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

2.3 Conclusion

As I warned you, it has been necessary to introduce here a fair amount of technical detail on North Indian music. You will not need to remember all of this – indeed, apart from a little basic terminology (such as rag and tal), some instrument names (tabla, tanpura) and the name of this genre (khyal), you may not come across any of these terms again in this course. What I hope you will remember is what this has taught you about the way North Indian art music is put together, and what this tells us about composition and improvisation.

First, here is a list of things you should have picked up about North Indian art music, and the khyal genre in particular.

  • This music is not performed from a score. Although notations do exist, only a small part of what is performed is notated (the bandish), and even that in a very skeletal fashion. Notation is little used, and has little or no authority.

  • The performer memorises a certain amount of material: the bandish (i.e. the basic setting of the text) and the rag and tal. (I don't expect you to have picked up the details of these, but it should be clear that melody and rhythm are regulated in some way.) These might be described as the ‘building blocks’ of the music.

  • Using this learned material, the artist constructs a performance. He or she is guided by certain basic principles (the transition from unmetred, slow, rhythmically free music to that which is metred, fast and regular): within this overall plan various specific techniques or processes (bol alap, bahlava, tan etc.) are accommodated. We could describe this as a kind of loose formal ‘model’ for the construction of a performance.

  • Both the overall formal plan and the specific techniques used are defined in such a way as to allow an infinite number of equally valid, and equally authoritative, performances.

  • Accompanists know what is expected of them, to a great extent, from their own training. The soloist retains overall control of the performance, however, and can signal any changes required (e.g. acceleration).


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