The other day, a friend, who has a good ear for music, in fact a connoisseur of Indian classical music, was commuting with me in my car. Normally, I am alone when I commute, and so I listen to audiobooks on my way. That’s pretty much how I’ve got any reading done at all, over the last few years. If one can call listening to audiobooks reading. There I go again.
So that day, instead of putting on the audiobook that I was reading, I decided to play some music. It could be pretty darn disorienting for someone to listen to Pamuk somewhere on the 133rd page of an extremely slow paced book. But then again, since I don’t listen to lot of music in the car, except for some bollywood numbers that my kid enjoys, or when I’m suddenly left with no audiobooks in the queue due to bad planning (which is, to be fair, not that seldom), right in the middle of commute. Now this friend of mine is little picky when it comes to music. So current Bollywood was ruled out. What I had besides that, were a few of my cherished Jazz albums. Couple of Mingus ones, and Coltrane.
Surely, I reasoned, no one can mind The Love Supreme? I mean, isn’t that a confluence of all that’s good about music? Like harmony, dissonance, melody, all employed to investigate spirituality. I mean, it never occurred to me that it could just be my blind love. But later that the day, my friend commented that it was cacophony.
Yup. C.a.c.o.p.h.o.n.y. Something that dictionary defines as : “a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds.”
That got me thinking. Dissonance by definition is discordant, right? But harsh? And how much of discordance separates orchestrated/controlled dissonance from cacophony?
So I looked at the whole dissonance affair a bit. In a wikipedia article I found two very interesting bits:
In music, even if the opposition often is founded on the preceding, objective distinction, it more often is subjective, conventional, cultural, and style-dependent. Dissonance can then be defined as a combination of sounds that does not belong to the style under consideration; in recent music, what is considered stylistically dissonant may even correspond to what is said to be consonant in the context of acoustics (e.g. a major triad in atonal music).
Most historical definitions of consonance and dissonance since about the 16th century have stressed their pleasant/unpleasant, or agreeable/disagreeable character. This may be justifiable in a psychophysiological context, but much less in a musical context properly speaking: dissonances often play a decisive role in making music pleasant, even in a generally consonant context – which is one of the reasons why the musical definition of consonance/dissonance cannot match the psychophysiologic definition. In addition, the oppositions pleasant/unpleasant or agreeable/disagreeable evidence a confusion between the concepts of ‘dissonance’ and of ‘noise‘.
From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consonance_and_dissonance
So while, objectively, dissonance is discordant, when one listens to musical dissonance, the perception can very from pleasant to unpleasant. From beautiful to harsh. Indeed, cacophonous.
But that’s not all that I wanted to talk about, because that’s not all that came to my mind as I kept thinking about it — about the inability of my otherwise well ear-trained friend, to perceive the beauty, the progression, the poignancy of that (in my mind) superlative piece of music.
Indian classical music doesn’t much concern itself about harmonies. Sometimes when I think about it, I find it rather strange — something as refined as Indian Classical Music never exploring (at least seriously, to my rather limited knowledge) harmony. Indian classical music is predominantly individualist! So while it is ready to shade the dependence on melody that any early musical forms have, it tends to keep the supremacy of the lead singer/player intact. There is singer or principal player, and there is accompaniment/rhythm section. In modern times, there have been many experiments to explore harmony. Shakti comes to mind. But somehow, if you compare to either Western Classical (which has almost no improvisation) or Jazz (which is highly improvised — a property it shares with Indian Classical), on the complex harmony scale it seems to be just a hesitant attempt (and they had John McLaughlin!).
That really led me to another thought lane. Growing up we’ve heard a lot in school books about “unity and diversity” and later on about syncretic culture, and various castes/creeds living “in harmony”, and so on. Are we romanticizing it? Is this harmony basically just an illusion at worst, and “live and let live” at best? Is this harmony like the polyphony in our classical music, where there is one primary citizen, and the rest are there only to “support in every which way” that primary citizen, so to speak?
No I’m not an expert on music. Anything but. Nor on culture, on Indian culture, even. And these are just threads that were started in my head as I pondered over that confusion, that judgement of cacophony. It made me wonder, are our ears not trained for harmony, much less dissonance? Are we too individualistic a culture (with exceptions like Bhakti/sufi traditions, and many more, I’m sure) to really appreciate harmony and dissonance? Is what we believe to be cultural harmony just disjoint themes playing together, oblivious to each other, or just tolerant to each other’s existence, but not playing towards a common goal, a larger polyphony?
I would like to believe it’s not so. For how would Europe, a much closed mono-culture, have developed both the appreciation and repertoire for Jazz and Western Classical Music, with harmonies at their core? With Jazz one can understand it a bit, because Jazz did not originate there, and it was more of melting pot effect that it got adapted. But what about the stupefying harmonies of the classical masters?
And what about dissonance? Is it really anti-thesis of harmony? Or does it actually complement it. Our present day culture seems so much closed to any dissonance — not just musical. Did we reach here because decay or because it’s just a logical progression of an emphasis on one superior culture/idea/religion/race/tradition? Is our instinctive rejection of dissonance as noise/cacophony just a result of the internalized belief in fake harmony?
All these questions! And for all you know, it could just be my undeserved reverence for The Love Supreme. I sure could be little less touchy about it!