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Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part II November 25, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Andrew Shahriari, Bali, Balinese, book review, books, ethnomusicology, gamelan music, Indonesia, Java, music, Southeast Asia, Terry E. Miller, Thailand, Vietnam, 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

Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Northeast Thailand, Indonesia (Java and Bali) 

General Comments: I think other cultures can offer “Western” music (my own culture’s music) a lot of ideas when it comes to timbre. We have been steeped in the “Western” symphony orchestra for so long that we have become accustomed to a narrow set of timbres.  Popular music has expanded this; electronics even more. But there is so much more to explore. Pentatonic scales crop up over and over again in most cultures and are evident in a lot of this music. (Let’s face it; pentatonic scales are almost a cliché of what we think of when we hear “Oriental” music, though the scales are everywhere.)  But Gamelan music? Throw out conventional pentatonics for this stuff. It is easy to see why “Western” composers for over a century have been going to this well to expand musical visions.

CD 1, Track 9 from World Music: A Global Journey
Vietnam: Central Highlands Bronze Gong Ensemble
A clanging chorus of metallic instruments with a clear pulse and with a simple melodic motif characterizes this music. It is the sounds and timbres that make this music distinctive. The only scale notes I discerned were the first five notes of the major scale. My ears heard a tonal center but with the emphasis on a cadence from 5 to 4 to 3.

CD 1, Track 10 from World Music: A Global Journey
Vietnam: Nhac Tai Tu Amateur Chamber Music
A number of string instruments, plucked and bowed, move up and down in pentatonic scales, revolving around a clear I and V. The “bowed lute” slides through pitches, though staying with the notes of the scale as primary. Pitch bends are also used on the “plucked lute” and the “plucked zither.” A subtle percussion instrument, a click-sounding instrument, like a finger snap, or a tongue against the roof of the mouth, signals phrases. The rhythm is well-defined, and the notes played by the strings are on and off the beat, giving the music an energetic, syncopated feel.

CD 1, Track 11 from World Music: A Global Journey
Thailand: Classical Piphat Music
Xylophones pound out a steady patter of notes in rhythm while a thin, reedy sound gives us a pentatonic scale line over this setting. The xylophones migrate through clusters based on the scale. I read in World Music: A Global Journey that some of this music is based on the octave subdivided differently than seven tones between the octave. (A major pentatonic scale is formed by the elimination of the 4th and 7th tones of the major scale.) My ears hear a conventional pentatonic scale, with changes in what note of the scale the music revolves around. But the exotic, possibly “out of tune” sound implied in an octave subdivided differently is not evident to me here. This music speeds up as we go, then slows suddenly to a cadence, followed by a short coda. It is not far from the feel of a Scottish or Irish fiddle ditty.

CD 1, Track 12 from World Music: A Global Journey
Thailand: Lam Klawn Repartee Singing
The khaen (a “free-reed aerophone”) sounds like it could be at home playing Cajun music in New Orleans! The khaen gives us a rhythmic and harmonic underpinning, sliding through clusters on a pentatonic scale, moving focus from I to V (but with a very clear I delineated).  The vocalist sings phrases in the scale, with turns, and with the singing almost evolving to spoken word in places.

CD 1, Track 13 from World Music: A Global Journey|
Thailand (Northeast): Luk Thung Popular Song
This is a pop song in a minor key, Thai sounds clearly “Westernized” with a bass and drums rhythm section. Over this are Thai vocal stylings and Thai instruments. It is the bass/drums rhythm section, providing a clear 4/4 time-signature, and a clear i, iv, v chord progression (occasional III adds in) that gives the song its “Western” feel. There is even a cheesy synth- sounding solo at the end.

CD 1, Track 14 from World Music: A Global Journey
Indonesia: Javanese Court Gamelan
Different levels of metallic percussion sounds (maybe a few not metallic) build a basic tonal center, but the center shifts, often ambiguous. We have notes sounding to my “Western” perspective as if they are in a “minor” key. But the bottom notes, slower moving, in the lower pitched metallic instruments, change pitches, sometimes along the flat 6th of that minor tonality, and staying there long enough to cause me to wonder where we are tonally. There are layers of rhythm that give this music its unusual (to “Western” ears) sound. There are certainly melodic ideas to pick out, but not melody and harmony in phrases as we are used to hearing them. And it is the multitude of timbres, correctly described in the book as collectively making a “shimmering” sound that set this music apart.

CD 1, Track 15 from World Music: A Global Journey
Indonesia: Balinese Gamelan Gong Kebyar
This is a quicker paced selection that starts and stops, bringing a frenetic “shimmer” in the upper notes when it is moving. I hear roughly a major scale idea here, with a lot of cadences on the 7th. Pentatonic scales avoid the tritone. Not this piece! There are many melodic moves back and forth from the 4-5-4-5 them to 7, and sitting on 7, that give us that feel.

Personal Compositional Note: I can see many possibilities for the “shimmer” idea presented by this music. Harnessed within harmonic and melodic structures familiar to cross-cultural ears, this music presents a plethora of possibilities. The bell sounds are easily sampled and/or produced on synthesizers and samplers. And the metallic quality of the tones also creates some imprecision when rendering pitches. This is another contributor to the exotic nature of this music. This allows the modern music creator a chance to juxtapose many varied tones in the “shimmer” effects mentioned above. That 4-5-4-5 to 7 move mentioned in the last piece also could lead to something. I do expect to use characteristics of this music in my upcoming new music.

The next post will move to East 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