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Baghdad, Bombay, golders green

From a lecture delivered the 1st of April, 1986. 

 

You may well be puzzled by the title of this lecture - Baghdad. Bombay, Golders Green....No, I'm not a travel agent proposing extraordinary itineraries, and neither is this a travelogue. I must confess that I remain puzzled by some of its implications. but hope that I'll throw some light on it before very long.

 

I've been asked to talk about my background and my music in this series of lectures which is entitled "The Jewish Experience in Music" and would like to remain fairly closely within these terms of reference for the moment.

 

I find the term ‘Jewish Music' far too vague and confusing and don't really believe, with the exception of certain types of folk music and purely liturgical music (music that's been developed for purely religious purposes) that such a thing fly exists.

 

At its best, music transcends all frontiers and barriers of nation, creed and language. For me, any attempt to contain it, to arrogate its spirit to one particular definition or source is somehow to debase it, to imprison its universal quality and to distort it through a narrow viewpoint .

 

A good piece is a good piece almost always independently of its sources and sometimes despite them. For me, it's irrelevant to the music to know that Beethoven might have been inspired by a Jewish liturgical theme or whether Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto was composed by a Jew or by a convert to Christianity.... ..the information does not change the music one iota.

 

There are very few things that are truly universal to mankind - such things as love, hatred, food - as all Yiddisher Mamas know - and music, which is another one of those indefinables....

 

There are of course, many different sources of inspiration and of stimulation for music, and this is perhaps where same of the confusion arises. The late Hans Keller writing with his usual élan said on this subject -

 

"The concept of national music is the vaguest in the critical vocabulary — an eternal example of special pleading on all sides. Artistically (( and that's the most important word for me)) - artistically, 'nationality' means little, except that a composer may be inspired by his national group (or, for that matter by a potato). Many composers are inspired by love, but artistic evaluation does not distinguish between love- and hate-music..."

 

He goes on to say that

 

"...the concept of 'Jewish‘ music is yet more complicated than that of 'Hungarian' or 'English' music, for the Jews are not simply a nation…”

 

I would repeat that there are indeed many pieces of music which have quite specific origins — national, religious or otherwise, but these sources have somehow to be madeinto music, transformed into something to which a set of universal laws and criteria apply, regardless of its source or inspiration. For example, an A Natural at 440 cycles is the same wherever and whenever it's played. Stravinsky's statement that 'music expresses nothing but itself' is hard to fault.

 

Of course, almost all music can be put to uses for which it was not made in the first place.. ....A Rachmaninov concerto to chart a love affair, a snatch of Tchaikowsky to sell a chocolate or two, 3 Beethoven theme to let you know that a radio station isn’t broadcasting at the moment, something that might just possibly be Mozart jangling at the other end of a telephone line to let you know that it might still be worthwhile to hold on…the list is endless. In other words, music can develop associations…

 

Much music is also written for specific purposes in the first place, and as often as not, this kind of music works quite deliberately by association. It's interesting to note that very little music written in this way (for example, military marches, film music) finds its way into the concert repertoire, whereas the reverse is often the case.

 

One of the best examples of music‘s ability to work by association is film music. For example, quick changes of geographical location often have to be implied by the music rather than the pictures and it's amazing just how quickly this can be effected .

 

If one is to draw distinctions - if it's really necessary - between certain types of music in terms of influence, it therefore makes much more sense to talk about these divisions in regional terms

rather than in specific national or racial terms. The very few essential characteristics of most so called Jewish music are by no means unique to it. For example, the augmented second - the interval which characterises the harmonic minor scale, is a potent characteristic of virtually all Middle Eastern music. (In fact, I think of it as Fry's Turkish Delight...) It is not only

found in certain Jewish cantorial modes.

