The art of music

Before reading this post you may want to orient yourself: Music and Art in the Urban Dictionary. Notice there are 150+ contributions on music, and only 50+ on art. Also, the number of likes and dislikes on music runs into many thousands, whereas art gets a few hundreds.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Music is an art form whose medium is sound. Common elements of music are pitch (which governs melody and harmony), rhythm (and its associated concepts tempo, meter, and articulation), dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. The word derives from Greek μουσική (mousike), “(art) of the Muses.”

Wikipedia is in broad company; in many encyclopedias and musicological literature the strange mistake is made to call music an art. The problem is simple. In the case of language we wouldn’t dream of calling language an art. Literature, poetry, both written and oral, perhaps, possibly, arguably. But language no way. The same should be applied to music. However, in the case of music we do not have two different words to refer to the general phenomenon and the specific one. And what makes this specific one an art? Certainly not that it is “art music”. Because art music is yet a more specific thingy. Let’s get to the bottom of this terminology:

Art (noun)

  1. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power: “the art of the Renaissance” | “great art is concerned with moral imperfections” | “she studied art in Paris”.
    1. works produced by such skill and imagination: “his collection of modern art” | “an exhibition of Tibetan art” | [as adj. ] “an art critic”.
    2. creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture : “she’s good at art”.
  2. ( the arts) the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance: “the visual arts” | [in sing. ] “the art of photography”.
  3. ( arts) subjects of study primarily concerned with the processes and products of human creativity and social life, such as languages, literature, and history (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects): “the belief that the arts and sciences were incompatible” | “the Faculty of Arts”.
  4. a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice : “the art of conversation”.

The apple dictionary does the same thing under 2. Music is in the same row as literature. And so are dance and painting. I spent a few days painting the bathroom walls. I’ve been dancing all night. Art? In 1 and 2 there is reference to creativity, creative activity, creative skill (what’s that?), imagination. Under 3 also there is reference to creativity but in the expression “creativity and social life” it becomes very vague. And isn’t history a bit odd here? With 4 we get a completely different turn: “a skill acquired through practice”. I’m surprised that these definitions put little stress on aesthetics. I would call music, dance, painting, photography an art when the people who practice them have a conception of aesthetics and when there is skill involved. I don’t say that this is necessarily a watertight definition, but it should play a role. The yet more specific term “art music” is a particularly narrow socio-cultural phenomenon that we find in societies with a considerable degree of labour specialization in which there are specialists who devote themselves (almost) entirely to the refining of skills within a framework of aesthetics.And evidently, with this distinction there is a lot of music (and painting, dancing, photography) that is not art and is not meant to be art. In fact, it doesn’t want to be art. Painting walls doesn’t really interest me profoundly (though the combining of colours can be art for sure), but all music interests me as a musicologist. In the same way a linguist is interested in language in a general way.


On classifying music

Why do people want to classify anything at all and in particular music? On the one hand because classifying is the human need to understand and control. On the other because it’s practical. For instance, if you have lots of music in a shop, in your library or in your itunes library, classification can help you to find something you’re looking for more quickly. In a way, this relates directly to the first reason, for understanding and controlling is an evolutionary adaptation that derives from the experience that young buffaloes are more tasty than old ones and that coral snakes kill while scarlet snakes don’t.

When I wake up in the early morning I may think of a particular piece of music that I would like to listen to, by the famous late morning composer Cronelli of Babylonia. Knowing that this music falls in the category of depilated silence programs I move quickly to room VII on the 3d floor where I expect to find the appropriate score under the alphabetic code of “C”. Score? Do you listen to scores? Of course! A real – or rather royal – musicologist wouldn’t dream of listening to silly interpretations of the real – or royal – thing. Some people may think that the football club named “Real Madrid” is the only the real Madrid, as opposed to the false Madrid that spreads around Plaza Mayor, but the word “real” is really “Ray-Ahl” which means royal. And in that sense, many times when we write “real” as in “reel” we really mean royal.

On similar note I should mention an etymology that struck me as I was walking down the Avenida Brigadeiro Luís Antônio in São Paulo. The very word brigadeiro, known in English as brigadier (a military rank) and in Dutch as brigadier (a rank in the national police force), derives from French brigade, a kind of battalion, which again derives from the vulgar western latin briga (a quarrel) or brigar (to quarrel). Which again confirms what we already knew; that police and army are not around to keep the peace and order but to quarrel. On the other hand, a brigadeiro is a typical Brazilian sweet, and considering that in Brazil the verb “comer” means to eat but also to have sexual intercourse, comer um brigadeiro has an interesting double meaning.

