Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for May 2012

The Sound of a Culture

leave a comment »

I work with a writer whose native language is Turkish. Turkish couldn’t be further from English as far as structure goes—Turkish is agglutinative, meaning that important bits are added to the beginning or end of words where other languages use separate words to provide the same information, like prepositions, articles, or gender tags. This difference in structure creates a certain uncomfortable formality when a Turkish-speaker writes in English.

A rigidly structured language like Turkish doesn’t leave a lot of room for slang or new words, and so it has to borrow from other languages to add new words. English is considerably less pure in its origins. English allows for many permutations and variations—multiple synonyms, oodles of ways to say the same thing, umpteen options for personal variation.

Thinking about the various languages and their structures got me thinking about how the language reflects the culture. And then I took it another step, and thought about how that culture is reflected in the music.

For instance, if you took away all the flourishes, trills, and bent notes in Turkish folk music, it could easily be Chinese or African. It’s the flourishes and the personalization of the music that make it distinctively Turkish.

I’m a lover of chant from all cultures, and there are also profound differences in chant from different regions.

  • Gregorian chant (Western Europe from 100 CE to the present) is angular, regular in note length, syllabic, and narrow in range.
  • Byzantine chant (Greece, Russia, and the Balkans from 800 CE to the present) is floral, filled with ornamentation, and with range limited only by the performer’s skills.
  • Arabic chant (the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, and northern Africa) is floral, pentatonic (using five notes rather than eight for a scale), and rhythmically driven.
  • North American chant (the original indigenous people) is rhythmic, very narrow in range, usually pentatonic, occasionally quite high in pitch, and usually repetitive or cyclical. (Many North American languages are polysynthetic, agglutination’s near cousin. Perhaps that’s a clue!)
  • South Seas and Polynesia (including Hawai’i) is rhythmic, very narrow in range, and tells a story. It often has an accompanying dance.
  • Asian chant (including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) is pentatonic, has specific sections reserved for ornamentation, and plays with overtones as an important aspect.
  • Carnaic chant (Indian, such as Kirtan) is repetitive, narrow in range, and leaves plenty of room for improvisation.

There are other forms of chant, of course. I itemized these few so you can see the similarities and the differences. The subject of this article is not chant, though; it’s about cultural influences on music as a reflection of language. Chant is simply the earliest form of music. I think that later forms make these cultural/language differences even more apparent.

Let’s look at German music from the Baroque period—Bach or Telemann will do nicely. German is very structured, very specifically organized (so much so that you can provide only the definite articles in the correct order, leave the nouns implied, and have a perfectly acceptable sentence), and although new words are adopted, they have to conform to the established order of spelling, case endings, and gender. German Baroque music does exactly this same thing. There are themes that are developed and repeated, there are rules of organization and structure, and there’s a certain happy predictability to the music. (I don’t mean that it’s formulaic, although that can be said too, to some degree. I mean that German music doesn’t leave you hanging, waiting for the final notes, and doesn’t suddenly veer off in a new direction.) Ornamentation in German Baroque music can be left out entirely, and the music is plenty lovely without it. Ornamentation with permission, you might say.

Italian music from the same period also reflects its language—consider Corelli or Scarlatti. Where the language offers implied words, elided words, and an almost reflexive bounce to the vowel at the end of most words, Italian music implies chords, plays multiple melodic lines simultaneously, and has a certain cheerful bounce to it. In fact, Italian music is distinctive in its bounciness—it’s not that there aren’t requiems and other sad music. It’s that there is a certain determined approach to sad music that cheers the listener up, where Russian or French music might enjoy being sad and linger there. The Italians also wrote particularly marvelous dance music. I can’t think of any sad dance music, can you?

Russian music offers the same stoic, almost military, precision that the language does. There’s a certain rigidity to the rhythms, a huge difference between the higher voices and the lowest voices (sometimes a gap of more than an octave), and a dramatic sensibility that might seem moody to other cultures. The language has a rigid structure, more cases than most other languages to complicate conjugation, massive gender differences even in family names, and a lot of poetic synonyms. You’ll find those sorts of idioms in Russian music, too.

Spanish music borrows heavily from Arabic influences. Just when you’re guessing that the music is Italian because of its bouncy cheerfulness, it careens into a wild ornament and confuses the issue. Like Italian music, there’s a certain rhythmic and melodic cheerfulness, but Spanish is more than willing to insert a little angst into a song. Remember that there was an astonishing confluence of cultures in Spain, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in (relative) harmony until the Jews were expelled in 1492. The multitude of influences lingers on in the music, in the language, and in the food.

English music, like the language, is a wondrous mixture of German, French, Italian, and Celtic cultures. All of the elements are there, and like the language, the music is more of a compilation than its own entity. Composers like Purcell and Handel borrowed from other cultures (Handel was from Germany and the influence never completely faded), but there is still a distinctively English sound. Like German music, there is an orderly proceeding, like Italian music, there is often a subtle cheerfulness, and like Celtic music, there are fun ornaments and melodic meanderings, but never wandering as far from the origins as Arabic music. When I think of English music, I often think of a brass fanfare, like the olympic opening music or Masterpiece Theater’s theme. (I’ll bet you are too, now.)

I’ve been listening to a lot of French composers lately, trying to see how my theory of the music and the language reflecting one another. Charpentier was probably the greatest of the French masters, borrowing both from Germany and Italy—somewhat predictable proceedings but with implied rather than specified chord members, dangerous dissonance that resolves in surprising ways, and wonderful, unusual voicings. The French language has implied endings, elided words that depend on specific rules, and looks vastly different from how it sounds. Couperin, Lully, DuMont, and Rameau are French Baroque composers, and when I stop obsessing with a particular album of Charpentier, I’ll start listening to some of those guys too. DuMont, the least famous of the French Baroque composers I found, used many of Charpentier’s tricks—slow trills, open fifths, and interludes of dance rhythms surrounded by more serious proceedings.

Research reveals that Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia don’t have a clearly delineated Baroque period (although in the Americas, the Baroque period marks the beginning of western-sounding music, it is clearly applied heavy-handedly to the existing rhythms and scales, much like other cultural manifestations, like religion, fine art, architecture, food, and language). I’d love to hear from ethnomusicologists who can clarify things in those areas.


Written by Melanie Spiller

May 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm