I’ve been playing music from the Middle East for some years now. I’ve picked up skill with various Middle Eastern percussion; I play and actively perform what amounts to hours worth of music from the region; I even sing in Turkish, Arabic, some Armenian. But right now I feel like I don’t know the first thing about the music.


Précis on the role of a performer (part 1)

I believe it was Gunther Schuller that said something to the effect of “play exactly what I had written and nothing else” (if I am completely making this up, PLEASE let me know).

But basically I agree to a large extent with what Schuller was saying with respects to the role of a performer. This was one of the points I had made in my undergraduate thesis (titled “The Ethics of Performance Practice”) and this is pretty much how I try to approach composed works. Yes, ultimately the performance of a piece of music is a collaboration between composer and performer, but the roles are relatively clearly defined. The composer writes the notes, the articulation, and the phrasing; and the performer plays the notes, the articulation, and the phrasing.

Sometimes a performer will let his or her lack of technical proficiency dictate how a passage in a piece should be played. Other times, as in the case of e.g. Fitzenhagen, the abundance of technical proficiency will dictate how a perfomer “adds” to a piece (cf. Paganini & “Harold In Italy”). Obviously, the former parallels what happens when a performer lacks the technical proficiency to play outside of one, or a few genres of music; or the technical proficiency to play more than one, or a narrow range of instruments; or even read one, or a narrow range of musical notations. What exactly does it mean when, e.g., someone who can play tin pan alley songs only on the piano and can only learn the music by ear. In other words, what exactly does it mean to call this person a musician. This was a question I asked when I was finishing my Music degree in cello performance–what exactly does that qualification mean anyway? It confers a kind of legitimization, but by the time I finished my undergraduate work I hardly felt as if I knew that much about music. In fact, I still often feel that way–especially as I recently discovered the Turkish Yayli Tambur (see video below).

Ultimately, what’s at issue here is how much of the idiosyncrasies of the performer should dictate what a particular piece sounds like. In other words, how much of the idiosyncrasies of a performer’s ability to play should mold the shape of the piece outside of the composer’s written notation.

How much the composer’s intention is followed, and what role the performer has were central to my arguments in my thesis. Obviously, the interesting issue is how to re-produce (cf. Jacques Attali’s Representation) [sic] that intention. Or, to frame it in a more practical historical context, how a performance tradition teaches a performer how to re-produce a composer’s intention.

Putting aside all the issues of Authorial intentionality–which has always been more of a Eurocentric (and by “Eurocentric” I do include North American) Literary Critical viewpoint (see Patrick Hogan’s Ethnocentrism and the very Idea of Literary Theory)–we can easily imagine and even empirically test (more regarding that in a future post) what amounts to a form of cultural transmission through populations of performers.

For a majority of non-notated music (e.g. traditional folk tunes; improvised genres) the performing culture itself serves as the “composer” of the tunes. And this is where performing roles get interesting, I think. I reminded of a lesson I had with Hussam Al-Aydi on Arabic Taqasim some time ago. I had asked Hussam if there were particular patterns of pitches that get played often (I think I also asked him about modulation from maqam to maqam). He responded simply that I “have to feel it” which brings to mind a sentiment given by Justice Potter Stewart. This wasn’t particularly helpful to me at the time, though in retrospect I realize what a ridiculous question that was to ask him. It would have been comparable to me asking one of my cello professors if there are any particular arrangement of pitches in the cello concerto repertoire that I could practice to help me learn how to play concerti.

Maybe this is not quite the same thing as one (Arabic Taqasim) is an improvised genre while the other is a composed one (Western Classical Concerti) but I think the issue is that there’s really no way to completely say in words what can be said in music. There’s no unambiguous translation algorithm between languages much less between one form of expression (language) and another (music). We often have to resort to metaphors and metonyms to give some sense of the shape of our thoughts about music and what it is supposed to convey and how we’re supposed to convey it. This isn’t to say that anything we state about music will be ambiguous and absolutely vague anymore than, going back to Authorial intentionality, can we translate the meaning of any particular statement into anything we want to at a whim–there’s a core meaning or set of meanings there that are entirely determined by the text and, by extension, the author.

"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?

Perkfection Cafe & Bar

Ahel El Nagam (photo by Karen Bassett)
Ahel El Nagam (photo by Karen Bassett)
This is a prewritten post as I will be performing at the Perkfection Cafe & Bar with Ahel El Nagam, Louisville’s Classical Arabic Band, and the Gypsies of the Nile bellydancer troupe. If any readers are so inclined then please come to the show for live Classical Egyptian and Arabic music as only Ahel El Nagam can present and live bellydancing by the Gypsies of the Nile.

Show info follows:

Ahel El Nagam and Gypsies of the Nile
Perkfection Cafe & Bar
359 Spring Street
Jeffersonville, IN 47130

show begins at 7:00pm and ends at 9:00pm
The event is free and is all-ages appropriate

Ahel El Nagam is:
Denise – oud
Taletha – flute
Jimmy – electric sitar, mandolin
Melina – tabla

and special guest:
Jon Silpayamanant – cello, Arabic percussion

Gypsies of the Nile with Ahel El Nagam @ the Harvest Homecoming in New Albany, IN (2008)
Gypsies of the Nile with Ahel El Nagam @ the Harvest Homecoming in New Albany, IN (2008)

Glossary of non-Western cello techniques?

I remember reading about a book years ago that cellist, Frances-Marie Uitti (she invented a playing technique using two bows so that she could play four part polyphonic music on the cello), that would be a technical manual on alternative 20th century cello techniques. What she ended up publishing was a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to the Cello titled “The Frontiers of Technique” which:

In it the development of cello techniques is traced through the Darmstadt experimental era covering the uses of different bows and preparations, new repertoire, percussives, use of the voice and new uses of both hands.

I would still love to read a book length (or maybe dissertation length?) treatment of the subject, but as I was walking into the office debating whether to practice or do a little more organizing I had a tiny revelation that I should be documenting non-Western cello techniques in some form or another. I immediately told the wife of my plan to compile a glossary of world music terms that are relevant to the techniques and skills I’ve had to learn outside of orthodox music instruction channels.

Basically, the idea would be to have a place I can direct people to online (or in handout form for classes and workshops) to terminology from specific cultures so that I don’t have to continually define each and every term whenever I might write or talk about it. Ideally it would also give a description of how it can be done on the cello as well, and eventually might have audio if I get adventurous enough.

The biggest obstacle, is that I just do not know what all these ornaments, or techniques are called in the various countries. When I talk to Wendi (il Troubadore’s clarinetist) about some of the issues of translating non-Western folk music techniques to modern Western instruments we might refer to things like “that weird Bulgarian trill” (which I actually do know the name for: “tresene“) or what have you.

Knowing the terminology will just ease the issue of presentation, or even communication, but most importantly will also give some indication of the culture’s music of the technique from which it is being borrowed.

I realize that I haven’t gotten to blogging about the meat of anything here yet. Mostly I’m letting people smell the meal before it’s cooked, or maybe these posts are appetizers? Either way, keep reading folks, I’m sure I’ll have something with more substance here soon.