27 Aug Music: Architecture, Painting, and Wet Clay
By Anjum Altaf
I have something uncanny to report.
I began this series of posts on music (see here) by describing how puzzled I was by a metaphor used by Goethe (I call architecture frozen music) because I was unable to reconcile that image with the music I was familiar with. It was after many years that I concluded tentatively that Hindustani classical music was better characterized as a painting.
Responses from readers drew us into a discussion of Western classical music of which I have very little knowledge. In order to familiarize myself with the basics I bought, more or less at random, a book titled The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music by Tim Smith (NPR, 2002). Imagine my surprise when I read the following (page 2):
The word ‘classical’ conveys structural order, a clear sense of form, design, and content; this is certainly part of what makes classical music classical. It can be “seen” as well as heard – looked at as a kind of sonic edifice with a foundation, walls, stairways, and windows. The works of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suggest perfectly proportionate eighteenth century buildings; the ear can easily pick up the way phrases are balanced in pairs, like the same number of windows on the left and right sides of a house.
If it is this obvious, the metaphor used by Goethe is no surprise – he certainly knew what he was talking about. Now consider my shock when twenty-four pages later (during which the author discussed the evolution of musical forms) I came across the following:
While this super Romantic expansion was evolving out of Wagner’s musical legacy, there were also strong reactions against everything Wagner and his admirers created. The most notable opposition came in France. Claude Debussy, in particular, rejected Wagner’s thick harmonies for exotic Oriental ones, massive sonics for transparency of instrumental textures, and old fashioned structures for unpredictable, even diffuse ones. Debussy and a few of his contemporaries were labeled “impressionists,” for their music seemed to mirror the paintings of Monet and Renoir or the misty symbolism of such poets as Stéphane Mallarmé (who, along with Paul Verlaine and others, provided inspiration for many art songs of exquisite subtlety). Debussy’s orchestral piece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a perfect example of Impressionism, a hazy, sensual painting in sound.
There you have it – the Oriental, exotic influence turned the music into the image of a painting from that of a building. The author does not describe the origin of the Oriental influence on Debussy but it could well have been Turkish or Arabic. It would then not be a surprise that by the time one reached India the music would be all painting and no architecture.
The surprises and shocks were not yet over. The real, deep, insight was revealed after another fifty-nine pages:
Every musician brings his or her own ideas and talents to a composition, so the results can be as varied and unique as fingerprints. Classical music is like perpetually wet clay. A musician grabs hold of it and molds it according to personal tastes and experiences, leaving an imprint on the music.
Classical music is like perpetually wet clay. A tradition of music can pat the clay into blocks that yield the sense of buildings; a different tradition can knead it into strands that can be woven into paintings. For me the musical puzzle was solved.
But I am not a musician and I dabble in music only as a resource to understand other things in which I am more interested. And from this insight I take away a lesson that for me is a lot more important. It is this:
When you borrow an image from another tradition, don’t start by looking for that image in your environment or, worse, don’t start reshaping your reality to fit that image. Begin with your tradition and see what image best describes its reality. Then see if the two images are identical. If not, trust your judgment and try to figure out the reasons for the divergence – you would minimize the chances of going astray.
We have discussed the case of music (architecture and painting) at length. But so many more examples come to mind. How about the frantic search for Marxian categories from Europe (kulaks, petit-bourgeoisie) in the Indian countryside – categories for which there were not even adequate translations in local languages? How about the formation of the nation-state? How about the transfer of democratic governance?
Let us think about democracy some more. One cannot borrow just a little bit of Western music and add it to Indian music – Yehudi Menuhin put it well: “to form orchestras of Indian musicians would be to run counter to nature.” In the same spirit, would democracy work if one were to borrow just periodic elections but leave out the rule of law or the social equality of human beings? Would one not end up with a caricature? What would one need to do to the democratic form to make it work in South Asia?
I am not suggesting that one never borrow anything. But whatever one borrows, one needs to adapt to the characteristics of one’s own conditions. Western classical music is beautiful; so is Indian classical music. But fusion rarely is. A lot more skill, care, expertise, and sensitivity are needed to make fusion work.