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The Music of East and West – Two Branches of the Same Tree

 

 

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Between the diverse musical traditions created so far by mankind, common roots can easily be found if you dig deep enough. Our need to communicate thoughts and emotions that cannot be expressed by words has found musical outlets that – although sounding different to each other – obey the same fundamental musical laws. The underlying musical “DNA” of all of us is the same.

In working in depth with the musical traditions of both East and West, you find a meeting point – the underlying “DNA” of both musics – in the nature of sound itself. Any sound which we perceive as “musical” as opposed to “noise” has a unique “fingerprint” or “soundprint” made up of the mixture of overtones which blend into the sound we perceive as a single tone. These overtones are all part of what is known as the harmonic series, and it is their relative strength and weakness that gives each musical sound its individual flavour. It is this unique “soundprint” that makes a violin sound different to an oboe or the voice of one person from that of another. The unique flavour of an Indian raga is created along the same lines. A performance of a raga is an unfolding and juxtaposing of selected pitches from the “soundprint” or harmonic series of a primal, fundamental tone.

A raga is a framework of precise rules for the selection of these pitches and of their treatment and relative importance. It is this framework that gives each raga its unique soul, and improvisations within a raga such integrity. Some Indian musicians perceive the soul of a raga almost as a dynamic, living being, which listeners are able to perceive through a “fingerprint” of sound. All of the sounds produced in a raga performance spring from the opening tonic and all return to it at the end.

Heinrich Schenker, perhaps the greatest theorist of Western Classical music, dug deep in his quest for meaning. This quest led him to a similar perspective: the view that the tonal works of the Western Classical tradition could also be viewed as notated “extemporisations” on the notes of the harmonic series, all of which spring, exactly as in Indian music theory, from a primal, fundamental sound. Schenker demonstrated this through his teaching and his beautiful visual analyses.

Viewing Indian and Western Classical music as two branches of the same tree deepens one’s appreciation of both. This musical tree is rooted, like humanity in the soil of Africa and its branches began to grow in different directions as our ancestors left Africa and spread throughout the globe. In the Indian Subcontinent they created a music that  demands an awareness of the harmonic series and an appreciation of the space between the notes, which is explored with slides, ornaments and microtones, as it is here that the emotional tension and drama of this music resides. If a listener lets go and allows him or herself to be carried from one note to the next by an expert performer, a real emotional connection with Indian music soon follows, and the added bonus – this deep level of listening radically enhances one’s awareness of musical sound and thus enhances one’s appreciation of Western Classical and indeed all music.

 

 

 

 

 

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