Colonial musicology and its language
The colonial heritage of musicological thinking starts from language. English became the dominant world language, American its neocolonial pendant. The choice of language inevitably brings along a mindset that derives from the culture to which that language belongs. The English musicological vocabulary is both inadequate and confusing when speaking of other musics. Speaking of Indian music for instance, there simply is no word in English for raga. On the other hand the concepts of harmony, chord, symphony—to mention just a few—have no equivalent in Hindi. The problem of Indian music can be partially solved by writing in Hindi. Partially: when writing about Hindustani music, for writing about Karnatak music is another, more complex issue. All that doesn’t solve the problem of writing about Chinese music. Indeed, then we would have to write in Chinese. OK, so for convenience we use one language, the lingua franca of this era: not Esperanto or Klingon, but English. Bummer. The problem with musicological English is its deep relation with European classical music. My colleagues in the field of WAM studies would argue that German would be a more suitable language. And then come French and Italian. Some of them don’t even know English! Ah, you say, what is WAM? It stands for Western Art Music, more or less the same as European classical music. These terminologies are intricate. Why Western, why European? Western sometimes means the western hemisphere, but most of Europe is not there. Sometimes it is used to refer to the region where the European culture dominates, i.e. Europe + the Americas. Some people may not include the Latin American countries because they are ‘underdeveloped’. And since Russia also stays out, western could be equated with NATO. I even used the expression North Atlantic music. My colleague Nicholas Cook suggested we speak of western music, with a lowercase “w”, to make clear that it is something else than Western. Great idea, especially when I’m lecturing. Anyway, many colleagues prefer to speak of ‘the European musical tradition’. This, by the way, includes both Russia and the Latin American countries. Whether it includes Greece and Southern Spain is another question. Of course Greece is the most important fountainhead of European culture, but some of its musical traditions, such as Rebetika, are non-European. Same for Flamenco. And of course the music of first nations / indigenous Americans and Afro-Americans.
The other terms “classical” and “art” are perhaps even more confusing. Classical refers to ancient Greek or Latin culture. Which, in the case of music, is rather ridiculous. Sculpture, architecture, literature and perhaps even painting in Europe were influenced by ancient Greece and Rome, but for music this is nonsense. This reference to the european ancient cultures is called the renaissance (rebirth), which took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And yes, the “classical” music of Europe also flourished in that period. But the heyday of classical music is later, while its early developments starts much before, certainly from the twelfth century onwards. Many scholars limit the term classical to the music of the 18th and 19th century, and what comes before they call “early music”. The word ‘art’ is really the worst of the whole problem. I recently visited the KMSKA, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen (Royal Museum for Fine Arts). One of the meanings of ‘art’ is “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice” (Apple Dictionary 2.3.0). A very broad definition indeed. But what we see in before-mentioned museum are (mainly) paintings of high class and high value. Top quality, bags of money. And the so-called ‘works’ of European music are also dependent on high skill and represent high quality. It’s really an elite business. I’m using elite here in a general sense, persons or a group that excel in a particular field, political, economic, religious, creative, sportive, intellectual. The “great” works of art are made or performed by people who possess a rare talent and have worked hard through training and practice to polish and develop their talent. They are the creative elite, they are specialists in their field. Elite derived from elect, though select would come a little closer. Most of the time however it’s a matter of a little in-group, either hereditary or through band forming. That’s why we don’t favour elitism.
