Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras

Cellists in Umm Kulthum's firqa (orchestra) photo ca 1965

This week’s installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will focus on the cello in Arabic Orchestras.

Stringed instruments have long been part of Middle Eastern art ensembles.  Whether the kamancheh, djoze, rebab, or eventually the Western violin, bowed strings have nearly always played an integral role in the sound of the ensembles from that region.  Once western instruments, especially the violin, were introduced many of the folk instruments began being replaced by the violin.

By the 20th century, and especially after the first Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932) the rest of the Western strings began to be incorporated into the traditional art music ensembles of the the Middle East (due to the influence of Muhammad Fathi) and eventually larger orchestras started to develop and composers from the region started writing music for these larger forces while also adapting some Western composition techniques and music ideas and fusing them with the indigenous art music traditions.

The difficulty with incorporating Western strings into the Arabic Orchestra has nothing to do with the instruments themselves, per se, but with the tunings and scales (maqamat) and the standardization of ornamentation for a whole section of strings rather than one string soloist in a smaller takht ensemble.

Arabic oudist, Saed Muhssin, lays out some of the fundamental differences in tuning at his blog post, The Arabic String Section.  The primary difference for the cello is the A would be tuned to a G which gives the four string tuning CGDG rather than CGDA.  While it is possible to play Arabic music with a Western tuning, which I generally do since I prefer not to retune my instrument much, as he notes

While it is possible to play the notes in the alternate tuning, the resonance of the instrument is different. Furthermore, from string players who’ve done the switch after trying to play in western tuning, the fingering of some maqams is a lot more cumbersome in western tuning, and Arabic tuning lends itself to playing Arabic music.

he is correct in that the Arabic tuning is far less cumbersome for a lot of the maqams.  Once I get any of my spare  cellos set up for playing I will likely leave one in Arabic tuning specifically for my performances of Arabic music.

Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras”

"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?