Conference: "Maqam and creation"
Royaumont, October 2005

"A lot of my work over the last 20 years has been concerned with collaborations and meetings between musicians of various different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Many people have assumed as a matter of course that I have actively sought out such collaborations based on an interest in combining, mixing or even "marrying" heterogeneous cultures, as some people have so clumsily expressed it. In fact this assumption is quite far from the truth. For me, the meeting of individual musicians as people is of paramount interest, and not the meeting of the cultures from which they happen to come. The fact that each musician brings his own personal background and therefore his own culture to a meeting with another musician is, of course, inevitable and indeed desirable, but for me it is not the issue of central interest. It has been my observation over the years that certain musicians find an affinity with one another, or indeed challenge one another in such a way as to ignite a particularly creative meeting out of which something truly new and fresh is actually born. It is extremely rare that a musician who comes from, for example, an Arab country, whose music is based on a given interpretation of the maqam system chooses to collaborate with a musician from, let's say, North India, who works with the raga system, out of an interest in combining the maqam and raga systems. Musicians don't naturally tend to think like that. They are not usually enticed by such abstract intellectual pursuits, given that, for them, neither ragas nor maqams actually belong primarily to the realm of either the intellectual or the abstract, and therefore do not by nature invite such an approach. It is usually musicologists who approach such subjects from an analytical, comparative and theoretical perspective and it is an unfortunate fact that many musicians have come to pay lip-service to all of this, in the belief that keeping on the good side of musicologists is good for their careers on the one hand, and, on the other, that their social status is somehow raised when they are perceived as being "scientific" about what they are doing. I have actually witnessed projects in which North Indian musicians and Greek musicians from the region of Epirus were called upon to play together under the general assumption that because both made use of pentatonic scales they therefore had much in common. In fact both groups of musicians were far more aware of phraseology than they were of scale material and, as a result, they perceived primarily enormous differences and indeed very few similarities. Nevertheless, this project has continued for many years under the erroneous assumption that North Indian and Epirote musicians have much in common due to their use of pentatonic scales. One reason for this misunderstanding not being dispersed is that as a concept it sells. This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest problems created by all of the "world music" marketing machinery. For everything that is done there must be a "reason" for doing it, regardless of whether this "reason" actually makes any sense to the musicians or not, and this "reason" must give rise to grand concepts or themes around which large and often expensive projects are centered. All of this is fine and well if what we want to do is sell a product, but if what we want do is understand what actually goes on when musicians of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds meet, then I'm afraid all of this is quite irrelevant.

I myself have spent nearly all of my life working within the realm of what we could broadly refer to as modal music. Specifically, I have worked on musical traditions which make use of modal entities such as maqams, ragas, dastgahs, ayaklar, or dromi. I spent many years reading almost all of the available theoretical and other material in the hope that this would help me to understand these modal systems. I noticed from the very beginning that in all of these writings there were a lot of blanks and that none of them were really of any practical use to anyone who actually wanted to play any of this music. Even though the information contained in these books was usually "correct", it was not really very useful to someone who was interested in actually playing this music. It was only after many years of actually working on these different musical traditions with accomplished masters that I realized that maqams, ragas, etc. are not systems to be "understood" but that they are entities with which ones enters into a state of communion and alignment, and that any attempt to break them down into theoretical systems is by definition futile. Indeed this attempt to approach them analytically as theoretical systems is actually quite old. It has been going on for perhaps thousands of years, yet modal music has persistently and fiercely resisted this approach right up until the present day. So, if this problem exists even in the regions of the world where modal music remains a living tradition, it doesn't take much imagination to see that this same problem is much greater in the Western world which has effectively been out of touch with modality for literally hundreds of years.

Almost all of the projects which are taking place today involving collaborations between representatives of various modal traditions or between modal and non-modal musicians take place either in the Western world or at the instigation of Western producers, musicians or other agents. This fact is in itself neither positive nor negative, it is simply something which seems to derive from some need or concern which is of interest primarily to certain people in the West. The problem starts when the "rules of the game" are drawn up or even dictated by people who don't actually understand or belong to the world of modal music and who, usually unwittingly, incorporate their own misconceptions into the very foundations of the projects which they themselves instigate.

Most musicians are directly affected by what they actually hear and are only rarely moved or inspired by theoretical concepts. This perhaps explains why theory and practice in modal music are so often seriously out of synchronization with one another, often to the point of near total irrelevance. For a musician to be moved or inspired by something which he hears however is usually dependent on the fact that what he hears contains some element which is recognizable to him and therefore resembles in some way something which he already knows. At the same time, if he is listening to something which is not of his own tradition, he expects to hear something different and unfamiliar which must not however exceed a certain distance which, in its turn, is dependent on his own personal musical flexibility. This last element is perhaps the most crucial. The success or lack thereof of the meeting between two musicians who happen to derive from different musical traditions is dependent primarily on these factors and not on abstract theoretical considerations. To continue my analogy mentioned previously concerning the meeting between an Arab and a North Indian musician, it therefore becomes important which Arab musician meets which North Indian musician. For a start, there must be a personal connection and affinity, and subsequently the one must hear in the playing of the other something with which he can connect on a very immediate level. This connection is dependent on the exact right balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity with regards to the individual musician's own breadth of scope and personal flexibility. What ensues will therefore be primarily a personal meeting and not a cultural one. It will be a meeting between this musician, who happens to be an Arab, and that musician, who happens to be from North India, and each will, by definition, bring something of his own musical world to this meeting. In the case of modal musicians, the element which usually draws them together as a catalyst is a musical phrase and not merely tonal material in the form of a scale. Modes, regardless of which specific tradition they happen to belong to are centered around sparse nuclear phrases which open up innumerable windows of possibility for melodic development, whilst simultaneously serving as a backbone and point of reference which give identity to the melodic variety which they create. This function can only be performed by finely honed and condensed phraseology and not by mere scale material. For this reason we frequently find distinctively different modes which nevertheless share the self-same scale as their basic tonal material. For someone familiar with modality there would be no chance that these two modes could be confused, whereas a listener unaccustomed to modal music would perceive them as belonging to the same scale and therefore as being the same thing.

In conclusion I would simply like to say that in the domain of world music and all of its related spheres much more emphasis must be placed on the personal dimension and less on the ethnic dimension in order for collaborations between heterogeneous musicians to acquire any real artistic meaning. By defining a musician of non-European origin as a representative of a given musical system or ethnic group we are unfortunately binding him hand and foot with so many dos and don'ts which usually spring from a disconnected scholar's perspective of his world, that he is reduced to the role of a folkloric relic and not afforded the status of an artist in his own right. The same is true of the modal musical systems which serve as the underpinning for countless artists in specific regions of the world. Definitions of maqams, ragas etc. will always be inadequate and subsequently cannot serve as common denominators of musical creativity per se. On the contrary, these self-same modal entities complete with their idiomatic nature as quanta of musical experience can be extremely important elements in musical creativity and development on all levels and in a wide scope of musical traditions, whether they belong to the world of modal music or not."

 

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