“All Latin music sounds like Girl from Ipanema.” We’ve probably all heard broad statements of this kind about whole musical cultures or genres. They are sometimes invoked as justifications for musical taste (“this is why I like Telemann and not Antônio Carlos Jobim”). But in fact they are expressions of a particular musical taste: a listener’s lack of conversance with a musical language, with the variations through which interest is achieved within that language, means the interest cannot be found, and leads to the music ‘all sounding the same’.
The interest of a particular musical style or culture may lie in variations in radically different parameters, depending on the style or culture in question. Counterpoint is not really involved in e.g. sitar improvisations over a taal, where the expression of the melodic line may be paramount; by the same token it is clearly not primarily in the expressiveness of its subject that the interest of a fugue lies. As a result of our musical upbringing our ears become acculturated: an exclusively Indian-trained musician might hear two-part counterpoint as a kind of dissonance, whereas for a Western-trained musician it is microtonal inflections that may sound ‘dirty’ or plain wrong.
So there is an obvious and immediate problem in trying to combine music from multiple cultures: the exploitation of musical parameters that provide a key part of the interest of one music may cut across the interest of another. The rubato of one musician ruins the carefully-constructed polyrhythms of another; one musician’s desire to explore the melodic possibilities of a single mode conflicts cacophanously with another’s long-term harmonic plan; one musician’s idea of a supporting line is, to another, a deleterious and impertinent distraction from their expressive melody.
Our own musical culture is like a pair of glasses through which we see whatever we look at. Being confronted with another musical culture, especially when working together with another musician, can illuminate more clearly the unquestioned assumptions at the heart of our own practice, and force us to take our glasses off in the knowledge that things will look pretty blurry for a while.1
As a percussionist, I feel particular sensitivity to rhythm and timbre. My ideas about both would be challenged to some extent through encountering the tabla practice of Rishiri Kulkarni during the first season of Academy Inégales, and exemplifies how we can fall back on unquestioned elements of our own practice.
The range of sounds that a pair of tabla can produce in skilled hands is large. In fact the intricacies of timbral modulation achievable on the instrument are quite amazing given that its construction is relatively simple; but these variations are quite subtle. In contrast, the variety in sounds available to the contemporary percussionist is essentially limitless in its breadth. If the timbral modulations achievable on the tabla are like one person speaking a variety of different words with different emphases, the range of instruments I take to a rehearsal at the Club Inégales provides a whole farmyard of different unrelated and sometimes uncivilised voices. The combination of my very broad variations with the subtle variations of Rishiri’s tabla proved an uneasy one, tending to overemphasise the relative continuity of the tabla sound. At first this was a source of directionless frustration, made worse by the knowledge that, like the bossanovaphobe quoted at the head of this article, I was failing to tune into the variations of the tabla sound, and was reacting by surrounding it with all kinds of timbral fireworks that were evidence more of confusion than of inspiration.
My actions were guided by priorities I had inherited from a contemporary western compositional culture fascinated by extended techniques and by achieving the broadest possible timbral range on every instrument. Huge textural upheavals, I thought, must be possible at any moment – not only from the ensemble but from every constituent part of it. Yet, curiously, when I had previously developed a piece for the Academy Inegales, I had consciously or semi-consciously removed timbral variation (as well as rhythmic variation, incidentally) from consideration as a parameter of interest. The preconception that every instrument must regularly display the ability to transform its sound into something quite different was one that, on consideration, was just that: a preconception – and clearly, if my own writing was any kind of barometer, not even one I instinctively found particularly attractive or convincing.
There isn’t room here to discuss whether it is in itself a particular feature of Western musical culture that musicians often play in order to ‘fit the bill’, but I have certainly been reminded of my own natural tendency to fall back into playing what I feel I ‘should’ play. This was an issue more fundamental than any specific revelation concerning timbral balance within a multicultural ensemble or a percussion section. It was the discovery that I sometimes fail to ask myself the most obvious question about a completed performance: rather than “did I play well”, perhaps it’s sometimes worth asking “did I play what I wanted to hear?”