Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective
Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

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Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

2.2 Notation

The next thing to consider is the role of notation in this tradition. At one point on the video you saw Veena Sahasrabuddhe singing from a printed notation, from a collection first published in the first quarter of the twentieth century by the famous Indian musicologist Pt V.N. Bhatkhande (originally in the Marathi language, this is now best know in its Hindi translation in volume 5 of Bhatkhande, 1987). Actually, she did this at our request – she would not normally sing from notation, but did so to enable us to compare different versions of the bandish (composition). What will not have been clear is the relationship of the information in this printed notation itself to (a) what she actually sings ‘from’ the notation; and (b) what she sings in her own demonstration and performance of the same piece, without reference to the notation but drawing instead on her own knowledge of the piece. To clarify this, I have transcribed the first line of each of these into staff notation in Examples 1, 2 and 3 below. In order to follow the notations you will need to know:

  1. that the three-flats ‘key signature’ does not indicate a Western-style key. B is in fact the ‘key note’ (the main note we hear in the drone); the scale is hexatonic, with no fifth and a flat seventh (notated here: B C D E G A).

  2. the 10-beat metre jhaptal is indicated for our purposes by a 10/4 time signature. The single bar line and the symbol ‘X’ indicate the beginning of the cyclical pattern (X marks beat 1; thus, counting back, you will find that the first version starts on beat 5).

Example 1: Printed notation (after V.N. Bhatkhande)

Example 2: Transcription of what Veena Sahasrabuddhe actually sang from the printed notation for demonstration purposes.

Example 3: How Veena Sahasrabuddhe sang the same phrase in performance, without reference to the notation.

Activity 4

Compare the notations in Examples 1 and 2 (above). How you would describe the relationship between the printed version and version sung from it? What does this suggest about the status of notation in this tradition?


We can say that the printed version (Example 1) is simpler than even that sung from the notation (Example 2). To put this another way, the notated version is like a skeleton which is ‘fleshed out’ by the performer by the addition of subtle ornamentation. More striking still, in a couple of cases Veena Sahasrabuddhe actually sings a different note from that printed. This suggests that the importance of the notation is quite low: Veena Sahasrabuddhe does not feel constrained by it, and is confident that her own version is at least as authoritative as that printed.

These observations are backed up by a couple of other things on the video. First, Veena Sahasrabuddhe and her accompanists are not performing from notation. Secondly, in her explanations she clearly attributes little importance to notation: it is a means of preserving compositions (bandishes) as an insurance against failures of memory, and for this purpose audio recordings nowadays do a much more efficient job (since any refreshing of memory would be done well before a public performance). In fact, as she states in the video, Veena Sahasrabuddhe learned this composition from her father: this would have been a process of imitation and memorisation; in other words, oral transmission. Although she is aware of the existence of a notated version, she does not consider it authoritative. For instance, when she and I were collaborating on a translation of the song text, she pointed out to me that the version printed was in fact incorrect in several details (i.e. she considered the version she had learned orally to be the authoritative version).


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