Microtonality

This post is about works I have listened to as part of my research into Arabic music, and which all feature microtonality in some way.

Ali Paris: Taqasim Qanun

The first is a performance by the National Arab Orchestra, on YouTube.  It features the qanun (a type of zither), with accompaniment from other string instruments, both Arabic and Western. The qanun plays a melody over a repeated bass line, and has an improvised quality to it.  The audience are clapping in time, and it feels like the sort of music that could easily be danced to.  I don’t know which specific maqam is used in this piece but I can definitely hear some microtonal intervals; the 2nd in particular sounds somewhere between a Western minor and major 2nd interval, and gives it that distinctly Arabic flavour.

Ahmad al Khatib: Small Boats

Performed by the Oriental Music Ensemble in a concert in Brighton, this piece features an oud, qanun, double bass, and a type of hand drum.  Like the first piece, this also has a repeated bass line, over which the oud and qanun play wandering and ornamented melodies using the Arabic maqamat.  It has a more laid back, atmospheric mood than the previous piece; the repeated bass line and strong root in a single maqam creates quite a hypnotic effect.

Marcel Khalifa: Samai Bayat

This piece was also performed at the above concert by the Oriental Music Ensemble using the same collection of instruments but with the hand drum replaced with something resembling a tambourine.  In the introduction only the oud and qanun are playing, and we hear a little more of the dynamic capabilities of the qanun than in the previous piece. There’s no distinguishable rhythm in this section, it sounds like an improvised cadenza of sorts – very atmospheric and expressive, and I enjoyed listening to it.  Then the bass and tambourine join and it becomes more dance like.  Rhythm is quite integral to the remainder of the piece, with the tambourine leading the way in each section.  Parts of it are reminiscent of jazz (particularly the double bass line), and it also appears to use variable metre.

David Burnand: Night Scene

This next work is by a Western contemporary composer, David Burnand.  The piece is written for a bass flute (using microtonal pitches), with atmospheric background sounds fading in and out.  I can’t identify all the instruments being used as some of the effects and techniques are very strange.  Some kind of gong creates a sinister low pitched rumbling sound, and string instruments are played in a way that sounds like humans screaming in the distance.  There are lots of dissonances, pitch bends and microtonal intervals which combine in a rather creepy way, and disconnected percussion instruments also add to the overall mood of not knowing what to expect next.  I think I can even hear some sounds being played backwards (or at least this is the perceived effect), which is particularly unsettling.  A good track for a horror movie!

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