Burmese classical music is performed in a number of different instrumental ensembles.The Western piano has been an important instrument in Burmese music since the years shortly before World War II. At times it has been re-tuned to match the Burmese tuning system but it is often used, as is, in its Western tempered tuning. The Burmese piano is heard in modern Burmese ensembles which play new popular music based on Burmese traditions. It is also used as a solo instrument and in traditional Burmese musical style in which selections from the classical repertoire, collectively known as the Maha Gita, are performed and used as a basis for improvised variation. During the heyday of silent films in Burma the piano, played in this typical Burmese style, was used almost exclusively.
All Burmese instruments that are capable of producing more than one tone simultaneously, make use of a formal stucture in which the melodic line is supported by a second consonant pitch at appropriate points in the composition. The patterns created by the alternation of the melodic line with consonant tones outline the tonal structure of the Burmese spoken language inherent in the song text. The unadorned two-part structure forms the basis of all classical Burmese compositions, whether performed instrumentally or as accompaniment to the voice. The instrumental part of a performances can consist simply of this basic form, but most often, and particularly in the hands of experienced muscians, it is highly ornamented.
The two main traditional ensembles for Burmese music are the the gong and drum ensemble, the hsaing(138k) and the chamber ensemble, in which the Burmese harp, saung gauk,(163K) and the bambo xylophone, patala are used prominently. Although the harp, in its execution can make use of more than two strings simultaneuously, the clearest manifestation of the underlying two-part structure of Burmese music is heard in those instruments which are limited to two simultaneous tones, such as the two-malleted patala and the the drum circle, patt waing. The the drum circle, patt waing, played by the leader of the hsaing ensemble, is struck with two hands.
Although the piano was a Western importation, Burmese musicians did not adapt the Western technique entirely and instead, devised a playing technique, based on the two-mallet technique of the patala, and the two-hand technique of the patt waing. Probably around the 1930s, virtuoso players of the Burmese harp, such as U Ba Than, established a new highly ornamented style. This new, highly ornamented technique was still clearly based on the traditional two-part structure, but now added rapid runs and complex ornamentations on the playing of the consonant tones. This florid ornamentation style soon came to dominate all Burmese instrumental music, even to the playing of the drum circle, Patt Waing, and consequently the entire style of the gong and drum ensemble, the hsaingand the piano. Although the piano technique maintained as its basis, the two-part structure of the the patala and patt waing, it could easily take advantage of the new ornamentation style of the harp. This harp-derived ornamentation style came to dominate the playing style for all Burmese music, chamber music and hsaing ensemble, to such a degree that it now seems independent of its origins on the harp.
The skeletal framework underlying all classical compositions provides the basic structure over which the Burmese musician improvises and embroiders the often virtuosic ornamentation which characterizes the music. Even highly ornamented passages however, maintain the basic two-part structure of Burmese music and use it as a base while at the same time embellishing upon it.
The performance style of the eminent Burmese musician, U Ko Ko, is characteristic of Burmese piano style. Burmese piano playing is generally characterized by prominent use of virtuosity. While the rapid keyboard runs may show similarities to various forms of pianistic virtuosity in Western music, Burmese piano remains driven primarily by the ornamentation style of the Burmese harp and the underlying two-part structure of all Burmese Music. For example, the skeletal structure of supporting consonant tones and combinations serves as the under-pinning of the performance and alternates with single-line melodic runs which are divided between both hands.
The set of some 13 performance transcriptions which U Ko Ko played and which were recorded by means of the computer MIDI interface provide a good basis for understanding the technique of Burmese piano and by extension, Burmese music in general. The possiblity of obtaining from a single performance both a notated transcription as well as an audio version which retains the performance characteristics of the original is a valuable tool for understanding the structure of this music.
The Burmese performance style alternates sections in free rhythm, frequently highly ornamented and played with great virtuosic flair, and sections in fixed but still flexible rhythm. This fixed style is the formal composed section of the piece and even while the performer may embellish on the basic two-part structure with great verve and imagination, the two-part character of the original composition must remain evident. This is exemplified in U Ko Ko's performance of the song type, "Dein Than"in the athan Myinzaing.
