Percussion writing in 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’: Can Western instruments become Chinese?

By Lena HENG and WANG Mengqi

Perceptual principles and orchestration

Opening his paper about the psychological constraints on form-bearing dimensions in music, McAdams <1> observes that, from a listener’s perspective, “the existence of artistic form is often intangible, fleeting, fugitive” <2>. Even so, musical form possesses a psychological reality to a listener. The listener has to organize and create a mental representation of the musical sounds they hear in order to comprehend these abstract musical structures. For instance, listeners are able to easily “arrange a sequence of pitches and recognize when it is heard again” <2> and thus pitch organization can be a very important aspect used in musical comprehension. Techniques of orchestration therefore have to take into account the ability and limits of human perception, so as to achieve musical effects that are perceptible and comprehensible to a listener. Orchestration treatises provide strategies for the utilization of instruments in various ways to achieve a desired sonic effect, but researchers such as Sandell <3> and Goodchild and McAdams <4> have demonstrated that these techniques could be guided by perceptual principles. An understanding of these perceptual principles can highlight musical features that are perceptually salient in listeners, and that could be used to explain the effectiveness of certain orchestration techniques.

Orchestration techniques of percussion instruments in a Western symphony orchestra and a Chinese orchestra

There are a few ways in which the percussion section has been traditionally used in Western orchestral scores. One is to simulate march music or to provide an ethnic flavour. The percussion section can also be used to emphasize accents and provide general rhythmic activity. It is also often used in building up to or capping a climax. Dramatic beginnings of pieces of music can also be intensified by percussion instruments, and finally, the percussion section is also used to colour certain pitches or even entire passages by doubling other instruments in the orchestra <5>.

In his orchestration treatise for the Chinese orchestra, Piao <6> observes that Western percussion instruments, even while they may have instances of being soloistic, rarely stand alone outside of their supportive role. In China, on the other hand, the long history of percussion ensembles in folk traditions, as well as the role of percussion in operas, created and developed characteristic featured roles for percussion instruments. Percussion instruments could be used soloistically and to perform melodic or gestural roles. As these instruments became incorporated into the Chinese orchestra, the traditional percussion roles were also absorbed into the orchestral writing, and very different uses of percussion instruments can be seen.

While Chan <7> did not specifically compare the differences between percussion writing in Western and Chinese orchestras, he talked about the characteristic uses of particular Chinese percussion instruments, highlighting similar observations Piao has about the characteristic roles percussion instruments play traditionally.

Percussion writing in 12 Questions

Composed by Zhu Shirui in 2006, 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’ is a single-movement work commissioned by the Youth and Music Festival in Berlin and the Composition Committee of Shanghai Music Conservatory <8>. The Chinese poet Qu Yuan (c. 340 BC – 278 BC) wrote the epic poem Heavenward Questions that questioned the mysteries of the heavens and earth. In the composer’s own words, this piece “should be understood just like Heavenward Questions without being answered if imagination could unify music and words, and there are no essential differences in human nature between the past and the present, the East and the West” <9>.

The piece is written for a Western orchestra and solo dizi, a Chinese transverse bamboo flute. Several Chinese percussion instruments are used in the piece. With this unique combination of instruments, the composer has to utilize different orchestration techniques so that the piece sounds unified. Being a piece with a fundamentally Chinese background in its programmatic content, the composer also has to take into consideration how the predominantly Western orchestra could reflect this content.

Zhu utilized a large number of percussion instruments in this piece and both the Western and Chinese percussion instruments are often used together. The style of writing, however, does not solely depend on whether a particular instrument is a Western or Chinese percussion instrument. A group of Chinese percussion instruments could be used to create effects reminiscent of what is commonly seen in a Western orchestra and vice versa. With the exception of the timpani, most of the other percussion instruments are unpitched or only relatively pitched.

Rhythmic accentuation

Right at the opening of ZHU Shirui’s 12 Questions on “Heavenward Questions”, we can see one of the uses of the percussion section common in a Western orchestra. The timpani are used here to accentuate the beginnings of each two-measure phrase. At m. 11 (Video 1), two Chinese percussion instruments, the tanggu (Chinese drum) and big bass luo (tam-tam) join the timpani. However, even with the addition of these two Chinese percussion instruments, the function of the percussion section here is still to accent the rhythm, and the instruments do not stand outside of this supportive role.

Video 1. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 5–20.

Percussion as a melodic instrument

The bangzi (Chinese wood drums) and bangu (little Peking-opera drum) have very strong associations with the Chinese operatic tradition, and carry strong melodic and dramatic connotations. They are often used to keep the beat for the singer, not only in metered passages but also in metrically freer ones. In many Chinese opera traditions, it is not uncommon to have passages in which the singer (and/or melodic instruments) sings a metrically free passage while the rhythm section keeps a steady pulse. This is often used to heighten the tension and to contrast and/or highlight the emotions of the singer. In addition to these types of passages, another use of the bangu is in mirroring the rhythmic patterns of the vocal and melodic lines. These uses of the bangu and bangzi in Chinese operas can be seen in Video 2 and 3, respectively. In Video 2, although the bangzi appears to be taking on the role of keeping pulse, it has the leading role in the ensemble, and instrumentalists listen to subtle cues by the bangzi to know how the melody is going to progress. With these connotations, listeners who are experienced in Chinese music likely form strong associations with the melodic line upon hearing the bangzi being used in this specific way. Video 3 is an excerpt of instrumental performances of operatic music, with the melodic instruments playing a line similar to one that an actor-singer in Chinese opera might sing; the excerpt has been selected to more clearly demonstrate the roles of the bangu.

