the two together. That almost became my thesis work at MIT’s Media Lab.

I was searching on a path of connecting music and
computers and the concept of algorithmic composition,
and found similarities with fractals.

I worked on a synthesis method that did not differentiate between sound and music. I applied certain structures as rewriting rules very similar to the Lindenmayer or L-system, which is used for modeling plants. At the time I didn’t know what fractals were, but as I started working on this I learned about them and found considerable similarities.

My search through this musical and then philosophical process connected me to the concept of self-referentiality. Years later I came to a critical understanding of self-referentiality, which I found in the work of -Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as well. Kierkegaard wrote a book called Repetition that talks about the same structure, same type of understanding of the world, about how we understand God, how we understand faith, and how we engage with it. All of these concepts made sense to me readily.

I followed this on a very intellectual level. At the same time, art was a vehicle for me to engage with the concepts, and I ended up thinking about music as a way of life.

There is a book by Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, in which he says we should think of music as a verb. It is an action and all those involved in the process of music are making music. He also argues that to be a musician, you have to live music. That became sort of my motto.

The concept of self-referentiality changed mathematics and also applies in music,
where you’re looking for something that is both deterministic and random.

I was working with nonlinear dynamics and the concept of self-referentiality. I believe one of the first times self-referentiality was found in nature was in the 1960s,[1] and that had a major impact on mathematics. Many people started finding new ways of looking at mathematics. It also had an impact in music, because in music you’re always looking for something that is deterministic, but random at the same time. Chaotic behavior is like that, and so is the 1/f noise, which you can find in so many different phenomena—right at the cusp of something being deterministic or completely random.

RML: This is very interesting because you’re addressing one of the questions we would have asked you, and that is, How did your training as an electrical engineer or computer scientist inform your interest in music and the arts? You’re telling us in ways that are not only palpable, but inspirational. You are remarkable.

DR. YADEGARI: I appreciate that. Thank you.

RML: I want to understand the origin of this intersection for you. Were your parents musicians? Were they poets? How did your interest in putting all of this together come about?

DR. YADEGARI: My mother sang and played music. But in Iran, it used to be hard to find professional musicians. In some sense, everybody is a poet. Poetry is a common tool. You may go to a grocery store and if something happens, the grocer may say something about it in poetry. And sometimes complaints are easier said in poetry because it is a very kind way of mentioning something.

Poetry is everywhere in Iran, not only in high scholarly form but also in a common colloquial format. Poetry lives with you. It’s in the music on the radio and television—all from a really vast source of poetry made in the past thousand years.

The interesting thing about poetry in Iran is that the Persian language really hasn’t changed much in the past thousand years. One of the well-known poets is Ferdowsi. He lived about 1000 years ago, at a time when the Persian language was in great danger because of the Arab invasion. People were not allowed to speak Persian and the language was dying. Ferdowsi spent 30 years writing an epic poem, The Shahnameh, that is the history, the culture, and the mythology of Persia in this one book. It is probably the longest poem in human history—60,000 lines. The language of that poem is to this day alive in Iran. Anybody can quote from those lines and everybody understands.

There is in Iran a culture of revering poetry—it is so treasured that it is the source of many different art forms. Every song in Iran had and still has that kind of poetry connected to it. In that sense, the lyrics of music you might hear have a very long history connected to the ontology of Persians’ understanding of where they come from.

Another important Persian poet is Hafez. Even Nietzsche wrote him an admiring letter. Goethe as well wrote to Hafez that ‘you understand so much of all human emotions.’

To illustrate how essential poetry is in Iran: Usually, the Bible or the Koran is the most owned book in a culture. Hafez wrote one single book—and in Iran you will find more copies of that book than of the Koran. For the Persian new year, people create a little altar with items that have meaning for them. Some people put the Koran, but almost everybody puts a copy of Hafez—that’s how important his work is in the culture.

Omar Khayyam, too, even though it’s not exactly clear how many of the poems in the Rubáiyát were written by Khayyam himself. Some scholars argue that only 20 of the quatrains were written by him. That’s all we can be 100 percent sure of. Others say 70 of the -quatrains were written by him and that other people wrote and put his name on the others.

