Monday, April 25, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 1)

I happen to be a student of the classical music of South India, referred to as Carnatic Music.  Most people outside of India, when they think of Indian music, the name Ravi Shankar comes to mind.  Well, nowadays at least one other Indian composer has a load of fame outside India (that being A.R. Rahman ever since Slumdog), but he's not really a "classical" composer per se.  Ravi Shankar, otoh, is a student of the North Indian, or Hindustani, style of classical music, which holds a lot of differences from Southern India's school of thought on music.

Although the basic elements are the same -- still Sa-Ri-Ga-Ma, and so on -- the main differences lie in handling and what sorts of elements are prioritized.  Now for those unfamiliar, I mention the Sa-Ri-Ga-Ma-Pa-Dha-Ni earlier as they are our swarasthana syllables.  Basically, the equivalent of solfeggio syllables (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti).  Now Indian music utilizes a system of Just temperament rather than Equal temperament, and there are up to 22 pitches per octave.  Just as we have flatted and sharped versions of pitches in the scale, Indian music has sharped, flatted, double-sharp/flatted of its notes.  I could go on for several dozens of pages on the theoretical aspects of how the scales are formed, but that would be a separate topic.

The main difference between Hindustani music and Carnatic music lies in rhythm.  Hindustani music is actually incredibly simple in these regards, with its most common rhythmic cycles being either Ektaal (12 beats divided into 6 pairs or 4 triplets) and Teentaal (16 beats divided into 4 quadruplets).  Hindustani has only about 9 common talas (rhythm cycles), while Carnatic music has 35 "common" talas.  The longest Hindustani tala is one of 28 counts, while the longest of Carnatic talas is one of 128 counts.  Though in both cases, the most common talas are the ones used in the majority of songs, and more complex ones are reserved for exhaustive expositions of complexity by performers -- for example, a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi, which involves 3 segments of improvisation (one melodic, one rhythmic, and one both which relies on a simple improvised stanza of poetry).  In Hindustani music, among the most complex rhythmic calculations involve dealing with phrases at multiple speeds, while Carnatic music may do alternative parsings of rhythms with offsets, multiplications, overlays, etc.  Conversely, this means that Hindustani music has to focus almost all of its improvisational aspect on development of melodic variations, while Carnatic does a fair split between plays on melody and on rhythm.

Take for instance a simple phrase like --
G - - - M - - - P - - - D - - - N - - - S - - - N - - - P - - -
This can be reparsed very simply at double the rate like so  --
G - G - M - M - P - P - D - D - N - N - S - S - N - N - P - P -

But a more complex parsing might use a delay and an offset to syncopate across boundaries to come out something like this --
G - - M - M - P - - - D - D - N - - - S - S - N - - N - P - - -

Notice that the speed up and slowdown puts you ahead a fraction of a beat, so you end up with a fifth lining up with a beat boundary of the original calculation -- this is also generally considered a good note to line up on since the fifth is a strong interval no matter what system of music you are playing.  These are the sorts of calculations a performer will do on the spot when improvising these sorts of phrases and variations.

Now, a lot of the differences that people notice between Indian classical music and Western music have little to do with these details, but they tend to notice more the drawn-out pitch bends and the smooth glissandos and the tonal inflections and vibratos everywhere that carry an exotic flair to them.  A lot of this has to do with the fact that pitch is generally implied in Indian music, rather than being explicit.  In a raga, you have more than just a raw up and down scale of notes (and the scale may be different going up than when going down), you also have characteristic inflections on those notes and rules thereof.  Those pitch effects are really what define the character of a specific raga as opposed to another even if two ragas might otherwise have identical raw pitches on their scales.

One of the big corollaries I see here is the difference in philosophies of religion.  Hinduism and its offshoots like Buddhism and so on are very introspective personal religions.  It lays out a plurality of basics and explicitly demands personal individual interpretation of religion.  It doesn't involve massive groups having unified opinions (or at least, it shouldn't in theory), but rather one individual at a time.  As a result, the musical form, which consists very predominantly of devotional music, is clearly conceived in the form of individual voices and how much can be done with an individual voice.  It's also why improvisation and the well-thought-out application of tonal inflection and variation is not only significant, but downright essential to the music.  The analogy is that what does one person on their own have to lift the name of god on high? Their own voice, and their own style of singing.

Conversely, in a lot of Western religions, you have many people gathering together in unison all singing the same identical praises, and by corollary, you see Western music have an emphasis on harmony and the layering of multiple voices in multiple ranges.  It's also one of the reasons why pitches need be absolute such that an A below middle C is explicitly defined as 440 Hz and so on -- so that certain "ground truth" expectations about where voices fit in a harmonic layout can be guaranteed to be met.

Well, I could go into more detail, and I very much intend to as I continue this series of posts.  I am also intending to cover a particular peeve I have on the subject, but I felt that for readers who might come to view this blog, not all of them are certain to have the background knowledge to get where my rant is coming from, so I figured I'd start off with an introductory post.