Video 2. Bangzi with sheng and dizi playing excerpts from Shanxi narrative drama <10>.

Video 3. Bangu excerpts from Peking opera <11>.

Towards the end of the first question from around m. 21 (Video 4), the percussion instruments start coming into the melodic foreground, transitioning from a supportive role into a more prominent one. While still carrying a rhythmic pattern similar to that of the other groups of instruments, the use of rim strokes makes the percussion lines stand out more and perceptually segregates the percussion section from the other instrument groups.

Video 4. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 20–24.

The entry of the bangzis at m. 27 (Video 5) creates a clear line together with rim strokes on the timpani. Listeners experienced with percussion instruments in Chinese opera will most likely easily associate this bangzi line with a melodic line. However, these associations are not only due to learned connotations by experienced listeners. Perceptual principles also guide listeners’ attention towards this clearly segregated line. Firstly, the sharp and bright sounds of the bangzi and the rim strokes on the timpani increase the salience of this group of instruments. In addition to rim strokes, the set of different bangzis allows for relative variation in pitch, and even though it is not absolutely tuned, some form of timbral-pitch contour can be established. This pitch variation makes it easier to create not only rhythmic variation but also melodic variation, drawing listeners’ attention towards the percussion section as a separate, independent layer.

Video 5. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 25–34.

Gestural role of percussion

There is a wide variety of unpitched metallophones in Chinese percussion instruments, used traditionally in operas, processions, and ritual music. For listeners experienced with Chinese traditional music, the common use of these instruments in these types of settings has created strong associations with particular gestures, and sometimes quite specific ones.

Even though these metallophones are unpitched, each one of them has a unique timbre and their use in combination creates a range of different timbres that can be perceived as a timbral melody. With this range of timbres and the rhythmic combination of them, it is not difficult for even for a listener inexperienced in Chinese music to form associations with gestures and movements. An example is given in Video 6 where the combination of varied percussion timbres and rhythmic patterns vividly evokes gestures and movements, here specifically of the Monkey King <12> wreaking havoc in the heavens.

Video 6. Percussion excerpt from Monkey King <13>.

Although luos (Chinese gongs) are unpitched percussion instruments, a tone that changes slightly in pitch can be produced depending on the angle and position at which the instruments are hit. These pitch-changing tones allow for gestural associations to be made, or an idea of some kind of movement. Wallmark and Kendall <14> believe that metaphorical descriptions of sounds constitute conceptual representations that are “hybrids” of various frames of references. In the sound of the luo, the physical or activity frame of reference appears to dominate, an association that is easily made between the timbre, pitch, and connotations of movement. This type of association, once again, does not require a listener to be experienced in Chinese music or operatic genres.

The first appearance of the metallophones in the capacity of gestural connotation appears towards the end of Question 3, at m. 68 (Video 7). Even though metallophones have been heard before this point in the piece, they have been used more to create a dramatic entrance and less for their gestural connotations. Although only a brief three measures in length, the combination of low brasses with the small and medium luos in this passage creates an impression of a comic character in an opera (丑角[chou jue]) striding onto the scene. Comic characters, in addition to providing humour, can also be used to question philosophical ideas or express moral ideas that may be stilted or wearisome and banal if conveyed by other more serious characters. It seems apt to have such a character in this work that brings up philosophical questions that are being asked in the poem.

Both melodic and gestural elements work in conjunction in mm. 107-18 (Video 8). In addition to the instruments in the percussion section, the harp is also used here in a percussive manner. The entire percussion section and the harp form a stratified layer here, clearly distinct from the rest of the ensemble, and comparable in melodic importance to the solo dizi. The drums, tanggu and set of five paigus (Chinese drums that are relatively pitched), form the basis of the melodic line. In conjunction with the small and medium luos, a lively and animated musical line is created. From m. 115 onwards, the harp is used in a surprisingly percussive way, imitating the sound of the luos.

Video 7. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 68–70.

Video 8. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 107–118.


Percussion instruments are used in a unique way in this piece. The composer orchestrates the percussion in a unique way to convey the aesthetic and a narrative based on Chinese cultural ideas. There are sections in which the percussion writing is clearly in a style usually found in orchestration for Western instruments, and there are other sections in which the percussion is written in a clearly Chinese style. Even though Western and Chinese percussion instruments are used, it is not the tradition of the instrument that dictates the style (whether Western or Chinese) of the percussion writing, but rather the ways in which the music is written at a given moment.

The unique ways in which Chinese percussion instruments are used can be traced back to the traditions of folk instrumental ensembles and Chinese operas, and listeners with prior experience in these genres of music will find it easy to form associations between the percussion sounds and the musical narratives or ideas. However, these connotations are also not arbitrary, and certain aspects of it are based on perceptual principles, such as auditory streaming and segregation principles. This means that, although musical associations with the narratives and musical ideas are learnt from experience, the ways in which musical elements are used and the techniques for orchestrating particular effects are not simply arbitrary.