The most common classification of music, that is created by the dictatorship of consumption, as reflected in the record/cd-shops, the concert circuit and the media is in classical, jazz, pop, folk and world. In other words, it is a Marixist-materialialist classification. From a musicological point of view jazz and world don’t belong in this list. And classical is a misnomer. Therefore, a better classification is art, pop and folk. According to Narayana Menon yet better is religious, art, pop, folk and tribal. This classification is based on the division of society into the hierarchy of (1) the clergy, (2) the rulers, (3) the (pre-)industrial masses of the city involved in services, labour and handicrafts, (4) the masses of the land tilling the soil and herding the cattle and (5) the tribals living in the inaccessible regions and maintaining their original lifestyle.

Ashok Ranade refined this list and added two types of music: primitive music (which according to him is not tribal music) and fusion. Now things are getting slightly complicated. I’m not entirely sure what Ashok means with the distinction of primitive and tribal. I would suggest that instead of primitive we should speak of primordial. With this, we refer to the beginnings of music making. When man started this devious and pathological behaviour it must have been something very basic, very primitive indeed. Maybe rhythmical beating, banging or pounding, maybe melodic hooting or moaning. Some scholars (Mithen) believe that melodic vocalisations were anterior – which would imply women invented music (what do you hoot with?), other believe the rhythmical element came earlier, leaving the honours to the male (bang bang). To cut a long story short, for the (fully developed) musics of extant peoples the term primitive should be eschewed. As an example let’s look at Leonard Meyer’s definition:

If we ask, “what is the fundamental difference between sophisticated art music and primitive music” (and I do not include under the term “primitive” the highly sophisticated music which so-called primitives often play), then we can point to the fact that primitive music generally employs a smaller repertory of tones, that the distance of these notes from the tonic is smaller, that there is a great deal of repetition, though often slightly varied repetition, and so forth. (Meyer, Some Remarks on Greatness and Value in Music, 1959: 493-4)

I admire the work of Leonard Meyer but here he got himself entangled in a crazy trap. On the one hand he goes in the right direction when he says “the highly sophisticated music which so-called primitives often play”, but on the other hand the rest of definition reminds me awfully much of Indian art music, possibly the most “sophisticated” music around on this planet. In fact, the rest of the artice doesn’t really go very far in convincing me of anything at all.

Back to Ranade’s second addition “fusion”, which is even more confusing. For, though people may think of certain musics as “authentic”, “original”, “pure”, “autonomous” and indeed primitive in the sense of primordial, I strongly surmise that no music has developed in complete isolation and that therefore all musics are hybrid. And that not only holds true for the music of ethnicities, nations and regions, but also for the categories that we’re discussing here. So in the end:

¿There are only two types of music: good music and bad music?

How often have I already heard this cliché? And it’s usually the “professional” musickers that blurt out this one-liner. Good music is their music and whatever they like. Bad music is the rest.

You may have guessed; I don’t agree. There’s more to it. For instance, “interesting music”. Interesting music is music that doesn’t do anything to us, but that we also cannot ditch right away. We’re puzzled, it evidently holds secrets, we don’t really understand it. Maybe it’s not music at all, but it perks the ears. Maybe we find it pretty disgusting, but we don’t know why. And if listen a number of times we may start to like it, or part of it.

But interesting isn’t all there is to music. Now I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of perfect, terrible, sublime, irritating, pleasing, dull, pompous, exciting, easy, tasteless, cheap and sad music. And possibly I’ll go beyond adjectives, in Roland Barthes’ footsteps.

In previous blogs I examined the questions “is music necessarily an art?” and “can we meaningfully keep aside a category of music as art music?” Both questions were answered in the negative. In both phrases art is a noun. In the compound “art music” the first noun functions as a qualifier to the second, like in the case of a “paper bag”, which is a bag made of paper (or a bag to carry your paper), not a baggy paper or a paper made from a bag. Similarly art music is music done in an arty way, not art done musically. The latter would be music art, which is something else, something postmodern that we probably want to stay far from. Living is dangerous Riobaldo correctly observed.

