Sunday, November 6, 2011

Non-Western Harmony

As a classical music student, one can easily get the impression that there was no harmony until it was invented by Europeans about a thousand years ago... Jon Silpayamanant (his blog is here) and I have been exchanging comments on several of my posts and due to his encylopedic knowledge of non-Western music traditions, I have been filling in a few gaps in my knowledge. So, since harmony is a strong interest of mine, here are some things I have recently gleaned. In 13th century Georgia (the Asian one, not the US state) we find this kind of choral music (sent by Jon):

A modern recording, obviously. Now where did this come from? It is certainly a very idiomatic thing to do with multiple voices. In fact, at Notre Dame in Paris, in the late 12th century, a fellow nameLéonin was doing something similar:

Followed soon after by Pérotin:

And these are just the ones whose names we know. This kind of simple harmony goes back even further. I wonder if the idea could possibly have spread from the Western church--this was all church music--to the Eastern church?

Jon also sent me an example of Mongolian throat singing. I'm going to choose a different one just for the sake of simplicity:

The example Jon suggested was this one:

which is accompanied by long notes in the bowed string instrument. What the singers are doing is using their throats as vibrating columns of air and manipulating them to bring out different overtones. This is the basic principle of wind instruments which use keys to change the length of the column and therefore play chromatic notes. Jon also suggested this example of Bulgarian choral singing:

Now this is pretty interesting: it uses the kinds of complex rhythms that Bartok collected when he researched Bulgarian music in the 1920s. But it also is using some rather unusual harmonies with lots of sustained seconds--an interval that is usually considered dissonant.

I'm sure that there are other examples, but I thank Jon for sending these and for the lengthy commentary that accompanied them.

The Mongolian music aside, the other examples do not seem to pre-date the first polyphonic organum (and therefore first genuine harmony) of Western Europe, which dates from around 1000 AD. So we may be forced to the conclusion that, like accurate music notation, harmony and polyphony were invented exactly once in music history. Even more astonishing, they were both invented at roughly the same time in roughly the same place: southern France, northern Italy around 1000 AD. Nailing down the details of notating rhythms took until about 1500.

Could it be that harmony, counterpoint and the ability to write them down were unique discoveries? It seems a lot of other things were only discovered once and then spread to the rest of the world: paper-making, gunpowder and printing come to mind. But we usually don't think of things like harmony in that category. It just seems that any group of singers getting together would invent harmony out of pure instinct. But no. Pure instinct seems to get you to everyone singing the same thing: monophony. Polyphony doesn't seem to come by instinct.

But I'm not quite sure what to think about those Mongolian guys...


Jon Silpayamanant said...

So much I'd like to say about this that will have to wait for later as I have to get to a performance in a bit.

I'll just note a couple of things. Since I've been exploring all the world musics and especially that of the Middle East I've realized why there are usually huge gaps in our traditional Western music education. I've been looking back at some of my old music history texts and have since been skimming a wide range of standard texts, references and encyclopedias and there always seems to be that huge gap in between ancient Greek music (and sometimes a brief discussion of the music Rome) till the middle ages. As if no music happened during that time (or rather no 'important' art music happened during hat time).

But it was precisely in that interval between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Western Church as a cultural force that we had the rise of the Arabic and Eastern Roman Empire. Both of these became the backdrop for Ottoman culture and music in ways that the rise of the Western Church became the backdrop for the rest of Europe.

But It think one thing is is very interesting with the parallel rise of Europe and the Ottoman Empire is that it was the church on both sides that laid the foundations for music notation. Some Greek and Armenian chant notation dates back to the 9th century (right alongside the usage of neumes for Gregorian chant) but the cultural divide between these two civilizations was probably such that the respective music notation systems (as well as theology) probably didn't interact nearly as much as would, say, folks musicians through the trade routes.

What I also find interesting is that some of the early treatises and writings about Arabic music seem to indicate that it wasn't nearly as microtonal as today. The Oud, which is the instrument most associated with Arabic music used to be fretted, which plays havoc when trying to do microtonal scales obviously. The Lute/Oud (both names come from the old Arabic word "A'lud") were practiclaly the same instrument--or rather, had a common ancestor, but the lute developed in a culture that started to favor chordal harmony while the oud developed in a culture that started to favor greater microtonal complexity. There was no need to eliminate frets for the lute, but much need to do so with the oud. I sometimes wonder how much the Eastern notation system drove or was just a reflection of greater microtonal complexity in ways that Western staff notation drove or was just a reflection of greater harmonic complexity.

I think it we basically had a diverging point between what would have been a much more 'unified' culture (via the Roman Empire) that also made the respective art music traditions diverge (as well as the church).