This piece demonstrates a unique example of how a composer might orchestrate a piece of music that uses predominantly Western orchestral instruments such that they work in conjunction with the sounds of the few Chinese instruments present to create the aesthetics and a narrative based on culturally Chinese ideas. Other techniques might be utilized in different pieces of music, creating varied and diverse effects, but most importantly, the success with which these effects may be perceived by listeners is strongly guided by basic perceptual principles.

The score is published by People’s Music Publishing House and is available for purchase.

<1> McAdams, S. (1989). Psychological constraints on form-bearing dimensions in music. Contemporary Music Review, 4(1), 181–198.

<2> McAdams, S., p. 181.

<3> Sandell, G. J. (1995). Roles for spectral centroid and other factors in determining “blended” instrument pairings in orchestration. Music Perception, 13(2), 209–246.

<4> Goodchild, M., & McAdams, S. (2018). Perceptual processes in orchestration. In E. I. Dolan & A. Rehding (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of timbre. Oxford University Press.

<5> Adler, S. (2002). The study of orchestration (3rd ed.). W.  W.  Norton and Company.

<6> 朴 [Piao], 东生 [Dongsheng]. (2011). 中国民族管弦乐实用配器手册 [A practical guide to orchestration for traditional Chinese instruments]. 人民音乐出版社 [People’s Music Publishing House].

<7> 陳 [Chan], 明志 [Ming Chi]. (2003). 中樂因您更動聽-民族管弦樂導賞 [Chinese orchestral music is better because of you—an appreciation of Chinese orchestral music] (Vol. 1). 三聯書店有限公司 [Joint Publishing H.K. Pte Ltd].

<8> 朱 [Zhu], 世瑞 [Shirui]. (2007). 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’ [Musical score]. People’s Music Publishing House.

<9> 朱 [Zhu], 世瑞 [Shirui], p. 46.

<10> Musical Map of China 中国音乐地图.瑞鸣 Rhymoi Music. (2021, December 2). Shanxi song-and-dance duet—Five Bangzi 山西二人台《五梆子》中国音乐地图 听见山西 瑞鸣音乐 Rhymoi Music. YouTube.

<11> izzie fcy. (2019, March 1). 范芷芸個人音樂會—京劇曲牌聯奏 (Peking Opera Drums and Songs). YouTube.

<12> Monkey King. (2021, September 23). Wikipedia.

<13> 香港中樂團HKCO. (2020, May 8). 【鼓聲隆隆同抗疫 給自強不息的香港人】第二十五集 – 享負盛名的「八大錘」以京劇打擊樂演繹《鬧天宮》. YouTube.

<14> Wallmark, Z., & Kendall, R. A. (2018). Describing Sound: The Cognitive Linguistics of Timbre. In E. I. Dolan & A. Rehding (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Timbre. Oxford University Press.

Lena HENG is an interdisciplinary PhD candidate in the Music Perception and Cognition Lab at McGill University Canada, under the supervision of Prof. Stephen McAdams. With a background in both psychology and music from Singapore, Heng’s research interests centre around timbre perception, musical meanings, and musical communication. They are especially interested in how prior experiences and knowledge shape the listening experience and understanding of music, and how shared understanding as well as divergent interpretations emerge. This interest began with introspection into their own listening processes and thinking about how their own experience and expertise with classical music and the Chinese music traditions contribute to their understanding of music. Being a performer also ignited their desire in understanding how various aspects of a sound can bring about or highlight certain facets of the music and communicate content to a listener.

Heng’s research has dealt with how timbre functions in the communication of affective intentions, and listeners’ continuous perception of affective intentions over the course of a piece of music. They have looked at how listeners with different musical backgrounds respond differently in perceiving musical affect. In addition, they have also worked on analyses of music, focusing predominantly on aural analyses and on the different ways that a performer and a listener interpret music. They are passionate about encouraging an openness to different ways of listening and greatly enjoy talking and writing about Chinese music. While acknowledging that this is but one musical tradition amongst the many around the world, they do hope that this will spark curiosity, and new ways of thinking about and listening to music.

Mengqi WANG obtained her first doctorate degree in musicology in the summer of 2022 at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, with her thesis “A Study on Three Contemporary French-Language Operas”. Currently, she is continuing her doctoral study at the University of Strasbourg under the supervision of Prof. Pierre Michel. Her main research interests include contemporary French-language operas, feminism and music, and cross-cultural studies.

Laci Boldemann, Black Is White, Said the Emperor (1965, in Swedish)

By Ralph P. Locke

We normally think of operas as being either serious or comical. But a number of operas—some familiar, others forgotten—are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams. One of the best such works is Ravel’s 1925 one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (which might be freely translated as “The Boy Who Meets Objects and Creatures that Magically Begin to Speak and Dance”).<1> An engaging Czech opera from 1933 by Otakar Ostrčil is based on a quasi-folktale by Tolstoy, in which the Devil seeks to seduce three brothers into serving his own destructive ends.<2>

Another such tall-tale opera is, like the Ostrčil, less well known than the Ravel, perhaps because it is Swedish, a language that few know. Fortunately, Swedish, unlike Czech, is at least partly familiar-looking to people who know German. Or who have sat through lots of Ingmar Bergman films.