 

The differences in the musical traditions withifluthe Jewish liturgy itself serve to demonstrate my point regarding the superficial nature of association, and this within my own experience. In Bombay, the services in the synagogues were in the Sephardic tradition. There were no musical instruments or choirs, and the only music was in the chanting of the prayers. Imagine my surprise when I first experienced a service in a synagogue in the West. They had (to my ears) Westemised tunes…that is to say that all the middle eastern elements were ironed out to sound more like Mendelssohn....and used the tempered scale rather than the microtones one hears in the Middle East. These tunes were accompanied by harmonies I associated entirely with

 

European music, and what is more, they were belted out by a large chorus accompanied by a blaring Victorian organ...I felt that I was in a Church...for that is what I had always associated choirs, choirmasters and organs with.

 

The “Jewish Experience” is a slightly different matter, for such a thing does exist. But once again, the “Jewish Experience in Music” is perhaps too generalised a term and could be subject to as many separate definitions as there are Jews who have heard music. In attempting to find something Particular in this term, I find that I keep coming back to one point, which is the only one that I myself find of any significance in this context. Namely, that the Jews are a people who have lived in many different regions of the world and historically, have migrated a great deal, keeping with them more or less unchanged their religion and its various modes of expression.

 

This is, perhaps, the principal distinguishing factor. In other words, because the religion itself remained virtually unchanged, its expression - the prayers, etc. - remained the same. The tunes and chants have been slow to modify, and have only been slightly influenced by the music of adopted countries. (I believe that it's now commonly accepted that the Sephardic or Oriental tradition is closer to the ancient traditions, and that the Ashkenazi or Western chants were in general, more subject to local influence.)

 

Perhaps, we may then see the Jewish experience as one that maintains two streams - Firstly, the involvement with a religious music evolved in the Middle East some two thousand years ago that has been slow to change and retains some of its original characteristics and secondly,

the involvement with the secular music of its time and place. In other words, there has been a constant - a constant musical factor against which other musical experiences have been compared and developed, a kind of viewpoint.

 

A similar yardstick is to be found in Bach's liturgical music and its use within the Lutheran Church....over 400 years, now.

 

Inevitably, this sort of experience must lead to much cross—cultural exchange,to a broadening and sharing, and to results that ultimately, do not properly belong to any one people or nation.

 

Another fascinating example of cross-cultural exchange is Jazz, which was “invented” in America, but would never have happened without the music that Africans brought with them when they were transported there as slaves. Nor would it have happened if the black and white communities had never heard each others' music. The music and its derivatives that was first created by a minority community has now been adopted by musicians and others all over the world.

 

This century has seen the world become so very much smaller, with distances reduced even further by communications technology, that it now seems incredible that jazz took as long as it did to be 'invented', let alone to be disseminated. I no longer find it in the least remarkable that some English composers write using Far Eastern techniques, or that a Japanese composes in an idiom that might have been familiar to Debussy,...or that it's possible to hear a Rajasthani folk tune played on a set of moth-eaten Highland bagpipes....I did once, and it sounded just awful!



 

My own background is - well, a melting pot. Briefly, I was born in Bombay in 1948 ( the year after India gained Independence) of Jewish parents. My father was born in Baghdad ( my Bagh-Daddy, you might well say) His parents emigrated to India in 1926, when he was six years old. My mother's grandparents moved to Bombay from Baghdad - both she and her parents were born in Banbay, within the large Iraqui Jewish community that existed there during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of this one. At its peak, this community numbered approximately tin thousand, and there was also a large community of Iraqui Jews in Calcutta. Since the 1950's most have emigrated to other countries, in the wake of the demise of the British Raj. There must have been many reasons for this departure from India, but there was certainly virtually no prejudice or discrimination.

 

The Iraqui community, although a close-knit one, did have plenty of contact and exchange with all the various communities, including the British. Bombay, itself the most important of India's commercial cities, was itself an enormous melting pot. It consisted of ( and still does) of a vast number of different communities, mostly defined according to religion, wealth and caste rather than racial origin.

