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Daily RC Article 140

Classical Musical Traditions: Origins, Threats, and Preservation

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So how many classical traditions might there be? By my reckoning, at least 15, and though they seem diverse, they coalesce into a handful of stylistic families. Gong-chime music links Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia with Indonesia, while the music of China’s Tang dynasty was imported by Japan as its court music, a function which it still performs today. Meanwhile it’s a vertiginous thought that European classical music and the music of the Muslim Middle East should have a common root in classical Greek theory, which itself derived from ancient Babylon. Translated by Arab theorists in the eighth and ninth centuries, the writings of the Pythagoreans became the underpinning for the Arabic “science of music” which laid down rules for the structure of scales and the mathematical tuning of intervals; versions of this were then absorbed by the medieval church.

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Yet a music can die, as a language can. Its death may be a natural consequence of evolutionary change, but it may also reflect the abrupt fall of an empire, or result from persecution: the Taliban lost no time in driving Afghanistan’s entire classical-music community into exile; Malian musicians are currently in the firing line for local Islamists. A bigger threat comes via insidious erosion by the homogenising tide of western music, both commercial and classical. At the start of the last century, musicians across a swath of the globe stretching from Egypt to Japan were led by their rulers to believe that their indigenous monophonic styles were “backward” (only India was immune from this pernicious notion), and that, in order to compete on the international stage, they needed to deploy western polyphony. Microtonal scales, with their infinite variety, were ironed out in favour of European diatonic scales, and intimate solo instruments such as the Kazakh dombra lute found themselves grotesquely multiplied in the Soviets’ “folk” orchestras.

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Today, armies of conservationists are rushing to the rescue. UNESCO has designated a long list of musics as “intangible cultural heritage”; the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has set up a network of schools throughout central Asia where master-musicians now pass on their skills to young performers. Cylinder and shellac recordings are being studied by Middle Eastern musicians seeking to revive forgotten styles; governments are realising the value of traditional music as a propaganda tool.

But no music can survive long on artificial life-support: without a driving social impulse, it’s just a piece of museum culture, and this could well be the fate of the Uzbek-Tajik shashmaqom – a fusion of vocal and instrumental music, melodies, rhythms and poetry – whose continued existence now depends, despite its venerable history, on the enthusiasm of a handful of musicologists.

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All of which raises a big question: if some classical musics go to the wall, will they be replaced by new ones? Not necessarily. Indeed, given the social conditions required for their gestation, and given the exponential rate at which the geopolitical order is now mutating, it’s hard to imagine new classical forms emerging anywhere in the foreseeable future. Folk musics will continue to burst forth as they always have done. But with classical music, what we have may be all we’ll get, so we should treasure it.

The article delves into the rich tapestry of classical musical traditions worldwide, exploring their diverse origins and interconnectedness across various cultures. It highlights the potential threats faced by these traditions, from cultural erosion due to Western influence to the impact of geopolitical shifts and social changes. Efforts by conservationists and organizations are underway to preserve these musical legacies, but the article also poses the question of whether new classical forms will emerge in the future amid evolving global dynamics. Ultimately, it emphasizes the importance of cherishing and safeguarding these classical musical heritages.
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