Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pre-composition and the Blank Page

Just to get the caveats out of the way up front: what I am going to try and describe is not so much a fundamental difference as a difference of degree. I have been listening to a lot of non-Western music lately, partly because I love it (some of it) and partly because it is very interesting from a rhythmic point of view. Western music has a achieved a lot of its structural breadth and expressive depth by eliminating some kinds of resources, such as microtonality and large metric groups, and it is interesting to consider the possibility of reacquiring some of those resources.

Ok, enough shilly-shallying, I've been listening to quite a few Ravi Shankar recordings in the last week and have some observations. Ragas, which are melodically-inflected modes, and talas, which are metric groups, are more complex than the Western equivalents of scales and meters. A raga contains more than just a series of pitches; it also has certain implications as to how those pitches are grouped in phrases and how they are ornamented with microtonal glissandi. Talas, the rhythmic groupings, are larger than typical Western meters and may have ten, fourteen or sixteen beats to a cycle. This is where the musical focus lies. Harmony hardly exists at all as the tamboura, a four-stringed fretless lute, is constantly playing the root and fifth throughout the whole piece. Sometimes, fairly rarely, the sitar player may sit on and outline a different harmony, but this is dissonant to the tamboura and soon returns to the "tonic". There is, of course, considerable pitch variety, including microtones, but it is always in relationship to the bare fifths of the tamboura. When the tablas (drums) enter, they add another layer of interest both in contrast to and in dialogue with the sitar. Sometimes there are melodic motifs that are exploited for structural unity.

This is very enjoyable and charming music. Let's listen to some. This is Raga Jog, recorded in 1956. At the beginning you hear the sitar sweep across the sympathetic strings and the tamboura, cycling through the four strings of the tonality. Then the sitar enters with a melodic improvisation. Later on, the tablas enter. Ragas are often in three parts, the alap, the unmetered melodic introduction without the tablas, the jor, the rhythmic part once the tablas enter and the gat, a quicker section to end.

Setting aside all the traditional discussions and explanations, what I hear is a gifted group improvisation with both the sitar and the tablas that nonetheless is based on very familiar and often-used material. In this sense it is a bit like the blues--not in any overt musical manner, but just in that there is a shared melodic and rhythmic vocabulary that both players are very familiar with that enables their improvisation to be so expressive and coherent. It is a common occurrence with blues for someone to "sit in" on a session. This is because the tunes, the structures and the very typical motifs and "licks" of the soloists are a familiar, shared vocabulary. Several players can sit down and play tune after tune together because they know the genre.

My sense, after listening to quite a lot of non-Western music, is that something similar is going on there as well. It tends to be concealed by the use of traditional terminology and descriptions and by the difficulty of accommodating the music to Western notation, but that is what it sounds like to me.

Now for the blank page! What I mean by that is where a Western composer begins: instead of with a whole set of traditional practices, instruments, genres, motifs and rhythmic structures, he or she begins with a blank page. Now, of course, it is only blank in terms of possibility, not in terms of knowledge. Our composer knows a great deal, presumably, from the sound and style of early music going right back to the 12th century, to the contrapuntal structures of Bach, the motivic intensity of Beethoven, the lyricism of Schubert, the orchestration of Mahler and so on, right through all the modernist experiments of the 20th century. He or she also has a hundred or a thousand musical structures to draw on from the binary dances of the Baroque to the small ternary and sonata forms of the Classical Era, to the host of other genres and forms that have been used in Western music: bourrée, gigue, nocturne, symphony, tone poem, and on and on.

But it is still a blank page in the sense that the composer can choose ANY or NONE of the forms, styles, genres, techniques and methods available. They can be ignored completely or combined in any imaginable way. This is where the considerable difference between "classical", "concert" or "art" music comes when compared to all of the traditional musics. Not to disparage any of them, of course, because they are wonderful musical expressions and, to be honest, classical composers are always stealing from them!

But the simple fact that classical musicians do not, as a rule, just sit down and jam, points to the difference. This is usually misinterpreted as meaning that classical musicians are less creative or tied to some dead notes on paper or something. But the real reason is that composers start with that blank page and in order to know what they did with it, you have to see what they wrote. An Indian musician or a blues musician knows how the song is going to go in general terms--a classical musician really has no idea because the possibilities are so great.

It could be this:

(yes, they are playing from memory, but it was all written down)

Or this:

and the classical musicians don't know which until they open the score.

(Well, sure, I'm exaggerating a tad to make a point!)

These are two extremes of "classical" music and while one uses a few tuned drums and the other a very large orchestra, they are both based on the idea of starting with a blank page and inventing something, basically from scratch.

What we see or hear with traditional musics like Indian ragas, is a highly-developed vocabulary of structures and motifs that are learned by rote and then improvised on with great skill. Composers, as such, don't really exist. Much of this music I would describe as being "pre-composed". A lot of the basic texture and motifs is learned over a lengthy apprenticeship which is fundamentally different from what a student composer does. He or she certainly learns a lot about music. But then, as soon as you sit down in front of that blank page, you essentially throw all the details away so that you can invent something new.


Jeph said...

I think you're on to something here. Notation (and study and transmission to the next generation) is what allows the Western tradition to grow and change and go DEEPER than the other traditions. Composers can study exactly what their forebears did and improve it, expand it, deepen it. Maybe this is why makers of art music are so concerned with the future and what it should sound like. The need to deepen, refine, and perfect our understanding of music seems written into the "art" musician's DNA. The Indian tradition is gorgeous, but fairly static in its development compared to the sprawling breadth and depth of Western art music, and the speed and novelty of its development. However I think that the point of diminishing returns (prickly Modernism)has been reached and where to go next is the big question.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the comment! You captured just what I was trying to get at.