By Anjum Altaf
This is turning into a quirky introduction to music. Readers are keeping me pegged and, to be honest, I am quite happy to dally. This post too is part of the preamble in which I wish to dispel one myth and talk about one aspect of our musical culture that makes me particularly unhappy.
First, the myth. I hear again and again that music is a divine gift, that musicians are born not made, that good musicians come around once in centuries, and that the focus on knowledge and training is misplaced. I wonder why people are so averse to looking at the evidence. Do we belong to a culture that discounts facts, that believes more in providence and less in science, that is high on rhetoric and low on proof?
One look at the family tree of any musical gharana would show that good artists are not born once in many centuries but, given the right conditions, have followed one another with regularity. And, that there is an institutional structure, guru-shishya parampara, that enables the reproduction of skills based on a regimen of rigorous training.
Just this fact should be enough to dispel the misperception that artists are not created but are born with a divine gift from heaven. If this were indeed true, would one not find such artists randomly distributed throughout the population? This is obviously not the case. In fact, artists of merit have continued to emerge disproportionately out of the same families that adopted music as a profession, benefiting from early exposure and the systematic transfer of skills from one generation to another.
The bottom line is that good music can be learnt. For further evidence just look at regions and countries outside South Asia, say in Europe, the Americas and East Asia. Almost every school there has both a choir and a band, there are regular music competitions, and a network of conservatories exists for private training outside schools for the specially committed and talented. Out of these come a steady stream of outstanding musicians and the discriminating and knowledgeable pool of listeners and critics that demands a high quality of performance from the former. It is an interesting fact that almost half the students at Juilliard, the most prestigious academy of Western music in the US, are from China which has quite a different native tradition of music.
I hope you are semi-convinced that there is a place for learning for both performers and listeners. And I am going to argue later that the foundation of such learning is the language of classical music even if the performers and listeners are primarily interested in non-classical genres.
This brings me to the aspect of our musical culture that I am unhappy about. Do we have a language in which lay listeners can talk about music, classical or otherwise? Or are we just at the stage where we can attend a musical performance, enjoy it immensely, and be utterly unable to describe what we have heard? If we were to be asked by a friend about the performance would we be able to say something beyond the verdict that it was awesome or terrible? How far can we get in understanding something if we don’t have a vocabulary to talk about it?
Let me illustrate this with an example that I have tested time and again. I ask a lay audience of music lovers to tell me the difference between the voices of Lata and Noorjehan. Invariably I get told who is better and (surprise, surprise) this preference overlaps overwhelmingly with nationality. I tell the audience I am not testing for patriotism, I am not asking who is better; I am asking: What is the difference in their voices? If I give you the same song sung by the two would you be able to tell me how to distinguish one from the other?
Just to drive home the point, I ask the audience to describe the difference between a PC and a Mac. This too starts off with a polarization of those who think the one is better than the other. But here we make more progress when I push and ask why they think one is better than the other. We emerge with a set of attributes that pertain to things like functionality, user-friendliness, battery life, propensity to crash, availability of applications, etc., etc. The issue is not whether the loyalists are right or wrong; the point is that there is a vocabulary to talk sensibly about the subject.
I hope I have made the point. Without a language and a vocabulary that most people understand we cannot talk sensibly about music and I will concentrate my attention with careful subtlety to this end.
Just so readers have a sense of what I mean by vocabulary and attributes of music, I am linking a piece where the writer does precisely what I don’t really like – asking who is the better singer. Note that even in a popularity contest the judgment is based on a technical comparison of attributes and note the richness of the language in which these comparisons are made.
Re the concluding resolve to “concentrate my attention with careful subtlety to this end,” please direct your attention to this poem in prose by Eliot and note the language employed to describe a laugh. Read it aloud and see if you can imagine the scene from its brief description?