Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The composition in Hindustani music

A musical composition, by its general definition, is a pre-composed musical form which integrates melodic, rhythmic and poetic elements. This definition would fit a song in any category of music, including folk, devotional, and popular. It will not, however, satisfy a composition in Hindustani music. The Hindustani tradition does not, as a  rule, deploy a composition as a stand-alone piece of performed music. Instead, the composition is required to function as the nucleus of the performance, and hold the entire performance together as a seamless piece of well organized music. 

The composition can perform this function only if it conforms to the grammar of a particular Raga, and facilitates the insertion and integration of the various improvised movements appropriate to the genre. In the context of vocal music, ideally, the literary element should also support the emotional values (Rasa) of the Raga with appropriate poetic expression.

Though rarely performed in isolation, and normally used as a melodic-rhythmic-poetic frame for the improvisatory movements, a composition of merit commands respect as an exemplary specimen of the composer’s art and craft. 

Each genre of music provides the musician with a bank of such compositions, which are composed in different Raga-s and set to rhythmic cycles appropriate to the genre, along with their prescribed tempo. Having chosen his Raga, a musician can perform either a composition from this bank, or decide to compose his own.  Most musicians accept their own limitations as composers, and find it convenient to draw upon familiar and time-tested musical material in the public domain. 

Architectural conventions in modern Hindustani music

Architectural conventions govern the sequencing of the improvisatory movements and their integration with the composition to shape the totality of the Raga presentation. The sequencing logic is based on widely accepted assumptions about human comprehension. Anyone who has been a teacher will easily recognize these principles as being equally applicable to education. 

Sequentially, the rendition begins with the slowest movements, and moves steadily towards the faster movements.  It starts from the melodically and rhythmically simpler movements, and moves towards to the more complex movements. It commences with the relatively unstructured movements in which the details are transparent, and progresses towards the more structured movements, where the detail can often get blurred.  The sequencing of movements is exponential in terms of density and complexity.

Complexity is a self-evident term. But, what do we mean by density? In melody, it is measured by the number of explicit intonations per second. In rhythm, it will mean number of beats per second. The density of the overall musical experience can be visualized in terms of sound-bytes delivered per second.

Within each movement, the melody undergoes a cyclical treatment. Why should there be any prescribed pattern?  To begin with, art music has to be disciplined. In the process of providing ample scope for individual creativity, it cannot permit any facet of it to be random or whimsical. The melodic framework of a Raga is the primary emotional trigger, and has to be given complete scope for performing this function. The minimum condition for this is that the exploration of the Raga must go through ascending, descending and valedictory motions through two octaves in the major – if not all – movements in order to release its emotional charge inherent in the melodic framework.

Schematic representation of architectural conventions

This combination of exponential sequencing of movements and cyclical melodic formations within each movement will be easier to appreciate with a schematic representation.

It will be observed in the graph that there 
 is an exponential trend-line representing the density and complexity. Running through it is a cyclical wave pattern representing the melodic path. 

This model is verifiable by a systematic plotting of melodic and rhythmic trends in a modern Hindustani music performance. Raga-based music in the medieval Dhrupad-Dhamar genre would need to be represented by a different architectural model. 

The principal genres of Hindustani music

An art music tradition supports various genres of music. Each genre has its own history, geography and specificity. But, for the purposes of comprehension, a genre is defined primarily by its architectural features. There are two aspects to understanding the architecture of a musical genre: First is that of understanding its subordinate forms and their movements, and the second, the sequencing of the movements within the subordinate forms.

Hindustani art-music, as performed, can be compared to the telling of a story through the interpretation of a Raga. Movements in a genre of Raga-based music may be compared to the chapters in a book, or acts and scenes in a play. In music, each movement progresses the “story” by the distinctive way in which it crafts the interaction between melody, rhythm and poetry (in the case of vocal music). The sequencing of the movements determines the build-up and release of aesthetic tension in a piece of art music, just as chapters in a novel, or acts in a play, are sequenced to achieve the aesthetic impact of the story-telling.  

