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Classical “World Music”

The interplay of local and global music traditions.


Classical composers have always been inspired by the world around them. Music in their social environment and culture play an important role, but also simple sounds in their surroundings, such as typewriters, machines or radio distortions. However, oftentimes, artists and musicians do get inspired by sounds outside of their own environment and eventually diverge to different musical traditions. Such was the case of Claude Debussy and his fascination for Indonesian Gamelan music, which made his compositions a great example of how inspiring an intercultural exchange can be.

Heritage and customs define a culture. Traditions such as gastronomy, language and the arts determine the contrast between one and the other. Similar to spoken phonetic properties in language, specific sounds are featured in music through their different combinations. Music can thus be experienced as a unique musical language of a specific culture or even of an individual.

A clear example of this unique dialect is the Argentinian tango, which became one of the strongest local traditions to still successfully spread worldwide, owing mostly to Astor Piazzolla, one of the most relevant composers and performers in the 20th century. Tango, being the language spoken in the region of Rio de la Plata (located between Uruguay and Argentina), was very strong as traditional music, until Piazzolla came back from Europe after finishing his studies with the famous European composer Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged him to develop his own musical style. Piazzolla had a broad knowledge about authentic tango but his ideas and comprehension of the European musical traditions went beyond the old habits of the genre. From those new ideas he created what he himself called the “contemporary music of Buenos Aires”. This new way of performing this traditional music became a new expanded tradition from what was formerly called Tango.

Instrumentation in Tango is not fixed. Yet there is one particular instrument that is essential: the Bandoneon, also Piazzolla’s main instrument. This is an accordion model invented in Germany in the middle of the 19th century, which arrived to Argentina at the end of the same period. It was first meant to be a religious instrument which replaced the organ in small churches when it was not affordable. Piazzolla’s knowledge and mastery of the instrument allowed him to explore its full qualities. The most famous composition for this instrument is Piazzolla’s: Concierto para bandoneón.


Image: http://escuelatangoba.com/marcelosolis/history-of-tango-part-5/


The amalgamation of local traditions with external elements is increasing day by day, and music is being enhanced by this behavior. In this article we will present some of the Non-western musical traditions that have been in development and stepping out of their local culture to become a global trend, gaining a relevant position for their richness in sonorities left behind by the western traditions. Non-western music is getting worldwide attention, opening an important opportunity to performers and composers.

The following artists have in common their exposure to non-western musical traditions due to their birthplace. While Tan Dun and Isang Yun both combined their local music knowledge with western orchestral instruments and settings, Yehezkel and B.C. Manjunath gave full attention to the complexity of their local rhythms, textures, and melodies.

In order to metaphorically bring their music closer to the readers and listeners, we start with the composer whose birthplace is at the farthest distance from our office in Amsterdam: Isang Yun from Sancheong, South Korea. From there we stop by in China, India and Israel. After having experienced this virtual journey, you will have some aural souvenirs that we hope will introduce you to a new musical world.



Isang Yun (South Korea)

(Image by 2015 Norbert Girlinger)

In a way, Isang Yun’s life delineates the development of non-western music. At the age of 14 he began composing music and went later to Tokyo, where he studied at the Osaka conservatory. During World War II, he participated in activities against the Japanese, which is the reason why he was imprisoned until liberation in 1945. From then onwards he helped South Korea’s cultural development through music. In 1955 he went to Europe to continue his studies at the Paris Conservatory and then at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, becoming since then part of the European culture. After being abducted (in 1967) and then imprisoned for two years by the Korean Regime, due to acts of espionage, Isang Yun returned to Germany where he became composition teacher in Hannover and Berlin. In some way, his music represents his journey in life, coming from an Asian culture and becoming part of the European culture. His aim turned out to be the development of South Korean music through western ideas.

In his piece Sori (Korean for “sound”) for solo flute, Yun evoques traditional korean flutes (Daegum, Chunggum or sogum) using their techniques, such as sliding up and down, diverse vibrato speeds and amplitudes, and microtonal ornamentation, fusioning western modern flute with these Korean flute techniques. Sori, written in the last period of Yun’s life, allows the listener to sense the musical tension reflective of his tough period in jail, as well as moments of quietness and long sounds as a metaphor to his regaining of freedom.

Both in his chamber music works and all his symphonies, elements like glissandi, pizzicati and prominent vibratos, among others, were also exploited, allowing the listener to remain in constant travel between South Korea and Europe. In the album Yun: Symphonies №1 and 3 all of these composition methods can be found in a large scale piece. A very interesting element Isang Yun implemented in his music was the Taoist concept of balance: Ying & Yang. His music has a perfect balance between South Korean and European music traditions, as well as between harmonies, rhythms, styles and atmospheres. This makes his symphonies the best example of local traditions expanding globally.


(Album Cover Art: Sam Francis/CPO)

Tan Dun (China)

As somebody who is said to have been exposed to, and potentially influenced by Isang Yun, Chinese composer Tan Dun, born in Changsha, Hunan province, is another great example of the influence that diverse (local) performance traditions can have on the creation of contemporary classical music. Tan, Dun: Out of Peking Opera / Death and Fire / Orchestral Theatre Ii contains works that are situated in the field of contemporary classical music, yet have subtle features reminiscent of musical aesthetics derived from Chinese ritual and theatrical music. This becomes most apparent in the piece Out of Peking Opera, which features a solo violin — not unlike a concerto — that has playful melodic fragments and percussive elements in both the solo part and the accompaniment, that seem to mimic Chinese percussive sounds and playing styles. In this piece, Dun’s background as a studied Chinese string instrument player becomes apparent. Tan Dun’s music and contemporary creations have an exotic charm for the ‘Western ear’. This is generally more noticeable in his film compositions, such as the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero and The Banquet, where Chinese performance traditions are featured evidently. Yet, his expertise and affinity with composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Chou Wen-Chung and John Cage makes his works quite familiar and relatable to the diverse and intriguing 20th century classical music canon.