Art is something wonderful, it is exalted and elevated, it is good and great, marvellous and sublime, etc. etc., sometimes it is even fine (though music is not a fine art because it is performed). I contend that all these qualifications have a very simple background: “My music is art music > art music is superior > my music is superior”. Moreover, because I am my music, I am superior. So far so good, but what about the rest? If we are clever we say, “your music is almost art music”. That sword cuts on both sides. It re-establishes the superiority of our music, but it also suggests to the second person other (you) that ‘your’ music is better than yet other other music, that of them (third person plural). Them – despicable, bah! This is called divide and rule, or the patronage system. Let us not forget however that the two-edged sword is dangerous – one false movement and your own head is rolling over the cobbles.

I don’t think it is outright meanness that makes people do this, they genuinely love their own music (whatever music they consider their own), and cannot understand that other people love other music. And if they insist on doing so we will make clear to them that they are fools. Which brings us to the second strategy: “Your music is popular music > popular music is inferior > your music is inferior” etc. etc. You may think this is all outmoded, but that would only prove that you are a dozy left-wing postmodernist. Almost all writings on music are concerned in one way or another with those hierarchies and ways of establishing and reinforcing them. Now since the large majority of musicological literature in modern european languages is written by people who love what they usually refer to as “classical music”, it is mainly that music that is being promoted. Leonard Meyer, one of the musicologists I most esteem, does it too, in a very subtle manner. He explains in detail what makes the “sophisticated” music that he loves so “great”, opposes this to the quick and easy popular forms, and projects “the highly sophisticated music which some so-called “primitives” play in between. In passing he redefines primitive music – which we gather is really popular music, and not what some primitives play. And surely, I do it too, for the musics I love definitely want to be praised, and the music I love even more wants to know it. The debate between Tomlinson and Kramer, with Marion Guck’s commentary might be useful further reading.

The way in which musicians and musicologists ingeniously manipulate language to pull off this trick is sometimes shocking. Take Boulez, who says “Indian music is perfect, but because it is perfect it is dead”. Or take Barthes, who brings in the mysterious grain of the voice to prove that his deeply beloved teacher Panzera is really much better than the widely adored Fischer-Dieskau.

Sophistication, complexity and artfulness are some of the most widely used characteristics that distinguish musics from each other. Or so we think, because these three characteristics are very tricky and relative. A piece by Bach may be complex in its use of several voices and many instruments but it’s melodic structure and rhythmic organisation will be much more simple than the single voice & drum duet of Indian music. And as Meyer puts it, “the highly sophisticated music of some so-called primitives” is really very artful.

I propose a new classification as follows:

  1. Meaningful music
    1. Sad music
    2. Grandiose music
    3. Nice music
  2. Meaningless music
    1. Useful music
    2. Interesting music
    3. Bad music

Useful music is a very important category. It is meaningless because it doesn’t tell anything, it helps people to do certain things, it has a function like to make people dance or work. In principle this is true for all music.

Interesting music is music that is meaningful to people who know it but not to others. When I listen to a music I have never heard before I may think “I don’t understand it, but it seems interesting”. It’s like listening to an animated conversation in a language you don’t know. In principle this is true for all music.

Bad music is meaningless because the maker is not competent and cannot communicate anything through it. It’s like when you have done a starter’s course in a foreign language and you talk to a native whose eyes grow wider and wider. This is not true for all music, but it can be.

Sad music is the music that most profoundly stirs our soul. But the sadness of music is not the sadness of (daily) life. It is cosmic sadness that brings about empathy, compassion and oneness (in multiplicity).  In principle this is true for all truly great music (haha).

Grandiose music is the music Hanslick likes; mainly massive instrumental orchestras. It is often heard in British documentaries that attempt to move us through the exaltation of genius and greatness.

Nice music is nice. We like it, but it doesn’t move us. Interesting music can be nice also. In the end, all music is nice music, depending on the way you listen to it.

The distinction between sad music and grandiose music (that could also be called imperious, overbearing, domineering, magisterial, pontifical, pompous, affected, pretentious, stupifying) is culturally very important. The nineteenth century Anglo-German project in which Hanslick played such an important role was all about countering Rousseau’s criticism of noisy symphonies and instrumental ensembles. Rousseau propagated the importance of delicate inflections of the natural voice that could bring out the most subtle inners meanings of texts. But in the nineteenth century emotionality became something for fainting women (and queirdo’s); it made people weak and soft, unfit for battle and leadership. But why sad and not something more encompassing like “emotionally meaningful”, thus including merry, angry, amazing, erotic, boisterous, fearful, disgusting…? One the one hand because I do agree with Hanslick that the specific emotions as named here in the English language are not very relevant to music. Music expresses different things than language in a different way – they are mutually untranslatable. On the other hand because I agree with Bhavabhuti that the “sad” or “compassionate” lies at the basis of all emotional experience. It is a stratum beyond the classical drives of fear and eroticism, that lead to exitement and disturbance, whereas the stratum of compassion (karuna) and surrender (samarpan) will turn us back to the peace before and after (following Abhinavagupta).

