Composing as an alien concept

Here is an interesting discussion I had last week with a colleague from South Australia. We were talking about my research at the Language School, and about the question the students’ understanding of composing, and whether they think of what we do as ‘composing’ or not.

My colleague made the point that ‘composing’ – the idea of creating new music, original ideas and sounds, and structuring them into compositions that go on to exist in their own right, is not a universal concept. That, in many other musical cultures, the notion is quite an alien one. Sure, improvisation is a feature of many musical cultures, but musical invention often stops at that point.

I am not a specialist in world music, or on the characteristics of different musical cultures, but, drawing on the little knowledge I have, this seemed to make sense.

  • In Indian classical music, improvisation is a strong feature. But the musical structures and scales within which this occurs are ancient, and while they may evolve and change under the hands of different masters, this is different to new works being created from nothing.
  • In traditional African music, similarly, the forms and structures are traditional, and while they may be interpreted by different performers, and while improvisation is a key part, the idea of composing something would be quite strange, perhaps even inappropriate or disrespectful.
  • In gamelan music, I am not sure. Certainly there are many traditional and ancient forms; however, new music also evolves. For example, the kecak monkey chanting and dance (that becomes part of the storytelling of the great Ramayana saga) was developed in the 1930s for tourist audiences in Bali. I know that the gamelan group I work with through Musica Viva, Byar, is constantly developing new versions of their music. Perhaps, however, this is yet again an example of revising ancient forms, rather than composing completely new material.

What of the musical traditions of the indigenous peoples of Australia? I’m not sure here. Again, I think the music performed is traditional, and passed down orally through the generations, rather than composed from scratch by contemporary performers.

In this context, when I ask the question, do the students know they are composing?, I am assuming familiarity with what may in fact be quite an alien concept to these students from all around the world. I have always believed that to some extent, the confusion or inhibition that some students display when we undertake some of the more free creative tasks, was due to cultural differences, and their unfamiliarity with an education approach that invites and encourages student input (as opposed to the ‘transmission’ style of teaching). But I think now I should consider the possibility that the notion of ‘composing’ is one that has no real parallels in their cultures, and so must be learned and understood as an entirely new concept.

Comments on the role of composition in other musical cultures are warmly invited.

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1 comment so far

  1. T on

    In Australian indigenous music, at least with the Wagilak men I work with (google “Crossing Roper Bar” for links to info about the project), there are ancient musical forms and devices that are passed down and ancient stories that are told, but there are also new stories being told, and new influences adopted in the music: eg Geoffrey Gurumul singing traditional songs in an essentially pop/adult contemporary western context. They also have songs about newer cultural icons such as beer that are part of the public repertoire. Perhaps the restricted sacred repertoire is more set, as opposed to the more general repertoire that changes with time as new subjects and events emerge. I imagine flexibility and adaptability exists in part due to the aural nature of transmission, and also because each individual has a different ancestral pattern, and therefore cultural mix. Also the words to songs aren’t learned in a set sequence. eg. A song about country will be made up of references to various people and places, but in performance the singers will improvise the order according to circumstance and what springs to mind at the time. At a recent rehearsal the Wagilak songmen said it would be boring if they had to sing the same sequence of words every time.
    As far as composition goes there is definitely some recognition of authorship, but I don’t know that it extends to ownership. As new songs or reinterpretations of subjects often come from ancestors in dreams the idea of authorship is interesting. And I expect that individual ownership may not be considered because the traditional songs are part of the cultural heritage of the people. Keep in mind too that the songs are just one component in broader ceremonial and story-telling contexts that include dance, visuals such as body painting, and ritual.

    As for Indian music, new melodic and rhythmic compositions based on the old scale and rhythm structures are continually created (just like jazz), as are new scales. The extensive/exhaustive range of scales in use points to the acceptability of the creation of new scales. But as in jazz the main emphasis is on the extemporization. A new piece will be adopted into the mainstream repertoire if it is strong and unique enough and offers a new or fresh angle for improvising.


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