The work is Svart ä vitt—sa Kejsaren (Black Is White, Said the Emperor), a largely comical, sometimes touching or sardonic tale, first performed in 1965, by a composer whose own life story was full of all-too-real drama.<3>

Laci Boldemann (1921-69) was born in Helsinki to a distinguished family that was half-Swedish, half-German. His grandfather Arvid Järnefelt was a well-known Swedish author whose sister Aino was married to the composer Jean (or Jan) Sibelius. Boldemann studied in Germany, then in England and Sweden, but, because of his German father, was conscripted into the Nazi army. He became gravely ill on the eastern front. Later, in Italy, he deserted and was brought to the United States and put in a prison camp. After the end of World War II, he settled in Sweden, where his maternal grandparents lived. He succeeded in having a number of his works performed by major orchestras and opera companies in Germany and Sweden. But he died suddenly from complications after a gallstone surgery in Munich when he was only 48.

Black Is White, Said the Emperor (Svart är vitt, sa kejsaren) is the first of his two full-length operas. The only currently available recording, a fine one, was made at the world-premiere performance, on January 1, 1965, at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. (It can be heard, broken into numerous segments here.) The scenario was drafted by Laci’s wife Karin Katz Boldemann. It was fleshed out into a libretto by Lennart Hellsing, a noted author of children’s books and nonsense literature.

Boldemann’s musical style is very traditional and straightforward, making playful use of various modernistic techniques while maintaining a clear tonal center, somewhat in the manner of “neoclassical” Prokofiev or Stravinsky. In Sweden, Boldemann is still known today for some endearing choral songs. Lovers of solo vocal music may know his fourteen-minute song cycle with orchestra, Four Epitaphs, Op. 10, which uses four poems from Edgar Lee Masters’s famous Spoon River Anthology (a collection of poems about the citizens of a modest small town). The work takes one startlingly modernistic turn in a passage consisting entirely of electronic sounds (described further below).

The eventful plot takes place in an unnamed “Oriental” walled city, apparently somewhere along the Silk Road. (The locale is thus an exoticist stereotype, not any real place on the map.) The storybook quality is already apparent in the list of the various characters, all of whom are “types” rather than individuals (the Boy, the Princess, etc.)—somewhat like the characters in Prokofiev’s jaundiced fairy-tale opera The Love for Three Oranges (1921). Similarly, the nameless Doctor who examines the Boy, while uttering meaningless pseudo-medical chatter, seems like a less menacing version of the crazed and equally nameless physician in Wozzeck (1925). But nobody and nothing in this family-friendly opera stays menacing for long.

The Emperor—bass

The Boy—soprano

The Princess—soprano

The Prince—tenor

The Doctor—tenor

The Fool—baritone

The Runner—tenor

Security Guard—bass

The Printer—tenor

Chorus, dancers, and orchestra

The work consists of numerous short scenes, most of which involve quick exchanges between several characters. There are few extended separable numbers that could help advertise the opera, which is perhaps one reason that it has sunk from view. Still, in Act 1 scene 5, the Boy gets a number of short songs that are quite appealing: often diatonic or folkish-modal and built of easily grasped foursquare phrases. There is also an immensely appealing tune from Act 1 scene 7 that recurs several times and that sounds like something out of a Franz Lehár operetta (such as the oft-performed Die lustige Witwe [The Merry Widow], 1905).

The Princess first sings the tune, her words referring to the handsome Prince who, riding by her window on a white horse, stole her heart. When the Prince and Princess try to sing it together, the hot-headed emperor cuts them short. (The lovers will get to sing the whole tune at the end of the opera, then walk off slowly into a happy future.)

The duet-interruption is typical: the opera is marked by much purposeful discontinuity (a typical feature of modernism), and the discontinuity is sometimes emphasized by an unexpected shift to a new harmonic area. The net result of all these tuneful moments and sudden dislocations is refreshing to the ear. At various points, the music briefly sounds pseudo-Asian (or maybe pseudo-Middle Eastern), then quickly veers back, which in itself amounts to another element of purposeful, perhaps slightly “alienating” discontinuity.

Three ensembles are particularly effective. The quintet near the end of Act 1 seems inspired, to good effect, by the Te Deum finale of Act 1 of Puccini’s Tosca (1900). A rhythmically intriguing trio in Act 2 scene 7 is sung largely in unison—sometimes unaccompanied, other times with alert orchestral punctuation. And a trio toward the end, during which the Runner and the Fool prepare to eject the Boy from the city, has the quality of a distorted, possibly sardonic, Viennese waltz. Many sections of the score are quasi-developmental. In some of these, an orchestral instrument or section of the orchestra expands on a phrase that a character has just sung or gives it a new twist. At times, such as early in Act 2, scene 1 (involving, as in the later trio, the Runner, the Fool, and the Boy), the vocal parts are highly naturalistic in nature, while a chamber ensemble from within the orchestra keeps up a busy discussion of its own, ratcheting up the tension. Yet, by the end of that same scene, the focus is entirely on those same three characters, echoing each other’s words mechanically, as if they were so many puppets. Perhaps Ostrčil was here inspired by the stiff, angular, pointedly inorganic motions (and music) of the three puppets in Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet (1911).