This digression is to localize the language of my musicology. And since English is the colonial language par excellence, the English of musicology is also as colonial as it gets. I learned some european language in school and later tried to study Swahili, Amharic and Chinese but abandoned that before I could get anywhere. In Hindi I became reasonably proficient, enough to read books on Indian music and conduct a simple conversation. I also did a year of Sanskrit, but that wasn’t enough for anything useful. So, I am doomed to write in English or Dutch. And even though English isn’t my native tongue I will use it, especially because my Indian readers often know English better than Dutch. As I mentioned above, Germany may be the epicentre of the European musical tradition, and hence German the most suitable language if we are talking about that music. But I’m not. I’m talking about Indian music, more precisely about Hindustani music. And in India, or preferably the South Asian subcontinent, we meet with similar problems as in Europe. I already mentioned the two main forms of Indian classical music, Hindustani and Karnatak. Roughly speaking they are practiced in the north and the south. But there are other traditions that do not belong to either: Odissi (in the east) and Sufiana Kalam (in Kashmir). And the traditional music of Kathakali, Sopanam, is not really Karnatak music, although it has similarities. The language of Indian musicology is possibly more diverse and confusing than the European situation. Early musicological works have been written in Sanskrit and Tamil, in the Middle Ages Persian studies were added and in more recent times there are texts in some 20 different languages. The language of musicology depends on the language in which the musicologist writes. But the terminology is related to the music at hand. So it happens that when we write in English about Indian music we use lots of terms from the Sanskritic tradition. Raga, tala, svara, matra, etc. But sometimes we use an approximate equivalent: thus matra can be called a beat and a svara a note. Or should it be a tone? Actually, the English note and tone are not quite the same as the Dutch noot en toon. Sometimes we don’t really know the meaning of a certain term, like the sruti of ancient Indian musicology. When English researchers tried to grasp it, they thought it was a unit in a system of tuning schemes. At the time, proponents of harmonic tunings were fighting equal temperament and they suggested the 3-sruti interval was a minor whole-tone whereas the 4-sruti interval was a major whole-tone. Thus, the 7-sruti interval would be the harmonic major third, the 9-sruti interval the perfect fourth and the 13-sruti interval the perfect fifth. Mind you, these theories emerged in the very beginning of the nineteenth century, well before Hertz and Helmholz.
The words “microtone” and “microtonal” were coined before 1912 by Maud MacCarthy Mann in order to avoid the misnomer “quarter tone” when speaking of the srutis of Indian music. Prior to this time the term “quarter tone” was used, confusingly, not only for an interval actually half the size of a semitone, but also for all intervals (considerably) smaller than a semitone. It may have been even slightly earlier, perhaps as early as 1895, that the Mexican composer Julián Carrillo, writing in Spanish or French, coined the terms microtono/micro-ton and microtonalismo/micro-tonalité.
However, contemporary Indian musicians refer to sruti-s as a special way of rendering a note in a raga. In western musicological terminology it would be called ornamentation, but that again creates a misunderstanding. For the sruti is not the icing on the cake of the note, it is the rendering of the note as a gestalt, the shape of the tonal space is its very essence, not something added to the discrete pitch. I have explained this on my page about gandhara in Darbari. I remember having a discussion with the Dutch composer Ton de Leeuw (1926-1996) who was into microtonality at a conference about Indian music, a major source of inspiration for him. He explained that to produce a microtone, the pitch had to be extremely steady, there should be no vibrato whatsoever. I objected that the microtones of Indian music were never steady, but rather moved about in tonal space. He angrily professed this was impossible. However, the highly respected Indian musician present at the conference, sitar player Imrat Khan (1935-2018), brother of Vilayat Khan and son of Inayat Khan, confirmed my position, much to the disappointment of our composer friend. Of course, in reality we were talking about two completely different things: sruti as a pitch and sruti as a gestalt. In which the former meaning is an insubstantiable interpretation of sruti in ancient texts, whereas the latter is a term from contemporary practice. The word sruti in Sanskrit refers primarily to the revelation of the sacred texts, in particular the Veda’s. Literally it means “that which is heard”, or perhaps “that which was heard” or “that which has been heard”. In musicology it has been suggested that this should be interpreted as the smallest interval we can distinguish. Or, when can we hear two tones being just ever so slightly different. But considering the way the term is used nowadays would require a different understanding of “what was heard”. By the way, the term ‘gestalt’ is not quite suitable for describing the phenomenon because it suggests a fixed shape, whereas in actual practice the shape develops and transforms over time.