There are many more ways of categorising and by that implicitly evaluating musics. I would like to draw attention to a particularly nasty one, “pest music”. This compound noun to refers to loud music that some people play in much the same way dogs piss agains poles. They think it’s great and invest in powerful blasters to let everybody know they’re there. They are aggressive little devils desperately want to splatter their genes around but as a substitute or preparation quirt those musical memes around. More about this in Momus’ blog “Hell is other people’s music“.

Muziek en tijd in India

Muziek en tijd in India

Het lijken twee tegenovergestelde benaderingen tot tijd in muziek; de vrije raga-alap en het strakke tala. Misschien is die tegenstelling en die reikwijdte typerend voor de manier waarop tijd in India wordt beleefd. Enerzijds de bijzonder strikte, bijna rituele benadering, en anderzijds de totaal open conceptie van tijd als een diffuus continuüm.

© Artikel verschenen in Mens en Melodie #5 2009 p. 7-9


Muziek is een uitvoerende en dus een tijdgebonden kunst. We kunnen muziek loskoppelen van de tijd door haar op te schrijven, middels notatie of partituur en haar als een visueel object bekijken. Ook door opnametechniek en met multimedia kunnen we muziek van haar lineaire dwangbuis bevrijden en er een geheel andere beleving aan geven. Maar toch is dat een vrij zeldzame en ongebruikelijke manier om met muziek om te gaan – verreweg de meeste mensen luisteren naar muziek en doen dat binnen de tijdgebonden structuur van begin en einde, met bewegingen, secties, ontwikkelingen, variaties, improvisaties, enzovoort. Omdat muziek gebonden is aan de tijd bepaalt zij ook de manier waarop we tijd tijdens het luisterproces beleven.

De betekenis en beleving van tijd verschilt van cultuur tot cultuur en het is dan ook onvermijdelijk dat de wijze waarop tijd wordt gebruikt in muziek per cultuur varieert. Bij beschouwingen over de relatie tussen muziek en cultuur wordt vaak grof gegeneraliseerd en is de relatie niet hard te maken. Een bekend voorbeeld daarvan is de gedachte dat de Indiase muziek gebaseerd is op cyclische metriek en dat dit zou samenhangen met het cyclische denken in het Indiase denken. Zo’n theorie is echter weinig steekhoudend, ten eerste omdat Indiase muziek niet aantoonbaar meer cyclisch is dan andere muzieksoorten en ten tweede omdat cyclisch denken in de India niet aantoonbaar belangrijker is dan in andere culturen (waarbij moet worden opgemerkt dat er niet zoiets is als “het Indiase denken – er zijn talrijke stromingen en scholen die vaak sterk van elkaar verschillen). Een ander patent probleem is de vermeende spiritualiteit van de Indiase cultuur die dan ook weer tot uiting zou komen in de muziek. Behalve dat ik eigenlijk niet zo goed weet wat dat is – spiritualiteit – lijkt het me ook moeilijk aan te tonen dat dit kenmerkend is voor de Indiase cultuur, of op zijn minst, belangrijker dan in andere culturen. Sterker nog, de vermeende spiritualiteit van India is een verzinsel van Europeanen en Amerikanen die op zoek zijn naar waarden die zij in hun eigen omgeving missen. Een verzinsel dat  door een aantal Indiërs slim is gebruikt omdat het – ironisch genoeg – materieel voordeel opleverde. Vele zogenaamde goeroes zijn hiervan flagrante voorbeelden. Maar ook in het geval van sommige befaamde musici – voorop Ravi Shankar – is de ‘spirituele’ positionering in de muziekwereld toch vrij vaag. Wierook, gevouwen handen en het beroep op de goddelijke gave van inspiratie in improvisatie zijn naar mijn mening geen overtuigend bewijs van spiritualiteit. Dat neemt natuurlijk niet weg dat wanneer een aantal mensen het met elkaar eens zijn over zo’n begrip het een eigen leven leidt dat cultureel betekenisvol is. Wat ik hier vooral probeer duidelijk te maken is dat die betekenis niet zozeer specifiek India betreft maar veeleer een interactie tussen westerse en Indiase ideeën.

