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  • Time, Gesture and Attention in a Khyāl Performance
  • Martin Clayton (bio)


North Indian rāg performance, especially as practised in intimate and informal settings, is often distinguished by a lively interaction involving both musicians and listeners, mediated by gestures and vocal interjections. Performers gesture to one another, to the audience, and expressively with the music, and audiences become part of that process. The premise of this study is that observing the behavior of audience members, as well as that of performers, should provide a valuable window into the ways in which rāg performance is experienced by all of its participants. The main questions I aim to elucidate in this paper are: What does observable behavior tell us about the way people experience the metrical and formal structures of a rāg performance? When and how do listeners become involved in the performance gesturally and/or verbally? I shall address these and related questions through an analysis of a khyāl performance by Vijay Koparkar recorded in Mumbai in 2005. Detailed analysis of this performance indicates that these questions can be answered using observational methods, and suggests other important issues that may not have been raised had this approach not been adopted.

Observing the behavior of listeners alongside that of performers can yield vital clues about the relationships between all participants in a performance event. This behavior—including hand and head movements—informs us only about certain aspects of the participants' experiences, of course. It would be incorrect to assume that the extent of the audience's verbal and gestural involvement indicates the strength of their emotional response directly, or that such involvement is a straightforward response to the music unaffected by other aspects of social relationships. Audiences respond, to some extent, because they perceive it be expected of them: as Goffman would have it, they perform their role as audience members in this particular form of social encounter (Goffman 1969 [1959]). Nonetheless, the evidence of audience behavior remains a vital source of information that has been often remarked upon but rarely investigated: it can elucidate listeners' role in the performance, and—complementing the study of [End Page 71] performers' behavior—help us to draw a more complete picture of performance dynamics. The methods employed here draw both on ethnomusicological precedents and on work in gesture studies, cognitive psychology and elsewhere, and the results are relevant to each of these disciplines.

The Study in Context

Despite the existence of a sophisticated theory of tāl (meter), research on the rhythmic organization of rāg music remains weak in several areas. These would include the interpretation of the temporal organization of ālāp and of the perceptual significance of the long tāl cycles in vilambit khyāl, instances where, in the absence of detailed theories elsewhere, theories of time organization and experience have to be developed from a very low base in the context of Indian music studies (see Clayton 2000; for an introduction to khyāl singing see Clayton and Sahasrabuddhe 1998). This study forms part of a large-scale project, "Experience and meaning in music performance," which aims, among other things, to develop new theoretical models of musical time that take account of entrainment theory (see Clayton, Sager, and Will 2005) and of the significance of physical gesture in musical performance. These theoretical models are applied and tested through empirical analysis, exploiting the potential of digital video and audio recording, as well as ethnographic interviews. Some of these ideas and methods are introduced below, alongside reference to some of the most relevant literature in ethnomusicology, cognitive psychology and gesture studies, and illustrated in this analysis.

Slawek has argued that understanding Indian rāg music involves understanding its performance, and that this depends on attending to audience reactions (1990): this route may offer hope of advances in problematic areas of rhythmic analysis too. His observations suggest that vocal interjections from the audience occur not only at structurally important points such as the arrival at sam ("beat one," the temporal focus of most extemporization), but also in response to dramatic musical gestures or technical feats. For Slawek, an important element in such study should focus on performer intention...


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pp. 71-96
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