Middle Eastern Modal Thinking

During late 1985 and most of 1986, I had the good fortune to live and study in Istanbul, Turkey as the result of a generous grant from the Fulbright Foundation. The award, which was given only after consideration by separate committees from both the United State and Turkey, was to study the theories of Turkish classical and folk music and then to use those findings in newly composed Western-style works.

The idea that a classically trained Western composer uses melodic and rhythmic material from Middle Eastern cultures is not a new one. Bela Bartok is one example. Another, perhaps more popular example is Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca. In the years following the Fulbright, I discovered the real impact of the Alla Turca in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century European compositions. It was, in fact, widespread and profound especially in operatic works.

1683By the 15th century, the Ottoman Turkish empire occupied all of southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and was a political force which could not be ignored. After the failed siege of Vienna in 1684, Europeans looked at their Islamic neighbor to the East with less trepidation and more fascination and began imitating various aspects of Turkish culture. There were Turkish style cafes, baths and it even became fashionable to dress like a 'Turk' at parties. And, of course, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others found reason to bring the Turkish military sound into their compositions.

Interestingly, the major contribution of the Turks was rhythmic and instrumental and less melodic. The Janissaries, the elite corps of the Ottomans, toured Europe fascinating the West with their unusual sounding percussion instruments: cymbals, bass drums, bell trees and triangles. The use of percussion batteries then became an innovation in eighteenth-century orchestral writing. The Turkish march, which can be described as long-long, short-short-short or two half-notes followed by three quarters and a rest, is the main Turkish rhythm to come from this era, and is the rhythmic foundation of Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca, Beethoven's Turkish March and other works. It has survived to this day as a common pattern in military style marching bands.

The melodic impact was less profound, and was mostly limited to the stereotypical use of the harmonic minor to give an Oriental sound to the music. As a young composer, I recall 4-part writing rules that excluded the use of the augmented second. I often wondered if there was a cultural bias in this particular rule.

PythagorasBut a closer look at the folk and composed classical music literature from this region opens up a wide field of research in history, philosophy and theory. The sound which we commonly identify as Middle Eastern--Turkish and Arabic--sounds the way it does for a reason, and understanding those reasons has been the focus of my work since the early 1980's. The history of the sound can be traced back to the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, back even further through the Arabic Empire of the first millennium and finally, back to the work of the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece. The Arabs, Turks and the West all recognize Pythagorean scales as the essential building blocks in the development of melodic thinking. It is the interpretation of Pythagorean scales--the theory--which has led to what might be called a Western, Turkish or Arabic musical dialect. The different cultural groups all work from the same Greek sources, but have evolved over the centuries according to cultural norms.

In the West, the evolution of church modes eventually lead to the use of major and minor scales in composition. The added development of equal temperament enabled Western composers to fully develop and exploit the vertical component of a musical composition, harmony simultaneously with the linear component, melody.

Arabic and Turkish compositions have retained a melodic based modal approach of the past. In classical writing, the Arabic system of modes is referred to as Maqamat while the Turkish term is Makam. Both systems are non-harmonic, linear philosophies of musical composition, with the inclusion of drones when needed. The distinction--and the art--of the Middle Eastern approach is primarily found in the development of that linear process, which includes microtones and melodic ornamentations. This includes a fundamental microtonal interval known as a Pythagorean comma (24 cents, approximately one-eighth of a whole-tone of 200 cents). Commas are added or subtracted from whole tones and half tones which are common to both Middle Eastern and Western musicians. The result is a series of modes, linear in approach, which contain musical intervals--and colors--not found in the Western tempered system. For example, it is not possible to accurately play a Saba Makam on a Western piano without retuning it to be out of tune to Western standards.

It is fair to say that harmonic thinking of the West did not make its way into the Middle East until the early 19th century and of course is pervasive in the pop culture world of contemporary music.

It is also worth noting that the natural overtone series is not tempered, but does contains microtonal intervals. This is the basis of the Pythagorean thinking.

Finally, composers such as John Cage in his Works for Prepared Piano, modify the tempered system of the piano to create new and unusual sounds including microtones.

Continue to Part 2.