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

4.2 Summary: creating music

Both of these performances clearly belong to traditions where the ‘composer’ and the composer's identified works are rather less important than they are in Western art music. Every performance of Indian or Sundanese music is unique, and yet every performance draws on repertoire and techniques which have been learned. The total repertoire exists not as a set of written works, but in the minds of performing musicians – the music only really exists in performance, and each performance is as valid as the last. It can often be difficult, as we have seen, to distinguish a piece of music from a particular performance. For this reason, many ethnomusicologists prefer to talk about music as a process of re-creation, rather than a collection of musical products.

What the Indian and Sundanese examples have in common, then, is that both are essentially created in performance, with reference to one or more quite detailed models. It would be impossible to predict in advance of a performance exactly which notes would be played in which order, or even how long the performance might take. Despite this, we shouldn't be misled into believing the musicians are free to do what they like. On the contrary, they are constrained by various rules and norms, in the same way as is a Western performer who works from a score (albeit perhaps not to the same degree). Whether or not we choose to call them ‘improvised’ musics is not important. What is important is to find out in each case how the music works, and how the musicians are guided in deciding what to play.

Briefly returning to some of the issues of Section 1, we have seen how different types of music can be described as model-based (examples of models include the rag, and the destination pitches of the gamelan piece); we have seen how they are held together by the stability of certain elements (e.g. the time structure in both cases, i.e. the tal and the gong pattern); and we have seen how the stability and predictability of certain elements allow others to vary.

These are very general observations, and would in some way be applicable to all music (including Western art music). As Nettl points out, however, music which is created in performance is likely to be more model-based, and less innovative, than music worked out in advance (that which is written down, in particular). Composers who give themselves time to think, to sketch, to revise and so on may be tempted to break with tradition, to surprise their audience. Musicians who create music in performance are, in general, more closely tied to the models handed down to them by their tradition.

Whatever differences we may have identified, we should remind ourselves that there are common features between these (largely) unwritten traditions and the Western art music tradition. In particular, there is something in common between these Asian traditions and the work of composers such as Chopin and Berio – between the revision, recomposition and the evolution of written pieces, and the constant regeneration of unwritten music through performance.

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