Music in the Middle East
Attuned to a different classical

Many in the West equate Middle Eastern music with the folklore of "A Thousand and One Nights". Tayfun Guttstadt demonstrates just how erroneous this is

From baking bread, practicing yoga, to discovering a foreign language – the range of virtual education opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic is overwhelming. Middle Eastern music has also benefitted from this appetite for the new in Germany. Acquaintance with this musical genre has already reached considerable levels here as a result of heightened immigration in recent years.

Western trained violinists and cellists have quickly learned Syrian folk songs and “Arabic scales”, while living room concerts with the short-necked oud or the kanun zither have been shared thousands of times on Facebook. The results are then called Oriental, Turkish, or Arabic music and almost always have folk connotations – or what one might imagine to be the sounds from A Thousand and One Nights.

Recognising something of the longing experienced by Goethe himself, such marketing strategies address two distinct poles: on the one hand, the cultivated, classical Occident and on the other, the romantic folk culture of the Orient. The latter is temperamental and monolithic, whereas the former tends to be rational and less emotive.

 

Consciously or not, these assertions display a continuation of Orientalist thinking and extol a razor-sharp boundary between the Orient and Occident. The fact that the world and, indeed, music is much more complex and diverse than such dichotomous images can possibly evoke is as deliberately suppressed and overlooked as the rich musical culture that has flourished between the Balkans and Central Asia.

Music for the trained ear

Classical culture exists in the Middle East as well. It represents the world of the court, the rulers, religious dignitaries, intellectuals and poets. It was an elite culture in which composers and musicians always sought to surpass themselves and in which the precise knowledge of musical rules was held in high esteem. Such music demands a trained ear.

The relationship between this classical music and Oriental folklore (performed by wedding bands and village bards) is no different than between that of Bach and Beethoven contrasted with Central European folk music. Here as there, the elites and the people resort to similar structures. Yet the two cases are treated very differently.

 

One would be hard pressed to find an evening of German music featuring both Brahms’ Violin Concerto and folksongs from Ludwig Erk’s Deutscher Liederhort. Although no less odd, comparably arbitrary combinations under the heading Turkish, Arabic, or World music are quite commonplace.

The banner of nationalism

The national states of the Middle East have been not completely innocent with respect to this simplification. When these young national states arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, they propagated a culture that at one and the same time attempted to preserve their specific folk character while attempting to rise to a European level.

This often resulted in a mixture of classical and folklore elements, as was the case with the music composed for the famed diva of Cairo, Umm Kulthum. It was simply classified, under the banner of nationalism, as Egyptian music.

 

A similar situation prevailed in Turkey. Here, reference to the music of the simple man served as a renunciation of the Ottoman Empire (which was viewed as backwards) and its culture. Nor did the generals and kings who came to power in the wake of the First World War have much regard for religious culture. It was seen as a obstacle to catching up with Europe.

Musically speaking, this idea is amusing. Johann Sebastian Bach, the giant of Western music, almost exclusively composed religious music. In the Middle East, certain Sufi orders also functioned for centuries as the elite training grounds for classical music.

Orientalist fantasies

The Eurocentric perspective of the Germans, French, and British also contributed to this conceptual imbalance. The music of non-European peoples, regardless of all their differences and distinct qualities, served as a screen on which to project Orientalist fantasies. It had to be wild, sensual, and irrational, while speaking to the listener directly from the heart. Even those with roots in the Middle East still remain bound by these notions.

All of these views distort the perception of a tremendous cultural heritage. The difference between Ottoman court music and Anatolian folk songs is fundamental. The modes of performance, social status, and the demands on musicians and listeners are fundamentally different.

To associate a form of music, such as classical Ottoman music, which operates within a strictly defined system, primarily with raw emotions and the desert certainly does not speak for an unprejudiced view of the world. By contrast, one may also question whether a musical culture that gave birth to Beethoven’s piano sonatas can truly be lacking in emotion.

 

Extravagant improvisation

The classical music styles of the Middle East have given rise to an unsurpassed variety of melodic modes and a delicate use of intonation. The task of musicians and composers is to master these melodic types or modes, the so-called maqams (dastgah in Persian), down to the smallest detail.

The more precisely one learns the characteristics of the maqams, the higher one is held in musical esteem. In this instance, a knowledge of the maqams means being able to perform them. This explains the often extravagant improvisations found in renditions of classical Middle Eastern music. The interpreter prepares a solo improvisation, the taksim, which must introduce the maqam of the piece to be performed. It not only sets the mood for the piece, but also displays the performer’s knowledge of music theory. This is actually of greater importance than one’s musical skill.

The ability to hear and appreciate these subtleties requires practice – just as in classical European music. The ear must be trained in order to hear, for instance, eighth tones, complex chord inversions, and the resolution of a harmonic suspension.

As European music is organised in terms of scales (tone sequences, from the Latin scala = ladder) and keys, Europeans tend to grasp other musical systems based on different principles in terms of scales. This inevitably leads to simplifications and misrepresentations.

 

The maqam – an abstract melodic line

Ottoman court music made use of around 600 maqams, which has led some Turkish musicians to make the bold assertion that Turkish Ottoman music is superior to Occidental music, which only knows two modes – major and minor.

This may be an impressive comparison, but it is unfortunately inaccurate. The maqams are not simply scales, but also possess additional characteristics. Comprehending this is key to properly listening to classical music from the Middle East. A maqam provides an approximate, abstract melodic line. To this end, it employs a whole catalogue of tonal groups or sets of consecutive notes, the so-called jins (from the Greek genos = kind).

Many maqams rely not only on one or two jins, but a whole variety of jins, and, within an octave, can lead to a different melodic direction than that of just following the lower register. The character of a maqam is determined by its initial and final tone, its typical progression, strictly prescribed modulations, and customary enhancements. Here, one finds unmistakeable similarities to the ancient Greek or church modes.

 

In similar fashion, individual maqams choose to emphasise certain notes (in church liturgy, this is the primary tone on which much of the text is chanted). By shifting the tonal centre through refined melodic compositions, numerous maqams can be created using the same inventory of tones, while evoking their own particular voice. Such nuances exist in folk music only in a very weakened form.

Why is it important to understand this? Listening to Middle Eastern music free from cliches can open up new horizons for the European-trained mind.

By fully experiencing this music in both its artistic and historical richness, we can make significant progress towards overcoming our Eurocentric worldview, which has distorted not only our understanding of music and philosophy, but also our attitude towards religion, politics, history and aesthetics.

Listening to the world with different ears can be just as enriching as seeing it with new eyes.

Tayfun Guttstadt

© Die Zeit 2020

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

The author is a musician and cultural scholar living in Berlin.

More on this topic