02 Aug An Idiot’s Guide to Music – 1
By Anjum Altaf
I call architecture frozen music – Goethe
I stumbled upon this quote as a teenager and fell in love with it without understanding it at all, a phenomenon not uncommon as I learnt later when I fell in love with a human being – loving and hating comes so much easier than understanding.
The quote stayed with me for years – stuck in diaries, propped up on desks, hanging from walls, scribbled in notes to people I loved but did not understand – without yielding its mystery. The only thing I can claim credit for is that I did not stop searching for an answer.
An answer suggested itself, at least I think it did, decades later in a piece of writing by Yehudi Menuhin. Why did it take so long? I guess I was an untypical South Asian teenager who read a lot by virtue of being born in a house overflowing with books (but with no music). Within this set of untypical teenagers I was quite typical in that almost all my reading was in English and virtually none in any South Asian language. So there I was, familiar with Western literature but completely ignorant of Western music; familiar with the sounds of South Asian music but ignorant of South Asian literature.
Imagine Macaulay’s child, a babu-in-the-making, staring at a quote by Goethe: I call architecture frozen music.
To give the devil its due, there is some mileage in reading as I learnt from reading Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin must have loved and understood Indian music because it was he who introduced it to the West in the person of Ali Akbar Khan calling him one of the great musicians, if not the greatest musician, of his times.
There is no way a babu-in-the-making can solve the mystery of Goethe’s quote without being extraordinarily lucky or knowing both Western and Indian music. This was the clue I found in Menuhin’s writing on classical music: Western music is on the notes; Indian music is between the notes. Not enough, but something to work with, something to build on.
That something came accidentally in a performance by Wasifuddin Dagar. Perhaps sensing a nonplussed audience, he stopped, spread out his palm, touched the tips of his digits and said: “These are the notes.” Then he pointed to the gaps between the digits: “And these are the spaces between the notes.” Dramatic pause. “The notes are of no importance – they are just resting places for the music. All the music is made in the spaces between the notes.”
Yehudi Menuhin: “Western classical music is on the notes.”
Wasifuddin Dagar: “Indian classical music is between the notes.”
What could I make of this? In my mind I configured two ways to work with this information: first to think in mechanical terms how the music might actually be made; second, to try and get a visual sense of that process.
Think of the primary instrument in Western classical music as belonging to the keyboard family – the organ or the piano. (South Asians can think of the harmonium; and no, the harmonium is not a South Asian instrument.) Now think how you can go from one note to an adjacent note on a keyboard instrument. You play one note and then you play the next note. You can vary the speed at which you go from one to the other, you can vary the loudness with which you play either note, and you can skip notes. That just about exhausts the possibilities (at least from the base of ignorance from where I was starting).
Now think of the human body as the primary instrument in Indian classical music (or of the sarangi which comes closest to mimicking the human voice). If the music is made in going from one note to the next, the number of possible paths is infinite (imagine joining two points on a sheet of paper by a line). In how many ways can you land on the next note? You can approach it directly (the shortest path), from above, from below, you can do a cartwheel before you descend – the human voice is so incredibly malleable.
I tried to picture this music making by visualizing the movement between two points, one higher than the other. Imagine a high diving board. The diver can dive straight into the water or show his or her mastery by doing twists and turns on the way. Indian music is not about the straight dive – it is all about the twists and turns in the journey between the two points; the better the artist, the more intricate the dive.
Now imagine the same two points connected by a staircase. One can do an intricate dance going from the top to the bottom; back and forth on the first two steps, a leap to the fourth, back to the second, a quick jump to the fifth, and so on. This was my visual image of Western music making; the better the music, the more intricate the dance.
But we are not done yet. Remember the keyboard player has two hands and ten digits; he or she can play more than one note at the same time. The human body has only one throat; it can produce only one note at a time. This is an essential difference between Western and Indian classical music.
And now I can go back to Goethe via Yehudi Menuhin, Wasifuddin Dagar, and the convoluted images. Western music is played on the notes but many notes can be played at the same time, some loudly, some softly, some rapidly, some slowly. Think of the amplitude of a note in terms of the height of a column of bricks on that note and the choice of notes played at any moment as the crossbars between the columns – you might be able to imagine a building with a number of blocks of varying heights. If you freeze the music at any instant you might visualize a building of a particular shape and form, perhaps with soaring columns and artistic cantilevers if you give the imagination sufficient leeway.
Indian music is played between the notes but only one intricate path can be traced at any one time. If you stop the music you might visualize a delicate string frozen in a unique pattern rather like an abstract line on a canvas.
I call architecture frozen music was not about all music; it was about Goethe’s music. If Tansen had said something similar he might have said: I call painting frozen music. And that might have made more sense to a South Asian.
How many other things there must be that we love or hate without understanding? How desperately do we need the tools to understand so that we may fathom the roots of our emotions?
The second post in this series is here.