Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Single Tones as Musical Entities: An Approach to Structured Deviations in Tonal Characteristics”

Published in the journal of the American Society of University Composers, Vol. III, 1970.

In recent years there has emerged a serious interest on the part of some composers in prescribing meticulously in their scores not only what are generally referred to as the physical characteristics of a tone but also the possible modification of or deviation from these characteristics within the life-span of such a tone. This reflects a growing auditory awareness of a supposedly new dimension in compositional resources — the so-called “deviations” in tonal characteristics.

One of the earliest sources on the Confucianist concept of music, Yueh Chi, states that “one must investigate sound to know tones, investigate tones to know music,” and that “without the knowledge of sound… one cannot speak of music.” It is therefore believed that single tones, rendered meaningful by their acoustic attributes, are musical entities by themselves as well as musical events within the context of a composition. This concept, the true meaning of which is often made ambiguous by frequent poetic and mystic references, is at the root of the means of musical expression in the East.

For example, the Indian sage Matanga in his Brihaddeshi defines the word svara (tone) as “that which shines by itself” and… as “the sound that generates an expression.” In practice, each tone in a raga is in fact treated as having its own specific expression within the expressive context of the raga. …What is even more interesting than the use of the raga (which specifies the pitch content and the motive content) and a tala (which specifies the time units, their groups and the stresses) is the use of gamakas, which are often translated as ornaments. But the use of gamakas is far more than embellishing an existing melody with certain simple devices as in Western music. The gamakas have their own expressive values and are the blood that brings life to the tones of a raga. They are assigned to specific tones according to the tones’ structural relationship within a raga. The execution of a gamaka can be highly intricate and can involve subtle inflections in pitch, timbre, and loudness.

Graph: hichiriki pitch, timbre, and amplitude.
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