How artists express their style and creativity in the context of a cultural tradition is one of the central questions of aesthetics. This applies to an extraordinary range of artistic practices across different cultures, although its responses and solutions differ widely. Our views on the problem can be easily distorted by the particular solution adopted in Europe and America in modern times: to abandon traditions as much as possible and strive for total originality. The aesthetic framework changes considerably with this solution: instead of being evaluated or appreciated by how much she has mastered / responds to a tradition, the genius of an artist manifests itself in the invention of entirely new artistic languages and approaches, by how much his work is new, rather than derivative, and, often, by shock value. The omnipresence of this aesthetic of total originality, in the media and in contemporary world culture, obscures the fact of its historical novelty and its cultural contingency.
Traditional music from the Arab world – which I practice – carries a different take on what distinguishes an individual artist (over the past century this older aesthetic framework has coexisted with a new aesthetic of modernization and innovation, leading to de new hybrids and mergers). The traditional aesthetic could be summed up as follows: A master musician is expected to memorize a huge repertoire of songs, musical phrases, ornamental techniques, etc., while never performing the same song twice in the same way. Individuality and originality are crucial – but they are only understandable to the extent that they draw on and extend the knowledge inherited.
This dynamic is played out most openly in improvisation. Improvisation in Arabic music is not child’s play. It must express a particular musical mode (called maqam), which means much more than playing in a particular scale; each maqam has a rich vocabulary of idiomatic melodic phrases and ornaments that the musician must master. In addition, there are expected modulations (mood and scale changes), and expected opening and closing melodies, for any improvisation in a particular area. maqam.
This body of auditory knowledge (which takes decades to master) may sound like a confinement splint to a stranger, but it is no stricter than being confined to English words for this essay. The problem lies in our (bad) conception of musical structure: the melody does not operate at the level of individual notes, but at a broader structural level, combining phrases and learned melodic sequences. While there is a finite body of these, they can be recombined in potentially endless ways. A musician does not invent entirely new note sequences, but builds those he has learned from oral tradition into longer and original utterances. That this fact remains controversial in academic music theory does not change its palpable and understated reality for musicians rooted in oral traditions around the world.
Another level of individuality and originality comes to the fore once we accept that much of the content is inherited: expressiveness and surprise. The improviser chooses to dwell on particular notes or phrases, lengthen or eliminate, and has plenty of room to play with volume, timbre, and ornamentation so that even the most mundane melody looks completely new. The musician also plays a lot with the expectations of the listeners. Traditional listeners also absorb a huge body of vocabulary and melodic songs (as I learned firsthand as a student in Aleppo, Syria, where taxi drivers and cloth merchants could sing from memory to hundreds. elaborate traditional songs). Listeners expect particular phrases and modulations, and musicians exploit this fact, alternately thwarting and fulfilling expectations to create suspense, surprise and euphoria over large scale melodic arcs. The virtuosity of a particular musician in performing these movements, while holding the audience’s attention, is what sets her apart. And by “she” I mean Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian superstar of the 20th century, who could repeat the same melody 20 times in a row, with very subtle variations each time, and thus stir up an audience of 3000 people.
It all looks strangely like descriptions of 18e European musicians and listeners of the century given by music theorist and scholar Robert O. Gjerdingen in his 2007 book Music in the gallant style:
Having listened to these many examples of gallant romanesca, you may now have acquired a “refined ear” and the ability to judge whether a particular presentation of it possesses “superior grace” … Eighteenth-century courtiers with a taste for music must have heard thousands of examples of the Romanesca-Prinner pairing, and I presume auditory recognition of these and other patterns would have been a given. The musical paths at court were very worn, and as soon as one perceived which path had been chosen, attention could shift to appreciating the nuances of the presentation. A Prinner in response to a Romanesca was no more surprising than a bow in response to a bow. It was the manner or the presentation style that mattered as a real object of aesthetic attention.
Replace “usual melodic phrases” with “pattern” and “A hijaz melody in response to a rast melody” (hijaz and rast are names for two different maqams) with “A Prinner in response to a romanesca”, and Gjerdingen could discuss arabic music.