Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Taksim

After spending nearly four hours on a post which I’m now leaving as a draft as it kept getting bigger and bigger as I continued to type (I guess I have lots to say, eh?) what I decided to post instead is the first of a new weekly blog series focusing on the cello as it’s used in non-Western contexts.  I almost began with one of my favorite non-Western cello figures, Mesut Cemil (son of the more famous Ottoman Classical musician Tanbûrî Cemil Bey), but decided I might end up writing a post that would be just as long and involved as the previous one.  So instead, I present to you some cello taksims in lieu of me getting long-winded.

A brief note about taksims

Taksims (the Arabic version is usually transliterated taqsim) are instrumental improvisations in Turkish Art Music.  Usually unmetered, the instrumentalist will play a taksim within a specific makam (Arabic transliteration: maqam) which, for lack of a better way to describe it, consists of a scale (dizi) and rules for melodic progression (seyir).

Notice the usage of a drone under the cello taksims below.  This is a technique attributed to Mesut Cemil (1902-1963) during a time he started to incorporate a number of revolutionary changes in Turkish Art Music around the time of the Congress of Cairo which he participate in around 1932.  Rather than fill this post with a long rambling historical text though, I present you with some beautiful cello taksims–enjoy!!

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"Among the Jasmine Trees…"

So I’m in the middle of “Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Syria” by Jonathan Holt Shannon who’s one of the leading experts on Arabic music (from an academic standpoint).

What I’m really struck by is the story, and I hear and read this time and time again, of the issue of Modernization and Westernization in non-Western countries’ music. Whether it’s the Congress of Cairo debating whether to institutionalize it’s indigenous musics alongside Western Classical Music; or China creating orchestras with folk and traditional instruments modeled after Western Orchestras; or Azerbaijan’s attempt at creating a hybrid of its native mugham style and Western Opera (called Mugam Operas); the list goes on and on and the music gets transformed.

In the case of Syria (according to Shannon) the “high art” Arabic music seems to be a template for cultural authenticity that seems to be recognized by even the layperson, as well as the Arabic Pop Artists in the country. This is the general idea with regards to all and any “Art Musics” including Western Classical Music (though no where near to the same degree here in the US as maybe in Europe). What is really striking, and Shannon notes this, is that everyone seems to be able to say when something is not authentic (or maybe “inauthentic”) to a much higher degree than could they say what is actually “authentic.”

I’m being deliberately vague because this book and all the research I’ve been doing the past few weeks is flooding me with all kinds of new ideas about the idea of music and how it is used, abused, and constructed or re-constructed for consumption. I’ve already started another wiki-glossary (more for my benefit) focusing just on terminology, concepts, musical jargon, and commentaries of the Middle East. No, really it’s just focusing on Arabic and Ottoman (mostly Turkish) musical cultures. Far too much already to digest much less having to include Persian and non-Turkic Ottoman musics.

The more I learn about music, the more I realize how little about music I really know. And that’s a good thing, because it means I still have tons to learn, right?