It almost seems like the wrong question to ask where harmony/polyphony/staff notation originate when we can also ask where microtonal/heterophony/linear notaion originate. Two different sides of two very different art music traditions, neither one more complex than the other if we take into account al the different ways music can be complex, I think.

Ok, that was longer than I intended--will definitely come back to this! Thanks for the great post and thought provoking comments!!

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a brilliant historical observation. The Eastern Roman Empire spoke Greek and for a long time, knowledge of how to read Greek was lost in the West. The Western Empire fell while the Eastern did not. The Crusades did engage the West with the East and they brought back with them some musical instruments such as the shawm which evolved into the oboe.

Your comment on Arabic music becoming more micro-tonal is fascinating. Where the West sacrificed a great deal of that melodic complexity in favor of harmony and counterpoint, the East made a different choice. Later on, the West made another sacrifice for the sake of modulation. The equal-tempered scale gives up pure intervals so that all keys become usable.

Now you've got me interested in the history of music notation in the East...

But I have a concert to go to as well.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Hope your concert went well!

I hadn't really thought much about the historical development of Eastern notation until we started having these discussions here at your blog. I think most of the folks I've ever discussed this notation issue with were primarily performing musicians, not also composing musicians so it would make sense this is something of interest to you. I've only had the very briefest discussions about notation with other composers who were also interested in it, but those never started from a cross-cultural perspective so I think that's why I've just now thought about it in this way--so thanks very much!

Yes, the equal-tempered scale forced us to give up individual key color and all the variation in intonation to make all the keys functionally equivalent for modulation.

An interesting sidenote--most modern Arabic music theorists and musicians often talk about Arabic music as being based on a 24 note per octave system, and in may cases they treat it functionally as if it were a 24 equal tempered system. They acknowledge that there are variability of pitch depending on the particular maqam, but almost invariably speak about the pitch system as being equal-tempered.

It's not that way with modern Turkish theorists and musicians. There's no particular system that they all agree about, but since the comma is considered the smallest functional interval talk inevitably focuses on how much a pitch will vary in a scale relative to the comma (and sometimes with the more mathematically inclined, by the British cent system).

There is also a very sophisticated set of rules (which haven't been completely codified, to my knowledge) of modulation in this music. But since the maqams/makams are based on combinations of tetrachords (again, this idea shows the Greek legacy), modulation depends much more on finding makams with overlapping pitches in the tetrachord structure.

There is, in a sense 'Tonic Modulations' (sharing a tonic, not necessarily in he same octave) and 'Relative Modulations' (sharing certain intervals but different tonics). A 'distant modulation' would be rarest and would never last very long within a composition or improvisation.

Actually, I think this section of a talk on Seyir by the late Cinuçen Tanrıkorur' (at New England Conservatory) might help with understanding some of the compositional structures of makams from the Turkish side of things:

From everything we know about the history of Arabic music and the development of some of the instruments (especiallly the Oud) it seems to be the case that it became more microtonal--and something I was thinking about last night as I was driving to my gig is that maybe one of the reasons this may have been the case is the proliferation of regional maqams becoming standard scales in the oeuvre of the Art music.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

cont. from previous--guess there is a word count limit!

I was just remembering how practically every maqam/makam has a name that usualy denotes a region or (in some cases) a very specific city (much like the old Greek Modes). I'm just wondering if the melodic complexity made it easier to absorb different scale structures in the tradition or vice versa.

I don't know if anyone's ever pursued this line of reasoning, but going back to what you mentioned--in eliminating pitch variation in Western scales through the use of equal-temperament we've essentially erased all differences between scales and whatever color they may have had for the sake of the equivalency. It's like the West had this incessant need to create a theoretical structure to box in scales which had the effect of eliminating all the varieties in pitch between them. And that is some of the criticisms Near Eastern musicians used during the various Cairo Congresses when they were deciding how much to allow Western music and theory into their native art forms.

Really this has been one reason different cultures have resisted using Western notation--the fear of their art getting boxed into a structure that was never designed for their musical scales, improvisatory practices, and local variations in both. It's no different than the argument for standardization of language that happen in the age of the development of modern Nation states. I'm recalling the local language movement that happened a coupe of years ago in Italy where various regions were protesting the fact that the Tuscan dialect is the de facto "standard Italian" that is taught in schools (and courses that teach Italian worldwide). The pinyinization issue in China being an example of a language notational controversy.

I guess that if it's the case that different writing systems for languages and/or music can profoundly shape the direction the language or music develops or evolves, then it would make sense that a system that favors a vertical orientation would eventually shape more vertical complexity whereas one that favors a horizontal orientation would favor horizontal complexity.

