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.

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