In dit artikel zal ik niet proberen om meta-culturele relaties tussen muziek en tijd aan te tonen. In plaats daarvan stel ik voor om in enig detail te kijken naar het gebruik van tijd in de muziek en daaruit conclusies te trekken die wellicht ook relevant zijn voor de manier waarop tijd in de Indiase cultuur beleefd wordt.

Alap, de vrije expressie van de raga

In de klassieke muziek van India zijn er twee manieren om aan tijd te relateren, gebonden (nibaddh) en vrij (anibaddh). Met gebonden wordt bedoeld dat melodie (en eventueel tekst bij zang-genres) in een vaste structuur gekoppeld is aan een vast en regelmatig metrum. Vrije muziek strekt zich uit in de tijd zonder dat er enige regelmaat in de tijdsindeling is te herkennen. Noten zweven voor onbepaalde duur, glissandi strekken zich uit als rollende heuvels, flitsende versieringen doorbreken onverwacht de dromerige atmosfeer. Het is een enkele melodische lijn, er is geen polyfonie of functionele harmonie, behalve de constant klinkende ‘drone’, het doek waartegen de musicus de melodie projecteert. De drone is van groot belang, omdat de microtonaliteit en versieringen die als geluidssculpturen het tijd-ruimte continuüm verbeelden alleen met precisie kunnen worden uitgevoerd tegen de achtergrond van de drone.

Het is in dit onderdeel van een uitvoering, de alap, dat de raga het best tot uitdrukking komt. De reden daarvoor is dat er geen afgepaste tijdseenheden zijn. Geen maat, geen tempo, geen metrum, geen puls, geen ritme. Indiase musici noemen het vaak ‘pure muziek’, waarmee zij impliceren dat muziek eigenlijk moet worden gelijkgesteld met melodische beweging. Dat ritme dus eigenlijk geen muziek is. Maar wat is dan die raga die in de alap ten gehore wordt gebracht? Het antwoord op die vraag complex. Enerzijds zijn er de musici en musicologen die beweren dat een raga een set van regels is waarbinnen de musicus vrij is om te improviseren. Zulke regels omvatten het toonmateriaal (waar beslist niet van afgeweken mag worden), de volgorde waarin tonen gebruikt mogen worden, welke tonen als eindpunt van frasen kunnen worden gebruikt, welke versieringen verplicht dan wel verboden zijn, welke tonen benadrukt moeten worden (of juist niet) en nog zo wat. Daartegenover staan zij die een raga zien als een verzameling van muzikale ideeën die bij elkaar horen, vooral belichaamd in traditionele composities. Ook zij houden zich aan de regels, maar zij beschouwen de regels als een afgeleide van de composities van grote meesters. Voor hen is de schier oneindige verzameling van muzikale ideeën die bestaat in het collectieve bewustzijn van de praktiserende musici de ware inhoud van de raga. Hoe dan ook, in beide gevallen wordt een raga als een fundamenteel muzikaal principe beschouwd. Een raga wordt in India wel een ‘entiteit’ wordt genoemd, een soort godheid, een ‘wezen’. Het uitbeelden van een raga door middel van alap wordt in India als het hoogste in muziek gezien. De bevrijding van het ritme is daarbij van extreem belang. Het is wel interessant om dit te vergelijken met de negentiende eeuwse Europese concepten van ‘absolute muziek’ en de ‘emancipatie van de muziek’. Daarbij werd gerefereerd aan muziek die niet afhankelijk was van tekst en emotie. Eigenlijk gebeurt in Indiase muziek iets soortgelijks, zij het dat het vooral gaat om de bevrijding van de melodie van de ritmische dwangbuis. Door die buitengewoon subtiele bewegingen, die volstrekt ondefinieerbare tijdseenheden, die vervagende glijtonen die de tijd nog flexibeler maken komt de raga tot leven. De grootste zangeres van India van deze tijd, Kishori Amonkar gaat nog verder. Voor haar is een uitvoering van een raga pas geslaagd wanneer zij zichzelf volledig vergeet en de raga zich door haar ten gehore laat brengen. Het is niet de zangeres die de raga uitvoert, maar de raga die zich door de zangeres manifesteert. Wie Kishori wel eens gehoord heeft weet dat er tijdens haar concerten inderdaad zoiets plaatsvindt. Ik ken Kishori redelijk goed en geloof dat zij daadwerkelijk op deze wijze leeft en interacteert met de raga-s. Overigens, voor de goede orde, gezongen alap maakt geen gebruik van woorden – het zijn dus geen liederen.

Het vrije gebruik van onregelmatige tijdsduur, is alleen mogelijk wanneer de artiest ook vrij is om tijdsduur naar eigen inzicht te gebruiken. Met andere woorden, door middel van improvisatie. Niets is precies voorgeschreven – of althans, zo lijkt het. Want in werkelijkheid ligt die enorme collectieve kennis van alle denkbare en ooit bedachte frasen in een raga ten grondslag aan de uitvoering. Of improviseren hier nu wel het juiste woord is mag worden betwijfeld. Maar dat is een ander onderwerp.

Tala, structuur in de tijd

De ritmische tegenhanger van raga is tala. Tala is de essentie van  ‘gebonden’ muziek, muziek die in regelmatige tijdseenheden wordt uitgevoerd. Tala wordt vaak gerelateerd aan de drums van de Indiase muziek – tabla, pakhavaj, mridangam en ghatam. Maar eigenlijk ligt tala een niveau dieper dan de drums. Tala betekent letterlijk het tellen of klappen met de hand, en het gaat om een indeling van de tijd in strakke eenheden. Want zo vrij als alap is met tijd, zo precies is tala. Tala heeft een veel langere geschiedenis in India dan raga en ritmische muziek is ongetwijfeld veel fundamenteler dan ‘vrije’ melodische muziek. De tellen van een maatsoort zijn in principe gelijk en er is geen rubato in het tala zelf, het enige wat toegestaan is, is een geleidelijke toename van het tempo. Tala is ook uiterst complex – niet alleen zijn er allerlei ingewikkelde maatsoorten met 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14 en 16 tellen (en nog veel meer), maar ook wordt er binnen die maatsoorten gegoocheld met onderverdelingen van tellen in 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 of 8 eenheden. Verder wordt er graag met nog complexere indelingen gewerkt van 7 tegen 4 of 5 tegen 8 enzovoort. Maar de basisstructuur wordt met klappen bijgehouden en het publiek klapt gewoonlijk mee. Zo wordt in het twaalf-tellige chautal-ritme geklapt op de eerste, de vijfde, de negende en de elfde tel. Die vaste structuur gaat altijd door, altijd even strak en precies. De solist en de drummer kunnen in principe improviseren rond deze vaste structuur of er tegenin gaan, maar zij komen altijd gezamenlijk terug op de eerste tel, vaak met de meest acrobatische variaties.

Tala is misschien nog wel belangrijker dan raga. Tala is de belichaming van een onderliggende structuur die we wel (tijdelijk) kunnen ontkennen of verbergen, zoals in alap het geval is, maar die uiteindelijk altijd door blijft gaan. Een structuur ook die bijna meedogenloos is in haar precisie en continuïteit. Terzijde is het interessant dat het totale oeuvre van drum-composities naar schatting tien keer zo omvangrijk is als dat van melodische composities.


Het lijken twee tegenovergestelde benaderingen tot tijd in muziek; de vrije raga-alap en het strakke tala. Misschien is die tegenstelling en die reikwijdte typerend voor de manier waarop tijd in India wordt beleefd. Enerzijds de bijzonder strikte, bijna rituele benadering, en anderzijds de totaal open conceptie van tijd als een diffuus continuüm.

Wat zegt alap als de vrije vorm van raga-expositie over tijdsbeleving in India? In ieder geval is een cyclisch tijdsbegrip hier niet aan de orde.  Sterker nog, door het uitbannen van iedere vorm van regelmaat of vaste tijdsduur, ontstaat een gedifferentieerde tijdsbeleving. De tijd wordt getransformeerd als een ruimtelijke projectie waarin hoogte (tonen, microtonen en glissandi), breedte (dynamiek en timbre) en diepte (duur) geen vaste verhoudingen kennen maar in een samenspel tussen raga en artiest eigen vormen aannemen.

Moeten we concluderen dat het Indiase tala een fundamentele culturele visie op tijd representeert? Ongetwijfeld zegt ook het tala-begrip iets over de beleving van tijd in India. En misschien is het ook geen toeval dat tala een sterk mathematisch karakter heeft als we denken aan de vele grote wiskundigen die India heeft voortgebracht, van de zesde eeuwse Aryabhatta die de ‘nul’ bedacht tot recente Nobelprijs winnaars.

