Improvisation in the Arabic Musical Tradition, Some Thoughts (part 1)

11:54 am Arabic Music, Improvisation, Music, Oud, Taqasim

It should be noted that in Arabic music, as well as in other idioms which emphasize improvisation, the term improvisation is not used to describe these musical practices. There are improvised forms, improvisations within composed forms, or improvisations while playing a composed line (see part 2 of this post for details). These forms have names and parameters and rules. They are not random notes played whimsically. Here’s an anecdote to illustrate the politics of the western term “improvisation”.

Last year, one of my students at UC asked to be excused from class so that he could prepare for his final piano recital. We began talking about his recital and I mentioned to him that over-practicing can kill the music; that his nervousness is probably not warranted and that music is not about playing perfectly but with life and passion. He looked at me with a knowing smile and said “but your music is different. It’s all improvised.” The student’s response reflects two stereotypes: 1) the music of some cultures is less sophisticated than classical music, is all improvised on the spot and has little or no structure, form or intentionality; 2) improvisation is less demanding to perform than composed music.

Whether or not improvisation is less demanding to perform than composed music will be answered in detail at a later post.

To understand the first stereo type which dismisses improvisation as whimsical lacking structure and intentionality let us start by remembering that the predominantly improvised western classical forms of cadenzas are rarely, if ever, improvised any more. This, of course, betrays the original intent of the composers who left their cadenzas intentionally uncomposed. They were perfectly capable of writing them out was that their vision for the music. After all, writing music was what they did.

The modern classical western scene likes hierarchy. The job of the player is to play, not worry herself about what to play. That is the job of the Composer and His agent on earth, the conductor. Modern scores are getting more and more cluttered with details. The performer’s every breath is dictated by the Composer.

The stereotype about the lack of sophistication and depth in music that employs improvisation needs to be regarded as a political term used to dismiss certain music and glorify another. The implication, of course, is that thoroughly composed music is more “serious”, sophisticated, and meaningful. As a result, the Composer, and His agent, the conductor, get to keep their position in the hierarchy above the performer.

The point of this post is to set the stage for a discussion of improvisation in Arabic music. The stereotypes about it are part of the collective musical consciousness of our times, but my feeling is that ignoring that they exist closes the door before any meaningful dialog about the music.

2 Responses
  1. Farah Jubran :

    Date: January 23, 2008 @ 1:47 am

    Dear Saed,

    Since arabic music is mostly sinnging music and acompenement music, I have the feeling that Arabic language (Quran, poetry in all its form and pronounciation dictions) are the most shaping factors for the forms of Arabic music and improvisation.

    anybody wrote about this subject?

    Thank you for the beatiful blog and discusion group


  2. admin :

    Date: January 23, 2008 @ 9:10 am

    Dear Farah,
    I don’t know if there are any writings on the subject.

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