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

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4 Some final thoughts

4.1 What is a composition?

We are used, in Western art music, to being able to identify a piece of music and its composer. The ‘piece’ is represented by the written notation; it can be realised in somewhat different ways in different performances. One of the problems we have in applying our concepts of composition to the music of other cultures is that it is not always easy the identify a ‘piece’ of music (an item of repertoire), as distinct from a particular performance.

Activity 12

Bearing this in mind, what problems might you encounter in trying to decide, in the two case studies in this course, how you would define the piece of music being played? How would you try to identify the composers of the pieces in question?


The performance of Indian music

Here it would be possible to identify something as ‘the piece’ – namely the text and its basic musical setting, which together are termed the bandish or ‘composition’. Insofar as the text determines the music performed, it defines the piece. This may have a known ‘composer’ (although in our example the composer is not known – it is regarded as simply ‘traditional’). However, a great deal of what was performed was determined simply by the chosen rag and tal (melodic and metrical frameworks) which are common to countless other bandishes, with the text playing little or no role. From this perspective, the ‘piece’ was the rag; like most rags, this has no known composer, having been handed down by previous generations of musicians.

The performance of Sundanese gamelan music

The ‘piece’ here could also be interpreted in two different ways. We could identify the piece as the framework (the sequence of destination pitches with which the musicians work), and describe the notes actually played as a realisation in performance. Or we could call the piece the total performance, with all the elaborating parts included. Either way, there is no known composer.

In both cases we have considerable difficulty either defining the ‘piece’ being performed or identifying the ‘composer’ – something quite typical of unwritten music.

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