Oddbox: Cyclone of Discord

Oddbox: Cyclone of Discord

In works by Leitch Ritchie and John Beverley Nichols, Barra Ó Séaghdha discovers why Indian music is not serious art – while China and Scotland have problems too.

From the late eighteenth century on, there were serious attempts by Western observers to understand the principles of Indian and other Asian musics. Not every traveller was able to appreciate what they heard. In his History of the Oriental Nations (W. H. Allen, 1848), Leitch Ritchie, whose account of his travels in Ireland is not entirely forgotten, found the music of Beloochistan, as it was then called, a little testing: ‘The Beloochees are fond of bardic songs, and it is the profession of one of the tribes to scream forth the genealogies of their entertainers to the discordant music of the tom-tom, the cymbals, and a rude guitar.’

Almost a century later, not much had changed. John Beverley Nichols, best remembered now for his gardening books, but a clever and opinionated writer in many genres, offered his Verdict on India (Jonathan Cape, 1944). One chapter is titled ‘Musical Interlude’. A Maharajah turns out to have the most detailed knowledge of Western classical music, from Couperin to Rawsthorne, but refuses to discuss Indian classical music with his visitor. Nonetheless, a special ensemble performance is soon arranged. At a signal, the music begins: ‘So shattering was the onslaught of sheer noise in the tiny room that for a few moments it was impossible to discern where it was all coming from; one could only clutch at the arms of the chair, blinking, and trying to locate the storm-centre of this cyclone of discord.’

Nichols identifies the throat of an Ancient as the main source of the trouble: ‘There was the sound of slaughtered pigs, of neighing horses, and gobbling turkeys, all cascading simultaneously from his lizard throat.’ Nichols desperately attempts to jot down as much of one piece as he can. Then, a flash of inspiration: perhaps the Ancient will repeat, solo, the first song, ‘exactly as he has just sung it.’ The Ancient satisfies this unusual request. ‘And now – note this well – there were very wide variations in the performance’ – with three bars of two-four interposed for no reason in five-eight and ‘an elaborate cadenza which had not even been suggested on the first variation.’ Nichols believes that he has captured the secret of Indian music: ‘And that secret lies in the word improvisation. The Ancient was not singing a definite role, he was not interpreting a theme which had sung itself into the head of a composer and been fixed at the time; he was warbling at random. So were all the others. The executants were themselves the composers.’

All is now clear to Nichols – though his conclusion would not go down very well at Berklee: ‘To sum up, our contention is that Indian music cannot be regarded as a serious art because: (a) Indian music is almost entirely a matter of improvisation; (b) Art is not, never has been, and never can be, a matter of improvisation.’

Nichols does not confine his criticism to Indian music, describing how metal-strung violins ‘were scraping away on the note of A… nothing but A, A, A, in a maddening monotone, as though they had forgotten themselves and turned into bagpipes.’

Curiously, Leith Ritchie had his own view of that instrument. Acknowledging the importance that the Chinese ascribed to music as a fine art, he expressed himself as follows: ‘In the mean time, their harmony is as incomprehensible to a European as ours is to them, and each accuses the other of wanting taste, just as they do in the question of fresh or fetid meat. It must be admitted, however, that the tones of the Scottish bagpipe, which resembles one of their own instruments, are ravishing to the Chinese ear; but as this musical horror is sui generis in Europe, perhaps no just conclusion can be drawn from the circumstance.’

Published on 1 December 2009

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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