Matt Rahaim, USA
Matt Rahaim is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Minnesota. He is also a longtime student of Hindustani music, and has studied Khyal with Vikas Kashalkar and Shafqat Ali Khan. His forthcoming book with Wesleyan University Press investigates the logics of spontaneous hand gesture among Hindustani vocalists.
The following talk was originally delivered at the Lalit Kala Kendra 1st International Music Conference in Pune, India in February 2009.
I have been asked to briefly compare composition in Indian music and Western music. As I understand the intentions of the conference organizers, “Indian Music” refers to raga sangit, and “Western Music” refers to music composed in Western Europe between 1700 and 1900, and performed from staff notation. The geographical tags are a bit misleading: both musics, of course, thrive in both India and the West, and both musics are practiced by musicians from many nations.
Many Western academics are troubled by the idea that there is a common ground for comparing two musical practices. It brings back uncomfortable memories of colonial scholarship, in which the putative common ground usually was, in fact, a conceptual framework imposed by an imperial power. Thus, Western academics are rightly suspicious of the tendency to describe non-Western systems of knowledge in Western terms (for example, describing a raga as a “mode”; or a matra as a “beat”), a tendency that forces the entire world into Western categories, and denies dignity and integrity to other ways of knowing. Since the 1960s, the corrective for this intellectual chauvinism has traditionally been to focus on local systems of truth as though they were isolated islands, stuck in specific times and places, describable only in their own terms, with no grounds for comparison or reconciliation with others. This intellectual commitment to difference, however, replicates an enduring assumption of colonial scholarship: that the West is utterly unique, utterly incommensurable with anywhere else.
As a practitioner of both Indian and Western musics, I am concerned to maintain the individual integrity of the musical practices at hand without assuming in the first place that India and the West constitute mutually alien cultures. In the spirit of this task, and borrowing heavily from the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, I will proceed according to a dialectical format found in both Western and Indian philosophical traditions. This format is called the tetralemma in Greek, and the catuskoti in Sanskrit:
First, I will argue that Indian composition and Western composition are the same;
Next, I will argue that Indian composition and Western composition are different;
Third, I will argue that Indian composition and Western composition are both the same and different;
Finally, I will argue that Indian composition and Western composition are neither the same nor different.
I. Indian composition and Western composition are the same
Each musical performance is new. Each time a singer performs “Karim Nam Tero” in Mian Ki Malhar, each time a pianist performs Mozart’s piano concerto number 20, it is an unprecedented event. The acoustics of the setting vary, the fine points of sound production vary, and even the sequence of notes (in upaj or cadenza) varies from one performance to the next. The differences between Elena Gerhardt’s and Lotte Lehmann’s recordings of “An Die Musik,” or between Bhimsen Joshi’s and Kishori Amonkar’s recordings of “Yeri Ali Piya Bina” show the great range of musical expression possible within a single composition.
Many crucial features of these performances, however, remain the same. Practitioners of both Indian and Western music maintain the integrity of a musical kernel: a composition. This composition consists of a sequence of notes arranged in time, and, sometimes, words. Both Indian and Western compositions are relatively fixed and unchangeable, in contrast to a wide variety of variables open to interpretation and circumstance.
The very fact of this fixity is reason enough to marvel at the similarity between Indian and Western practices. But there are several other features of how compositions are treated in both traditions that hint at a deeper sense in which compositions are essentially the same in India and the West.
First, compositions are often written down with ink and paper, whereas improvisation and other idiosyncratic features are typically not. The latter, when written, serve as transcriptions of past performances; the former, when written, serve as notations for future performances.
Second, knowledge of many compositions is an important part of musical competence. There have been many mediocre musicians with wide repertoires, but no great performers who restrict themselves to two or three compositions.
Third, the arrangement of complete compositions in a sequence is central to the identity and structure of a performance. A composition is not interrupted partway through to introduce another composition, and returned to later, but instead is performed from beginning to end without stopping. When a singer elaborates on the first line of a bandish before singing the rest, she does not insert another bandish inbetween. That compositions serve as coherent musical units is evidenced by the fact that a popular composition may elicit great pleasure from an audience at the moment that they recognize it, even if performed badly.
