Three quick notes about things I learned in Tunis.
Of course, most of us think this kind of fusion has happened only in our own time. But apparently not!
Second. I learned about one kind of Australian aboriginal music, in which there are separate rhythmic and melodic cycles that fit together very freely. (I don’t claim to be an expert on world music, and I’m only repeating here what I was told. If I’ve gotten it wrong, I’m sure it’s my own fault.)
What this means: there would, in this style of music, be cycles of note-lengths. Maybe a note four pulses long, then a note one pulse long, then two pulses, then three pulses. I’m making this up, just to give an example of how it might work.
And then meanwhile there would be independent melodic cycles, little repeated melodies. Or rather repeated collections of pitches, because the pitches don’t become a melody until they’re joined with a rhythm.
How does that happen? Like this, I gather: Someone starts singing. And then everyone else says, without having to think about it very hard, “Oh, OK, he started the rhythmic cycle on the fourth note, and the melodic cycle on the third note. And then everyone joins in, continuing what the first singer did, easily fitting the melodic and rhythmic cycles together. Something I can’t believe a western-trained musician would be able to do at all. (There’s a similarity here, in the western tradition to procedures in serial music, and also in medieval music.)
Third: I learned to hear microtones in Tunisian music. For some people, that wouldn’t have been an achievement. I know people in the new music world (the contemporary branch of classical music) who live and breathe microtones. But I never got them.
Here’s how I learned. A Tunisian speaker mentioned, in an offhand way, that in former times Tunisian music had over 100 modes. That seemed impossible to many of us. How many arrangements can there be of the standard tones of the scale? Which is how we understand modes, in the western tradition. They’re scales, different from our familiar major and minor scales, but still drawn from the same notes.
The answer turned out to be simple. Tunisian modes use microtones. The Tunisians had set up a display table, with books and CDs for sale. I browsed through a thick book on Tunisian music, and found descriptions of traditional Tunisian modes. They used microtones. There seemed to be four inflections for each note — the natural version (a white key on our pianos), and a version of the note that’s half a tone lower (this would be one of our black keys). And then notes that fall into the cracks between our piano keys, notes either a quarter tone or three quarters of a tone lower than the note on the white key.
These microtones change the game. I had my netbook with me, and Sibelius, the notation software I use, installed on it. Sibelius can play these Tunisian microtones. So I got it to play one the Tunisian modes, a scale that goes like this: D, E quarter flat, F sharp, G, A, B quarter flat, C, D.
Up to that point, I would have thought that these quarter tones were inflections of western pitches. That, in other words, the scale might just as well be written D, E flat, F sharp, G, A, B flat, C, D, with the understanding that E flat and B flat would be sung and played just a little higher than we’d sing and play them.
But that’s not right at all, as I found out when I listened to Sibelius play the mode first as I’ve just given it in western pitches, and then in its proper Tunisian form. The Tunisian notes aren’t just inflections of the western ones. They’re an entirely different pitch system. The interval between E quarter flat and F sharp, especially, is something rich and individual, not at all familiar to western ears. I’ve put what Sibelius played online, so you can hear it yourself. First the Tunisian mode in standard western pitches, and then with the proper Tunisian ones.
This opened my ears, and I began hearing the microtones that Tunisian musicians were singing and playing. Maybe not as many as they would have used generations ago (one study of music in the Congo showed that recent Congo recordings have more western pitches than recordings made decades ago). But the microtones are certainly there.
There also are long rhythmic cycles. I began to be aware of them, simply by listening. The singers and musicians would embark on one of their characteristic long and subtle unison melodies, which would curve upward, wonderfully ornamented, and then eventually sink back toward the keynote of the mode. I tried counting how many beats this took, and kept getting lost, though it was clear that more than 100 beats would pass till the keynote returned. Later I learned that Tunisian music routinely incorporates rhythmic cycles of more than 100 notes, cycles whose length is predetermined or otherwise agreed on (if I understand this correctly).
Again that’s a concept we don’t have in the west. And most of us, I suspect — even if we can easily improvise over, let’s say, a blues progression, or something more complex from a standard pop song — would get lost following rhythmic cycles of more than 100 beats.
Again, please note: I’m not, not, not offering myself here as any kind of authority on world music. I’m recounting all this as a narrative of my very elementary but for me very striking world music education. If it helps others understand how different from ours other musics can be, then I’ll have done some good.