 

As with all such sharply defined social structures ( and particularly in India) these divisions between the communities were significant - it was important to know ones place - but, they did not prevent or in any way hinder interaction at every conceivable level, for the greatest part carried out with exemplary tolerance. There were Christians, Parsees, Hindus, Moslans; there were Europeans, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains and many more. Within most of these groups there were further endless divisions of caste and sect — Jesuit/Anglican; Sunni Moslem/Shia Moslem; Brahmin/Kshatriya; Baghdad Jew/Cochin Jew...and so on.) And of course, the children of all these various peoples met in the schools they went to — those who could afford an education, for there was always that to contend with.

 

As children (and I mean all the children at the schools I attended) we simply had to learn quickly and effectively to distinguish between the various faiths and customs — it was an important basic courtesy.We had to learn not to cause offence in the first place, to tolerate each other and each others ways, to live with each other and to learn about each other. Naturally, there were problems from time to time, but none that ever caused serious offence. It was a wonderful lesson to learn, and one that India still has to teach, despite the factional violence that one reads about from time to time.

 

My very first school was managed by nuns; the next one (from 4-9 years) was run by Jesuit priests (...give me a boy when he is seven and…) The last school I went to in Bombay (from the age of 9-13) was founded in the latter half of the 19th century by the Anglo Scottish Presbyterian Society and was called the Cathedral and John Cannon High School for Boys. It was reputedly the best school in Bombay, and was originally founded to educate the sons of Englishmen serving their time in India. It was in fact a kind of Box-wallahs' public school - Box-wallahs were the English merchant class. The school was run to Victorian standards and though not quite a Dotheboys Hall, lessons were mostly taught by intimidation, by rote and by because-I-jolly-well-say-so. Although very few English children were left in Bombay by that time, the teaching philosophy was a curious one - it was one that basically ignored Indian culture in favour of a grass-is-greener back home philosophy. And as often as not, this was taught us by Indian teachers! I came across a copy of the School Song not long ago, and would love to read you some of it, jut to give you a flavour of just how dotty things can sometimes get. Incidentally, this particular school was described - WW - by Salman Rushdie, who also attended it, in his book 'Midnight's Children'.

 

Prima in Indis, Gateway of India,

Door of the East with its face to the West,

Here in Banbay we are living and learning

India, our country, to give you our best.

 

Out on the maidan at Hockey or Cricket,

Or now in the classroom a'driving the pen,

We will try ever to fit us, equip us,

So that in life we may serve you as men.

 

Having decided that we really are facing West, we once again find ourselves...

 

Out on the maidan our thews and our sinews

We‘ll train and we'll strengthen a'playing the game,

Then when we leave and go forth to our lifework,

Win for our race and our School a fair name.

 

Divide and Rule...I must say that my thews and my sinews a'resisted that curious jingoism as hard as they possibly could...

 

At the age of 13, I came to school in England - my first trip outside India - and have lived here ever since. The school I went to was founded by Theosophists and although managed by Quakers, subscribed to no particular religion at all - at last! It was Vegetarian, though, and they were on to wholemeal bread and organically grown vegetables generations before it became fashionable. There I first learned to be myself and to enjoy doing creative things. Later, I went to the Royal College of Music and also went up to Cambridge, although I did not stay the course at either institution. As far as composition is concerned, my principal teacher and guru was Elisabeth Lutyens, with whom I studied privately for several years. I first met her at Dartington Summer School of Music, where I had my first contact with many other professsional musicians (including Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett) and my first significant encounters with contemporary music. Dartington has played a far greater role in my musical education than any other institution I attended, although it was only the Summer School I went to.

 

I'd like to return to talking a little more about my childhood in India, and to try and identify a few more of the things which I feel have influenced my development as a composer. I've already described Bombay to you as a teeming commercial city, full of many different communities. You will have gathered by now that the only Baghdad I ever knew was that which the emigrants brought to Bombay with them ..... I have never been to Iraq. The Iraqi community did retain many of the customs from Baghdad, including their own diet, synagogues and Arabic as their language. I remember also that the older women wore full length cotton shifts called lapars dyed their hair with henna to a startling shade of ginger, wore wooden clogs and called me BRA-OON.

