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Classical Chat: Sounds of exotic and glorious cultures

Musicians from the Indian classical tradition
Musicians from the Indian classical tradition

Speaking of ‘classical music’ exclusively in terms of the high art of Europe and the west can be something of a mistake.

There are a number of great musical traditions around the world which are quite rightly identified as truly classical.

Indeed, next to the ancient civilisations of places in India and China western music, at around 900-ish years old, is something of a newcomer to the block.

The world’s high musical cultures vary hugely in terms of sound and organising structure. Some can be quite challenging at first (or even second or third) listen to European ears.

But all of them are worth persevering with because they represent a commitment to making profound music asking deep questions about life and existence completely removed from any commercial imperative.

Here are a few great non-Western traditions:

Hindustani music: The better-known internationally of India’s two classical traditions, the sound of the sitar, bansuri flute and singers (among others) performing ragas which can be over an hour in a complex blend of improvisation and composition is deep and beautiful.

Gamelan: Indonesian percussion orchestras have captivated westerners since the late 1800s. Javanese music is courtly and gentle, Balinese loud and exuberant.

Persian music: The classical music of Iran puts the country’s extraordinary poetic tradition centre stage, with evocative playing of lutes, the kamencheh fiddle and percussion alongside.

Chinese music: There’s a huge range of art music from China, ranging from ancient intimate instrumentals to the drama of Peking opera.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the ethereal guqin.

Japanese music: It’s a tough task to immediately get into it but the ritualistic formality of a gagaku ensemble is truly impressive. It has been played for hundreds of years.