Can classical music learn from other cultures?

Classical music is a linear artform. This is expressed in the traditional sonata form of exposition, development and recapitulation. Contemporary Western culture is increasingly dominated by the hypertext based web which has a non-linear structure: this non-linearity is evidenced by Twitter, Facebook, and the iPod shuffle. Which may explain the uncomfortable fit between classical music and contemporary culture.

There are thought-provoking parallels between the non-linear nature of web based communications and Islamic culture. Muslim spirituality is a decentred space which has its roots in the Qur'an as the French ethnomusicologist Jean During explains:
The "chapters", or sūrahs, are not thematic units, nor do they follow any chronology... Thus, the Qur'an appears as multiplex, yet this very multiplicity leads to unity, the key principle in Muslim philosophy.
Islam rejects all mediations between God and man. This manifests itself in many ways including the absence of images in mosques. The physical structure of the mosque, which lacks the processional structure of a Christian church, is another expression of non-linearity. Addition and repetition rather than organic development is central to Islam and this can be seen in the non-linear and non-narrative structure of traditional secular Arab music. It is interesting that addition, repetition and lack of organic development are central to minimalist music, one of the few classical genres that has found widespread acceptance in contemporary Western culture.

Parallels between the structure of contemporary communication and Islamic culture may be coincidental. But the tensions between traditional linear Western classical music and our increasingly non-linear culture are real. Resolving these tensions may be key to determining the future of classical music.

* The Jean During quotation comes his essay for the Ocora recording of Qur'anic Chant from Turkey seen in my header image. All forms of musical notation for the recitation of the Qur'an are forbidden to preserve the Book's transcedent origins [Hamza: 1288] and the recitation must be delivered by the voice alone without instrumental accompaniment. Qur'anic chant is part of the great oral tradition and on the Ocora disc it is delivered by the blind mosque-trained Kâni Karaca who was born in Istanbul. The art of the Turkish mosque featured on another path.

The Ocora CD of Qur'anic chant was bought in the Harmonia Mundia boutique in Marseille. The city has a large Muslim community and is to be the controversial site for France's largest mosque. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
All forms of musical notation for the recitation of the Qur'an are forbidden to preserve the Book's transcedent origins...

The opening movement of John Tavener's 2008 Requiem, which is scored for voices and symphony orchestra, uses a quotation from the Qur'an.

This Requiem and the composer's even more powerful multi-faith The Veil of the Temple are notable examples of contemporary classical music bridging cultures.
billoo said…
Bob, this was another fascinating and profound post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Immediately reminded me of Burckhardt's: "in an arabesque the centre is everywhere and nowhere":

one minor point: I'd say 'negation' (as well as addition and repetition). but yes, minimalism and discontinuity..didn't Eckhart say the truth is "startling"?

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