 

I've always been conscious of the very great diversity of language that l was confronted with as a child, and have very clear memories of it. Even in our own home, many languages were spoken. I spoke English with my parents, aunts and uncles, but they spoke Arabic with their parents (my grandparents). I sometimes had to communicate in Hindi with my grandparents (who did not have much English) and spoke Hindi with the servants - as in Victorian England, almost every home had a number of domestics. They had migrated to Bombay from various distant parts of India, so they spoke several regional languages & dialects — Tamil, (mjerati, Urdu, Marathi and Conkani ( a patois of Marathi and Portuguese) being only §ot_ne of these. With all these languages went the different religions I’ve already mentioned, along with different folk music and mythologies. We were told many stories. At school, classes were conducted in English, but we also had to learn Hindi, Marathi (the regional language, French and some Latin. The first spoken French I learned was pronounced in the broadest of Bombayaccents. The neighbours in the block of flats we lived in were just as varied. ..we all knew each other, and the children played with each other. In school, we were 32 taught the New Testament, along with the hymns known to most school children in this country. This missionary zeal was hard to escape in the 'colonies' .At home, although not an orthodox family, we had our Hebrew prayers,

chants and songs. There was never much serious music making in our home, and so far as I know, I am the only musician in all of my very extended family. However, my paternal grandfather did have an exceptional voice and knowledge of the liturgy (which he had learned in Baghdad). He served as cantor for many years at the Fort synagogue in Bombay. Unfortunately, little of his musical knowledge was passed on to me, for he spoke hardly any English - although he wore the grandest of solar topees - and I couldn’t really speak any Arabic.

 

My parents did have a small collection of imported records of Western classical music, all of which I listened to avidly and repeatedly. There were occasional broadcasts of western music on

All India Radio, and, we also had Radio Ceylon....the IDCAL pop music station which broadcast all the hits of the 30's and 40‘s for a few hours daily, and made occasional giddy forays into Rock'n'Roll....the High Point of the week was the Binaca Hit Parade...sponsored by Binaca, a luridly striped toothpaste, the latest import....

 

I did hear some Indian classical music as well, but was never taught any. I remember much more vividly the folk music of the various communities, the songs and dances of the street musicians and of course, plenty of music from the Indian films, which blared from radios everywhere. And of course, the street musicians made every Dilip Koomar hit into their very own. There was always music on the streets, whether from vendors with enormous baskets on their heads calling out their wares, or frcm street entertainers of one kind or another, and fran all sorts of different processions and festivals.  

 

In addition to all this I began piano lessons at the age of 7, and first began to learn how music was made. I started 'composing' soon afterwards. although I never wrote anything down until I was 15. «U may well be wondering what all this talk of Banbay has to do with the music....and are probably longing to get on to the Golders Green bit.

 

In fact, I see this early background I have tried to describe as the foundation for my own music, as a kind of aural palette which is my primary stimulus. .. . .in combination with the musical disciplines I learned later on, and continue to learn. It was a powerful world of sound that has profoundly coloured my perception.

 

I would hasten to add that I do not for one moment see my experience as particularly exceptional, for each one of us has their own well of memories to draw on.

 

Another thing I am nervous of doing is appearing to play on the exotic - that is to say, I don't believe that my music is worthy of your attention simply because I have an exotic background. It may be of some interest to identify certain influences, to be in touch with than, and to be able to use sane of then, but as I have already said, a composer's sources are not the most important thing. Using the exotic (literally 'alien, not indigenous, introduced from abroad') is no new thing in music....it has gone on since time immemorial. It is only the pace of this exchange, this cross-fertilisation that has so dramatically increased in the past century.

 

I believe that the learning of a discipline, a complete immersion in and submission to a discipline of some kind, is the most important and essential journey that any creative artist can undertake. It is the only way to learn to order, to make sense of the myriad stimuli that one is subject to. And in the end, it is the only means through which it is possible to communicate some impression of these stimuli to an audience.

 

“The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre

Observe degree, priority and place,

Insisture, course. proportion. season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order."

