Countable pieces versus uncountable music

Hindustani music does not have an inherent concept of a musical ‘piece’. Yes of course there are individual pieces with specific lyrics that one sings and elaborates, but there is no such thing as a pre-composed piece that is several minutes long, with musical gestures and actions that are pre-indicated by the composer. A movement from A to B, changing the mode at this junction and so on – this is hot how pieces are composed in Hindustani music.

If someone asks me to present a raga, I don’t have to think of what to present ‘in it‘, and in that sense music just becomes a continuum, a part of which I can elaborate through the medium of the mood of the raga. On the other hand, sitting at a piano and having to sing makes me think ‘but which one‘, and sets the tone of quantifiable, known pieces with predictable movement and certainty of appreciation. At least if it doesn’t go well, a larger part of it goes to the choice of composition than if I am just supposed to render a raga.

Western classical music turned towards being ‘pieces’ much earlier in history. The canonical notion of a piece, and the signature of a composer to be enshrined in his work – edited to precision, and to be interpreted thereafter, does not exist as is in many musical systems in the world. This leaves the practitioners of Western music to display their virtuosity in interpretation of pieces that already exist. But another thing it does, is to make it possible for us to think about temporal movement across generations. When music is improvised, it’s hard to find out how improvisation vocabulary has changed over long periods of time. A lot of this is because of printing musical pieces, and playing as ensembles, both of which require all musicians to be on the same page. This also made it possible for composers to add a larger amount of affective intent into their writing.

Stock photo from
A piece of music

The role of a composer to set a piece of text to raga, on the other hand, is that of an illustrator, presenting a side of the raga that could be elaborated even more beautifully. Each line in such a composition unravels a new meaning in a different area of the song. Although there are these upsides for something that is surprising to hear each time with each rendition, there are some things that also feature in terms of what an audience expects for a piece.

In the order of pre-composition, the some known songforms are arranged in a descending order: Geet -> Ghazal -> Dadra/ Thumri/ Tappa/ Tarana -> Chhota Khyal -> Bada Khyal -> Alaap
Geet-ghazal are much more predictable than Alaap in terms of what is to come next. Because of the amount of improvised material in them, it is also often that alaap and bada khyal will be adjusted according to the feedback and the mood of the audience, as well as the time available to a performer. This makes each new transition of segment surprising – and to an audience who listens for predictability rather than surprise, this might be unsettling.

Film songs on the other hand are very reliable. Folk songs from ancient times are, too, pre-composed material. Even if it is rendered by different people differently, the textual and melodic material is low variability and provides a good sense of grasp for an audience.

In a way, to have a piece of music makes it easier to commodify in some way. The time, the mood, the length, the physical demands of performance etc are very predictable. We can apply even modern methods such as semantic tagging to songs that exist as objects, and sometimes even with non pre-composed pieces that are one time renditions of classical music. To go to the short play recordings of Bade Ghulam Ali and to point at that one 3 minute Thumri and say ‘I like that “Yaad piya ki aaye”‘, not just Yaad piya ki aaye the thumri, is a matter of an open composition to become a commodity. No amount of Yaad piya ki aaye will give you the satisfaction that you get from those three minutes that you have heard before.

This makes me think that not just pre-composition, but a definite length of music can be formalized and interpreted as a ‘piece’. If a symphony wasn’t broken down into movements, or if the lengths of pieces were non finite, it would make it a harder case for predictability. Jazz comes with the same struggle at times. Although a larger duration of it is repeated each time, giving it a small measure of predictability, it is possible to lose the audience members who can’t keep track of where we are in the standard. It’s actually so hard to quantize music as pieces in my tradition, that whenever i have seen iconic representations of music, they have been in the form of Western notes although we never ever ever ever use them to write in in India.

Image Courtesy,d.c2E&psig=AFQjCNEXg8qC8zwWJo1mFR4QJhzN1rE5Hw&ust=1446903877086804 This is not how we write Indian music.

There is a lot of suggestion from behavioral sciences and music, to say that we aurally cherish repetition. Predictable patterns of musical movement bring us lots and lots of pleasure. It could be that once we are through with receiving this kind of pleasure, we can move towards the unknown with more confidence – just like hardcore film music audience listen to an unplugged version or two, where musical expression is just a bit more unchained. Perhaps slowly we will move to much more unpredictability.