Typical for Sweden in the 1960s, there is a “modern technology” element: the brief appearance of electronic sounds near the end of the opera, when an auspicious star is seen in the sky. (Click here and forward to 2’35”—where orchestra yields to electronic tape.) The implication is that the emperor has seen the astonishing (and here noisy) Star announcing Jesus’s birth. He removes his crown, places it on the Boy’s head, and marches off in the direction of the Star, thus apparently becoming one of the famous Three Kings who, bearing gifts, visit the Christ child.

Electronically derived sounds, a high-modern resource, had been used six years earlier in a Swedish opera whose recording was widely reviewed at the time: Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s outer-space fantasy Aniara. Perhaps the brief but rather crude electronic track in Black Is White, Said the Emperor (which the composer did not create; the realization in the recorded performance is credited to Karl-Otto Valentin) could be replaced by something more sophisticated, in order to prevent the work from being forever anchored to the era of Sputnik and the Univac computer. Nevertheless, Boldemann’s creative output, generally, is worthy of more study and attention than it has received thus far.


The above article is freely adapted from a review (of the recording’s CD re-release) that I first published in American Record Guide,, and versions contain an assessment of the recorded performance as well. The present version appears by kind permission of American Record Guide.


<1> Ravel’s two one-act operas, both fantastical (and modernistic) in their separate ways, are explored in Emily Kilpatrick, The Operas of Maurice Ravel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

<2> I describe Ostrčil’s Honzovo království (Jack’s Kingdom; 1933), and its only recording, here.

<3> Biographical information about Boldemann and his family can be found at and, as well as in the booklet essay, by his son Marcus Boldemann, in the recording of the opera under discussion, Sterling 2 CDs, CDO 1111/1112-2. The recording is also available as a digital download (though without a digital booklet) and on Spotify and other streaming services.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). He reviews recordings and books for Notes (the journal of the Music Library Association), the Boston Musical Intelligencer, the Boston arts blog The Arts Fuse, and for other periodicals.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), Sweet Psalmist of Israel (Neʻim zmirot Yisraʼel): Three Symphonic Fragments for Orchestra, for harpsichord, harp, and orchestra (1953), published by the Israel Music Institute

By Ralph P. Locke

Composers in many lands in the twentieth century have tried to combine various modernist techniques with elements derived from the folk traditions and religious practices of their own land or ethnic group. The aim varied, of course. In the Soviet Union, composers were urged, or even required, to demonstrate their closeness to “the people” in this way.<1> In other lands, many composers—such as Heitor Villa-Lobos in Brazil, Manuel de Falla in Spain, and Béla Bartók in Hungary—came to the realization that using musical materials of their native gave their music a distinctive profile that helped distinguish it from the efforts of composers from countries often considered more “central” (such as France).
Jewish composers living in British-Mandate Palestine and, after 1948, in the State of Israel faced a somewhat similar situation. Many of them came from Central or Eastern Europe (e.g., Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and the Slavic-speaking lands) and had grown up speaking German or Yiddish. (The latter is a dialect of German that, over the centuries, had been further enriched by words from Hebrew, Russian, and other languages.) They were now keenly aware of living in a new and very different region, one where their distant ancestors had spoken Hebrew or Aramaic (languages that were related to Arabic). They were also in contact with Arab-speaking neighbors and could easily hear Arab and Turkish music on the radio.

Eager to create a musical voice for the young Zionist homeland, these “Jewish-Palestinian” composers applied to their new homeland the typically European conception of “folk-song nationalism” (such as had been practiced with great success by the Russian Five, plus the aforementioned Falla and Bartók). The result was something that several composers and their supporters (e.g., Alexander Boscovich and the writer Max Brod) dubbed the “Mediterranean style.”<2> The style took inspiration from musical traditions of Palestinian Arabs and of so-called mizrahi (“Eastern”) Jews, especially Yemenite Jews—whom many European-Jewish settlers regarded as inherently closer than they to ancient Biblical traditions—and Sephardic ones (from such lands as Turkey, Greece, and Morocco). The “Mediterranean style” also incorporated features that Israelis regularly heard in radio broadcasts that reached them from other Mediterranean lands, including such places as Greece and Italy.

The most prominent exponent of this distinctively Israeli “Mediterranean style” was Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), who had been born in Munich and had received his training largely in Munich; he had gained prominence as a pianist and opera conductor in Munich and Augsburg, but grew concerned for his future after the Nazi Party’s accession to power in 1933. That same year, Ben-Haim emigrated to Palestine.<3> Determined to achieve what he called “a new original Palestinian creation” through familiarity with “oriental [i.e., Middle Eastern] folklore,” he spent some ten years as accompanist and arranger to the remarkable Yemenite-Jewish singer Bracha Zephira.<4>

In 1959, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic released a recording of Ben-Haim’s compact, accessible Sweet Psalmist of Israel: Three Symphonic Fragments for Orchestra, a work based on selected Biblical verses about King David. This gained the work, and Ben-Haim, major international exposure in a way that he would not achieve again until a spate of CDs began to come out decades later, featuring such substantial works as the Clarinet Quintet. The full score of Sweet Psalmist was published by Israeli Music Publications in 1958 and is now available through the Israel Music Institute. You can find the recording on Spotify (see links in the next sentence).