Het is tenslotte boeiend te constateren dat deze bijna extreem tegenovergestelde vormen van tijdsbeleving ook met elkaar gecombineerd kunnen worden. De tellen worden daarbij opgerekt tot zo’n 5 seconden per tel zodat er een ruimte ontstaat van een minuut in een twaalftellige cyclus, waarbinnen de solist de alap volkomen vrij kan projecteren om aan het eind van die cyclus toch weer terug te keren naar de eerste tel.  Zoals de melodie in hoogte wordt geprojecteerd tegen de constante drone wordt zij in tijdsduur geprojecteerd tegen de constant doorgaande ritmische cyclus.

Expressive vocalisms in Kesar Bai’s Lalita gauri

Illustrations of expressive moments in Kesar Bai Kerkar’s famous recording of Lalita Gauri (1956). It is on the basis of audience response (interjections like “vah vah”) that we consider these moments particularly emotive.

movie 1: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 125-145s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

The first passage occurs around 140 seconds from the beginning of the recording. The ‘wah’ at the end follows immediately after the passage that goes from the major seventh through the extremely low minor second (143-44s) and ending on the tonic. The minor second is lower than 50 cents as we can well see in the graph, and as such could be considered a raised tonic. However, within the tradition, experts will say, “this the shruti of komal rishabh” (the microtonal lowering of the minor second). Theories about such microtonal positions are innumerable, the minor second being postulated by different authors at 70, 90 and 112 cents (Daniélou, 1968; Clements, 1913), though never as low as 50 cents. As has been demonstrated by several authors (van der Meer, 2000; Levy, 1982; Jairazbhoy and Stone, 1963) those postulations are indeed no more than postulations (for a discussion of the history of these notions see Rao and van der Meer, 2010). However, that the ‘essence’ (I am taking the liberty of using this literal translation of the concept rasa) of Indian music is located somewhere ‘between the notes’ remains true. The hint that Kesar Bai makes of the minor second is indeed very convincing and powerful. She evidently heavily exaggerates the lowness of this minor second. For starters let me stress that there is no accident here. Throughout the performance Kesar Bai’s intonation is very precise, and I have demonstrated elsewhere that Indian vocalists have great control over intonation (Meer, 2000), in some cases down to a few cents. It is well-known that ‘great’ artists (I am using the term great here in the sense of renowned, famous) tend to ‘play more with intonation then younger and less known musicians, i.e. they use more ‘standard’ intonation. As in all of the examples I am going to discuss, the reaction of the audience is not referring only to the last few notes. We have to look at the context, because that will provide the buildup that makes the final expression meaningful. Surely, in the case of an artiste of Kesar Bai’s calibre, the whole piece has a design. It is event driven, in the sense that one choice leads to another (it is largely improvised), and the audience response plays an important role. But every phrase, and every set of phrases, every cycle of the rhythm, has a master-plan of its own, even if it is not pre-composed. In this particular case, just prior to the passage I am discussing she has emanated a prolonged major third, that obviously plays a pivotal role in her rendition of this complex raga. And then, at 128s, there is this remarkable sound, that strange peaked form, in which we clearly hear her voice going from the tonic to the fifth, then down back to the tonic, with a very short touch on the major third and a slightly longer minor second. Then from 129 to 136s a prolonged tonic, followed by a seventh from 136 to 139s, a pause (the image shows a tonic, but that is from the drone). Then she reiterates the seventh and follows with the suggested minor second. This movement forms a whole, and so it would be inappropriate for the audience to interrupt it with approval. What I am suggesting here, is that the audience is not only approving of the extremely flat minor second, but also of the whole phrase leading up to it. In fact, if we would isolate the last portion, it would not have the same effect. What we hear (and see) in this passage is on the one hand an ostensible affirmation of one of the characteristic phrases of the raga Lalitagauri (B,Db,C), but at the same time using a minor second that is so extremely low that we could almost call it shocking.

By the way, there is a short “vah” also at 133, which I take to be an appreciation of the blending of the voice with the tanpura. Well-trained musicians in India have an uncanny level of ‘tunefulness’, what is referred to as ‘entering into the core of the note’. In the extensive measurements I have done on hundreds of recordings I have demonstrated that the tonic and the fifth are often statistically within 0.5 cents from the 0 cents and 702 cents positions.

