The polyphonous Babel of global music

Michael Church’s The Other Classical Musics finds rhythms and melodies that put Bach and Beethoven in their place

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions Michael Church

Boydell, pp.426, £25, ISBN: 9781843837268

‘Following custom, when the Siamese conquered the Khmer they carried off much of the population, including most of their musicians, to be resettled in what is now Thailand.’ The history of music isn’t a story of chords and scores, instruments or their players. Music’s story is one of wars, invasions and revolutions, religion, monarchy and nationhood. Whether you look at the histories of Africa or Iran, Europe or Uzbekistan, the narratives are the same: colourful, bloody, complicated. Music is not an aesthetic response, an artistic translation of life; music and musicians are society itself.

It’s a principle that acts as the guiding thread through the labyrinth of traditions and terminologies that make up The Other Classical Musics. Whether discussing gamelan or gagaku, these 15 essays on music from around the world (gorgeously illustrated with colour photographs and images) never forget that they are telling human stories, rooting unfamiliar sounds, words and ideas in narratives in which we can all find a foothold.

Note the sneaky plural of the title — ‘Musics’. It’s a sign of a discipline that has done some serious rethinking over the past few decades, embracing the same cultural pluralism that already exists in literature. Michael Church and his authors start from the premise that all musicology is ethnomusicology; the western tradition of Bach and Mozart is as much an anthropological curiosity as African drumming or Indian ragas and must be explored within the same historical and cultural context.

Including a chapter on Europe here, alongside those on China, Thailand and Japan, is provocative, but thoughtfully so. Ivan Hewett’s European narrative — from Gregorian chant to John Cage — is a familiar one, but bookended by chapters on jazz (itself a contentious addition to a book on ‘classical’ traditions) and North Africa, it reads as newly foreign, exotic almost. Careful juxtaposition invites us to compare images of western music’s earliest staff notation with the intricate visual codes of Chinese jianpu (numeral) notation or the rhythmic grid for a Hindustani tabla composition — ciphers that, while baffling, hint at fundamentally different priorities of expression and ornamentation, differing concepts of musical structure and melody.

While ethnomusicology might conjure images of western academics notating folk songs in primitive, remote locations, it’s important to stress that this is not what is going on here. Church’s interest is not in folk but alternative classical traditions — ‘what every society regards as its own great tradition’, as he puts it. These musics are often courtly, usually urban, top-down musical strategies rather than grassroots evolutions. As such they are uniquely revealing, agents of political, social and religious propaganda as much as personal artistic expression.

The Siamese weren’t the only ones to kidnap musicians. Influential Persian musicians such as Abd al-Qadir al-Maraghi spent most of the early 15th century being captured and recaptured by the great conqueror Tamerlane, who was determined to keep this valuable cultural asset in his own capital at Samarkand. For every indigenous musical tradition that was obliterated by an invading nation, there are several that were preserved and developed by such encounters, grafted onto new instruments and techniques. Countries as disparate as Morocco, Algeria, Israel, Egpyt and Syria still all share a common musical tradition today, the creative legacy of the region’s conflicts.

Fifteen different cultures give a broad sampling, and recurring themes inevitably emerge: notation versus oral or improvised traditions; religion’s role in music; horizontal, melody-driven music or a vertical, harmonic approach. Among the most curious is the paradoxical position of musicians in society — often ‘high importance but low status’. Set apart from those around them either by religious associations (as with the Javanese players of gamelan) or through rather baser traditions (Indian women still avoid playing the tabla or sarangi owing to earlier connections with courtesans), musicians can belong anywhere from court to brothel. And while some cultures, western Europe among them, celebrate professional musicians, in traditions such as China’s it is the gentleman amateurs who are regarded as the art’s greatest interpreters.

The influence of western classical music is predictably all-pervasive — though not always for ill. While Japan’s indigenous classical music was crowded out of school and conservatories in the 20th century by the western alternative, North India’s classical tradition may only have coalesced from its plural regional variants into a coherent and recognisable tradition in response to the threat of western colonial dominance.

There’s a photograph at the start of the book. Staring straight into the camera, filling a double-page spread, are a large group of Pygmy musicians. Almost hidden among them, tucked away in a trio of misfits in the back row, are two of classical music’s all-time greats: the composer Gyorgy Ligeti and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The Other Classical Musics returns western classical music to its proper place, somewhere in the back row of the polyphonous Babel of global traditions. In such rich company, however, you get that feeling that Ligeti — and Bach and Mozart before him — wouldn’t have minded one bit.

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Show comments
  • PeteTongue

    Reference sound: Toumani Diabate – the Mande Variations.

  • trace9

    Only birds can make a jungle sing.

  • oldoddjobs

    Wonderful! All the “musics” of the world throbbing in vibrant cacophony. Oh, except ghastly Western music, of course. It is returned to its proper place in the back row.