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Contemporary modal music

What is contemporary modal music?

Contemporary modal music is modal music composed close to the present day. Composers in the genre draw from related music traditions that occur in an area that stretches from the Maghreb in Northern Africa to the Uygur region in Western China, via the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and South Asia, and which extends into the Balkan and Iberian peninsulas in Southern Europe.

The main modal systems in this vast area include the Turkish Makam, Byzantine Echos, Arabic Maqām, Azeri Muğam, Persian Dastgāh, Turkmen Maqâm, the Uzbek and Tadjik Maqôm, the Indian Raga and Uyghur Muqam. The associated repertoires, styles and musical instruments are generally considered to be exclusive components of the cultural heritage and identities in their respective regions of origin. Contemporary modal music as a cosmopolitan genre was created by Ross Daly. It allows practitioners to make use of traditional elements without appropriation or infringement.

Fragment of ‘A Map of the Countries between Constantinople and Calcutta – Including Turkey in Asia, Persia, Afghanistan and Turkestan’ (1912). Edward Stanford Ltd. (Westminster, London): 1 sheet at the scale of 1 : 6,969,600.

A mode is a specific combination of notes (‘tonal material’) and characteristic melodic behaviours. ‘Behaviour’, in its turn, refers to combinations of tonal centre of gravity (does the mode prefer the low, medium or high register?), overall melodic pathway (how does the melody move through the registers, where does it linger and how does it come to a conclusion?), modulations (which tonal variations are used?), down to intonation subtleties, typical phrases and embellishments. Modal music builds on melody and phrasing, and unlike most Western music it doesn’t use harmony. There is quite a bit of literature on the subject, but the best way to understand modes is to approach them through the repertoire. Let the music speak for itself, it will tell you all you need to know!


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