CHF: This sounds like the arguments about -Shakespeare’s authorship.

DR. YADEGARI: Yes. We argue sometimes that the role of Shakespeare is very similar to the role of poets in Iran.

RML: I have a bit of an aside. My father-in-law, during the Second World War, flew in B17 bombers and was shot down over Germany, where he spent about a year and a half in a prisoner-of-war camp. During that time, he memorized the Rubáiyát. I don’t know how long it is, but he memorized it. When I met his daughter and I was courting her, he used to quote from the Rubáiyát.

DR. YADEGARI: Fantastic.

RML: I was blown away by this. He was quite a remarkable guy in many ways. I don’t know how he got a copy of the Rubáiyát, but he had time on his hands and memorized it.

CHF: What an amazing intersection with this conversation, Ron. Shahrokh, I want to come back to your mention of the poet Ferdowsi. Is it his work on which you collaborated with Sia Nemat-Nasser[2] on The Scarlet Stone[3]?

DR. YADEGARI: It is, exactly. Just this week I was with Sia’s family and we all remembered the soul that he was. But my feeling is that he never dies. He’s always in our minds and what we remember of him is part of him. He was larger than life. He had such an effect on me.

CHF: Does his influence continue in your creative work?

DR. YADEGARI: Absolutely. I’m working on the next story by Ferdowsi, called Siavash (Sia’s full name, Siavouche, is a variant in the spelling of this name). The story of Siavash is the story of a very special human being who was very ethical and understood why he was on Earth. He was a prince, the son of a king, but the character had become to me the ultimate sign of humanity. It’s a very old story, about 5000 years old. Ferdowsi found it and included it in his epic poem The Shahnameh. Sia was that kind of a person. He didn’t really believe in religion that much, but he was an extremely ethical man. He cared deeply about people and he was very active in the process.

We met at the pool at UC San Diego—he was a very good swimmer. We started having conversations and got to know each other. Sia was a fan of The Shahnameh and actually translated a considerable amount of it.

There is also a book by a contemporary poet who wrote about what happened in the revolution.[4] He used The Shahnameh as both a poetic form and a methodological source to tell his story. He based it on the most famous mythological story of Iran, the story of Rostam and his son Sohrab, whom he killed in battle almost in ignorance, although the judgment is out whether they really didn’t know each other in the moment.

RML: I understand that Sia was a major benefactor or sponsor of The Scarlet Stone?

DR. YADEGARI: That is correct. I can explain the background of the endowed funds that Sia established. He was the son of Roghieh Chehre-Azad, who was the first woman in Iran to take off her hair covering on stage. Chehre-Azad means “free face,” because she freed herself from wearing the veil; she picked this stage name. She faced numerous threats for performing in public without the veil. But Sia’s father stood against them and said ‘No, she is my wife and she’s doing what I am telling her to do and it’s completely fine by me.’ He truly fought for her to be able to do this.

She became a very important actress in Iran. Because she often played the role of mother, she’s understood as the Mother of Theatre in Iran.

Sia wanted to establish a fund for remembering the name of his mother. After coming to one of my performances, he called me. He had heard a comment by one of the UC presidents who said “Our businesses are doing well, but who is going to pay the salary of the English department?”[5] Sia told me, because of that, ‘I want to put money in the arts and support your work.’ I was speechless at this generosity. He contributed over the years and eventually we had a discussion with our chancellor and Sia argued for a visiting professorship to be set up. Now it is the Chehre-Azad Visiting Professorship Fund.

Yadegari figure 1.gif

RML: I’d like to go back to The Scarlet Stone. As I understand, Shahrokh, you directed it and composed the music.

DR. YADEGARI: Yes, and I designed the sound.

RML: I’ve seen some videos of it and the production is fantastic. But I’ve seen it described as a “computer-enhanced” rendition of Iranian poetic art. How is it computer-enhanced?

DR. YADEGARI: It’s about how the media is delivered, mostly in graphics and in the sound.

