Is pop music superior to art music

"You have the money, we have the music"

If you look at the world map of music, you will see that Western art music has become Esperanto. Whether in Shanghai, Boston, Cape Town, Vienna or Jakarta: everywhere new music is composed according to similar rules, musicians read the same notation and often even play the same works: Bach, Mozart, Boulez. But that's not the case in India - Western music has always remained marginal there.

India has in the past two centuries, i.e. H. During the colonial period and during the no less dangerous cultural neo-colonialism, his own classical music traditions not only kept alive, but seemingly inexorably distributed all over the world. The classical music of North India is the "other" global art music ecosystem, it flourishes aesthetically and economically independently of Western music. For many years it has been offered at festivals and in the metropolises of Japan, Europe, Australia and North America in fixed concert series. In the musical circles of Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay one whispers meanwhile even that the western audience for Indian music is slowly becoming just as knowledgeable and demanding as at good festivals in India.

Just as in Western culture the fact that excellent Brahms interpreters can also come from the Far East strengthens the erroneous belief in Western classical music as a “world language”, so young Americans and Europeans confirm that Indian classical music is very successful dedicate the Indians to the fact that their music has universal appeal. Some of the best schools for Indian music can be found in Rotterdam, Basel (directed by the American Ken Zuckerman, by the way) and at many American colleges. Their students come from all over the world, like those of the Western music academies. Indian classical music has made the decisive leap into the surrounding societies beyond its roots in immigrant circles.

Two ways of approach

Indian classical music was always received with great interest by western composers: William Jones published his treatise “The Music of Hindostan” as early as 1799, the German translation was published in Vienna in 1801 and was dedicated to Joseph Haydn. But nobody could hear this music yet: it was just a charming phantom. In 1823, after reading Jones' treatise, Beethoven noted: "Philosophically interesting, but practically not useful for me". India's real musical influence on Europe only began in the years leading up to World War I. Two young French composers came to India by chance: Albert Roussel in 1909 as a naval officer, Maurice Delage in 1911 on an inspection trip to his parents' Indian shoe factories. Both listened to every classical concert in India that they heard about, they wandered through the streets and temples with open ears. In his wanderlust cantata "Evocations", which was influenced by this trip, Roussel created rich sound impressions of the Buddhist cave monasteries of Ellora, the cities of Jaipur and Benares. He used "authentic" Indian melodies, woven them into his late romantic style - which was popular. One critic praised it as "certainly the most beautiful Indian music that a European has ever written". Maurice Delage, on the other hand, belonged to the avant-garde around Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky. He apparently listened more closely to the Indian musicians: his "Quatre Poemes Hindous" shine in what was at the time untypically sparse instrumentation, which - quite unlike Roussel's perfumed harmonies - lives only on melody and rhythm: entire passages seem to be really intended for Indian musicians.

Already here those two modes of rapprochement were mapped out that the West developed towards non-European music in the 20th century: Exotism desires the other, just as children want a new toy - because they are tired of familiar toys. Cultural cannibalism desires the other, its sounds and techniques, just as the craftsman longs for new tools - in order to be able to work better with them. In this area of ​​tension one finds all composers in the West: whether Olivier Messiaen absorbed Indian rhythms (“Turangalîla” symphony) or Karlheinz Stockhausen absorbed “mantras”. Cultural cannibalism was an essential aspect of the avant-garde - and in India, too, it was always on the lookout for new food. Many local art music cultures have either joined this movement in the 20th century (Japan, China, Korea) or have remained largely restricted to homeland and migrants (Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, Turkey). In all of these cultures, the elite's push for modernity was also articulated through a contempt for their own musical traditions, which were perceived as giddy and anti-modern. What was different in India?

Western music came to India as marching music by Portuguese, British, French troops - and as the music of the missionaries. So from the beginning it was associated with colonial rule and with the decided intentions of the “culture bringer”: by no means a philosophically interesting phantom, but rather dangerous noise. That alone created a certain reserve among the Indian musicians. In cultural self-protection they could at least tell themselves that the Western musicians brought to India were actually often mediocre - no real counterpart to the great musician-composers of India. During the British colonial period, however, an intensive, educated, middle-class concert life with European classical music developed in Calcutta, Poona, Shimla, Delhi and Bombay, the centers of British India, and there was even an opera house in Bombay where stars like Nellie Melba performed. But poor Indian musicians would not have been invited to these concerts anyway. One more reason to ignore the "military" classical music of Europe, which is still incomprehensible to your ears.

In an attempt, observed among many colonial peoples, to prove their equality through the value system of the conquerors, at least some methods of Western musicology were adopted in India from around 1910 onwards. Until then, each royal court had been its own musical territory, in which no stranger could gain a foothold: with their own music theories, playing and singing techniques. This craft was only passed on directly, from teacher to student. At a time when, with the slow decline of the royal courts, even the best musicians had to seek their livelihood in the cities, VN Bhatkande collected and codified the knowledge of the time at several All India Music Conferences with western historical, acoustic and phenomenological studies Indian classical music. He wanted to distill a universally valid essence of North Indian music from the local diversity, a clearly communicable classical standard of North Indian musical thought.

Creation of classicism

Basically, it was these conferences that invented what is now considered the "eternal" basis of North Indian classical music. This production of classicism under the pressure of foreign cultural dominance can also be observed in the Indian Bharata Natyam dance, which only began in the 1930s from various temple dances (whose dancers, often exploited as prostitutes, were not allowed to perform in front of respectable citizens) to its present day classical dignity - even if the ancient and the eternal belong to its original myths.

Throughout the 20th century, the Indian music world remained caught up in serious social upheavals and internal questions about self-discovery. Long after independence was achieved in 1947, people struggled to establish their own post-colonial self-image. This soon included getting recognition for one's own work outside of India. Acclaimed concerts in New York, London or Paris were interpreted as an indication that the West was no longer so sure of itself. And if so, why even then should one seriously study the music of this decadent culture? "You have the money, we have the music."

This undisguised arrogance saved Indian classical music even in its most precarious epoch: Because in the 1980s and 1990s, after India's opening to the world market, the patronage upper class would have liked to have misunderstood modernity as a global American mentality that was embarrassing to local traditions . But at this point in time the music of India had long been a factor of global prestige. Paradoxically, it was precisely the intensive "expansion of their combat zone" that saved them from the fate of many other traditional art music that can barely survive, but has long since only played second fiddle in their own home country.

No wonder, then, that many Indian musicians - like their Western colleagues - claim universalism and cultural superiority for their tradition. In 1987, the singer-philosopher Ritwik Sanyal presented his "Philosophy of Music", a complex draft for a universal musical aesthetic of all times and cultures. Indian music is differentiated and rich in detail, while Western music is treated only cursory - vice versa from local standard works, of course, a well-known process.

For an educated Indian today, such an error is almost forgivable, because Western classical music has remained a marginal note for him to this day - it now leads a diaspora existence in India. Those who were once not allowed to go to the opera because of their skin color saw no reason to deal with this bizarre tradition after independence. Western classical concerts became rare and degenerated into a homesick culture of expatriates or a status event for rich Parsees. In nostalgic transfiguration, both groups hardly took any notice of contemporary compositional developments in Europe and America.

Until the 1970s, quite a few Indians were still studying Western music in Europe and the USA - and then came back as teachers. The talented students of this generation of returnees are now overseas again and are staying there - e. B. conductors like Zubin Mehta or Daniel Nazareth, composers like Param Vir or Clarence Barlow, several musicians in orchestras and chamber music formations like Jagdish Mistry, the concertmaster of Ensemble Modern, or the young pianist Sheila Arnold. Others migrated to film music. For a decade now, even in the megalopolises, there have been hardly any teachers of Western music to be found - now that the old generation is dying out. Every western musician in India knows: In order to make this music his profession, one has to leave India. Western classical music could soon be as present in India as Andalusian court music is in today's Europe.


