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Toward a Situated Analysis of Musical Improvisation: A Case Study of South Indian Ritual Music


The present project focuses on the analysis of musical improvisation in South Indian ritual art-music, i.e. the music of oboe/shawm and drum players of the periya mēḷam orchestra. It aims to develop innovative methods, techniques, and tools in order to analyse musical improvisation as a performative and creative process –aesthetically, emotionally and socially significant. Although it would provide an in-depth study of improvisation in which musical along with religious and social functions of Hindu high-castes ritual performance will be addressed, it is above all an attempt to pursue theoretical efforts to demonstrate that musical improvisation is not an allegedly inexplicable phenomenon and can be –at least partially– analysed and explained, by resorting to the hypothesis that a musical act which arises within an improvised performance constitutes at once an opportunity and a frame for the later development of the music that is being played. Furthermore, through a constructive analysis of improvised performances, it aims to assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing theoretical approaches. Our goal is therefore to confront theoretical debates with practical analysis.

Our methodology will draw on a wide range of disciplines, notably ethnomusicology, historical musicology, cultural and cognitive anthropology, ritual and performance studies, and sociology. Our analytical method will make use of aural transcription, sequential and paradigmatic analysis, elements of Schenkerian analysis, and will integrate the most advanced software programs specialised in musical analysis. Performers will be involved as far as possible in the research so as to point out quickly problems that challenge any attempt to reconstruct the processes of improvisation.

Call for proposal

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Thornhaugh Street Russel Square
WC1H OXG London
United Kingdom
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
EU contribution
€ 231 283,20
Administrative Contact
Tony Doherty (Mr.)