Resolving, or attempting to resolve, the Middle-Eastern Divide on Improv

06/04/2014 § 2 Comments

The trial of getting something to sound more orientally authentic is very difficult indeed for Western ears. At the moment I am trying to find out exactly what makes a taksim sound Middle Eastern over a Western mimicking of the same.

Monitoring my playing over the last few days there are certain things that need to be examined further to find out the distinction between M-E and Western forms of playing. I have been told that it’s difficult to pin down exactly how a Middle Easterner would improvise a taksim, and that it’s not an exact science, but there are obvious differences between the two styles which are open to inspection.

Taking a look at my own style of taksim playing over the last few days it’s clear that there are certain things I do that sound good to me – and possibly others of the same Western persuasion – but which are not authentic by Middle Eastern standards. Really they’re just lazy styles of playing. Playing without thinking, more accurately. The traits found are:

– A constant need to resolve passages every few notes on the tonic, octave or dominant
– running up and down entire scales and even above and below the octave note in several sweeps.
– constant jumping of fifths and the need to ‘ground’ every fifth note with an open string drone below it [this last point is actually quite useful for tonal orientation but it can be, and mostly is, overused as an embellishment].

These three things sound very good to Western ears, or to me certainly. But they present the following issues:

– Severely limiting the scope of the makam by forcing passages to stop on one of three notes
– containing the notes in between tonic and dominants to certain combinations which become overrepeated
– failing to make use of the idiosyncrasies of each makam’s characteristics thereby causing them to sound too similar and more like scales rather than modes.

A Western style of playing guitar, for instance, incorporates the first three points and creates certain familiar patterns. In order to get a more authentic ME sound in taksim playing, the three points directly above should be eradicated. It’s a psychological confinement that doesn’t let the makam speak as freely as it could.

The way to overcoming these issues seems to be to listen to experienced players. However, listening to the masters, though helpful in getting a general feel for what is possible with a makam, doesn’t help the amateur by giving them in-roads into how to mimick the style. It’s just way too complicated to get their head round, and it’s not possible to see the main building blocks that the master is using in order to get the taksim sounding the way it does.

Videos such as these below are useful. In the video John Veraga plays a very simple bayati taksim. From here we can easily see the different points and stages of the ascending-descending rule, and, more importantly, the fact that there are only certain “envelopes” of notes that he uses and works within. This means that a lot of the time he will improvise within the space of only four or five notes, with a D or G drone on the lower two strings, and this envelope is, much of the time, moved up the tonal register as necessary. This helps to make much more use of the makam, and much of the time the position of the envelope is not governed by tonic, dominant or octave, indeed, stopping on notes in between – or outside – of these creates an intentional feeling of suspense until a passage – eventually – resolves the sequence.

In the West we are much more used to a candied form of improvising, we like to resolve our musical passages all the time. This is often the case in popular music since passages are resolved every four bars, or, much or the time, every four beats. This has crept into our modes of thinking subconsciously, so that when we try to improvise Middle-Eastern music we end up mimicking these traits and though we are playing Middle Eastern makamlar, they actually sound like nothing authentic at all.

The spirit of the Middle Eastern makam relies far less on instant resolution and completion, and much more on the exploration and development of the makam in all its areas. Each note is taken at its own value rather than incidentally. I would argue that, contrary to initial appearance, there are few, if any, gesture or incidental notes in Middle Eastern makamlar.

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§ 2 Responses to Resolving, or attempting to resolve, the Middle-Eastern Divide on Improv

  • Kalle says:

    I happened to read your related post at Mike’s Oud Forums, and I was slightly disappointed as no one seemed to grasp what you were going after. You’ve made an interesting point here, I think, and I thank you for it! Cheers!

    • lyscriber says:

      Hi Kalle,

      Thanks for your response and sorry that it has taken me so long to notice it! This is because the email tied to this WP blog is one I don’t often log into. Over the next year or so I will be using this blog a lot more since I will be creating a weekly learning diary in order to help me improve my playing as part of my degree. I am considering making the diary public since it will be interesting to see what other players can suggest or help me with.

      Improvisation style is dependant on cultural learning. My improvisational style [see Sahn on Bandcamp] is very much akin to the style played by bands such as Vas and Irfan, who were in turn influenced by Dead Can Dance, a project that were very good at mixing M-E ethnic influences with gothic overtones to create a Westernised darker form of musical exoticism. What one sees here is something which panders to the ever-present Western idea of the ‘exotic’ but one which is actually unrepresentative of the M-E tradition. In a word, it’s inauthentic. I know the topic of authenticity is in itself not necessary when learning music per se, but when studying the roots of a tradition, it is.

      Doubtless over the next year I will learn more about the improvisational process for taksims and how to improve them. But what is becoming slowly evident to me now is that improvising authentically is not just about which notes to use but more about the rhythm one uses. I believe the ‘envelope’ I mention above is definitely true, but ironically, I am starting to think that the rhythm is most of the battle here. When trying to imitate my oud teacher’s taksims it is the rhythm I have difficulty with.

      I’ll come back to this soon, sufficed to say I disagree still with those on the forums who say that taksim improvisation is not an exact science. I believe it is and can be analysed as such, but exactly how and through what system are questions I will try to answer over the coming months.

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