Lily Afshar Goes "Fretlets"

For the uninitiated, the world of classical guitar may seem irretrievably mired in the past millennium. But while Bach’s Bouree may long remain a prerequisite of early classical studies, the current masters of the art are certainly not guilty of allowing their repertoire to stagnate. Iranian-born Lily Afshar—now the head of guitar studies at the University of Memphis in Tennessee—is a prime example. With her fourth album, Hemispheres [Archer], she has not only ventured off the beaten path of traditional Western European influences to explore ancient Persian melodic themes—albeit restated by adventurous contemporary composers—she has even modified her instrument to accommodate the quarter tones that make those phrases so exotic to the Western ear.

When not fostering musical brilliance among her university charges, Afshar is a regular on concert stages around the world. Her passport reflects tour stops on several continents, including Africa, Europe, and both North and South America, and she frequently travels to her native Iran to perform to sold-out halls. Along the way, she studied with Segovia, collected top awards at Aspen and other prestigious classical competitions, and earned Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees in guitar performance.

What inspired you to move beyond the traditional classical repertoire?

I’m just not satisfied playing oldies all the time. Of course, I play traditional classical music, but I also play new material. I collaborate with jazz and blues musicians, who write for me. It sometimes takes me awhile to put it all together, but when it gels, you get a CD like Hemispheres with all fresh pieces.

To enable playing the quarter tones common in Eastern music, you added “fretlets” to your guitar.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. I wanted to play traditional Persian music on the guitar, but I couldn’t because it needs quarter tones. I was trying to bend strings, but it was difficult to get the right pitch while executing certain passages. Then I decided to add the fretlets, and they’re just wonderful. They give me access to more notes and sounds. On one particular piece from Hemispheres—“Gozaar” by Reza Vali—I needed E and A korons, which are quarter tones, in specific places, and that’s where I installed the fretlets. The first fretlet is under the sixth string at the 2nd fret. The others are under the three lowest strings at the 7th fret, and under the third string at the 9th fret.

Do you use this guitar just for these Persian-inspired pieces, or do you use it for everything you play?

I take this guitar—a Humphrey Millennium—all over the world. Because the fretlets don’t get in the way of anything, I can play normal music, as well as music that requires quarter tones. And if the next piece Reza writes for me is based on a different Persian scale and requires more fretlets, I’ll add them. Fretlets simply provide more musical excitement. Quarter tones are very therapeutic to me—they put me right at home—so it’s great to have fretlets on my guitar.

Has the music you hear around Memphis influenced you at all?

Yes. I’ve learned how to play blues slide guitar! In 2000, I won the Orville Gibson award for Best Female Classical Guitarist, and they gave me a steel-string acoustic. But I can also play slide on my classical guitar, and it works fine. I prefer a glass slide, which I use to play traditional Delta blues. Maybe one of these days I’ll play blues in concert, too.