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Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part V December 6, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Andrew Shahriari, Arab, book review, books, Egypt, ethnomusicology, Iran, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, music, Persia, Sufism, Terry E. Miller, 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
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part III
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part IV

The Middle East: Islam and the Arab World, Iran, Egypt, Sufism, Judaism

General Comments: In my previous post on Indian/Pakistani music, I commented that the music was based on modes and scales, as opposed to melodic and chordal harmonic ideas. The same is true of this music. We know from history that Indian culture interacted with Middle Eastern culture. So-called “Arabic numbers” actually started in India and came to Muslim Arabia from points east. So is difficult to know if the modal nature of Arabic and Persian music evolved separately or evolved cross-culturally. But there are distinct similarities. Of course, experts in Indian and Persian music would be able to point to many differences between their approaches. I know from my experience listening outside of this book that Indian music and Persian music are very different from each other, and are varied within their own styles. But the focus on modes and scales are shared between these regions—that is undeniable. Is this an indication that the use of modes and scales is some sort of universal musical constant?

CD 2, Track 6 from World Music: A Global Journey
Islam: “Call to Prayer”
For a religion that is supposed to be hostile to music, this is a heartfelt solo voice, chanting up and down on what seems to be mainly the first four notes of a major scale. There is a tone of spiritual depth and emotion behind this. My excursions into an international sound are planned to be instrumental, so I won’t be able to tap directly into this. But I will keep in mind the huge musical/spiritual connection in this Muslim “Call to Prayer,”—a call to interact with the Divine, summoned by simple, heartfelt music. To me, the poignancy of this music and its apparent spiritual nature for a religion that is generally considered hostile to music argues for music as a bridge to the Divine, whatever that is.

CD 2, Track 7 from World Music: A Global Journey
Arabic Taqasim Improvisation for Ud and Buzuq
This is a non-rhythmic run up and down what seems to be, by my ears, two exotic modes a perfect fourth apart. Cadences imply the second mode, but the tonality never stays there long. We have a flat second and a flat third in the main mode, so this seems to be Phrygian-like. We have a lute/guitar sound and a metallic string sound, different but close, trading lines.

CD 2, Track 8 from World Music: A Global Journey
Iran: Dastgah for Santur and Voice
The santur is a “hammered” zither. The voice is a female voice that seems to trade time with the santur. I hear a Phrygian mode, particularly in the voice, which starts on 1, drops to flat 7 then up to flat 3, moving down to the flat 2 and the 1. (Or are they starting out focusing on the 5, and I am hearing flat 7 to flat 6 to 5? Or is it neither, and I am cramming this into a “Western” context?”) The santur sounds “out of tune” at times. I suspect this is by design—quarter-tone tunings for the Persian modes. I still hear this music in the context of a twelve tone chromatic scale. Is this my conditioned “Western” ears? Maybe. But the vocalist seems to sing pure intervals, without discernible quarter tones. I still think the human ear detects only so many scale tones, and seven (eight to an octave) may be a universal human limit. I am not going to attribute this to “Western” ears right now. But, I will admit, even if the evidence points toward quarter tones as a viable musical expression in some cultures, I cannot get there. Whether this is due to “Western” ears, or human ears, that is where my own musical vision remains. I have recently listened to other santur music. Again, clearly the santur was tuned to quarter tones. My sensation of music, developed over nearly sixty years of life, does not allow me to experience these as much more than out of tune twelve tone notes. It may be that people growing up in the Persian culture can distinguish quarter-tones. I will say that I found the other santur music I listened to also focused around the manipulation of scales with the quarter tones. I found the rhythm and inventiveness of the handling of the exotic modes to be musically compelling and worthy of consideration for inclusion in my own efforts.

CD 2, Track 9 from World Music: A Global Journey
Egypt: Takht Instrumental Ensemble
We have a really enchanting, exotic ensemble here consisting of a plucked lute, bowed lute, flute, plucked zither and drum. They play the main melody in rhythm in a G harmonic minor, complete with flat 6 and natural 7. The five is definitely used as dominant throughout piece. The listening guide of World Music: A Global Journey indicates their flat 3 is flatter than the “Western” equal temperament flat 3, but I can’t say my ears detected a difference—it sounds like a normal flat 3 to me. This is one of my favorite selections on this musical tour. I’ve played with ideas like this in “Eastern Boogie” from “Issa Music” (and I will play with these ideas more). The musicians do not focus on a harmonic, chordal basis for the melodic lines. That is something I will add in my own musical vision (and did add in “Eastern Boogie”). Otherwise, this is almost like a jazz combo trading solos!

CD 2, Track 10 from World Music: A Global Journey
Turkey: Sufi Dhikr Ceremony
This is mainly a chorus with a flute following the melody and a few background instruments. It is a joyous major key melodic line, with syncopations to give the line rhythmic drive and emotion.

CD 2, Track 11 from World Music: A Global Journey
Judaism: Jewish Shofar and Liturgical Cantillation
We hear a horn setting the tonality with a tonic-dominant fanfare call. The vocal chants in what is an exotic mode with a flat 2 in it. He dwells on the 5 a lot, coming to 1 only infrequently, and of course at the end. This is another one of these flat second/major third scales (frequent in selections from this region). I wonder if the Jewish and Muslim practitioners of this music know how close in style and spirit the “Call to Prayer” and this cantor’s chant are!

Personal Compositional Note: There is no question that I will be using the mode of 1, flat 2, 3, 4, 5, flat 6, 7 and 1/8(octave). This mode offers beautiful sounding harmonies and melodies that will be fresh but not too outlandish to Western ears, and hopefully familiar to Eastern ears. I’ve identified books discussing Arabic and Persian scales/modes. There may be significant numbers of scales. I’m not sure if this is because we’re talking about scales with quarter tones, which I do not see myself employing in my own work. So I’m not sure how far I will go personally into the modal nature of this music. But I have been listening to Arabic and Persian music with the idea that I might pick up some more interesting scales and modes to apply to my own musical vision. Of course, there are exotic timbres from this music that can be incorporated because of the technology now available. I expect to be juxtaposing traditional Arabic and Persian sounds with other sounds from around the world and from different points in time.

The next post will move to Europe.

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


More Than One Path to God—A Controversial Idea? May 19, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Christianity, God, Islam, religious fanaticism, religious tolerance, spirituality, Uncategorized.
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The key to religious tolerance is the recognition that there may be more than one path to God, more than one route to the Divine for the righteous, spiritual human being—that is one of the major themes of my novel about the “Third Crusade,” The Swords of Faith. True, two of the major religions of the world, Christianity and Islam, are proselytizing religions, professing only one legitimate route to God. But except for fanatics, haven’t we all grown to recognize the “more than one path to God” idea, not withstanding less tolerant tenets expressed by those faiths? Recent experience indicates to me that this is not as obvious to others as it is to me. This is an issue we need to face to establish peace in our times.

Let’s start by recognizing a little history. In the movie “Ben Hur” (recently compared to the original book in this blog, Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur”), Balthasar, one of the three “wise men” of Christian tradition, turns to Ben Hur and says “there are many paths to God—I hope yours will not be too difficult.” This struck me as an extraordinary statement for a character who would become one of the first followers of the Jesus teachings. But this isn’t extraordinary at all. At that time, Jesus was preaching about a relationship with God. Christianity—its scriptures and tenets—did not exist. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. In fact, there were no major proselytizing religions at this time. Conquerors in the ancient world simply adopted the gods from the peoples they absorbed and added them to their own gods. So Balthasar’s statement to Ben Hur, given with a tone of benevolence, of fatherly concern and love, makes complete sense.

Balthasar’s hope for Ben Hur still makes complete sense as a simple prayer for all of us to offer each other. But it is not so easy to offer now.

In my essay “Demonizing Islam is Both Wrong and Foolish” (published in Opposing Viewpoints: Islam), I touched on this obliquely, suggesting scriptures, especially those ripped out of context, should not be used to demonize any religion. I heard from angry detractors accusing me of moral equivalence among all religions. One stated to me that Christian scriptures appearing to be fanatic and extreme have been taken out of context, but that Muslim scriptures appearing to be fanatic and extreme were actually meant seriously and should be considered as entirely in context. His implication was that Islam truly is a “bad religion,” an unworthy path to God.

I am not arguing for moral equivalence among all religions. I have no trouble making the judgment that the Aztec priests tearing the hearts out of live human beings were practicing an evil religion. I’ll add to that the judgment that a Muslim fanatic who sends a Downs-Syndrome child strapped with bombs into a crowded area to kill as many innocent people as possible is committing evil in the name of his religion.

The question becomes how to judge these acts. I think this is not difficult at all. We can use a principle found in cultures from ancient Greece and ancient China to the Buddhist faith to Christianity and Islam—what is often called the “Golden Rule.” If you wouldn’t want your heart torn from your living body in front of masses of people staring at your final agony, don’t do it to someone else. If you wouldn’t want to be blown up, or sent unwittingly to blow up others, don’t do it to someone else.

For those who have touched the spiritual force, there is a feeling—I’ll call it love, but we’re talking about an inner glow beyond the love of a book, or a movie, or chocolate, or even a spouse or child. While under the influence of that feeling of spiritual glow, that love, we are not capable of tearing hearts from live victims, or scheming to use one innocent person to kill others.

I also believe another key to applying this concept is to judge humans and their spiritualities by their behaviors, not by their scriptures. This eliminates the debates over which religion has the most righteous tenets.

I also ran into resistance to this idea when a publicist I contacted left a polite voicemail indicating that because their firm is a “Judeo-Christian” company, they could not work on behalf of someone who advocates this idea. I deleted this voicemail too quickly—I should have called back to discuss this. I’m not sure this idea is so contrary to Judeo-Christian principles. The very phrase “Judeo-Christian” implies more than one path to God. But the reaction from this publicist has been part of my learning experience that this idea is more controversial than I believed it would be.

It was also surprising to me that I caught resistance from people I would consider to be on the other side of this argument when I argued that some people acting for religions needed to be resisted. I argued that violent fanaticism is the true danger in our world. I ran into real moral equivalence arguments as a result of this assertion. On a recent radio show appearance, I pointed out that Muslim fanatics, misappropriating their religion as they killed innocents, needed to be fought—by Christians, and by moderate Muslims who find this fanatic behavior as abhorrent as those of other faiths. I was told I needed to acknowledge that Christian fanatics were just as responsible for terrorism in our modern world. (I acknowledge that Christians have engaged in brutal activities in the past. That was not the argument. They were saying Christian fanatic terrorists are just as dangerous as Muslim terrorist today.) I asked for an example of a Christian terror network around the world trying to take as many innocent lives as possible. I was referred to the Illuminati and the Rothschild family (I think the Rothchilds were Jewish), and the “terrorism” of Proposition Eight in California against defining marriage to include same-sex unions. (I voted against Proposition Eight. I have written about this in one of my internet columns. I disagree with the state’s voters on this, but this is hardly terrorism!)  They also mentioned fanatic Christian killings of abortionists. I wholeheartedly condemned that behavior; most Christians do too. But this activity hardly rises to the level of the worldwide assaults on innocents by Al Qaeda.

A blogger listened to my appearance, during which I repeatedly argued for more than one path to God and exalted moderate Muslims who have condemned fanatics, naming Muslim writer Kamran Pasha as an example of a man to be praised. The blogger condemned me as an anti-Islamic bigot, as a person who spreads “anti-Muslim propaganda.” Now, I have to say, this person ended her post by stating I was out of line to blame fanatic Muslims for the Nine-Eleven attacks—it was really the United States government that perpetrated the whole event. Okay. Consider the source. But it is a further illustration that this idea, seeming so obvious to me, comes with nuance and unforeseen ramifications in our modern world.

Still, I strongly believe by recognizing there may be more than one path to the spiritual force, to God, to whatever we call it, we find the key to ending religious wars. It is historical fact that Jesus and Mohammed, so-called “founders” of the two major proselytizing religions in our world today, were not focused on founding new organized religions. They were focused on assisting fellow human beings with finding the path to God. The scriptures, the formal tenets of these religions, did not form until decades after the deaths of these men. It is not in dispute that the New Testament of Christianity and the Koran of Islam were written down decades after these spiritual sages completed their time on earth. Both men were inclusive; they wanted to help humans from inside and outside their ethnic groups, traditions and birth religions to find God through their teachings. It can be argued that the “only one path to God” idea formed and developed through the efforts of later adherents to the original message, efforts directed at forming new organized religions. I believe Jesus and Mohammed would have been unhappy with the violent fanaticism generated by the “only one path to God” idea. We can honor them by embracing the idea of “more than one path to God.”

Opposing Viewpoints: Islam

Opposing Viewpoints: Islam


Ben Hur (DVD)

Ben Hur (DVD)

Ben Hur (the novel)

Ben Hur (the novel)