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Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part III November 28, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Andrew Shahriari, book review, books, China, East Asia, ethnomusicology, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, music, Terry E. Miller, Tibet, world music.
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I indicated that my final blog post on this subject would be about Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question, a discussion of tonality and the nature of music. We will get there, but after a ten-part detour into commentaries on the book World Music: A Global Journey by Terry E. Miller and Andrew Shahriari. This is a logical detour after absorbing Bruno Nettl’s information about ethnomusicology. I will do individual blog posts about each of the areas covered in the book, focusing mainly on the musical examples provided. I will first comment on general observations about the area and the selections provided. I will then post specific notes on each individual selection. These comments are not intended in any way to be definitive exhaustive examinations of the types of music discussed. They are just my comments on the musical examples provided in the context of my discussion of music, physics and metaphysics. (Also, this study will contribute to the new music I am in the process of creating, an effort to meld many international styles together. This is not some politically correct effort to create a global music for humanity. It is simply my fascination, as a composer/music creator, with all the different sorts of musical approaches available to humans. Technology allows me to explore this fascination and create based on it.)

Previous posts from World Music: A Global Journey:
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part I
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part II

East Asia: China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Tibet

General Comments: Of course when we think of Oriental music, we think of pentatonic scales. And pentatonic scales are evident through much of this music. The Chinese music selections offer tamer, less exotic pentatonic scales evoking a major key feel. The pentatonic scales offered in the Japanese selections are more exotic because of the positioning of the tonal center in the scale. The standard major key pentatonic scales are found in most cultures. The Japanese scales appear to be unique to their culture, instantly recognizable as Japanese, or at least as “Oriental,” and certainly offer some opportunities for adventurous music creators. In this group, we also have music examples from Mongolia and Tibet. Particularly the Tibetan music seems well outside the mainstream of conventional human music.

CD 1, Track 16 from World Music: A Global Journey
China: Guqin (“Ancient Zither”)
This is described as an “ancient zither.” The selection plays one musical line. It seems mainly pentatonic, but at times it seems to include all seven diatonic notes of a major scale. Occasionally the line is punctuated with a pitch bend. A general comment about pentatonic scales in Oriental music—they can revolve around an implied major or minor key, and can move back and forth. What is often omitted is the seventh of the implied scale. This makes the music less prone to dissonance away from the overtone series. We still do have dissonance of a sort with movement to cadence points, often implied by a perfect fourth down/perfect fifth up from the tonic. Cadence points on 5 are “dissonant” in the sense that they are not at a final musical destination point, a final resting point. But if we are to include this sort of lack of resolution in the definition of dissonance, we would have to consider this to be a soft dissonance. This is something to keep in mind when looking for universal characteristics of music.

CD 1, Track 17 from World Music: A Global Journey
China: Jiangnan Sizhu (“Silk and Bamboo”) Ensemble
An ensemble plays pentatonic lines with no harmonies. Woodwind/flute sounds dominate the tone up an octave from the other sounds. We can hear plucked and bowed strings. Here’s another example of that classic, quintessential pentatonic feel, with some ambiguity as to whether the tonal center is at 1, or at 6 (which then would be a minor 1). There are little clickity-clack percussions sounds that give us a distinct, strict rhythm pattern, duple, 1-and-2 and 1-and-2. The tonality shifts from different scale degrees according to the listening guide in World Music: A Global Journey. The pace picks up at the end, but there is no real change to the basic music.

CD 1, Track 18 from World Music: A Global Journey
China: Beijing Opera (Jingju)
This music starts out with a gaggle of percussion sounds, as if demanding attention. The music seems to be in a minor pentatonic scale. A female vocalist sings very high, not really shrill, but at an unusual vocal range for “Western” ears. The rhythm becomes less structured as if accompanying something more dramatic. Again, the lines are generally pentatonic.

CD 1, Track 19 from World Music: A Global Journey
China: Revolutionary Beijing Opera (Yangbanxi)
This music sounds very “Western.” Chinese instruments join in, but this is almost completely Western in its feel with tremolo string sections and orchestral trumpets front and center. It a less pentatonic piece and more diatonic. There is a strong tonic to dominant feel in the music. The music can be interesting when it melds some pentatonic moves with the conventional “Western” tonal harmonies. But this is clearly an attempt to “Westernize” “Oriental” music, complete with the big IV-V-I cadence at the end of the piece.

CD 2, Track 1 from World Music: A Global Journey
Mongolia: Urtïn duu (Long soing) with köömei (overtone or throat singing)
This music is in a pentatonic minor, 1-flat 3-4-5-flat 7. There are some very strange sounds offered with this music, probably the “overtones singing” referred to in World Music: A Global Journey. There is a simple melodic line with vocal trills. There are no passing tones and the lines stay within the scale pitches. The vocal line is also accompanied with a bowed single string line. The overtone sound is like a high buzzing flute sound, but is difficult to compare to any other conventional instrumental sound.

CD 2, Track 2 from World Music: A Global Journey
Korea: P’ansori Narrative
This music features a vocalist accompanied by a drum. She roughly follows a pentatonic melodic line, but there is such emotion in the performance that a raging vibrato obscures the pitch at times. The drama punctuates the phrasing. The vocalist speaks at times.

CD 2, Track 3 from World Music: A Global Journey
Japan: Sankyoku (Instrumental Chamber Music)
This music is characterized by an exotic sound, basically one line but with the instruments approaching it not quite in unison. The music is played by a shakuhachi, zither and lute. The mode is exotic: 1, flat 2, 4, 5, flat 6 and flat 7. Many pentatonic scales avoid half steps. This mode seems to embrace them. The “Oriental” sound comes from the wooden flute up an octave over the plucked lute-like strings. But those half steps also seem to be quintessentially Oriental/Japanese. There’s a clear duple rhythm to the music, binding the musicians together. They do play in a quarter/eighth triplet rhythms through much of the music.

CD 2, Track 4 from World Music: A Global Journey
Japan: Kabuki Theater
This music features a very similar mode to the previous selection. There are more instruments playing here, including percussion. The vocalist sings the pitches of the mode. The rhythm is again a duple meter, unifying the piece. And again, we have the characteristic high flute sound and lower string sound.

CD 2, Track 5 from World Music: A Global Journey
Tibet: Buddhist Ritual
This music is completely unique. The first sound implies a tonality, but the next tone is a major 7thlower, giving us the real tonality. The first tone is fluttering trumpet sounds that seem to give us an imprecise pitch. Low male voices chant. On this recording, it was hard to pickup the pitches of the chants because the volume was so low. The low brass tones, by virtue of repeating, insist on the actual tonal center of the selection. There are no discernible scales/modes evident for this music.

Personal Compositional Note: Pentatonic scales do offer fuel for composition, for melody and harmony. They can be dull (because of their banal familiarity) but can play supporting roles for other musical adventures. The exception is the Japanese pentatonic scale offered in the Japanese music selections. This could be a fun scale to use to evolve compelling harmonies and melodies, using different sounds than the “Oriental” instruments we normally hear playing this type of music.

The next post will move to South Asia.

Previous posts on this topic:

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain

Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr

Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker

Measured Tones by Ian Johnston

Exploring Music by Charles Taylor

Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, edited by John Fauvel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson

Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Joscelyn Godwin

The Study of Ethnomusicology by Bruno Nettl


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