[This post is #3 in the Western Classical Music Series]
Related to the challenges in appreciating WCM for Indians, are the differences between WCM and Indian Classical Music (ICM). Note that by “Indian Classical”, I am referring to both Hindustani as well as Carnatic. There are significant differences between the two, but for our current focus, they can be considered as one. Also, there are exceptions to every point below, what we’re concerned with are broad differences.
Homophony vs. Polyphony / Melody vs. Harmony
ICM is primarily homophonic, which means its focus is on melodies created using a sequence of notes. ICM’s magic is primarily experienced with different melodies constructed within the framework of the Raagas, while WCM’s magic lies to a great extent in polyphonic composition, where counterpoint, harmony, and the texture created using multiple voices is critical. Melody exists in WCM too, but from a broad perspective, is not the singular or defining focus of most of WCM works. Watch this brief video to listen to the difference:
Composed vs Improvised
WCM is composed, ICM is improvised. All WCM compositions are formally written using the Staff Notation, and performers have virtually no latitude for improvisation. The converse is the case with ICM, where no ‘work’ is ever written down, and the Teacher-Student tradition of learning ICM leads to each performance being an improvisation.
Vocals are used in both ICM & WCM, but the way they’re treated in relation to other instruments is different. When vocals are used in ICM, all the rest of the instruments are mere ‘accompaniments’ — there are Tanpooras that act like drones, harmonium that follows the tonality of the voice by providing chords, etc. Whereas in WCM, when vocals are used, the instrumentation still carries a lot of weight in the overall composition. In other words, Voice forms the basis of the structure surrounding an ICM recital, whereas it is an addition to the instrumentally-generated structure of a WCM composition.
The term ‘voice’ is hence used in a generic way in WCM and doesn’t always mean human voice. A ‘voice’ can be any theme played by an instrument. Thus, one can have a four-voice fugue being played on the piano using two hands, where each hand is playing one of four voices at any given time.
Group vs Individual Dynamics
In ICM, the individual performer shines through his improvisation. In any recital or performance, there is a lead vocalist or instrumentalist who expounds the raga, while others providing accompaniment are relegated to the background (except for occasional interludes where they show off their virtuosity). In WCM, the composer and conductor shine as individuals, but the performance is largely a group effort. It is only in solo works and solo concertos that individual performers are under the spotlight.
ICM uses ‘Taal’ — a cycle of beats centered around ‘Sam’ that repeats itself. WCM doesn’t use such complex beat cycles.
‘Shruti’ / Microtones
ICM makes extensive use of quarter-tones & microtones, usually referred to as ‘Shruti’. WCM has a few microtonal pioneers in recent times, but has largely been restricted to using semitones.
Consonance & Dissonance
As far as I know, ICM doesn’t use or encourage dissonance. Modern WCM has used dissonance extensively to add to the texture of the composition.
Nature & Spirituality
ICM has a closer, intimate association with nature than WCM. Ragas have specific times of day or seasons of the year associated with them, while most of WCM doesn’t have any such characteristic. ICM’s roots are spiritual, while secular works in WCM have roots in factors like individual experiences, significant historical events in human history, entertainment, occasions with dance celebrations, and so on.
Concluding Thoughts from Rabindranath Tagore
“For us, music has above all a transcendental significance. It disengages the spiritual from the happenings of life; it sings of the relationships of the human soul with the soul of things beyond. The world by day is like European music; a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments. And the night world is our Indian music; one pure, deep and tender raga. They both stir us, yet the two are contradictory in spirit. But that cannot be helped. At the very root nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are overpowered by the sense of One and Infinite. Our music draws the listener away beyond the limits of everyday human joys and sorrows, and takes us to that lonely region of renunciation which lies at the root of the universe, while European music leads us a variegated dance through the endless rise and fall of human grief and joy.”
Next, we will try to understand a few important musical concepts.