The tradition of telling the story of The Shahnameh is called naqqali, a style that mixes poetry and theater together. It was often done in a very small space like a tea house while people gathered around. There might be a painting at the back, showing one of the stories of The Shahnameh. The storyteller, the naqqal, would talk about this painting and in the process tell one of the Shahnameh stories. The story of Rostam and Sohrab is a very special one, it is very emotional and everybody knows it.

We took the naqqali tradition and the plan was to work with the Scarlet Stone that was written by the contemporary poet Siavash Kasrai about the revolution. I wanted to connect the old and the new. This is a theme in my work as well as that of my collaborator, the dancer Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam. I wanted to connect these two traditions together.

The performance is inspired by the old form of performance, with the painting in the background. But now the painting is interactive video, which is connected to the voice of the storyteller. For example, the volume of the storyteller’s voice can interactively change the backdrop. This creates a very dream-like space. The set is composed of multilayer screens; sometimes they feature the poetry, sometimes various images—old or new images—to help tell the story. The tradition is similar in the old tradition of one storyteller telling the story, but there are also dancers and changing graphics as parts of the story, so there’s some theater in it as well.

I would say different types of arts are mixed in based on the need of the story itself, although almost 90 percent of it is in poetry. The performance is in Persian with English subtitles. I’ve heard from many colleagues who said that, hearing the language in Persian in poetic form, they hear it as music. The rhythm and the form of delivery really help, so that as you are reading the subtitles you get the emotions of the story. I picked the pitch and the amplitude of the voice, and could adjust and manipulate the material of the background according to the parameters of the voice.

One other element that unfortunately not many people get to experience is the use of spatialization in this work. The audio is immersive in a sense that the music has many different layers, which are curated in the performance space. For example, the acoustic musicians perform a line, I play it back to them, and they react to it. Again, there is this recursive quality. They hear what they have said or played and, through this space, they are able to express the traditional music in a new expression. I hope you will hear that when you see and hear the piece. In performance spaces, those layers that they were hearing would become spatialized in the room and transform the performance space with music and sometimes sound effects.

CHF: I listened to some of the pieces—“Vidya,” -“Nirvana,” and “Harmony,” from Green Memories and Migration. They’re fascinating. I’m glad you mentioned that it’s both traditional and new. Actually, the word that came to mind when I was listening was “experi-mental,” but maybe you wouldn’t use that word. I wondered, Are these pieces scored? Are they actually written as performed, or are they created afterward on the computer, or are they made up ad hoc by the violins and string -players and then remixed? How is the music made?

DR. YADEGARI: I appreciate the amount of time you have put in before this interview and that you’ve listened to these. I’m truly grateful.

The two works, Green Memories and Migration, I call them structured improvisation. They are very similar to traditional Persian music. Generally, Persian music performance, especially in its urban form, is based on what is called the Radif, meaning “sequence.” There are, according to various accounts, between 200 and 450 different melodies; these are very old melodies that have been classified in a hierarchical model. Professional musicians know these melodies and they know the space of these melodies. The performance is often defined as picking a sequence of these melodic patterns.

So they are composed in that sense—we know where we start, what are the different grounds we hit, what are the emotional spaces that we go through—but everybody is open to express themselves in the way they like.

The heart of these productions is also my computer music instrument called Lila, which I created for exactly this call and response process. I can tell you the story of how this instrument came about.

The word Lila is an old Sanskrit word, it is the concept of circular re-creation, the idea of us becoming one and the same, the same thoughts, the same concepts, talked about in the poetry of Omar Khayyam. It is the concept of the gods dying and being reborn. Circulation is understood as the form of play. If you think of it very dogmatically, that its structures are fixed, you don’t have room to play. But it also cannot be completely random. The two have to sort of meet each other. The concept of Lila defines that. It’s also the concept and the word used for love.

I will briefly tell you how I picked this name for my music instrument. In the early 1980s when I was living in Santa Monica, a mockingbird made a nest in a jasmine tree next to my house. The tree at night would become intoxicating—this bird would sing the whole night and would keep me up.

Yadegari figure 2.gif
Illustration of Lila interface. Lila is Shahrokh Yadegari’s multichannel instrument for spatialization of loops, delays, and sounds.

CHF: Yes, that’s what they do. Did you ever count the variety of melodies from the mockingbird during the night?