The three movements are marked: “David before Saul” (Largo); “Invocation” (Molto calmato e con divozione profunda); and, lengthiest of the three, “A Song of Degrees” (broken into two tracks on Spotify: Con moto solenne followed by vivo—pesante—molto allargando—animando). The harpsichord has prominent solo passages in the outer movements; the harp, in the second (clearly alluding to David singing psalms to the Lord while strumming his own accompaniment). The program published in the score suggests that, in the third movement, David and the people of Israel sing hymns of praise, and perhaps dance as well, as they enter the Holy Temple.

That longish final movement takes the form of a theme and free variations. The procession begins at a “solemn” tempo, with a modal melody in C that briefly slips sideways (much as happens when a pianist shifts his or her hands an inch to the left or right), in the manner of Russian composer Prokofiev (1891-1953), but then finds its way back. The melody is presented over a tonic drone in a typically Eastern Mediterranean aksak rhythm, one that divides the eight pulses in a measure into 3 + 3 + 2.
Halfway through the movement, a contrasting episode suddenly changes the mood to one of unbridled joy and vitality. The entire string section of the orchestra starts playing in the manner of a traditional-music ensemble from Istanbul or Cairo, including long passages in heterophony (that is: a single melody is played by many instruments but with slight differences between them). The oboe—as if it were a zurna—sometimes offers brief two-measure replies, sometimes simultaneous commentary.

Ben-Haim’s good friend and publisher Peter Gradenwitz had originally proposed that the composer devote one section of the piece to portraying the famous biblical incident of David dancing (ecstatically and somewhat immodestly) before the Ark of the Covenant.<5> Though the published program note does not mention the dancing-David incident, the brilliantly colored music in this quick section of the final movement seems to have it in mind. Its style associates the young king with the festive rejoicing of 1950s-era Arabs and/or “Oriental” Jews. East and West then merge musically when, in mm. 202-5, Ben-Haim adds Western triadic harmonies to the quick-twisting theme, turning David—though, again, the published program-note gives no hint of this—into a hora-dancing kibbutznik.

The whole work is a nice reminder that musical modernism—including stylistic experiment resulting in a certain cut-and-paste quality—can at times coexist with elements that are more familiar or “popular” in style—elements that help the work remain accessible to a broad, non-specialist public.
More recent Israeli composers tend to avoid the Mediterranean style, apparently thinking of it as a compromise that helped to define the culture of (pre-statehood) Jewish Palestine some eighty years ago but is no longer needed. These composers often incorporate the latest developments and techniques from other composers in Europe, America, or elsewhere. And the reverse: some Israeli-born and -trained composers—such as Shulamit Ran and Chaya Czernowin—now live elsewhere and have helped shape a generation or two of non-Israeli composers.

But the works of Ben-Haim, Ödön Partos, Alexander Uriah Boscovich, and others who were active in the 1930s-50s continue to have a broad appeal and will be welcomed by general audiences in ways that some more consistently modernistic music may not. Leonard Bernstein’s aforementioned recording (featuring harpist Christine Stavrache and harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe) was later re-released on compact disc (Sony 47533; also 48178). Two other important pieces by Ben-Haim that have had a long life are his Symphony No. 1 (recent recordings conducted by Omer Meir Welber and Lahav Shani) and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, recorded at least four times, by such notable performers as Klaus Hampl and the Quartetto di Roma.


  1. Locke, Musical Exoticism, 250-51, 282-83. The present article is based freely on the author’s discussion of Paul Ben-Haim in that book (283-84).
  2. On the origins of the term “Mediterranean style” in Jewish Palestine, see the unpublished article by Ronit Seter, “The Israeli Mediterranean Style: Origins, 1930s-1950s”:
  3. His name, until his emigration, was Paul Frankenburger. Like many Jews who settled in British Palestine or (later) Israel, he changed his name to a Hebrew one, whether for ideological or practical reasons.
  4. Ben-Haim, autobiographical sketch, 1945, transcribed in Seter, Yuvalim, 166, also 116 and 176.
  5. Letter from Gradenwitz to Ben-Haim, 22 October 1952 (referring to 2 Samuel 6:14-23), cited in Seter, Yuvalim, 212-48.


Hirshberg, Jehoash. Paul Ben-Haim: His Life and Works. Tel-Aviv: Israel Music Institute, 2010.

Locke, Ralph P. Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. The present article is an expanded version of material in pp. 283-84.

Seter, Ronit. “Yuvalim be’Israel: Identity, Ideology and Idioms in Jewish-Israeli Art Music 1940-2000.” Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 2004.

Ralph P. Locke is Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and a Research Affiliate at the University of Maryland/College Park. His writings on music and musical life since 1900 include Musical Exoticism (see Bibliography) and the co-edited volume Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860 (University of California Press, now available Open Access). Further writings are listed on his webpage.