Why is Indian music culture so autonomous? The key lies in the music itself, in raga, the path to Indian music in general. Ragas - or more correctly: raags - are not just scales as they are repeatedly presented in the West. Raags are sketchy collections of characteristic melodies and moods - all of which together outline a musical shape, what we in Europe would call "style". In every style or Raag one knows short, exemplary compositions that clearly draw one's "face". But they only serve to get to know each other, just as if one were learning here at the conservatory to perfectly imitate the style of Mozart, Ligeti and Machaut. In a concert, however, a musician of the north Indian tradition must transcend these examples and, in his improvisation, arrive at a profound interpretation of these languages ​​of tradition that is valid for himself. Just as the personal style of a composer changes in the course of his life, the Raag changes over the centuries with every interpretation of a great musician.

There are hundreds of raags - it would take more than an artist's life to master them all. Then how does a new Raag come into the world? Well, many are invented, all the time, but that doesn't mean anything. Because several generations of musicians have to playfully develop this new Raag so that it becomes living music. Where there is no personal style, authorship is unimportant. Only the passing of time and the ingenuity of many musician-composers turn a seed that was once sown into a “real” Raag.

There are currently some important Indian musicians who want to expand the theoretical and tonal spectrum of Indian music (e.g. the khayal singer Shubha Mudgal, the tabla player Aneesh Pradhan, the dhrupad singer Uday Bhawalkar, the sarangi virtuoso Dhruba Ghosh or the theorist Ashok Ranade). You are either looking for music beyond the Raags, picking up on the rougher sound ideals of folk music or looking for an Indian way to polyphony. Some have also entered into a dialogue with Western new music - this seems more open to them than historical classical music. What they all have in common, however, is that they do not think of a personal musical language. They always open paths that are designed in such a way that others can hike further on them than they can.

While Western art music has been looking for a break in history since the Ars nova of the Middle Ages, Indian music has made the depth of time its premise - and thus gained an ahistorical aesthetic stability. This stability protects them from more casual fashions as well as from that view of supposedly superior Western music that despises their own tradition, as Japan, China and Korea cultivated for decades. One could almost say: The West and India live on two timelines that are so fundamentally different that they cannot really influence each other profoundly. These two musical cultures are also very different in their longings: the metaphor for every major occidental composition is still a little bit the Theatrum Mundi, the work as a mirror of the complexity of the world. Occidental classical music always creates an alternative worldview, with many details, moods, with change, change and fading - and with an inner structure, a true metaphysis that is hidden from the sensual ear but accessible to the mind.

That would seem absurd to a traditional Indian musician. The Indian world is deeply permeated by the conviction that the richly shaped surface of the world is only a veil thrown over our senses, maya, which hides from us the reality of being and nothing. To reflect him in music would be to multiply his own prison. Traditional Indian concerts are not “performances”, but paradoxical deeds. They are rational deconstructions of a certain emotional-spiritual space, a raag. Nothing is "demonstrated" or "simulated" here (two essential terms for Western music), but in an intellectually meticulous search the sound is traced back to its senseless, senseless roots. A musician improvises his raag in a monomaniacal attempt to penetrate the colorful, multifaceted veils of the Maya and to find the reality of being. It shows nothing, it is the music - or both he and she are nothing. On the one hand, music as a theatrical form (even in the most intimate Schubert, in the quietest cage, one listens to an audio play in Western culture) - on the other hand, music as a shared path of knowledge between listener and maker. Perhaps it will become so clear why these two musical cultures, which I myself can call my two homeland, are so incompatible - and so complementary: Each of them helps me to find what I am missing in the other. And because I believe that I am no different from any other human being, this is a good reason for me why it is precisely these two who - each in their own way - have filled our planet with their sound.

The German-Indian Sandeep Bhagwati, born in Bombay in 1963, is a composer, conductor and festival founder. He came to Europe in 1968. Today he lives, works and teaches mainly in Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland.