This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Canadian Musician
By Omar Shabbar
Like most of us, I love learning anything and everything about music. From bebop to Bach to Billie Holiday and John Cage, there is so much to explore.
One term, however, seems to come up in my studies more and more and it’s used to describe both Coltrane and Nusret Fateh Ali Khan. This term is “modal music.” But what exactly does it mean and how can one word be used to describe such different genres?
Based on my very surface-level understanding, I know that modal music is a different approach to music, contrasting with the western, harmony-driven approach we might be more familiar with. Instead of relying on chord progressions or harmony to convey emotion, modal music pits a series of notes, the mode,
against a constant drone pitch, which creates a rich atmosphere to explore musically. But, like studying any subject, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.
I wanted to get to the bottom of this seemingly vague term, so I decided to interview three musicians with different backgrounds who are all a part of this rich modal tradition in hopes of finding connections between all modal genres and understanding the full scope of what modal music is.
After a little research, I stumbled across a group called Labyrinth Ontario, whose mandate is to promote modal music in Ontario. Who better to start with than Labyrinth’s Director, Araz Salek? Not only is he the director of this group, but he’s also an accomplished traditional Iranian musician. Araz plays the tar, which is the quintessential traditional Iranian instrument. The tar is a stringed instrument with a bright metallic attack, accompanied by a rich resonance that is carried through the body.
CANADIAN MUSICIAN: WHAT IS MODAL MUSIC?
ARAZ SALEK: It’s an umbrella term used to describe musical traditions from West Africa to West China and it refers to how we learn and teach music. All of these musical traditions are completely aural; things are rarely written down and instead are played and mimicked by teacher and student. A makam, an Iranian and Arabic term for mode, is a complex grouping of notes. These notes are not played note-by-note like western scales; it’s groupings of notes that make sense together with a strong emphasis on phrasing.
CM: HOW DO YOU COMPOSE MODAL MUSIC?
SALEK: I try to create a musical atmosphere within a makam and slowly I get deeper and deeper into the makam. In makam music, you’re kind of limited in what comes next because phrasing is so important. You can also modulate from one makam to another. That’s a very important part – you need to know which modulations are possible for each makam. I record my improvisation and play it back. If an interesting theme or pattern came up, I’ll keep it and continue the process until I have a full melody.
CM: WHAT IS THE STATUS OF MODAL MUSIC IN CANADA?
SALEK: What’s being presented as “world music” these days is two or three musicians from different backgrounds thrown on stage together. They have no time to dive deep into each other’s musical traditions and be able to speak fluently in each other’s musical language. There are thousands of opportunities for these interactions but there needs to be a platform for these musicians to learn from each other. Because of this, the medium that is used for “world music” is western music. Too often, “world music concerts” are a jam in A minor. Because we’re in Canada, we all know A minor but it’s too shallow for many musical traditions to fully express themselves. For my music, I use quartertones and these are often misheard because people don’t have the ear for it; they think it’s “off” or out of tune. Do I compromise and take that out of my music to make it more accessible? No. Labyrinth is trying to help the audience and musicians to play together to develop the ear to enjoy different kinds of music.
CM: IF SOMEONE IS TRYING TO INCORPORATE THE SOUND OF MODAL MUSIC INTO THEIR PLAYING, WHAT IS THE FIRST STEP?
SALEK: Most importantly, you need to listen to the music. Get an ear for it; there is so much out there. If you want to play it, you need to have an instrument that can produce quartertones. Instruments like pianos and fretted guitars won’t work because there is no way to play the microtones in between the keys or frets. On the tar, I have frets, but they are actually moveable, so I will move them and tune the strings differently based on the makam I am playing.
Immediately following my conversation with Araz, I did what I imagine most guitar players in my position would do: a quick search to see how much a fretless guitar would cost me. I’ll save you some time – they’re not very easy to find,
and the ones I could find are not cheap. Perhaps it’s time to pick up a new instrument…
What I found most interesting about my chat with Araz was his view on world music in Canada. It makes me wonder, how much of the “world music” I’ve heard is actually a simplified version of something deeper that has been altered to appeal to my western ears?
One modal genre that I’m sure I’ve heard unfiltered is classical Hindustani music. This is classical music from Northern India and Pakistan, where my dad was born. Growing up, I was exposed to my fair share of Hindustani music but it wasn’t until recently that I started to really appreciate it and view it as my own musical heritage. I felt obligated to learn more about it and that’s what I did. Two years ago, I started studying the Music of India at York University and this was the first time I was exposed to the inner workings of non-western modal music.
In many Hindustani genres, like my favourite, the dhrupad, a piece starts with a section called the alap. You could call it the intro, but in reality, these sections can last up to an hour long. The whole purpose of an alap is to establish the raag (the Hindustani version of a mode/makam). Musicians dig deep into the phrasing and nuisances of the raag, creating a musical atmosphere. This is exactly what Araz was talking about when explaining his compositional process.
It was fascinating to draw lines like this between Iranian traditional music and my knowledge of Hindustani music, much of which has come from professor Rob Simms. Simms teaches both the Music of India and Music of the Middle East at York University and has spent most of his life exploring the sounds and developing an ear for the different types of modal music. He plays many instruments, including the guitar, tabla, and the setar, which is a long-necked lute. For my second interview, I set up a Zoom meeting with Simms to get a more pan-modal perspective.
CM: WHAT IS MODAL MUSIC?
ROB SIMMS: It’s a different sound world, a different way of thinking, and a different approach to music making altogether. We grew up in a harmonic world and it’s great, but there’s a whole other aesthetic space found in modal music that is really beautiful. Modal music opens up a whole toolkit of musical ideas that can open your mind and heart and ear in a way that you wouldn’t if you were just dealing with western harmony.
Modality is like tuning into a radio station; you tune into a particular atmosphere/colouring. Just like each radio station has a different aesthetic, each mode has a different character. Getting to know a mode is like getting to know a person; the longer you spend with them, the more you understand how the person or mode works.
CM: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT COMPOSING MODAL MUSIC?
SIMMS: I’ve spent a lot of time trying to learn these modal musical languages, and I’ve found there are many connections between them. They’re all modal resources of a larger modal family, like a tree with roots. When I’m improvising in this music, I cross over many styles. A lot of people find this goes against particular traditions and some find it offensive, which of course is not something I want to do, but I enjoy pivoting from a Persian makam to an Indian raag. I think it’s cool.
CM: WHAT IS THE STATUS OF MODAL MUSIC IN CANADA?
SIMMS: It’s a small subculture right now; it’s a specialty niche. The individual modal subsects are becoming pan-modal and are constantly being mixed with western genres. For example, there is a musician in Montreal named Mercan Dede who plays Turkish makams in EDM music. Many traditionalists hate this kind of stuff but people who listen to Dede might get hooked on these sounds and seek out the traditional Turkish music, almost like a gateway. There are so many examples of this happening. A great example is rock appropriation with Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles using modal sounds from the Middle East and India. These are almost entry points for listeners to get into the classical, more traditional stuff.
CM: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WHO IS LOOKING TO INCORPORATE THESE SOUNDS INTO THEIR MUSIC?
SIMMS: Most importantly, you’ve got to listen to it – really spend time with this music and dig in. There’s so much out there. Get these sounds into your ear and develop an understanding of it.
To play it, you need an unfretted instrument that’s capable of microtones. For most of us in Canada, the violin is probably the most accessible for this. The best thing to do is learn short little tunes or snippets of melodies. These are normally eight- or 12-bar pieces that give you the flavour of the mode/makam/raga. All of these modal traditions have this built-in repertoire; by learning a piece, you’re actually learning the phrasing and workings of that mode.
Both Simms and Salek share similar views on the practical aspects of modal music. Both emphasized how the phrasing in a mode gives it its own specific trait or characteristic. You can actually have two modes with the exact same notes but completely different phrasing, giving each a distinct character. Both musicians also stressed the importance of spending time really listening to this music, to dive in and tune your ears to the nuances of these rich musical cultures. The casual listener of Hindustani music is likely able to discern microtones or long, complicated rhythmic cycles better than you or me because their ears are tuned to it.
What I found particularly interesting is where the two musicians disagreed: the appropriation of modal music. Talek compared Canadian “world music” to him having a conversation with a Japanese person and a Brazilian person. While they can still communicate in English, none of them are able to express themselves as deeply as they would in their native tongues. Simms, on the other hand, explains the importance of bringing these modal sounds into western music not only as a gateway to the traditional musical heritages, but as a way of pushing music forward. Simms told me: “We have to grab a new instrument or borrow a phrase from another culture to make new music. That’s what we do. That’s how new music is born.”
When it comes to pushing music forward with modality, the best example I can think of is jazz. Technically, I’m a jazz guitar major, and although it isn’t really my main field of study anymore, I still love it and I continue to study it with my private instructor, Roy Patterson.
Roy is an accomplished jazz guitar player who teaches jazz at York University. Not only does he have a deep understanding of modal jazz, having written and performed it for much of his professional life, but he also studied and plays the Arabic oud. The oud is a stringed, fretless instrument with a large ball-shaped body that has a large, smooth, and warm sound. Patterson is well-versed in both modal jazz and Middle Eastern modal music, making him the perfect candidate for my third interview.
CM: WHAT IS MODAL MUSIC?
ROY PATTERSON: The academic answer would be music
that lacks dominant to tonic cadence; that is, not based
on the concept of dominant chords creating instability
that resolve to a stable tonic chord. Within the context of
a mode, there are areas that are more transitory: notes
are used to move to other notes or modes so even
though a mode doesn’t have any dominant to tonic cadences,
there are still tension/resolution points in the
mode with departure points to modulate to other modes.
CM: DOES MODALITY DIFFER IN JAZZ COMPARED TO TRADITIONAL ARABIC MUSIC?
PATTERSON: Jazz has always absorbed what’s around it and these elements of modes were present very early on. You can even consider blues a modal type of music. The blues scale is essentially a mode, with its inherent phrasing in the scale. There’s a tendency to think that modal jazz started in the 1960s with Coltrane and Davis, but it began long before that. These artists in the ‘60s certainly advanced modal music in the context of jazz, but it was already a part of the music. Coltrane in particular was interested in early 20th century music and eastern religions, so naturally there was an investigation of the music associated with those traditions.
CM: HOW DO YOU COMPOSE MODAL MUSIC?
PATTERSON: A lot of my tunes are a combination of diatonic and modal elements. There might be eight to 16 bars of a mode and the last A section would be diatonic, for example.
The treatment of the melody in modal tunes is a little different. You’re not looking for that leading tone resolving to the tonic; it’s based on the inherent tension release that’s already in the phasing of the mode. For example, I’ll end my first phrase on a nine, creating the expectation of some kind of resolution. The next phrase I’ll end on the one to create that resolution. I’m using the inherent structure within the mode to create a sense of instability and stability.
CM: WHAT IS THE STATUS OF MODAL MUSIC IN CANADA?
PATTERSON: We have some incredible musicians in Canada that have come from other musical cultures, but if you listen to what’s on the radio, it’s not reflective of these musicians and artists. The potential is here. We have the artists, the creativity is here, but unfortunately, the funding agencies are supporting more mainstream stuff. It’s going to take groups of people to get the ears of administrators and governments to develop an openness and realize that there is some amazing potential here right now.
CM: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WHO IS LOOKING TO INCORPORATE MODAL SOUNDS INTO THEIR MUSIC?
PATTERSON: First thing is they have to listen to the music; that’s the most important thing. Whatever flavour of modal music – dorian would be Coltrane and Miles, Herbie Hancock, or listen to music from other cultures. Arabic music has a large improv component. Indian music and Brazilian Afro sambas are all modal pieces.
Alright, so just what is modal music? Modal music is an approach to music where each song focuses on a specific mode. These modes are series of notes with their own inherent phrasing that dictates which notes to play, in what order to play them, and the articulation of each note. Modal music is about first establishing a mood or atmosphere of a mode, then exploring all of the different characteristics and complexities of it.
For music lovers, modal music opens up a whole new world of beautiful and culturally rich sounds. There are hundreds if not thousands of musical heritages, each one requiring a lifetime to master, that fall under this over-arching modal music tree. Getting into this music not only opens your ear to different sounds, broadening your musical horizon, but it draws attention to these extremely talented-yet-underrepresented musicians in Canada.
As musicians, we can use this approach to add new and interesting sounds and colours to our music, improve our phrasing, or simply to get out of a creative rut.
Roy Patterson told me that playing on one chord reminds him of playing music as a teenager. He and his friends would jam on one chord because that’s all they could do. To me, that’s where the beauty of modal music lies – the limitation breeds creativity. Imagine you’re playing on one chord for a 15-minute tune. Sure, it might be tricky at first, but it forces you to think of all the possible things you can do with one chord or one scale or one mode. It forces you to focus on interesting and perhaps more articulate phrasing, and it forces you to explore all the nooks and crannies of that specific sonic world.
Omar Shabbar is a gigging musician based out of Toronto. He’s also an onsite guitar tech at The Root Down Studio (www.therootdownstudio.com) and a self-proclaimed gear head. In the rapidly changing industry of modern guitar
gear, Omar attempts to discern innovation from distraction. Check out his YouTube channel, featuring dozens of gear reviews and performance clips, at YouTube.com/OmarGearReview.