Hindustani Rhythm and Dinuk Wijeratne’s “Poetry of Squares”

By Eshantha Peiris

Dinuk Wijeratne (b. 1978) is a Canadian composer of South Asian birth and ancestry. While his compositional vocabulary draws upon a wide range of musical concepts and genres, he claims a special affinity with the language of tabla drumming. As he notes,

“I always say, perhaps only in half-jest, that in my next life I will be a Tabla player. Though I am a South-Asian with an exclusively Western Classical musical training, I grew up with the sounds of Indian Classical music in my ear. […] I was drawn instantly to its unique rhythmic language. Over the years, as I delved deeper, I was awed by the great rhythm virtuosi of the North Indian tradition and developed an obsession for the music associated with the king of Indian percussion instruments: the Tabla.” <1>

Figure 1: Tabla Drums. Photo by Rounik Ghosh, courtesy of

Wijeratne’s compositional output includes several pieces that draw inspiration from North Indian (Hindustani) classical music. These include “Colour Study in Rupaktaal” (2007)—a piece for solo piano inspired by tabla performances in which one musical line accelerates incrementally away from a melodic ostinato, a “Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra” (2014), and the solo piano piece “Poetry of Squares” (2011). In these pieces, Wijeratne’s primary compositional inspiration comes from Hindustani techniques of rhythm (tāla) rather than Hindustani techniques of melody (rāga); as such, they do not immediately evoke “Indian music” on the surface. This contrasts with mainstream western musics that evoke “Indianness” through the use of Indian instruments and techniques of melodic ornamentation (e.g., George Harrison’s use of undulating notes on the sitar in the Beatles’s 1965 song “Norwegian Wood) but has more in common with other western classical and jazz music that draws inspiration from the Indian structural rhythms—for example by composers such as Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) and Vijay Iyer (b. 1971). <2>

In this article, I draw attention to some of the techniques of Hindustani music evident in Wijeratne’s piano piece “Poetry of Squares,” showing how they are typically used in the source musical tradition and how the composer employs them in this piece. The score of “Poetry of Squares” is available at the composer’s website.

Hindustani Music

The music that we know today as “Hindustani classical music” has recognizable roots in the music performed in the feudal palaces of North India during British colonial occupation (1757–1947).<3> With the decline of feudal patronage of music, the advent of recording technology, and the democratization of Indian society in the early twentieth century, many court musicians had to adjust from a secluded, elite lifestyle dedicated to music to one that met the entertainment expectations of a concert-attending general public. With these changes in performance context, amplified performances of shorter duration featuring broader musical variety, more innovation, and virtuosity became the norm, although the music retained a balance between fixed and improvised elements. <4>

In the 1940s, musicians such as Alla Rakha Khan strove to elevate the status of the tabla drums from an accompanying instrument to a solo instrument and expanded the rhythmic techniques of tabla playing to unprecedented levels of complexity. A global demand for Indian music in the 1960s—driven by a western appetite for an exoticized Orient—spurred further changes to the Hindustani music, with the emphasis shifting from sung devotional content to purely instrumental music. The expanding market for “world music” in the 1980s coincided with an increase in self-consciously hybrid musical projects, which lead to further transformations in the performance styles of North Indian instruments. <5>

Hindustani Tāla

Despite these recent influences that account for the current surface appearance of Hindustani music, today’s Hindustani rhythm structures are arguably related to the clapping patterns described in ancient and medieval Sanskrit treatises.<6> The ordering of syllable-based pulses into larger patterns of claps is the basis of tāla, the system of rhythm cycles that provides the framework for both composition and improvisation in Hindustani music (and the related dance genre Kathak).<7> One such cyclic (i.e., repeating) rhythm framework is known as Jhaptāl (shown in Figure 2, and demonstrated on this website).

Figure 2: Characteristic Rhythm Pattern of Jhaptāl. The lower staff line represents the lower of the two tabla drums.

Hindustani tāla cycles are typically defined by a clapping pattern along with a characteristic pattern of drum syllables. <8> As shown in the Figure 1, the clapping pattern for Jhaptāl is “Clap-Clap-Wave-Clap,” where the “wave” is understood to represent an unstressed main beat. The drum syllables (bols) represent the timbres of different strokes on the tabla drums. The bol pattern for Jhaptāl is “Dhi-Na-Dhi-Dhi-Na-Ti-Na-Dhi-Dhi-Na,” where “Dhi” represents a bass stroke, and “Ti” represents a treble stroke. Seen this way, the defining bol pattern of a Hindustani tāla (i.e., cyclic rhythm framework) can be seen as a characteristic pattern of stressed and unstressed pulses, possibly reflecting the Persian influence in Hindustani music. Seen in conjunction with the clapping pattern “Clap-Clap-Wave-Clap,” it is apparent that the higher-pitched drum stroke coincides with the unstressed wave; this lightness of sound is acknowledged with the conceptual label khāli. This contrasts with the first half of the cycle, which begins with a bass/stressed stroke coinciding with a clap and is considered heavier (bhāri) that the second half of the cycle.

Of course, Figure 2 only shows an ideal-type skeletal rhythmic pattern (thēkā) associated with the tāla; in practice, tabla players usually elaborate the basic pattern using patterns known as prākār, while maintaining the heavy-light (bhāri-khāli) stress structure of the rhythm cycle.

Here’s a video of a solo tabla performance in Jhaptāl, performed by Alla Rakha Khan:

Wijeratne’s piano piece “Poetry of Squares” is based on Jhaptāl, and it maintains the heavy-light (bhāri-khāli) structure of the rhythm cycle throughout, with the sixth quarter-note of the cycle remaining unstressed, and the second half of the cycle having fewer accents (shown below in Figure 3).