I know there have been numerous studies demonstrating how different orthographies in language is actually correlated with cognitive strategies favored in the culture using the script. The same with spoken languages. I don't see why music orthography wouldn't be the same.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jon, this discussion just keeps getting more and more interesting. I'm going to do some homework starting with that video you linked to on Seyir. The only similar thing I have done is to study the concept of modality in Russian music as it relates to Shostakovich. It was then I started to realize that the usual music theory has some big gaps in it!

I think that the West saw the benefit of rationalizing the pitch system in the 17th century and that process reached its peak with the Well-Tempered Clavier. Now that's a pretty powerful argument for the system! I see the Classical moment from say 1770 to 1827, a brief 57 year span, as the moment when the rationalized pitch system with its capacity for modulation was balanced with the articulate rhythmic system borrowed from opera buffa and with a melodic system based on chord tones to create a whole musical 'language' with the different elements in perfect equilibrium. Afterwards things got out of kilter as Romantic harmony blurred the clarity of key relationships.

But as I see from your comments, there was much sacrificed and I suppose as soon as the system was arrived at, these elements started to creep back in.

I like how you see the relationship of this with other rationalizing trends such as the suppression of Italian dialects. In France the Revolution succeeded in this much more thoroughly. In Spain it was unsuccessful. Good analogy, because Western music, like Western technology, is part of a general process of globalization that is flattening out regional cultures.

When I was studying composition we seemed to spend all our time on questions of how to notate the ideas. I suppose this was because it was the 1970s and a composition teacher had no system to teach! Serialism was dead and the old tonal systems were "outmoded".

Jon, thanks again for your brilliant insights!

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, the concert I had to go to was not my own. I'm on the artistic committee of our local chamber music society and last night was a concert by a chamber orchestra we have been developing. As the only professional musician on the board, I had to go see what was wrong with the orchestra. I was really there to evaluate the conductor.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

I highly suggest watching the whole lecture from the beginning to end if you have the time--I just wanted to highlight the section on Seyir as it has an important role for how modulation works in Turkish Art music (though Tanrıkorur doesn't really talk much about modulation if I remember correctly). It's just an overall great introduction of Turkish Art music and it is encouraging that New England Conservatory sponsored such a talk!

And really, I must thank you for prompting me with new ways of thinking about all these issues and relationships--I don't often get the chance to assimilate many of the ideas and bits of knowledge I have and I welcome the opportunity whenever I can!

Well, I hope the evaluation was favorable! So the chamber orchestra is a new ensemble then? Was is started from scratch or was there a pre-existing ensemble that evolved into this one? The past couple of years I've been thinking about what it might take to start an Arabic Orchestra but haven't had much chance to talk to folks who have started or been involved in developing larger scale ensembles.

Regarding notation rhythm--I'm in the middle of a blog post describing Korean Chôngganbo music notation which was creating in the 15th century by King Sejong the Great. It is a system that notations rhythms!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Oh, and while searching for some past articles about the Korean notation, I came across some comments I made at Greg Sandow's blog specifically about the issue!

Bryan Townsend said...

I will definitely watch the whole lecture when I get a chance. Won't be for a few days! But if there is real modulation in Turkish art music, I'm going to have to revise quite a few elements of my thinking! I'm still largely of the view that functional harmony is something really found only in Western music and then spreading elsewhere. But these exchanges with you have been very illuminating indeed and I'm always open to changing my thinking. I'll pop over to your blog to read about the Korean notation. Rhythm is so important you would think that everyone would have invented a way of notating it.

We have been working with a conductor to develop an ensemble from scratch. But there are a few problems...

Jon Silpayamanant said...

I had to do the same once I came into contact with these other traditions! In the West, we've gotten so good at specialization, that it can sometimes be difficult to look at the broader context--and our traditional conservatory education is no exception! I guess I might have had an advantage being born in Thailand and still having some ties there--I understand, because I've experienced, that there are other profoundly ancient and well developed systems of music out there, so I never completely took my classical music education at face value!

And i guess I would ask, "is rhythm so important?" Or are we as Western trained musicians so incredibly bound by our ideas of what constitute rhythm that we can conceive of organizing time differently than the way our notation systems allow us to?

Is the Time unit box system a much more useful way of notation/describing rhythm than standard western notation? What about all the various dance notations ad how they organize time? I've always found it fascinating that Labanotation is oriented in the same manner as Chongbanbo is (vertically rather than horizontally), for example.

