By Anjum Altaf
We have completed two stages in this series – the physics of sound in general and the technical foundation of musical sound in particular. These give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music (the swaras) and of how they fit together according to the principle of intervals or ‘musical distance’. With this understanding we are ready to explore how music is constructed.
Many more good textbooks are available in this domain although I find them heavy on content and information and a bit light on communicating the intuition and concepts. I will therefore continue this somewhat off-beat introduction that seeks to reproduce my personal struggles and discoveries and the ways in which I pieced them together. Readers should keep in mind that my interest was primarily in understanding and not in learning music. All I can say in defense of the approach is that such understanding need not come in the way of learning if the latter is the objective.
The first thing I want to stress is that music is about sound. This seems like a statement of the obvious but I find enough confusion to decide to use this as a starting point in discussing the edifice of music. The obviousness of the statement should be evident from our experience of instrumental music that comprises of nothing beyond syllables of pure sound combined in various ways.
The confusion stems from our perception of vocal music that remains the dominant genre in Indian music. One of our popular vernacular equivalents for music is the term ‘gaana’ which also translates back into the English word ‘song’. This confusion is most marked in Pakistan where the decline in musical knowledge has been the steepest. I have often heard the ghazal singing of Mehdi Hasan referred to as classical music.
Mehdi Hasan does sing ghazals in a classical style but that does not transform the singing of ghazal into classical music. The distinction between words and music is important to grasp. Any set of words, be it a ghazal or a nazm or a geet, can be set to music but the two remain distinct entities even as they combine to yield a pleasurable experience.
I conceptualize this distinction by thinking of a spectrum with pure sound syllables (the aakaar, ‘aaa’, at different frequencies) at one end and pure words of any language at the other. Let us consider a ghazal again at the latter end of the spectrum. We can engage with the ghazal in many ways – we can look at it on a printed page, we can read it in our mind without verbalizing it, we can read it under the breath or aloud, we can declaim it as in a musha’ira, we can sing it without any accompanying instrumental sound (as in the singing of religious na’ats in Islam or chanting in other religions), or we can set it to music.
Irrespective of what we do, the goodness or badness of the ghazal resides in its meaning and the elegance of the language used. The music is intended to enhance the listening pleasure but good music cannot transform a poor ghazal into a good one (just as clothes do not make a man or jewels a woman) – the text has to stand on its own strength.
We thus need to distinguish between the essential and the auxiliary: What is the core and what is the adornment that is intended to enhance the attractiveness of the core? With this in mind we can reinterpret the two ends of the spectrum mentioned above. At one end the syllables of pure sound are the core elements; the words, if any, are the adornments that serve a limited function. At the other end, the words are the core and the music the adornment that is not essential to an understanding of the meaning of the words. As we move along the spectrum, from one end to the other, words gain in importance and become more and more integral to the output being produced.
I put classical music at the end where words are inessential and mostly for ornamental purpose (we will discuss their limited functions later). As we move along the spectrum, the music gets ‘lighter’ as it becomes increasingly weighted with words. In this perspective ‘light’ music is not any less important or interesting than classical music; it differs in the sense that the words are essential to its enjoyment. Thus, it is difficult to imagine the ‘light classical’ genre without words, let alone a geet or a ghazal. It is just as difficult to imagine the ‘light classical’ genre without the accompaniment of musical sound although it is easy to do so for geets and ghazals.
Thus, the spectrum has pure classical music at one end where words are ornaments, light-classical genres in the middle where both the words and the musical sounds have a role, and pure text-based genres at the other end where musical sound serves an ornamental purpose. Based on this perspective, I will later make several provocative counter-intuitive claims to invite a discussion that should serve to strengthen our understanding: that it might actually be more difficult to sing a ghazal well than to render a classical piece; that classical music is primarily skill-based while the lighter genres incorporate elements of art and interpretation; that the quality of voice, as we generally understand it, might be much more important for singing ghazals than for rendering classical music; and that, paradoxically, notwithstanding the above, it is training in classical music that provides the foundation for good singing of the light classical genres.
Having gotten this out of the way, we will explore next how classical music is constructed with syllables of pure sound and the way simple and often meaningless words are used for embellishment. At this point I have a request. I want readers to watch a seemingly unrelated video clip on YouTube (turn the music off). I will be using this to motivate an understanding of the nature of classical music. You can think about the analogies I might wish to draw and try and anticipate the direction in which we might be headed.
Listen to the first 2 minutes of this clip of Rashid Khan and the first 3 minutes of this clip by Parween Sultana to get a sense of music comprising only syllables of pure sound with no word accompaniment. There are some excellent extended recordings of this part (alaap) of a performance of classical music but unfortunately they are not uploaded on YouTube. Is this an indication that the primary interest of listeners is in words?