In literature, we know that a novel, a short story, a cinema script, and a play, will tend to build and release the tension of the story line in different ways. And this, of course, is why each of them has its own place in the world of literature. Likewise, there are different genres in art music because they deliver different qualities of aesthetic experience. 

On the contemporary art music platform, a listener is likely to encounter the following genres. 

1. Dhrupad (along with its companion sub-genre, Dhamar): This was the dominant genre of vocal and instrumental art music between the 15th and 18th centuries. 

2. Khayal:  This genre began evolving in the 13th century as a fusion of older Indian musical genres and Middle Eastern influence, and began to replace Dhrupad as the dominant genre of vocal music from the 18th century. The Khayal remains, to this day, the dominant vocal genre, with a significant presence also in the music of the bowed and wood-wind instruments. 

3. Thumree: This genre originated as an accompaniment to Kathak (North Indian) dance. The Thumree evolved as a  genre of solo vocal music from the 18th century and retained a significant presence till the middle of the 20th century. As a genre of vocal music, it could not survive the transition from the intimacy of its original milieu to the impersonal  atmosphere of the modern concert hall.  Its manifestation in instrumental music has, however, remained stable. 

4. The modern genre of plucked instruments: This genre is heard primarily on the plucked lutes – Sitar, Sarod, Hawaiian guitar. Their idiom has also been adopted by the percussive-melodic Santoor, the most recent entrant into art-music from folk traditions. Because of the dominance of the plucked string instruments in contemporary music, their idiom is also influencing the wood-wind and bowed instruments. This genre combines elements of the medieval Dhrupad genre, with post-Dhrupad modes of presentation. 

Note:  Of the above four, the Thumree is a borderline case of a Raga-based genre. Its melody is rooted predominantly in the Raga pantheon. But, the musician is allowed considerable liberty in observing the rules of Raga grammar. In addition, the melodic resource of the genre includes folk melodies, which cannot qualify as Raga-s.  

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hindustani Sangeet and a Philosopher of Art

Music, Rhythm and Kathak dance visa-a-vis  aesthetics of Susanne K. Langer

Author: Sushil Kumar Saxena 
Pages: 363. Hard-cover price: Rs. 600.00
Publisher: DK Printworld Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. 2001

 This book is decidedly the first of its kind. It seeks to weigh some basic facts and concepts of Hindustani Sangeet (music, rhythm and dance) against the art theories of the influential modern aesthetician, Susanne K. Langer, and with consistently meticulous attention to the text of her writings.

The expression theory of art has for long dominated the history of aesthetics. At the hands of Langer,however, the theory takes a new turn. She conceives of art not as a direct self-expression of the artist’s immediate affective state, but as a symbolic expression of his knowledge of what she terms variously as felt life, sentience, or forms of feeling. 

Drawing freely upon examples from the region of Hindustani Sangeet, the author accepts Langer’s protest against the popular view of artistic expression. But, he also contends that there is a good deal in our music and dance which has nothing to do with feeling, and is admired simply because of its sweetness, clarity, shapeliness, and accordance with grammatical norms.

Perhaps the most two most striking features of this book are: first, a lucid exposition of the essentials of Langer’s aesthetics, and second, abounding illustrative references to the manifestation and assumptions of Hindustani Sangeet.

Sushil Kumar Saxena (1920-2013), formerly Professor of Philosophy  at Delhi University, was amongst the most respected and original thinkers on the aesthetics of Hindustani music, rhythm and Kathak dance, with several pioneering works to his credit. He was a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Raga: The "Commanding Form" in Hindustani music

All art submits to its audience a form for aesthetic appreciation.  Literature submits a verbal form. Painting and sculpture submit a visual form. Architecture submits visual and spatial/enveloping forms which warrant aesthetic evaluation apart from the structure’s functional values. Music submits an auditory form.  Like other forms, the musical form is governed by a “commanding form” which governs the entirety of the musical endeavor and its experience. With specific reference to Western art music, the influential aesthetician, Susanne K Langer, granted the status of the "Commanding Form" appropriately to the composition. In Hindustani music, we find that the composition is itself subservient to the Raga.  In our music, therefore, the status of the “commanding form” most be  accorded to the Raga.

A Raga is a partially precomposed matrix of melodic contours, tight enough to remain recognizable and loose enough to provide substantial creative freedom. Each Raga justifies itself as performance material because it makes a distinctive emotional statement. It can be described as a psycho acoustic hypothesis which relates qualifying melodic patterns to the associated quality of emotional responses. At each rendition, a musician works on this hypothesis and deploys his creativity in an attempt to maximize the probability of communicating the associated emotional idea.

Raga-s are not “composed” by any particular musician. Their origins are mostly indeterminate. They evolve over a period of time from a variety of source melodies as plausible triggers for well-defined categories of emotional responses. It is estimated that the melodic grammar of about a 1500 Ragas has been documented.  The music-scape of each generation sees some Raga-s coming into circulation, and some going out of fashion. The core of commonly performed ragas remains around 200. 

Note: For a comprehensive view on this subject, read:  "Hindustani Sangeet and a Philosopher of Art" by SK Saxena, DK Printworld, New Delhi 2001.

It is "Art" Music; not "classical"...

The description of Hindustani music as “Classical music” is one of the unfortunate things to happen to this tradition. The objections to this description are several. Three, however, deserve special mention. Firstly, the description is an import from Western music, where “Classical” refers to scholarly music composed during the “Classical” period. Any period-specific connotation is inapplicable to Hindustani music. Secondly, in common usage, the word “classical” has to come to suggest an elitist barrier (“class” as the opposite of “mass”), which again is misleading in the sense in which most people understand it.  And, finally, the adjective is scientifically imprecise, because it does not allow its features to be distinguished from other categories of music prevalent in the same culture.

Scholars therefore recommend the term “Art” music in preference to “Classical” music. This nomenclature is faithful to its features, and also allows us to distinguish it from other major musical categories – primitive music, folk music, popular music, devotional music, and martial music. These various categories co-exist in the musical culture, and are distinct in their features. Of course, they also interact with each other in often imperceptible ways and may also overlap.

Hindustani music should therefore be considered a spontaneous, living, and constantly evolving expression of society’s musical needs and aspirations. It is an organic part of the musical culture, and not something outside it. It is accessible to almost anyone within the culture, though indeed with some effort. In short, it is not music from a different planet.

Features of art music

As a distinct category of music, Art Music has its defining features. It is devoted towards the achievement of aesthetic objectives, to the exclusion of all others. It relies entirely on auditory stimuli to achieve its aesthetic purpose. The existence of other stimuli (e.g. visual appeal or bodily movement) is incidental, and considered disruptive, if it draws particular attention to itself. Art music is abstract in the sense that it does not explicitly represent anything in particular outside of itself. And, finally, to qualify as Art, it also has to define the artist – and to this extent, it is also individualistic. This feature is even more important in Hindustani music because, it combines in the same person the simultaneous roles of composer and performer.  

An Art Music tradition generally incorporates several genres within itself, each with its well-defined disciplines and degrees of artistic freedom. Because of the simultaneous operation of discipline and artistic freedom, the appreciation and enjoyment of Art Music grows directly in proportion to the awareness of the rules that guide performance. This very phenomenon of discipline alongside artistic freedom allows music to change and evolve in response to changing audience profiles and tastes. As a parallel reflection of this dialectic, an art music tradition supports a scholarly tradition which monitors the performing tradition and conceptualizes trends in practice. 

For a detailed discussion on this subject, read "Hindustani Music Today" by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, New Delhi 2012.