For years I've been a self-taught (ie. largely incompetent) guitar player. Play and play as I might, I only got stuck in ruts and repeating circles - after ten years I should have amounted to more than this surely? But here in Iran I came face to face with an entirely new musical culture, and I've taken the opportunity to start again - properly.
The setar is slender, elegant instrument, light and welcomingly curved. No part of it is too big, none too small. Heidegger spoke of it much - a tool when it is used disappears from view so the object of concentration becomes the work to be done. The tool itself fades into the background only making its presence felt when it ceases to be appropriate or it ceases to function properly.
But my guitar never let me forget that it was there. Far too many strings for me to remember which to pluck. Chords so complicated that it took a contortionist's flexibility to get into them. It was war. I would thrash it with my plectrum while in return it made the thumb muscles of my left hand ache like hell.
While it was always a wrestling match with my guitar, my setar sits in my lap without protest. It's slender smooth neck encourages my hand and never strains it. It's also not compulsory to use your little finger - talk about easy-going!
But the real key to playing the setar is in textures and tones. In getting to know Iranian music a little and having already been baffled by the plinks and plonks of Japanese music, I'm starting to see a continuum from east to west. In western classical music major or minor are your two primary options. Break out of that and you're in the realms of Jazz and the arch-modern expressions of atonality. All the way over in Japan the apparently system-less warbles of the Shakuhachi flute are more like wild wind calls from the living bamboo itself than human musical expression.
Somewhere in between is Iranian classical music. A dozen scale systems (dastgah and avaz) reflect more subtle toned emotional colourings than the "major fall and the minor lift" can accommodate.