How artists express individual style and creativity within the context of a cultural tradition is one of the central questions of Aesthetics. This is applicable to an extraordinary range of artistic practices across different cultures, although its answers and solutions differ widely. Our views on the problem can be easily distorted by the particular solution adopted in Europe and America in the modern period: to abandon traditions as much as possible and strive for total originality. The aesthetic frame shifts considerably with this solution: instead of being evaluated or appreciated by how much she has mastered/responds to a tradition, an artist’s genius manifests in the invention of entirely new artistic languages and approaches, by how much her work is new, rather than derivative, and, often, by shock value. The ubiquity of this aesthetics of total originality, in contemporary global media and culture, obscures the fact of its historical newness and cultural contingency.
The traditional music of the Arab world – which I practice – carries a different conception of what makes an individual artist stand out (within the last century that older aesthetic frame has co-existed with a new aesthetic of modernization and innovation, leading to new hybrids and fusions). The traditional aesthetic could be summed up as follows: a master musician is expected to memorize an enormous repertory of songs, musical phrases, ornamental techniques, etc., while at the same time, never perform the same song the same way twice. Individuality and originality is crucial – but it is only comprehensible to the extent that it draws from and extends inherited knowledge.
This dynamic plays out most overtly in improvisation. Improvisation in Arabic music is not a free-for-all. It must express a particular musical mode (known as maqam), which means much more than playing in a particular scale; each maqam has a rich vocabulary of idiomatic melodic phrases and ornaments that the musician must master. In addition, there are expected modulations (changes in mood and scale), and expected opening and concluding melodies, for any improvisation in a particular maqam.
This body of aural knowledge (taking decades to master) may resemble a confining brace to an outsider, but it is no stricter than being confined to the words of English for this essay. The problem lies in our (mis)conception of musical structure: melody doesn’t operate on the level of individual notes, but on a larger structural level, combining learned melodic phrases and sequences. Although there is a finite body of those, they can be recombined in potentially infinite ways. A musician doesn’t invent entirely new note sequences, but builds those learned from oral tradition into longer, original utterances. That this fact remains controversial in academic music theory doesn’t change its palpable, discrete reality for musicians rooted in oral traditions around the world.
Another level of individuality and originality comes to the foreground once we accept that much of the content is inherited: expressiveness and surprise. The improvisor chooses to dwell on particular notes or phrases, to elongate or elide, and has a lot of room to play with volume, timbre, and ornamentation to make even the tritest melody seem completely new. The musician also plays a great deal with listeners’ expectations. Traditional listeners also absorb an enormous body of melodic vocabulary and songs (as I learned firsthand as a student in Aleppo, Syria, where the taxi drivers and fabric merchants could sing hundreds of elaborate traditional songs from memory). Listeners expect particular phrases and particular modulations, and musicians exploit that fact, alternately thwarting and fulfilling expectations to build suspense, surprise, and exhilaration over large-scale melodic arcs. The virtuosity of a particular musician in executing these moves, while retaining the attention of the audience, is what sets her apart. And by “her” I mean Umm Kulthum, the 20th century Egyptian superstar, who could repeat the same melody 20 times in a row, with very subtle variations each time, and thereby bring an audience of 3,000 into an uproar.
This is all eerily similar to descriptions of 18th century European musicians and listeners given by music theorist and scholar Robert O. Gjerdingen in his 2007 book Music in the Galant Style:
After listening to these many examples of the galant Romanesca, you may have now acquired a ‘refined ear’ and the ability to judge whether a particular presentation of it possesses a “superior gracefulness”… Eighteenth century courtiers with a taste for music must have heard thousands of instances of the Romanesca-Prinner pairing, and I presume that the aural recognition of these and other schemata would have been a matter of course. The musical paths at court were very well-worn, and as soon as one perceived which path had been chosen, attention could shift toward appreciating the nuances of presentation. A Prinner in response to a Romanesca was no more surprising than a curtsy in response to a bow. It was the manner or style of presentation that mattered as the real object of aesthetic attention.
Substitute “habitual melodic phrases” for “schemata” and “A hijaz melody in response to a rast melody” (hijaz and rast are names for two different maqams) for “A Prinner in response to a Romanesca,” and Gjerdingen could be discussing Arabic music.