(Troilus 6- Cressida, I iii)

 

I didn't write very much in the years following my studies...l had simply not learned enough of my chosen discipline to be able to begin to make use of the ideas I had. Lutoslawski has said a similar thing - much better - "I was still not ready to compose as I wished, so I composed as I was able." The struggle for technique is a perpetual one. .. ..wish and ability rarely coincide, if ever.

 

Having mentioned such things as order and form, challenges which have always existed for the composer, I would like now to turn to a discussion of some of the problems facing composers and their audiences today. Generally speaking, Modern Music is thought of as an horrendous bogey man. Well, this is a bogey man I'd like to try and tackle.

 

The last years of the 19th century and the first decades of this one saw a radical and fundamental revolution in the basic language and structure of music as it had developed from Bach's day. The storm created by Schoenberg and his contemporaries has still not subsided, and to a large extent, the whole question of communication is still up in the air.I don't think that I can even begin to resolve these issues...but, I feel in many ways some of the questions raised by this revolution and its consequences have been superseded by later developments. Others of these questions simply cannot be resolved in a climate where the present, the contemporary is more often than not ignored in favour of a culture that glorifies the mausoleum.

 

Contemporary music as been pushed more and more into ghettos by all sorts of promoters who claim to be responding to box-office demands...that is to say, their audiences, who thereby have even fewer chances to become acquainted with the music of their living contemporaries. A truly vicious cycle. The situation in london is particularly bad, with hardly any works by living composers being played by the London orchestras. It seems that the repertoire is being extended into history - Musical Archaeology reigns triumphant - with more and more recherche performances of Early Music and of standard repertoire on so-called authentic instruments. I'm sure it won't be too long before we are treated to Stravinsky and Gershwin on authentic instruments - if it isn't happening already. I can't think of any other art, or even any other field in which the 18th and 19th centuries hold such indomitable sway and in which the 16th and 17th centuries are actually in the ascendant!

 

This is all the more incomprehensible in view of the fact that there has never been more and better new music in this country - and never before have musical standards been higher. I assure you that I am not alone in believing this.

 

It's a resounding shame that a society should turn it’s face on so important an aspect of its culture, and seek only entertainment. This wilful rejection and dismissal, this lack of desire to learn, to understand, to experiment and expand can only result in decline. Perhaps this gradual suffocation of truly new things is symptomatic of the wider decay that so many of the doom mongers write about.

 

Ezra Pound (in his book 'The ABC of Reading') had much to say on this subject. I would like to quote a brief extract. What he has to say applies as much to Music as to Literature.

“Literature does not exist in a vacuum. Writers as such have a definite social function..."

 

He goes on to say...

"If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays ....... Rome rose with the idiom of Caesar, Ovid and Tacitus - she declined in a welter of rhetoric ...... The man of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets its literature decay, and lets good writing meet with contempt, than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts."

 

It is for those of you who have this understanding, who truly care about music to do all you can to bring contemporary music back once again into the sphere of the everyday. Remember that a language not given currency remains strange, becomes increasingly incomprehensible and is eventually rendered inarticulate. We simply must take pride in the culture of our own times, and do all we can to promote it. Our culture is the signature of our civilisation, and is as important a gift to make to future generations as anything material. 'The future will know us more by the art we give than than by anything else. (they will surely have their own technology, their own means of entertainment)

 

A further problem in communicating new music is that the last century has also seen a change in many of the functions of serious music. A similar change in function was experienced in painting - the arrival of the camera in the 19th century rapidly changed the raison d'Etre and the very nature of most painting. For example, it was no longer necessary to have a portrait painted if all you needed was a likeness - a camera could do it quicker and better. "Art for art's sake"was first heard from the painters. Similarly, in the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries, it is possible to discern a very close alliance between the 'popular' music of the day (folk song, dance music) and their own works of art.

