Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Aural Tradition

A lot of what we see or hear is like walking in a forest or a field and noticing the trees or flowers or hills and dales without much awareness of the underlying geographical features. You might get a sense of either ascending or descending, but unless you are actually in the mountains, not much more. But fly over the countryside in an airplane and you get a very different sense. Just before New Year's I flew back to central Mexico from the US and was surprised to see how much of the country north of where I live is uninhabited mountains. There were just a few roads, hamlets and individual farms, widely separated by entirely uninhabited mountainous regions.

I've been reading a book on world musics lately and and starting to get a sense of some interesting underlying geography. I have posted on some ideological questions before in this post: "The War on Classical" because the book has an editorial animus against classical music, which it thinks is uppity or something. Also, some of the individual authors of the chapters on different world musics seem to bend over backwards to assert over and over again either that their music is just as aesthetically good as classical or maybe just a bit better because it isn't tied down to all that fixed notation and stuff.

The article on Turkish music I found particularly annoying. It turns out that the two major theorists on traditional Turkish music were both from outside Turkey, one the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir and the other Ali Ufki, originally a Polish church musician, Wojciech Bobowski, who was enslaved in Istanbul, converted to Islam and became a leading composer and the first to adapt Western notation to record Turkish music. You have to love a culture where even the musicologists are slaves. The Ottomans had a propensity for slavery: the elite core of their army, the Janissaries, were all recruited from enslaved Christian boys.

But I am getting away from what I want to talk about: the underlying geography of world music.

In one musical culture after another I run across comments which outline a cluster of approaches to music:
No matter how many Turkish musicians are playing together at one time, they all focus on executing a single melody line, though each may interpret it differently.
Indian music is generated through a complex modal system ... which provides the basis for composition and performance to happen simultaneously (what Westerners call improvisation)
Whereas a Western composer notates the work on paper in a more or less fixed form ... Thai classical composers notate nothing: their compositions are created in their minds and then committed to memory.
Most of the female singers were jawari or qiyan, singing slave girls. These were indeed slaves, in that they could be bought or sold, but they were also highly-trained performers, sometimes fetching extraordinary prices... (referring to the music of Medieval Andalusia, al-Andalus)
 Although the music was never notated - musicians have always learned this repertory aurally - by the sixteenth century songbooks had begun to circulate. These included the lyrics along with musical indications of the melodic modes. (referring to Andalusian music)
(In Chinese opera) Over time and a wide area, two basic creative approaches developed. One was the qupai system, where the librettist wrote lyrics to go with standard named tunes called qupai. To put it in Western terms, the librettist might specify, "sing to the tune (qupai) Yankee Doodle".
The instrumental groups of a gamelan perform specific functions, and their dense polyphony is created from just one melodic strand, drawing from a repertoire of patterns peculiar to each instrument.  
For most musicians, in most cultures, for much of history, music was an oral or aural tradition: it seemed entirely fitting that it be so as music is the most insubstantial of the arts, consisting of nothing more than compression waves in the air. By an act of pure creative genius, one Guido of Arezzo came up with an ideal solution for the notating of exact pitch: the simple idea of a horizontal line. All pitches could be judged in their relation to that line. Soon after, for even better precision, four more lines were added and voilá, the music staff was born. Mind you, it took another few hundred years to solve the problem of how to notate rhythms clearly and simply, but a few more acts of creative genius solved that too. As a bonus, since pitches could be written down clearly, that meant that Western musicians could notate not only melodies, but also harmonies. And if you stacked a few staves on top of one another, you could have a notation in which the entirety of an orchestral score could be seen at a glance. While there have been a number of other notation systems developed in other cultures, all of them are more like mnemonic guides than real systems of notation. The only time and place where a good music notation system was developed was in Western Europe between about 1000 AD and 1500 AD. Some other things that were uniquely developed in Western Europe: vaccines, antibiotics, the machines of the Industrial Revolution, the rule of law, and, sadly, modern warfare. But hey!

Since Western Europe, during those same years and for hundreds of years afterwards, also saw the development of musical styles and structures that did not develop anywhere else, such as true imitative counterpoint, tonal harmony and modulation and all the thousands of musical things that come from that, it is very likely that these developments presupposed musical notation. Don't you think?

So there are two basic musical approaches: the aural or oral tradition, and the notated, composed tradition.

Without a good musical notation to work with, music tends to be monophonic, with a heterophony of similar melodic lines, rhythmically complex, with a lot of extended rhythmic models and other formulas that need to be learned by rote, and essentially weak or lacking in genuine harmony. This, along with a tendency to be structured according to a poetic text and the likelihood of a complex treatment of pitches in the melody, describes nearly every non-Western musical style, whether it is from Thailand, China, Morocco or India. These are all markers of what is essentially folk music, that is, music transmitted via oral tradition and without what we would call composers as such.

The musical structures that we find in Bach, Mozart or Bruckner, depend on the ability to notate often very large musical structures, and do so clearly and creatively. Without notation, I think that the very concept of a composer as we find in Western music, just can't exist. The reason is that if you can write musical ideas down, sketch them, play with them, modify them, you are making the internal external where you can work with it. In all the other musical traditions, most of what the musicians are doing remains concealed, unexamined and therefore, not available to the composer's creative imagination.

This is Anton Bruckner - Symphony No. 6 in A Major with the Münchner Philharmoniker conducted by Sergiu Celibidache:

UPDATE: Just to head off any potential misunderstanding, I am not criticizing any particular musical culture here. More and more I realize that Asian music has a big influence on my compositions going right back to the 1970s. My point is just that the underlying geography of nearly all non-Western music is quite different from how music has developed in the West since the discovery of music notation.


A.C. Douglas said...

Trusting the factual accuracy of your above piece, I thank you for it all. Most informative and enlightening.


Bryan Townsend said...

If I were writing a scholarly paper I would certainly have made the sources clear. All the quotes come from the book "The Other Classical Musics" which I linked to in the previous post. The two Turkish theorists are linked to their Wikipedia articles. But, of course, my conclusions and interpretations are certainly open to argument!

Anonymous said...

"very likely that these developments presupposed musical notation."


Musical notation is utterly overrated and the prime reason from the socalled "demise of classical music" as we see it today.

Your high praises for western art music, must be clearly delineated.
I mean: Are you telling me you really like Mozart, the way it's performed today??? You must be kidding!

The point being: Mozart is not Mozart; and Bach is not Bach.
What we hear today, is mostly mechanical finger-exercises, stemming from the modern western prejudice for visual data, and literal interpretation.
So I'm classical musician who's proud to say: I hate Mozart, Bach and western art music. (as it's performed today).

Anonymous said...

yes! Notation is THE wonderful thing about art music. That such complex music can be transmitted across time and space with concise symbolic language on a sheet of paper is a near-miracle to me, always will be. I'm also reminded of the fact that ALL the more popular forms (pop, rock, blues, jazz, dance) some of those aren't very popular, but you get my drift...rely upon the foundation of even-tempered, functional harmony which grows out of the Western Classical tradition. I'd also like to bring up something I read in the Harvard Music dictionary: that the folk and popular traditions are far more impacted and shaped by the art music tradition than the other way around. Samples of folk music or popular tunes through the ages reveals a trend away from "modal" characteristics and irregular phrasing, towards regular phrasing and functional harmony, which has been attributed directly to the flowering and development of art music over time.

Bryan Townsend said...

I am seriously considering excluding Anonymous comments simply because they are all too easily confused with one another. Here is a good example: two comments from Anonymous, but plainly not the same anonymous. To Anonymous I: I'm sorry you believe this. If you were to offer some evidence it might be more interesting than just a baseless claim.

To Anonymous II: We constantly get essays claiming that classical music is just an ossified, stuffy takeoff on the True, Authentic, Life-Affirming Music of the People! It is interesting to contemplate the more probably case that, as you say, folk and popular musics are influenced to a considerable degree by the formal structures and processes derived from classical music.

Christine Lacroix said...

Your comment reminded me of this TED talk by a conductor about similarities between leadership and conducting:
The title is Lead Like the Great Conductors

Bryan Townsend said...

When I tried to watch it there was an audio track but no picture? I just wrote a piece for orchestra that begins with a game between the conductor and the orchestra.

Christine Lacroix said...

There should be both sound and pictures!

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I thought so too. But I tried it in two different browsers and no picture...