Creating the ‘vāh vāh moments’: strategies for engaging with expert listeners in performances of North Indian classical music

  • Senate House, Room 261 Malet Street London, WC1E United Kingdom

Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh (University of Cambridge)

Expert listeners, or ‘rasikas’, are central to North Indian classical music. They are conspicuous at concerts, where they sit towards the front. They frequently interact with the performers and with each other, gesturing or commenting, often with the words ‘Vāh! Vāh!’, roughly meaning ‘Wow!’, whenever they hear something they like. Expert listeners have also long made up the most powerful segment of North Indian classical audiences: it is they who organise concerts, who write newspaper reviews and who determine which musicians will succeed professionally.

What effects does this community of music connoisseurs, and the interactive performance environment of North Indian classical music, have on the way musicians craft their performances? To what extent can a focus on listeners and listening practices illuminate the moment-to-moment decisions that musicians make as they are improvising? With this talk, I present some of the results of two recent field trips to India in summer 2014 and spring 2015, during which I held a series of interviews and listening sessions with musicians and expert listeners. This research highlights the strategies that musicians employ in order to orient their performances towards expert listeners. I focus on how this affects musicians’ musical decisions. In particular, I argue that an important part of what musicians do in performance is to produce what one listener described to me as the ‘vāh vāh moments’: those magical instants, which are central to the connoisseurship of North Indian classical music, where listeners are so moved by what they are hearing that they feel compelled to respond out loud. I consider the kinds of musical features which contribute to such moments and how musicians use them to gain favour with some of their most important and powerful listeners.

Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh is a Temporary University Lecturer at the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge. Her research is on North Indian classical music, which she studies through a combination of ethnography and music analysis. She received her Ph.D. from SOAS, University of London (2013), for a dissertation on the semi-classical genre ṭhumrī. She is currently working on a project on expert listening and connoisseurship in North Indian classical music.

Part of the CMPS/IMR Performance/Research Series