DR. YADEGARI: I couldn’t, so I decided okay, this is a beautiful musician who is continuing to sing, let me record it. I recorded the bird and listened and then thought, ‘Let me play it back and see what the bird does.’ The moment I played back the bird’s song, something amazing happened. First, the bird started answering, but more articulately, as though a little competitive. I spent many hours, and the more I recorded, I noticed that the bird would repeat what it heard on the tape. It would do it a few times and then bring in a new theme. But since this new theme was not recorded, the recording wouldn’t answer. Sometimes the bird would get upset and I would hear it—chit, chit, chit, chit—saying ‘This is not the way it goes—you’re supposed to answer me.’


And then I thought, ‘If I had a computer, I could do that. I could respond right at that moment.’ This is how Lila got created. And now this is the same thing that happens with acoustic musicians that I work with. When I play back their own sound in recording spaces to them right then, the articulation changes. There is a bit of a sense of karma, that if you play something, it is going to come back to you. To an extent, I’m controlling the form of the music and what the musicians are hearing. I also control the number of layers, so I control the intensity and I can also shape the path of the music.

Going back to your question about Migration and Green Memories and pieces that you will hear in The Scarlet Stone: for a number of the pieces that have been recorded, the musicians know the spaces that we are going to hit, they know the landscape. But as I am playing with them through Lila, I can kind of direct them into different paths. Then there is a bit of post-production, mostly to map the multichannel sound into the stereo format to make it sound right. I have taken the Lila instrument to many performances and places, both live and in recording.

CHF: Do you play other musical instruments?

DR. YADEGARI: My main instrument is the santur, which is the Persian hammered dulcimer. I play a little bit of ney as well, the Persian cane flute.

RML: We’re reaching the end of our hour but I want to ask, Where can folks who read this interview see performances?

DR. YADEGARI: The Scarlet Stone will hopefully soon be available in streaming format on Amazon. It is available as Blu-ray now.

I worked with theater director Peter Sellars -recently—I did the sound design and produced the audio track for his film called This Body Is So Impermanent. It is based on an ancient Buddhist text, the Vimalakirti text.

And as I mentioned I’m working on a new piece, -Siavash, that I hope will have performances in about a year.

RML: I want to conclude by saying that you have truly added a new dimension in terms of our interviews. This has been, as I said earlier, inspirational. What you are doing involves very sophisticated engineering and technology, but it also reaches into the heart of cultures and music and poetry in ways that are fascinating. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

CHF: I also heard a dimension of spirituality in the undertones and overlays of both poetry and philosophy. I felt transported listening to you, Shahrokh.

DR. YADEGARI: Those are all very kind comments. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you at this level.

At heart, I’m still an engineer—even in the world of art, similar to Khayyam, I think of the world with a scientific eye. And I think that has been applied to my performances and on the level of spirituality. I’m not really religious in terms of a regular form of religion. What you heard as a form of spirituality is exactly that.

I really appreciate again the time and the quality and precision of attention you’ve given this interview and the attention that you’ve given to my work.

CHF: It’s a pleasure for us too. And now, how do I say “thank you” in Persian?

DR. YADEGARI: You could use the French merci. Or you could say a very old Persian form: Sepas.

CHF: Sepas, Shahrokh.

DR. YADEGARI: Same to you. Thank you so much for taking the time. It has been a great pleasure for me to talk about this with you.


[1]  Lorenz EN. 1963. Deterministic nonperiodic flow. Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences 20(2):130–41.

[2]  NAE member Sia Nemat-Nasser (1936–2021)


[4]Mohreye Sorkh (1995) by Siavash Kasrai.

[5]  UC president Mark Yudof, quoted by Jorge Mariscal in “On the value of a liberal arts education,” The Guardian (UCSD), Oct 6, 2011 ( the-value-of-a-liberal-arts-education/).

About the Author:Shahrokh Yadegari is vice chair of the Department of Music at the University of California, San Diego, where he is also associate director of the Qualcomm Institute and director of the Sonic Arts Research and Development group. This interview took place -January 12, 2022; it has been edited for length and clarity.