Not only does Tan Dun use traditional Chinese instruments such as gongs and xiaoba (hand cymbals), but he also employs melodic lines and rhythms, as well as playing styles that resemble the sound of traditional Chinese music. Dun’s compositions frequently make use of the gran cassa or other percussion instruments to create wooden click sounds, resembling the traditional Chinese tanggu drums that are commonly played on the rim of the drum. The violin in “Out of Peking Opera” makes use of phrasing resembling percussion as well. At other moments, it can also evoke to Chinese fiddle playing. This emulating of musical aesthetics, combined with Western harmony and instruments, makes his music familiar and innovative.

B.C. Manjunath (India)

South Indian classical music has been gaining a lot of fans all over the world. Being very complex, but at the same time charming, it brings together serenity and liveliness. Two main elements converge to create its unique sound: melody and rhythm. On one hand, the Raga system differs from western music melodic systems: the notes of the scale are ordered by using smaller distances than half tones, yet still using seven notes per scale. On the other hand, the rhythmical content is highly complex. The method used in this region of India is called Solkattu or Konnakol: verbalising the rhythms with simple syllables allows them to perform complex patterns which later can be performed with their instruments.


B.C. Manjunath is a Indian Karnatic performer and composer well-known all

around the world. He plays the Mridangam (double-faced double cone drum played in South Indian music) with which he elaborates highly organized rhythmical content along with South indian tradition of Konnakol (or Solkattu: the art of vocal percussion in South India). The complexity relies not only in the speed of the rhythms but in how the musician, in this case Manjunath, extends those rhythms, keeping the relations between them and the original pattern without changing the organization of the beat or Tala.

In Manjunath’s album Nandi Nataraja you can enjoy the traditional sounds of South Indian music, with its rhythmical complexity accompanied by a very groovy atmosphere. Nowadays the world is starting to recognize the variety of sounds and atmospheres that South Indian music has to offer. Between South indian classical (or Karnatic) music and Western classical music, it is fascinating to observe the elements which were developed and refined through time on each culture. Describing these in a very simple way, European music developed harmony while Indian Classical music focused on melody and rhythm.

Yehezkel Braun (Israel)


(Image by Tali Mayer)

Upon listening to Yehezkel Braun’s Psanterin from the album Psalterion, one can witness an ancient instrument. The Psaltery is a stringed instrument that belongs to the musical instrument family of zithers. Next to the vocal work Yom vayom and the Piano Trio №4, which are performed in this album by the Amber Trio Jerusalem, this three-movement work stands out already by the sonic and spectral properties of the instrument, embedded in a small ensemble arrangement featuring piano, cello and violin. The suspended sounds carry a very characteristic melancholic mood, and the way it is being played, by plucking the thin metal strings, might even resemble, for some of us, the onset tone of a harpsichord, a typical European chamber music instrument used from the Renaissance onwards.

Notably, the first movement of “Piano Trio №4” already starts with sounds reminiscent of the way the psaltery is played in the “Psalterion”. This match in phrasing and expression makes the works naturally blend in with each other and facilitates the listener’s experience as a holistic chamber music event.

The composer Yehezkel Braun has lived through the Palestine Mandate, later Israel, and was exposed to much Jewish and Middle Eastern music. Receiving his formal training at the Tel Aviv University, this blend of influences is a beautiful example of composers going beyond what is sounding familiar and established, using music and composition to trace commonalities across musical, as well as other boundaries.


Yehezkel Braun studied with Boskovich, “who supported folklorism à la Bartók” *1, which beautifully illustrates the transgressive character of music as a whole. After all, many classical pieces, even before more ‘contemporary classical music’, feature and profit from the collective canon of ideas contained in other musical traditions such as folk.

Classical music as a format and performance tradition has established certain habitus and standards (such as the dress code, notation, silence in a concert, dynamic range, virtuosity, narrative sense in the compositions, textural diversity), but still always benefited from local customs and expressions and up until now is a category in flux. This incorporating of local music traditions is on one hand expanding the expressive qualities of the classical music repertoire and on the other, investigating matters of cultural identity expressed in music.

It seems that what makes music “classical” is not so much restricted to which particular rhythms or musical ideas are used, regardless of the fact that some phrases are just more fitting to the instrumental capacities and sound aesthetics of the ensemble. Melodies, rhythms, sounds and patterns can fit into the classical realms if they have a composer, narrative structure and emotional expressivity matching with the habitus. Therefore, the actual ideas and sounds are still independent universes of music, and can be perceived as musical ‘dialects’ or sayings similar to language.

The perception of sound differs from one place to another. However, what is fascinating about those differences is the point when two of them merge to create a new spectrum as an artistic expression. Every time this occurs, music is re-invented, music is carved to allow our ears to savor our own individual musical experience, regardless of certain boundaries.

With this, we would like to conclude our little journey through some of the world’s cultural heritage gems and extend your thoughts about what classical music means to you after you have experienced these hidden sound treasures.

The title of this blogpost is intended to make you think about what the term classical includes, according to you. To us, it seems that classical music does not really depend upon markers such as ‘world’, ‘ethno’ or other sub-categorizations. The music has to have a particular composer and distinct originality, and clearly outlines works that are sophisticated in terms of compositional parameters and finesse as well as richness in texture or conceptual approach. If so, classical music is very tolerant towards influences, no matter from where or what they originate.

Maybe you have observed this already in your own context — do you have a local musical treasure you would like to become global?