Improvisation in the Arabic Musical Tradition, Some Thoughts (part 2)

12:47 pm Arabic Music, Improvisation, Music, Oud, Taqasim

Now that we are clear on the politics of the term “improvisation” (see part 1), we can talk about where and how improvisation is used in Arabic music.

Improvisation is present in three types of musical activities. The first is forms that are entirely improvised. The second is partially improvised forms and rhythmic improvisations inserted within a composed piece. Finally, there are the ornaments that a player introduces while playing a composed musical line.

Entirely Improvised Forms In Arabic Music

  1. Taqsim (pl. Taqasim): The most highly regarded of instrumental improvisation in Arabic music. This is the art of non-metric modal improvisation. In taqasim, the aesthetic centers around creating lyrical melodic line, smoothly modulating between maqams (Arabic melodic modes), and demonstrating the capabilities of the instrument on which the taqsim is being played. The function of taqasim within the context of a larger performance was usually to establish the maqam of the next piece in the set in the ears of the listeners as well as the performers, give a break from the full ensemble sound, or create a modal transition (modulation) from the maqam of the preceding piece to the maqam of the piece following the taqsim. In modern day Arabic art music scene, there are performances that are predominantly made of taqasim, but that a fairly rare occurrence. This was even more rare in older times. Every serious practitioner of Arabic music must be able to play taqasim. Although taqasim are non-metric, a discernible sense of pulse and forward movement must be present in a successful taqsim.
  2. Taqsim on the beat: A form of taqasim where there is a soft rhythmic accompaniment in the background while a musician is playing a taqsim in the foreground. The accompaniment can be on a percussion instrument, on melodic instruments playing an ostinato, or both.
  3. Mawwal (pl. Mawawil): Similar to taqasim, mawawil are non-metric and modal with the aesthetics centering around lyricism of the melodic lines and smoothness of modulation among different maqams. For lyrics, mawawil use poetry, which could be in classical or spoken Arabic.
  4. Layali: Similar to Mawwal in everything except that layali do not use lyrics. In-stead they use words and syllables that are common to the layali form such as (ya leil and aman). It is not un-common for a vocalist to start with layali, then sing a mawwal, then return to layali and so forth. In fact, most mawawil start with layali.

The four musical forms mentioned above are the only forms in Arabic music that are entirely improvised. The next post discusses forms that include both composed sections and improvised sections.

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