One of the reasons I hadn't been thinking much about various music notation systems until discussing so many of these interesting issues with you here and at my blog is because I'd spent so much time working with dancers and trying to figure out how they think about time and so had spent so much time with various dance notations (Labanotation being one of the most throroughly worked out systems after the Benesh system).

I guess ultimately each system will focus so much on particular aspects of various art forms that the esthetic rationale behind various systems will beging to treat those points of foci as being something immutable and an essential part of the system.

I think that can be not so useful, especially as we are more easily able to encounter these systems in much more easily accessible ways!

I mean, why don't we, in the West ask why our notation system needs tons of amended symbols to take care of some non-Western scales that include microtones?

Bryan Townsend said...

We shouldn't forget that we Westerners have been listening to and being influenced by Eastern concepts of rhythm for a long time. One early connection was the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris where Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music which was to influence his music. From then on there was a constant stream of influences. George Harrison's interest in Indian music was a huge landmark in popular music.

Notational systems are designed for specific ends: to realize the thoughts of the composer in a way that performers can understand. Western notation was developed specifically to make it easy to write and perform harmony and counterpoint. I would say that you can either do this and basically limit microtones, or you can make microtones the focus in which case you need a different system and one in which harmony and counterpoint are restricted. One was the Western way and the other the Eastern way.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have been wanting to write music for dance for a while now. I was trying to do a collaboration with a dancer--they think about rhythm (or feel rhythm) so differently than we musicians do!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Yes! There has always been this healthy (well, depends on how you look at it) exchange between the West and East. The expansion of the Symphony Orchestra during Beethoven's time had as much to do with the increasingly disturbing encounters with the Ottoman Empire and their military bands. Cymbals, Typani, the usage of louder winds and brass--so many of these instruments were such standards of the Mehter bands of the Ottoman Jannisaries and the documentation of the introduction of those instruments into Western culture throughout the long intermingling of the two great cultures is immense.

And obviously, composers were very influenced by the new sounds back then--all these Turkish Marches and pieces "ala Turk" that Mozart, Beethoven and other late classical/early romantic composers write; all the operas on themes or stories based in Middle Eastern or Norther African lands--there was as much happening on the Ottoman side as well.

I thnk that's the important thing to remember--as you say, the notation systems are designed for specific ends and each culture will find something that's particularly useful for they nature of the music being made in them--and I guess that's always been one of the ways I look it, but I also understand (especially in my encounters in practicing some of these other musics) that has profoundly shaped the way I look at melody, harmony and rhythm.

For example, I find it incredibly cumbersome to count out Balkan rhythms and until I learned that the folk musicians think "long" versus "short" (similar to how it's conceived in Indian Classical Music) in building up their rhythms rather than subdividing them. Sometimes this is described as using the "short" to represent 2 beats and the "long" to represent 3 beats.

Which generally works--a tune in a lesnoto or kalamantianno rhythm would be basically 3+2+2, whereas a laz rhythm would be 2+2+3. If we were to notate it, they would both be 7 beat rhythms, just organized a little differently--the accents or pulse falls differently. And we'd just say they were both 7/8 meters (or 7/4 depending on the tempo).

But some of those folk rhythms don't even break down into rational proportions though we try to make them when we attempt notation e.g. a Bučimiš dance is often written as 15/16 ((2+2+2+2)+(3+2+2)) but in practice doesn't quite fit it. Another example: the well known tune Eleno Mome (Елено Моме), exists in written form as 7/8 =2+2+1+2; 13/16 =4+4+2+3; and 12/16 =3+4+2+3 times. Here, the forms 4+4+2+3 and 3+4+2+3 exist both as a musicologist's way to attempt to indicate the tendency of speeding up the last and first beats, as well in formal version, where the musician plays 3 or 4 about equal length notes on the beat.

A notation system based on rational division of meters and beats isn't necessarily the most efficient way to notate irrational meters and beats in the same way it isn't so useful for the microtones.

I wonder if some of the historical difficulty for representing rhythms is precisely because most rhythms don't map easily into a simple rational notation system?

And yes! Dancers do feel and think about rhythm different than we do but I've been collaborating closely with a few and am in the process of developing some workshops for both dancers an musicians to help understand each others' conceptions of rhythm and music. It's been another interesting road of learning--I think so much of that difference has to do with a sense of choreography, which is explicit in the dancers' art, but implicit in ours--we never really think about the fact that we are choreographing as much as a dancer is--we just happen to be doing so in a way that is specifically geared towards making sound rather than a visual sight. Working with flamenco dancers (same for tap dancers, cloggers) has shown me how artificial that division is since they are also very much involved in the music making process!!