Musical discord

April 29, 2018

Understanding music across cultures

Musical discord

One is a little surprised when one hears that music is a universal language and it can be heard and appreciated by all. But we have examples from history showing there were massive problems in appreciating the music sensibilities of other cultures. When the West was exposed to the music of the Indian subcontinent, there was huge deficit in its understanding of the finer aspects of a widely different musical system. Initially, the colonisers were totally dismissive of the music they heard and actually labelled it as being out of tune. They could not appreciate the particularities of our music and its intonation, being too solidly grounded in their own sonic culture.

They called it "out of tune" because the application of the exact note is not considered to be a universal value in our music as compared theirs. When the locals heard their music, they called its application "atank", or staccato, which meant there was little or no application of or the use of the music spaces that adjoined the notes. In other words, there was little or no appreciation of the shrutis or the use of the microtones that may be considered crucial to the aesthetic application in our music.

It was William Jones who wrote his seminal work On the Music Modes of the Hindoos published by the end of the eighteenth century as an orientalist attempt at making a theoretical understanding of the sounds that boasted of a tradition that was thousands of years old. It was not very long ago that the westerner’s initial encounter with Arab music hardly generated love at first hearing. Exposure to this peculiar universe of sounds reminded the uninitiated of dogs howling. Hector Berlioz, the famous composer in the second half of the nineteenth century, said that "what they call music we call charivari". Even in the earliest times westerners like Charles Fonton, the eighteen century orientalist who had a more positive approach, wrote an article on Turkish music in 1750 severely attacking what today may be called Eurocentric judgement of the others music. "These days as the world has shrunk and much more music can be accessed the definitions may have lost their ironclad certainties…. the concept of music is not the same everywhere."

Jean During in the World of Music dealing with the question of the uniformity of expression in the traditional Persian arts was cognizant that each culture conceives of and understands music and music-making. The obstacles, of course, are familiar for music was transmitted orally providing us with no musical documents prior to the first recordings by the beginning of the twentieth century. Henry George Farmer’s deliberations on the Congress of Arabian Music held in Cairo in 1932 was pervaded by an awareness that the quest for and discovery of new sources would be of prime importance in furthering our knowledge about the past.

The study of old manuscripts makes it possible to understand the evolutionary phases through which Arab music has passed and the picture needed to be drawn in the light of major historical and cultural events that led to the process of the transformation of the pre-Islamic predominantly tribal music into sophisticated urbanised art music. And so the emergence of the classical forms of art music during the first and second centuries of Islam developed in the culmination of the Golden Age of Islamic classical civilization.

In this age, when there is so much of interaction and exchange between cultures, it is becoming impossible to retain the pristine nature or to safeguard the peculiarities of an art form or cultural patterns or ethnic or racial purity as well as music identity. The concept of assimilation or proper blending appears to be becoming a passé, and reckless pick and choose is the mantra of modern day music making. Then there is the computer-generated sounds and the algorithms which being technologically produced may appear to be neutral to cultural influences.

It may be possible that gradually these too become more pervasive as they may be appropriated and humanised so to say, and be part of a culture or represent a culture -- but this is yet to be seen or heard.

What to talk of music of other cultures when the younger generation does not understand kheyal or dhrupad. The aesthetic use of the shruti for them has no value; only the lyrics, preferable in slang and composed in the basics in a bandish format.

One is misled by the significance of lyrics in music because lyrics are in words and that is driven by meaning. Note or sur is not driven by any connotation per se but is ensconced in its peculiarities which can best be understood by placing them within the cultural perspectives from which these have evolved.

Musical discord