Fourth, and most remarkably, compositions–though realized in performance through action–are treated as objects in India and the West. Unlike improvising, interpreting, or doing upaj (all of which are verbal forms), compositions are treated conceptually as nouns. Any student of khyal is familiar with the word “chiz”–literally, “thing”–in reference to a composition. Even when called by other names, compositions are treasured as valuable property. Tales of great maestros emphasize the heavy value placed on these compositions, recalling that they were given as dowry, stolen from behind curtains, guarded as family heirlooms. One might even point to paper with music notation on it, or a CD, and call it a “piece” of music. These tokens of music may be passed around and manipulated just like a cup or a pen. Compositions in both India and the West are bought and sold, hoarded and stolen, treasured and given as gifts, like objects.
II. Indian composition and Western composition are different
The fact that both Western and Indian compositions have similarities, however, does not deny that they are different. Who would deny that an idli and an egg, both small and white, are different? Nor does using the word “food” for both deny their difference.
Likewise, using the word “composition” to refer to Indian and Western musical objects does not erase their differences. Calling a bandish a composition is an act of translation. Like all translations, it subtly alters the meaning of the original. The word “band-ish” connotes tying, bonding, closure. Bandishes are “closed” in relation to the “open” part of a raga music performance–called upaj, vistar, or badhat–in which the musician freely improvises based on raga, tala, bandish, and other factors. This closed/open binary is absent in Western composition.
The word “composition,” on the other hand, connotes putting various things together, a connotation which is likewise absent in Indian composition. What exactly is “put together” in Western composition? Melodic lines, more or less independent, which are placed against each other according to principles of counterpoint and harmony. The art of placing different melodic lines together is the foundation of Western composition. Bandishes are not “put together” in this way: they consist of a single melodic line.
Then there is the issue of raga. Part of the reason that Indian compositions are valued so highly is that they are crystallizations of a raga. Learning ten bandishes in Rag Multani will give you a fuller picture of Rag Multani; Western compositions have no such function. They are not “in” a raga, nor do they serve as examples of a raga. Where Western compositions are exemplars of a musical practice, as in etudes, the practice has to do with the technicalities of sound production, not the aesthetics of modal space.
The strictures of tala, so central to Indian compositions, are likewise absent in Western composition. Where the metrical organization of Western compositions is structured around cycles of beats (the length of which corresponds roughly to the range of tempi of finger- or foot-tapping) Indian metrics make use of cycles of matra-s, which may be much longer or much shorter than a physical beat.
The status afforded composers in Indian and Western music is quite different as well. Western composers, particularly Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others that have been canonized as Great, are often afforded more reverence than performers. Their compositions are sometimes described in spiritual terms, as inspired artifacts of divine genius, God speaking through man. Indian composers (vaggeyakara-s) however much we may praise them, enjoy a rather different social positioning. Particularly in the North, great musicians are remembered for their skill in performance, not in composition. Tan Sen, for example, is remembered as a exemplary singer, not as an inspired vaggeyakara, despite the fact that his compositions are still performed. Even in the South, where the canon of great compositions is notated and preserved more carefully than in the North, the situation is rather different from in Western music. If Thyagaraja’s kriti-s are seen as divinely inspired, they are seen as fruits of his bhakti, not of his inborn genius. Beethoven, on the other hand, is not remembered as a saint or even a particularly religious man, but is nonetheless remembered in folklore as a miraculous mouthpiece for God’s work.
Finally, it is quite rare for an Indian musician to learn a composition from a book without ever hearing it, whereas this is a rather common occurrence in Western music. Indeed, performing so-called “early music” requires musicians to work from written sources when there has been no continuous oral tradition from the time of the music’s composition. (On the other hand, early music performance also implicitly draws on the oral traditions of its own time–and in the past has explicitly drawn on Indian music performance practice for inspiration.)
III. Indian composition and Western composition are both the same and different
We have already outlined the problems with using the word “composition” so broadly as to include both “Yeri Ali” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But there is a further problem in using the word too narrowly, to mean “whatever is not improvised.” Every piece of music, after all, is improvised when it is first performed. We shouldn’t let the fact that a composer holds a pen in his hand blind us to the fact that he is improvising every bit as much as a Hindustani musician the first time he composes something. Likewise, a Hindustani musician is composing continuously as he is elaborating on the structures of raga, tala, and bandish. The processes at work in Beethoven’s fifth symphony, as I will argue, are the same as those utilized by Indian musicians in raga performance.
There is no good word in common parlance among both Western and Indian musicians for these processes, and so I will borrow one from the lexicon of Indian music: Upaj. Upaj is an unusually rich word, having both an agricultural sense (growth, sprouting, and crop yield) and a musical sense (improvisation.) More specifically, in many musical lineages, upaj is distinguished from svar vistar, badhat, and other improvisational processes by its implication of the systematic elaboration of a given phrase. For example, the beginnings and ends of a phrase may be expanded by elaborating on the middle. Consider the following phrase in Rag Hamir:
[gmpp,gmrss] Through upaj, it might be developed as follows:
gmpp,gmrss gmddpp,gmrss gmndndpp,gmrss gmdnsrssndndpp,gmrss
However, just as a variety of corn stalks may spring from a handful of apparently identical seeds, many outcomes are possible from doing upaj on a single melodic pattern. For example, [gmpp,gmrss] could also be developed like this:
gmpp,gmrss gmdd,gmpp,gmdd,ndpp,gmrss gmpp,gmdd,gmndsnrsndpp,ndndpp,gmrss
Or, using the melodic motion of only the first two notes:
gmpp,gmrss gmpp,gmgm,gmrss gmgm,mdmd,dndn,nsnd,pdpd,mpmp,gmgm,gmrss
Consider now a different melodic seed (in Asavari Thaat, with komal gandhar, dhaivat, and nishad) :
[-pppg] with the gandhar landing on the matra. This could be developed, for example, as follows:
But this is rather clumsily done. A far more elegant example of upaj on this melodic seed can be found in the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:
-pppg -mmmr -pppg,dddp,gggs -pppr,dddp,mmmr -ppmg,ggmp,ppmg,ggmp,ppmg—s—p…
In both cases, the link between the agricultural and musical denotations of “upaj” becomes clear. A single melodic kernel serves as a seed for musical elaboration, which sprouts out of it according to an organic pattern. The segments resemble each other, and the processes of elaboration operate on the material contained in the seed melody.
But merely algorithmically reproducing a melodic seed is not enough. It is a crucial feature of upaj, both in Western and Indian music, that the elaboration of a phrase be unpredictable and original. The following rigorously structured melodic pattern, carried on for several minutes, would not pass as good Indian or Western music:
-pppg—dddm—nnnp—sssd—rrrn—gggs—mmmr… Nor, on the other hand, would this patternless sequence of notes: …gdsrmmmmsmmmdgdddddggnnnnnnnng…
Thus, in addition to the differences and similarities between Indian and Western compositional processes seen in sections I and II, the key process of upaj, found in both Indian and Western composition, requires both organic self-similarity and originality. It is rare, of course, that a bandish will include extensive upaj as part of its fixed sequece. But both Indian upaj (in the moment of performance) and Western upaj (in the moment of notating music) produce melodic patterns that are both the same as what came before and different from anything else.
IV. Indian composition and Western composition are neither the same nor different
I have argued that Indian and Western compositions are the same, and that they are different, and that they are by aesthetic necessity always both the same and different. Section 2 generated difference between Indian and Western music by looking at two things described by one word and giving them two names (composition and bandish). Section 3 generated sameness between Indian and Western music by looking at one thing described by two words, and giving it one name (upaj.) None of this is surprising, as any perceived pair of objects seem to be similar in some respects, and different in others. Inversely, similarity and difference can only be assigned to things we take to be permanent, independently arising objects. In other words, all of the above arguments are founded on the supposition of the svabhava, or independent being, of composition. The sense that a composition has a svabhava is heightened by the tendency (described in section 1) to consider compositions to be permanent objects residing in notation or recordings. The question of their permanent existence is deferred by assigning them a divine origin.
Insofar as we consider a composition to be an object with svabhava, it can be compared: it is the same as and different from other things. However, insofar as we consider composition to be music (something that is done at the piano, or with a tanpura in one’s lap, doing something new in mutually dependent, nested contexts of sameness and difference) it is not self-evidently a thing at all. If we accept the argument (in section 3 above) that the processes of composition rely on the relative processes of sameness and difference, then it arises interdependently, and has no svabhava. It follows that composition is shunya (i.e. empty of svabhava) and is neither inherently the same as nor different from anything else.