'The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions', by Michael Church - Review

By Coghlan, Alexandra | The Spectator, October 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions', by Michael Church - Review


Coghlan, Alexandra, The Spectator


The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions Michael Church

Boydell, pp.426, £25, ISBN: 9781843837268

'Following custom, when the Siamese conquered the Khmer they carried off much of the population, including most of their musicians, to be resettled in what is now Thailand.' The history of music isn't a story of chords and scores, instruments or their players. Music's story is one of wars, invasions and revolutions, religion, monarchy and nationhood. Whether you look at the histories of Africa or Iran, Europe or Uzbekistan, the narratives are the same: colourful, bloody, complicated. Music is not an aesthetic response, an artistic translation of life; music and musicians are society itself.

It's a principle that acts as the guiding thread through the labyrinth of traditions and terminologies that make up The Other Classical Musics . Whether discussing gamelan or gagaku, these 15 essays on music from around the world (gorgeously illustrated with colour photographs and images) never forget that they are telling human stories, rooting unfamiliar sounds, words and ideas in narratives in which we can all find a foothold.

Note the sneaky plural of the title -- 'Musics'. It's a sign of a discipline that has done some serious rethinking over the past few decades, embracing the same cultural pluralism that already exists in literature. Michael Church and his authors start from the premise that all musicology is ethnomusicology; the western tradition of Bach and Mozart is as much an anthropological curiosity as African drumming or Indian ragas and must be explored within the same historical and cultural context.

Including a chapter on Europe here, alongside those on China, Thailand and Japan, is provocative, but thoughtfully so. Ivan Hewett's European narrative -- from Gregorian chant to John Cage -- is a familiar one, but bookended by chapters on jazz (itself a contentious addition to a book on 'classical' traditions) and North Africa, it reads as newly foreign, exotic almost. Careful juxtaposition invites us to compare images of western music's earliest staff notation with the intricate visual codes of Chinese jianpu (numeral) notation or the rhythmic grid for a Hindustani tabla composition -- ciphers that, while baffling, hint at fundamentally different priorities of expression and ornamentation, differing concepts of musical structure and melody.

While ethnomusicology might conjure images of western academics notating folk songs in primitive, remote locations, it's important to stress that this is not what is going on here. Church's interest is not in folk but alternative classical traditions -- 'what every society regards as its own great tradition', as he puts it. These musics are often courtly, usually urban, top-down musical strategies rather than grassroots evolutions. …

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