Movie 2: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 135-155s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

The second excerpt continues from the first one, and overlaps with it. There is, in this frame, another reaction from the audience to the passage at 153-54s. This is a typical ornamentation called murki (a kind of mordent). The basic pattern is C-Db-C-BC-B—- (SRSNSN8), but obviously PRAAT has not captured this in an unambiguous manner. Faster movements pose serious problems of interpretation in graphs, as I have discussed elsewhere (van der Meer and Rao, 2006). I have included a stretched view (2b) of this ornamentation, in which we can clearly observe how the graphical representation is very different from what we actually hear, even if this is not a very fast movement, compared to the more common manner in which murki is performed. This is actually typical of the school to which Kesar Bai belonged, the Jaipur gharana (tradition, school), as opposed to the more rapid and jerky manner of making such ornaments in most other schools. I would estimate that the reaction of the audience to this particular event is related to the slow and deliberate execution of the ornament. There is no reason to believe that the reaction has anything to do with the interpretation of the raga, instead it is the elegance of the ornamentation itself that triggers the response.

Movie 3: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 195-215s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

The next passage (Figure 3) starts from the tonic (196-202s), after which she sings the same murki that we have seen in example 2 (203-204s), followed by the movement 11-0-1-4 (B C Db E from 203-213s)). There is a clear audience reaction immediately after the major third from 208 to 213s. This major third is typically ‘harmonic’ (just intonation), probably even lower than the 386 cents of the harmonic major third of 5/4 (my measurements indicate it is approximately 375 cents). This seems to corroborate the idea that she intentionally exaggerates the ‘desired’ intonation,9 which is clearly appreciated by the audience. I need to stress here that it is quite unlikely that this intonation would be a random coincidence or ‘error’ by the performer. I have demonstrated elsewhere (van der Meer, 2000) that intonation in Hindustani music is extremely controlled and precise, and even if we accept that the cassette recording may have considerable fluctuations in speed/pitch this would not affect the relative positions of intonations within their context. But here it is not only about the remarkably low intonation of the major third, it is also about the way she slowly rises from the minor second upwards by a long drawn glide (mind). We saw in figure 2 an example of slow ornamentation of the murki-type, and here we have an example of a slow glide (if we can call it ornamentation at all – as the spaces between the notes seem to play as crucial a role as the notes themselves or even more so). In this case we can safely say that the movement is part of Lalitagauri’s ethos, but that its expressivity is also of a more general nature resulting from the elegance of rendering the ornament and intonation; first rising slowly from the minor second to the major third, and then holding the steady major third at a very low position. I may add that in India there is strong sensitivity about this harmonic major third as it is very audible in the drone (tanpura). This major third is referred to as svayambhu gandhara (the major third that is inherent in the drone, i.e. the fifth partial). In fact the tempered major third is felt to be extremely dissonant.

Movie 4: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 260-280s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

Also this fourth excerpt contains a melodic movement towards the major third. The movements I have discussed all reflect the raga Lalitagauri, but it is in this passage that some of the most characteristic features of the raga are highlighted. This is particularly marked at the beginning (260-265s), by the phrase F# E Db E Db C C. This phrase is highly characteristic of the raga Gauri (as explained before the raga Lalitagauri is a combination of ragas Gauri and Lalit) and appears very often throughout the performance. It is however the subtle manner by which she steps upward from 272s onward that impresses most. Though the words are unintelligible the vocal inflections give the movement a distinct touch of the intimacy of speech in music. The brisk peaks at 272 and 274s are hardly discernible by ear but yet, we do notice that there are delicate touches that convey the idea of a parlando style of singing. Of course, there is also an element of timing, a kind of speech-like freedom from the musical rhythm. Completely liberated from the pulse of the rhythm, the consonants seem to move independently in their own way. It should be noted that the major third at which this movement ends is quite flat again (380 cents), like the major third in movie 3.

Figure 5: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 320-340 (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds). In the previous figure we saw the Gauri aspect of Lalitagauri being rendered, and in this passage it is the Lalit aspect that comes to the fore. First she moves upward B Dd E (320-326), a movement that is repeated with a faster attack (327-329) and then the chromatic passage E F F# E is repeated four times, with increasing speed and adding small touches in such a way that the two fourths (F and F#) seem to turn round and round with E as a base. Below I have schematically rendered this in staff notation: 

N r G – – , r G – , m M G mMGmMGmG – – –

lalitagauri 5

Figure 6: Schematic transcription of the pitch plot of figure 5. The audience response is clearly heard at 335s, and obviously a reaction to the well executed pattern that so characteristically delineates the raga Lalit.

A large part of the recording is also on line at:

For additional information on Lalitagauri see: Lalita gauri at the AUTRIM site