Figure 3: The bhāri-khāli structure of Jhaptāl at the start of “Poetry of Squares.”

Kaida Form

        “Poetry of Squares” is inspired by the form of a Hindustani piece-type known as kaida, which is usually performed on tabla.<9>As tabla player Ed Hanley notes“When a rhythmic ‘theme’ is constructed and variations (palta) are improvised based on a system of rules (including techniques such as repetition, permutation, and substitution) this is known as kaida.”<10> A performance of kaida typically begin with a phrase that is played a few times in succession at progressively faster speeds within the same tempo. In other words, the same phrase is superimposed over the rhythm framework in consecutively faster proportions that correspond perfectly with the length of the cycle. This technique is illustrated at the start of “Poetry of Squares.” The first phrase, subdivided in eighth notes and played twice, fits over twenty beats (i.e., two cycles of Jhaptāl). The phrase is then played using a triplet subdivision; this needs to be played three times to fit over the twenty beats. Then the phrase is played using a sixteenth note subdivision (i.e., twice as first as the beginning), and needs to be played four times to fit over the twenty beats. (Figure 4 shows the main phrase in boxes.)   

Figure 4: The opening phrase of “Poetry of Squares” played at progressively faster speeds within the same tempo.

The piece continues using a sixteenth note subdivision until the end; the composer develops the piece by systematically varying placements of the accents and incrementally changing the notes (and thus the resultant harmony) from cycle to cycle. <11>

Cadential Rhythm Patterns

In addition to cyclic rhythm patterns, Hindustani music also features cadential rhythm patterns. Kaidas typically end with the cadential formula known as tihai. Tihai is a short rhythmic phrase that is designed to end on the first beat (sam) of a cycle when played three times consecutively. “Poetry of Squares” concludes with the same formula. <12> Figure 5 highlights the repeated phrase in three different colors, showing how the same phrase is played three times (superimposed against the counts of the ten-count metric framework) and how the last note of the third phrase ends on the downbeat.

Figure 5: A tihai at the end of “Poetry of Squares.”

By drawing on techniques of rhythm associated with Hindustani music and using them as the basis of a piece reminiscent of a Western Classical concert etude, Dinuk Wijeratne fashions a musical language that can sound both familiar and unfamiliar. Although the melodic content of “Poetry of Squares” may not necessarily evoke “Indian music” on the surface, by explicitly identifying the source of his rhythmic inspiration, the composer also makes a statement about the value of the many musical heritages of the world that are often underappreciated by aficionados of Western Art Music.

Listen to the whole piece here, performed by the author of this article:


<1> Wijeratne, Dinuk. Program note for “Colour Study in Rupaktaal.” 2007.

<2> Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony” draws on rhythm patterns listed in thirteenth century Sanksrit treatise Saṅgīta-ratnākara, while Iyer’s compositions draw on techniques of rhythm development from South Indian Karnatak classical music.

<3> A fictional depiction of music performed in North Indian feudal palaces appears in Satyajit Ray’s film “Jalsaghar”

<4> Ruckert, George. Music in North India. 2004.

<5> Nuttall, Denise. “Tracking the Intercultural Borders, Fusions, Traditions and the Global Art of Tabla.” 2011.

<6> Kippen, James. “Hindustani Tala.” 1998.

<7> For a comprehensive discussion of tāla, see Clayton, Martin. Time in Indian Music. 2008.

<8> The term tāla can refer to the system of rhythm as a whole, or to a specific metric cycle.

<9> Kippen, James. “Mapping a Rhythmic Revolution through Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Sources on Rhythm and Drumming in North India.” 2019.

<10> Hanley, Ed. “What Is a Kaida?” 2009. More detail on the structure of kaida can be found on the following websiteby David Courtney:

<11> This technique of incrementally changing notes from cycle iteration to cycle iteration is reminiscent of processes of gradual transformation employed by American minimalist composers (such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass) starting in the 1960s.

<12> Wijeratne’s fascination with tihais is evident in his own blog post exploring the concept:


Clayton, Martin. Time in Indian Music: Rhythm, Metre, and Form in North Indian Rāg Performance. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008.

Kippen, James. “Hindustani Tala.” In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Vol. 5: South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold, 110-137. New York: Routledge. 1998.

Kippen, James. Gurudev’s Drumming Legacy: Music, Theory, and Nationalism in the Mr̥daṅg Aur Tablā Vādanpaddhati of Gurudev Patwardhan. School of Oriental and African Studies Musicology Series. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. 2016.

Kippen, James. Mapping a Rhythmic Revolution Through Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Sources on Rhythm and Drumming in North India.” In Thought and Play in Musical Rhythm, edited by Richard Wolf, Stephen Blum, and Christopher Hasty, 253-72. New York: Oxford University Press. 2019.

Nuttall, Denise. “Tracking the Intercultural Borders, Fusions, Traditions and the Global Art of Tabla.” Journal of the Indian Musicological Society. 2011.

Ruckert, George E. Music in North India: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Eshantha Peiris (he/him) is a lecturer at Vancouver Community College (Canada) and the University of Peradeniya (Sri Lanka). His writings have been published in the journals Analytical Approaches to World Music and Studia Instrumentorum Musicae Popularis.