When people think of classical music, they’re usually referring to Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, and other music written by European composers. Western European classical music is certainly the most complex of all musical forms. It is a triumph of both genius and technology: innovations in musical instrument design and construction made it possible for composers to write new material, and musicians to perform better. Modern harmony, melodic expression, counterpoint, color and texture mark European classical music as an incredibly sophisticated art form.
But other countries have deep classical music traditions, just in different forms. Take classical Arabic music from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia as well as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Many of these countries’ classical music is based on the maqam, a system of melodic modes. There is also the taqsim, which refers to the art of improvisation in classical Arabic music. For its part, classical Persian music was to exert a large influence on various genres of Indian music as well as musical instruments.
Cambodia, Japan, and Thailand also have classical music that is old and complex with their own formal systems.
In classical Hindustani Indian music, there are a series of modes as well as precisely fixed rhythms that can be fantastically complicated. It is also a music whose history goes back to the same time, in the 17th century, that Bach devised the circle of fifths and other key elements of European music. In India, musician/theorist named Tansen was simultaneously scripting the formal structure and framework of Hindustani classical music that we know as raga.
What makes Indian and Arabic classical music different from European music is the use and celebration of improvisation. The modes are fixed but can be played in different ways. Like if you take a C scale on the piano–all white keys–but play the white keys from say, F up to F in the next octave. It will sound different. Tremendous creativity and interpretation is given to the performer. In Bach’s time there used to be passages where just chord changes were marked, with open spaces for melodic improvisation. But, for better or worse, that was only temporary.
I once took a music improvisation class at Dick Grove School of Music. I could improvise fairly well, but my sight reading skills needed improvement (to say the least). There was a highly trained classical pianist in the class. When asked to improvise in the simple D Dorian mode in the key of C–again all white keys–he couldn’t do anything. He needed sheet music in front of him dictating what to play. By contrast, the glory of Indian and Arabic music is that it puts high priority on improvisation.
I recently listened to music by the late, great Iraqi oud master Munir Bashir. He was playing classical music with very old roots, but was improvising throughout. It was full of duende, was passionate and perfect . (remember that the musician Ziryab came from Baghdad in the 10th century to Arabic-Andalusian Spain to start a flamenco music school).
I love Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Ali Amjad Khan for the same reasons. In their sensual ragas, you have both classical rigor and inspired improvisations. There are morning ragas, afternoon ragas, and evening ragas. Indian music exudes a similar sensuality that one finds in Indian temple rubbings where lovers passionately kiss each other, mouths open, tongues out.
So I think when we think of classical music it is good to move away from a Eurocentric viewpoint and have a more global perspective. We will be richer for it.
Here is a clip of Munir Bashir joined by his son, Omar: