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.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:20h, 27 August Reply

    one needs to adapt to the characteristics of one’s own conditions.

    Which means there has to be a sense of self-awareness – who are we? What is unique about us? What defines us? What do we do well and what we don’t? What are our social goals? What makes us happy and what does not? What are our priorities?

  • Arpita Chatterjee
    Posted at 10:21h, 27 August Reply

    It’s amazing how much one keeps learning from other people’s perceptions! When I first read this article, my initial response was – why hadn’t I thought of the wet clay when we exchanged ideas the other day! It is so appropriate & apt; now he talks about it!

    I think I didn’t suggest it because although I would like to believe that my sensibilities are wider, that is, not restricted to music, unfortunately the years of training and the basic involvement I have in terms of music teaching, have made me focus more on sound than any other aspect of creativity and the performing arts.

    I’d like to add a few thoughts that perhaps your readers could mull over:

    First – I have a problem with the word ‘classical’ – in terms of Hindustani music, I’d much rather call it ‘Raga music’. Somehow the word ‘classical’ has a period of history associated with it – but our Ragas have survived the test of time and the first treatise that mentions them is the Sangitamakaranda by Narada (7th to 8th Century A.D.)

    Second – If you read a little about the history of sound recording & of notation, you will know that most of our traditional music practitioners resisted recording or even notating of any sort. I’ve discussed this with some people and one of the reasons suggested was that by recording or notating, it would somehow freeze the music, which is something the traditionalist was against. The essence of music lies in its performance, so trying to give it any other form is somewhat strange. Now why am I saying that a recording will ‘freeze’ the music? Well it won’t be dynamic anymore – it will be an interpretation made at that point of time in that particular environment where the performance took place. The same performer singing the same composition might give it a different interpretation in another setting with a different audience when he’s in a different mood!

    The basic beauty of Raga music lies in its improvisation, and the true artiste never sings precomposed variations. So each performance inevitably is different and depends on the artiste’s mood, the ambience, the audience. That is why it is difficlt to give it one visual form. Essentially the artiste while singing uses his or her own visualisation, depending on his or her sensibilities. Any other creative venture – whether painting, sculpture or architecture, would be a response to the soundscape created.

    One grouse that traditionalists have against young performers of today is that they are too pre-rehearsed and often jump into performance careers even before they have truly matured, resulting in a sad fall-out of recent times – the music itself is changing. Of course the retort to that is the age-old maxim – the music of any society is a representation of its tastes. Since society is changing, the music is also changing!

    I wonder how readers will respond to this.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 19:35h, 27 August

      Arpita ji: When we did the interview, I myself was not aware of the wet clay analogy. It was only later I picked up the book at random and was shocked at how directly it spoke to the issues we had discussed. In retrospect, the analogy seems so obvious that one is surprised at missing it: sound after all is a raw material that is shaped into all sorts of forms – from noise to sublime music.

      I agree ‘raga music’ is a better term but ‘classical’ is so entrenched now. In Western music it is especially problematic because of its association with a period of time as was dicsussed in an earlier post. The book I referred to mentions this somewhat ruefully:

      The mid- and late-eighteenth century witnessed a new set of values that stressed clarity of line and directness of expression in art, architecture, and music. This was the rise of Classicism, a product of the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and balance…. The new style is called “Classical” (which means that, technically, there’s such a thing as Classical classical music).

      Some people have used the alternative term “art music” but it hasn’t stuck.

      On interpretation, I like the way Menuhin has described it in his autobiography:

      Given his form and meter before he starts, like a poet commissioned to write a sonnet or a ballad, the Indian musician resembles more a medieval troubadour than a composer sitting before blank paper at his desk. He does not interpret; he is. An oral trdition is a wonderful thing, keeping meaning and purpose alive and accessible. As soon as an idea is confined to the printed page, an interpreter is required to unlock it. The Indian musician requires no intermediary; he creates in public and does not keep a record…. Repetition remains a hazard for us all, in the office, the factory, even the concert hall.

      And then Menuhin goes on to say something brilliant about his heritage of gypsy music:

      The phrase ‘It’s the gypsy in me’, generally offered in extenuation of disorderly conduct, bears witness, however, to a need wider than mine alone for the refreshment of living with the moment as if one had never known it before… I have always thirsted for abandon.

      What a wonderful way of reminding us of the age-old tension between freedom and order.

      Your last observation reiterates the point I have been making in this series – the form and content of music reflects the structure of society; as the underlying structure evolves, the music follows. The very different tastes of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods in Europe are clearly noticeable in the music. Therefore, it is a legitimate area of enquiry to wonder what underlying societal forms and organizations might have given rise to traditions of music that are so different in their own forms and organizations.

      And this correspondence is not confined to music alone which is why it is so essential to understand the dynamics of our own societies before experimenting with grafts from other traditions.

  • kabir
    Posted at 15:48h, 27 August Reply


    I think that we use the word “classical” in reference to Hindustani music, simply to distinguish it from other genres such as filmi, folk, or geet. Even in the context of Western music, this is the sense the word is normally meant. Of course there is a narrower definition referring to the music of the classical period (as opposed to the Romantic period), but normally people use “classical” music or “art” music just to distinguish between genres.

    I agree with you that one of the most beautiful features of Hindustani music is that no performance is the same, even one by the same artist of the same raga. It is true that the great artist never sings pre-composed vistaars (and I say that as someone who’s guilty of memorizing set vistaars or sargams for each raga) and this is one of the things that makes attending a raga performance so special.

  • Superb musicians
    Posted at 17:54h, 22 January Reply

    I’ll Be Sharing This! Thanks

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