Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Listening to non-Western Music

Part of my philosophical approach to music is that listening, composing, evaluating--all those typical activities--always seem to revolve around asking the same questions over and over. I am reminded of this by my post the other day on Philip Glass where he talked about asking over and over "what is music?" Similarly the question "how do you compose music?" is one that composers keep asking and every piece is a kind of answer to it. Another question is "how do you listen to music?" and that is one that we tend to ask less often.

I am still reading that book on "the other classical musics" that I posted about here. It has chapters on Western Classical music and jazz as well as the musics of various non-Western cultures so the title is a bit of a misnomer. A better one would simply be "Music of the World", but that wouldn't sell as well. In any case, as I read each chapter I have the urge to do some listening so I have ordered from Amazon a recording of Javanese gamelan I used to have on vinyl decades ago and a couple of other discs as well. The only non-Western music I have currently on my shelf that is covered in the book is two discs of Andalusian music from Morocco contained in this box:

Sometimes, in my recent explorations of non-Western music, I get a feeling of deja vu. Reading the chapter on Javanese gamelan music I noticed that some of the recommended recordings were ones of Javanese court gamelan that I had owned in the 70s and some of the books were ones I had read around that time as well. This box looks nice and new, but looking at the fine print one sees that the Andalusian music discs are a reissue of ones that were originally released by Harmonia Mundi in 1984--and the recording itself was made in 1977!

In any case, as I had just browsed this box when I first got it, I sat down to listen closely to the Andalusian music. First off, why is it called that? Spain was conquered by Muslim forces in an advance that began early in the 8th century. Incidentally, it was at this time that bowed string instruments, which apparently originated in Central Asia, were brought into Europe for the first time. The Iberian peninsula was slowly won back, but it was not until 1492 that the reconquest was complete. For the whole of the European Middle Ages Spain, or al-Andalus as it was called, was an Islamic territory--at its peak, the Caliphate of Cordoba:

The music developed in this culture has lasted until today and is called "Andalusian music". It is played from Morocco to Egypt in various forms and styles. The style from Morocco is regarded as the most like the original music from al-Andalus and is often called "Andalusian classical music" because of its longevity and prestige. Western instruments like the violin, guitar, lute and oboe are descendants of instruments brought to the Iberian peninsula by the conquerers.

So let's have a listen to some Andalusian music. Luckily the whole of that first CD from the box is available at YouTube:

The whole disc is one long suite with unmeasured instrumental preludes, measured instrumental sections and songs. The claim is that this is very close to the music that was played in al-Andalus in the Middle Ages. In fact, some modern performances of Western Medieval music take this as a kind of model. But how close is it? Impossible to tell really. Sometimes I suspect that all our attempts to recreate very old musical performances are wildly wrong.

So what do you think of this music? It is supposedly a delight to connoisseurs, but I think I fell asleep about three-quarters of the way through. Interesting, yes, but perhaps you would have to listen many times to start to appreciate the subtleties. At this point I am just not sure how to listen to this music.


Christine Lacroix said...

Ouch! I didn't get very far with this one! Maybe it's the sort of thing you have to know from childhood to be able to appreciate....

Bryan Townsend said...

I've listened to it three times now and while it is sounding more familiar, it is still not sounding very interesting or likable.