21 Aug An Idiot’s Guide to Music – 3
By Anjum Altaf
In the second post in this series I had proposed looking at the organization of music to see what it revealed about the organization of society. This enquiry was motivated by the very stark differences in the organization of classical music in the Western and Hindustani traditions that are immediately obvious on attending concerts in the two traditions.
I am going to rely almost entirely on the description provided by Yehudi Menuhin in his autobiography Unfinished Journey (Chapter 12) because being a musician he has a deep insight into the subject. Later I will come back to the issues that Menuhin does not address.
What the Indian music has not, and Western music richly has, is, of course, harmony. This is not fortuitous. Just because the Indian would unite himself with the infinite rather than with his neighbour, so his music assists the venture. Its purpose is to refine one’s soul and discipline one’s body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one’s breath with the breath of space, one’s vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos. Outside the family, the Indian’s concern does not easily fasten on the group. Europe’s genius, on the other hand, has been to form individuals into communities, each accepting loss of freedom in the interests of the whole. Hence collective worship, hence armies and industries and parliamentary democracy, and hence chorales in which each voice has a certain independence but is nonetheless severely constrained by other voices.
When I was invited in 1965 to collaborate in the Commonwealth Arts Festival held in several British cities that autumn, I was granted a first close view of the music of yet another culture which added perspective to the links between social and musical organization. If Indian melody and Western harmony had seemed to provide matter for comparison, Indian individualism and African collectivism set the poles of the issue further apart. The African music was tribal, the music of a society which worked, worshipped, celebrated, mourned, and brought up its children together, without any European compromise between the one and the whole, and without need of a harmonic structure. Complexity of rhythm, equally a mark of Indian and African music, is based in an African ensemble on the division of labor, different players keeping their own beat against each other, and contriving to pull off this difficult feat by playing in a kind of hypnotic trance. The sum of the divisions is a subtlety of rhythm, which so far not even jazz has reproduced.
In contrast, Indian rhythmic complexity is primarily one man’s doing. Before beginning to play, the Indian group – consisting of some combination of three solo players providing drone, melody and rhythm (in order of sound) – chooses a raga and a tala, the warf and woof of the fabric about to be created…. It becomes a game in which each tries to put the other off his stroke, a sort of intellectual motor race…. Indian music thus accommodates the group, but the individuals within it remain soloists, never coalescing into a harmonic statement. To form orchestras of Indian musicians would be to run counter to nature.
The bottom line of all this is that one can infer from the organization of music that Western society is group oriented in which one begins with collaborating with a neighbor and graduates to the formation of communities in which each individual yields something to advance the interest of the group.
Hindustani music, on the other hand, reveals that Indian society is individualistic and even when Indians work in groups they do so as individuals remaining more competitive than cooperative. Menuhin adds to this his inference about African tribal organization that is more collective than Indian society but not in the same way as Western society in which the interest of the group takes precedence over that of individuals.
These are very profound observations that leave us much to think about. But, of course, the causality does not run from music to society. Rather, it is the reverse – the organization of society is reflected in the organization of music and, by extension, of other activities like business and politics (Menuhin hints at this with his reference to industries and parliamentary democracy).
So, a prior question remains to be answered: Why is Western society group oriented while Indian society is much more individualistic? Menuhin does not delve further into this aspect. We will do so in the next post in this series and in doing so link back to another series on this blog that explores the determinants of cooperative and individualistic behavior.
It is a coincidence that these two series of posts have converged in this interesting manner.
The text in italics is from Unfinished Journey by Yehudi Menuhin.