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Widdess, Richard (2013) 'Schemas and improvisation in Indian music.' In: Kempson, Ruth, Howes, Christine and Orwin, Martin, (eds.), Language, Music and Interaction. London: College Publications, pp. 197-209.

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Indian classical musicians, like jazz musicians, display impressive ability to perform with an apparent fluency and spontaneity resembling that of normal speech. It has been suggested that this appearance of spontaneity, often labelled “improvisation”, relies largely on memorized materials, prepared in rehearsal and recalled sequentially in performance (Van Der Meer 1980, Slawek 1998). But there are occasions when no specific preparation is possible, for example when performers meet on the concert platform for the first time. Performers themselves differ in the degree to which they claim to be “improvising”, some emphasising the need for careful planning, others the desirability of spontaneity and risk-taking. An approach to understanding such phenomena would be to look at the cognitive schemas involved in Indian music performance, and the ways in which schemas can be spontaneously combined. According to cognitive psychology, a schema is a memory structure comprising an array of cognitive categories, which we acquire through repeatedly experiencing similar arrangements of facts or sequences of temporal events. Temporal schemas enable us to form expectations about a likely course of events, whether they are small-scale and relatively invariant (“scripts”), or larger-scale and variable in content (“plans”). Such schemas have been shown to be important components of style and structure in both notated music (Treitler, Gjerdingen) and oral verbal performance (Rubin). Cognitive anthropologists have distinguished cognitive (largely unconscious) and instituted (socially acknowledged or inscribed) schemas or models that convey foundational cultural meanings (Shore) and allow cultural competence (Bloch). Aspects of schema theory have clear relevance to the analysis of musical performance in oral musical cultures, whether we are looking at musical meanings, musical structure, or, it may be suggested, musical interactions. Analysis of a performance of Indian classical vocal performance suggests that “improvisation” in this case involves the spontaneous combination of multiple scripts and plans. These include a metrical schema, embodied in physical gestures and subdivided into smaller segments, a pitch schema or scale with added features of pitch hierarchy and prescribed melodic movement (the rāga), an arched contour schema, a verbal script (the song text), and small rhythmic ending-formulae (tihāī). Simultaneous combination as well as sequencing of these “given” elements enables soloist and accompanist to improvise coherently and in synchrony.

Item Type: Book Chapters
SOAS Departments & Centres: Departments and Subunits > School of Arts > Department of Music
Legacy Departments > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Department of Music
ISBN: 9781848901247
Date Deposited: 02 Jan 2014 10:12

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