Saturday, July 27, 2013

Historical Example: How Valuable are the Arts Really?

Today, while continuing my frustrated lament of our modern educational system, I was thinking back to my undergraduate classes in world music. During those days I completed a number of PowerPoint presentations regarding Chinese stringed musical instruments and their history. I was surprised to discover that musical proficiency was not necessarily attained in order to pursue a career as a performer, but rather one of the main components that made up a learned person.  Colloquially, the important skills were known as “The Four Arts.”

The Four Arts of the Chinese gentlemen-scholars were thought to be: playing the Guqin (a seven stringed zither), playing the game of Qi (a chess-like board game), calligraphy, and painting.  In reading this during research I was surprised by the fact that three of the four “Arts” are actually fine arts – more specifically: music, literature, and visual art. Needless to say it’s quite a contrast from the subjects emphasized in our modern education where STEM (science, technology, English, and mathematics) are seen as the core “worthwhile” topics.

During the time that the “Four Arts” notion was popular (the Tang Dynasty, roughly 7th – 10th centuries) China enjoyed a thriving economy that included maritime trade as well as land trade with countries as far away as Greece and Egypt. They made significant contributions in medicine and philosophy and their civil engineering was the envy of the world.  China’s poetry, music, and theater influenced all of its neighbors including Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and India – and those influences are still seen today in the modern art of all these countries. China was a world leader in every sense of the word, including education. And when it came to their own education it is interesting to note that what they valued were things we might think of as “elective subjects.”

So, if history is any indication of what the future will look like – I would ask the question: “how valuable are the arts really?”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 4: Rhythm

Certainly rhythm is learned effectively in western musical traditions. Additionally, the western system of musical notation, in terms of rhythm, is phenomenally useful. Western music, however; on the whole doesn't tend to stray too far from triple or duple meter. This means that whenever an odd meter is encountered, it tends to be something that makes performers nervous.

While I think that the above presenter could certainly work on his organizational skills (just look at that mess!), I appreciate very much the points he is making - FYI, this system for learning is from South India and is somewhat different than the system used in the north. 

On the other hand, Indian Classical Music, with its system of taal is very well suited for teaching (what westerners would call) “irregular” rhythms.  The most typical rhythm cycles (like Western music) fall into duple or triple meter, but it is not uncommon to hear rhythms that are seven beats long (3+2+2) or 14 beats (3+4+3+4). Furthermore, the system of teaching how to identify parts of the rhythmic phrase (such as strong and weak sections) is incredibly useful. Once students are able to tackle a few compositions in the more unusual cycles, a simple odd meter will never bother them again.

Here is a primer on rhythmic concepts from a wonderful musician - Also the owner of the lesson site World Music 

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 3: Improvisation

Western classical music used to have a rich tradition of improvisation. Many performers during the Baroque period were expected to be able to spontaneously create music. During the classical period almost all the cadenzas of a concerto were improvised. What happened? Today, Jazz is really the only remaining vanguard of western improvisation.*

Every Jazz musician knows how vital it is to be able to think quickly when it comes to improvisation, so studying a system that has thousands of years of improvisational development under its belt seems like a good idea. This in many ways goes along with the ear training portion; Indian Classical Music’s study methods usually involve palta-s and Alankar-s which stress musical patterns over a drone. These patterns range from the super-simple to the ultra-complex (and every phase in-between).  Memorizing these patterns means that the performer is able to call upon virtually every scale degree and every interval almost at a whim.


Of course, calling up random scale degrees and intervals is not all that is involved in the task of melodic improvisation. As the above video teaches us; there is also the issue of making something that is pleasing and interesting – not to mention "novel."  Fortunately, the western-trained musician is in luck here. Where western music took the route to develop complex harmonies that supported melodies, the melodies in Indian Classical music had to thrive on their own. Anyone who listens to an instrumental or vocal alap during a performance can tell you that these musicians exercise incredible restraint and creativity in order to deliver the best possible musical product.

It should be mentioned, however; that instruments which are heavily dependent on harmony such as guitar and piano will benefit somewhat less from this.  The instruments that benefit the most from this portion of ICM training are monophonic instruments such as woodwinds, strings, and of course the human voice (please see the ear-training blog).  Best of all, the training is, for the most part, universal which means that a vocal instructor would be able to instruct a cellist, a sitar player would be able to instruct a flutist and so on.

*I understand that many jam-rock bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish are known for their long improvisations. I also understand that there are many popular acts that fall outside of Jazz that also improvise. Furthermore there are some modern performers within the tradition of western classical music who are attempting to bring back the older forms of improvisation – I made a sweeping remark for the sake of brevity only.