Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Importance of Vernacular

The words are Arabic. The intent and meanings are very traditionally Islamic.

But this recording out of Cambridge is something still more, masha Allah.

Pretty sure T. J. Winter's got something to do with this . . .

Download it while you can, and then send a few bucks over to Cambridge for their building project.


  1. al-salam `alaykum

    I can hear Sh. T J Winter singing in this tune. I also want to say I think hear "chords" being sung here - is this a western element of musical theory married with an eastern qasida?


  2. I think by "chords" you are referring to polyphony, multiple voices singing different parts. And yes, this is in contrast to the monophonic approach in most of the sung music of the traditional Islamic world.

    Cosmologically speaking, one could suppose that monophony is somehow representative of Divine Oneness. The earliest Church music, plainsong, was similarly monophonic until about the 9th century when harmonic reinforcement (organum) was introduced as a beautifying element that took full advantage of the acoustics in those magnificent stone abbeys.

    So sure, we could call it a marriage of sorts. A perfectly lovely one at that!

  3. Ok I'll bite.

    This sounds wonderful, no doubt about it. So good, in fact, there is no question as to where it lies in the continuum of more-accessible-and-less-accessible music. Is it superior, though, to eastern monophonic odes sung as a group where, imho, everyone no matter the level of talent can subtly blend in and be absorbed and become part of something where the sum is greater than its parts ?

    The penalty for singing off key here would be bordering on unforgivable - hopefully we are not trading melody for meaning...

  4. Great question! I guess it depends on what we are trying to accomplish.

    In terms of immediate community engagement, I would agree that monophony rules the day. Think of the "Happy Birthday" song. All in it together, an immediate celebration!

    And in a tradition without an elaborate religious hierarchy, like Islam, it makes sense that musical expression might take more simple, accessible forms, at least in terms of melody and rhythm (the poetry is anything but simple). Monophony, like the best possible manifestation of Islamic society, is comparatively egalitarian.

    But where there are more established religious ranks and where we have the notion of cleric as mediator between God and man, then polyphony, with its mysterious and awe-inspiring harmony has a real edge over simpler forms. Its inaccessibility gives it that much more power.

    A interesting place where these two ideas intersect is in American Sacred Harp music. While the songs are arranged in beautiful four-part harmony, the singers are arranged in an "open square." All of the tenors make up one side of the square, the altos on another side, and so on. Standing in a group like that, you only hear your part. In other words, you only sing what the people around you are singing, and that's pretty easy. However, for those blessed with an opportunity to stand in the middle of the square (a rare treat!), all four parts are rendered with amazing power and wild beauty.

    It's worth checking out!


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