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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