 

In other words, however sophisticated the music becomes, it's nearly always possible to identify its more basic origins. With Beethoven's later works and the further development of music through the 19th century the division between these origins and the art increased. It becomes almost meaningless to try and relate a Mahler scherzo to the same basic dance form that generates a Haydn minuet and trio. This rift has continued to widen and today's 'art' music bears little perceptible relationship to today's popular music although ideas are often exchanged in both directions. Concert music has become more and more 'art for art's sake' - the art of sound, it exists for itself.

 

In the same way that I would not go to an art gallery to see reproductions of pictures that have appeared in last week's Sunday supplements, I would not go to a concert hall to listen to muzak.

 

\\

 

Perhaps you can see what I am leading up to - that the very nature of music has changed so greatly since the time of Beethoven - that today's music needs to be listened to in a completely different manner to the one in which we might listen to a Schubert symphony or song. Although the best music of today is acutely conscious of the traditions and the history frcm which it has grown, there is simply no point in listening to it with the expectation of the same kind of outline and cadence, form and harmony that one would expect from Schubert. This can only lead to frustration.

 

Much of today's music may be listened to from moment to moment, and indeed is deliberately composed to be listened to in that way. The notion of 'development', of closely argued structures has changed. And although much music (including, I like to think, my own) is still written with the basic idea of development behind it, the material, the sounds and the colours are developed in different ways. The nature of development has changed, the idea of development itself has developed.

 

Sounds too are very different these days. It's not simply that instrumental capabilities have increased tremendously and that technique has vastly improved, making a whole new range of sounds available to the composer...including electronics. The aural environment: has also changed. Mozart did not hear pneumatic drills or a Gamelan orchestra frcm Bali; Respighi did not hear Rane's fountains through a barrage of internal combustion engines; Chopin did not hear how the computer at IRCAM can extend the sounds of a piano; Tchaikovsky did not hear the singing of whales; none of these composers saw the satellite pictures of planet Earth.

 

I remember being four or five years old and having a terrible tantrum because my grandmother gave me a banana instead of an apple. "I want an apple", I yelled. (All my most vivid memories of my grandmother are somehow connected with food.) "Brai-yan, Brai-yan" she sighed, with that chilling mixture of patience and exasperation that only seven children of her own could have taught her. ”What's the use of shouting like that. I don't have an apple to give you, and if you carry on wishing you had one, you simply won't be able to enjoy the banana either .....

I must have screamed even louder, but she had a point .......Apart from exercising your minds about the relative merits of apples and bananas, I've said much to you about my background. But. I haven't yet connected it with the way in which my musical language has developed and with why I use the sort of sounds I do.

 

I've been inspired and stimulated by many different sounds, ideas and cultures, but my training has been entirely Western European, and it is from these European traditions that I've derived my technique. I knew fairly early on that I would have to learn a unified discipline and that it was necessary for me to stick to this goal and to gain some kind of fluency before I would be able to use the ideas I had. It now seems to me that it was a completely natural process that as my technique developed, I was able to use sane of the ideas that spring from outside the European sources of this technique.

 

As with any universal discipline - one that is founded on a set of principles rather than any stultifying dogma - I've found that these traditions are capable of accommodating the widest conceivable range of expression. Yet, the search for new limitations, for new horizons goes on.

 

The language of my music is by no means avant-garde. Yet, I like to think that it is contemporary, that is to say, of its time. This has also come quite naturally to me. I have never had wanted and doubt if I ever will, consciously want to follow fashions and trends or to be either reactionary or outrageous. There is only one way for any composer to write - his or her way.

 

I had always wanted to compose music, but it was my encounters with the music of Debussy and Bartok ( and later on the Second Viennese School) that first drove me to write things down, that showed me what I had to do,and above all, showed me a language that I felt was relevant and exciting, that I wanted to learn, that I could communicate in. Even my earliest pieces were not diatonic.

 

I dearly love and admire the music of the past, and continue to learn a very great deal from it. I'm very conscious of belonging to a tradition that stretches even further upstream than Bach. But I have to be of my time - I have no choice, for I don‘t live in the past. It is only my own times that I can absorb and reflect with any truth - that old Keatsian adage is still very highly charged with meaning for me.