In his performances, U Ko Ko tends to use more virtuosic flair during the opening, free-rhythm improvised sections of the piece, returning to the simpler style in fixed rhythm upon entering the main composition. His introduction to the patt pyou song in the athan, Leibauk Aukpyan, illustrates his full use of the keyboard in this free style.
In the fixed meter manner of playing, dramatic changes of tempo can also sometimes be used. This is particularly characteristic of the playing of the hsaing ensemble. In his performed example of the composition, Pachain Lei, U Ko Ko uses a flowing and steady tempo with little ornamentation. This would be appropriate to a small chamber ensemble, or for accompaniment to the human voice. This same fixed meter style can lend itself to free interpretation and can be highly ornamented. In the performance in the athan, Myin Zaing, we can see the more ornamentated manner of playing in fixed-but-flexible rhythm. Woven into performances in the fixed-rhythm section are numerous melodic figures originally associated with the playing of the harp but which have now been incorporated into the general style of Burmese music.
In his piano style, U Ko Ko's foundation is the basic Burmese playing style. His playing is enriched and informed by his complete knowledge and deep familiarity with the entire classical repertoire of hundreds of compositions. He uses all of this vast knowledge as a rich background to his solo performance technique. U Ko Ko is known today in Myanmar primarily as a composer of modern film music. He is at the same time, however, one of the leading exponents of the Burmese piano style. His style ranges from traditional and orthodox performances, exemplified here in his playing of "Pachain Le," to a freer, more personal style as in Myin Zaing, noted previousaly. For a somewhat older and more straightforward example of Burmese piano playing, please refer to the Ethnic Folkways LP, Burmese Folk and Traditional Music, P-436, Side B, band 9, which contains a solo played by the Late U Than Myint, former director of music for the Burmese Broadcast Service.
Virtuosity is something which has already become an important element in Burmese music. U Ko Ko perhaps takes this even a bit further than other Burmese pianists. Whether on harp, hsaing, or piano, virtuosity has increasingly defined the performance of Burmese music since the late 1930s. Incredibly fast tempi and brilliant, precise sweeping runs show off the technique and individuality of each performer. Emphasis on showmanship and competitiveness are an expected aspect of the current Burmese musical scene. U Ko Ko wiht his combined knowledge of the older tradition and his strong background as a popular song and film composer have allowed his performances to leap to the farthest limits of the Burmese style without becoming colored by Western technique or style.
It is difficult to see where the future of Burmese piano may lie. The traditional harp as well as the hsaing ensemble still live on in great strength in Myamar today. Young musicians are increasingly inclined to form guitar-based Rock bands. U Ko Ko often fronts an electronic ensemble for public performances in Yangun (Rangoon). The piano continues to find a place in Burmese music and because of the unique style of Burmese music, it manages to retain, even in settings of modern compositions, many elements of traditional Burmese music.
Modern audiences most frequently hear performances of modern electric ensembles and as a consequence, fewer performances of traditional Burmese music and theater. In traditional theater, music often enriches stage action by association. There are particular melodic themes, styles of playing, and even particular songs which are associated with certain stage actions, such as love scenes, the appearance of villans, scenes with horses, acts commited in stealth, chase and battle scenes. The language of musical associations is very rich and was a important factor in the manner in which the piano was adopted for the playing of Burmese music for the silent films. Pianists were expected to "explain" and highlight the actions on the screen with the appropriate traditional Burmese music.
As familairity with traditional theater declines there will also be a loss of familiarity with this complex associative language of music in theater and eventually it must, as a result, gradually wane. The use of Burmese music survived and even thrived through the days of silent films. Today, the impact of the West is much stronger and Burmese audiences may find that they have less need for dramatic forms, theater or film, in which the forces of good and evil are so clearly arranged against each other. Without these forms of drama there may soon be little need for such a vast repertoire of themes which function to enhance and delineate each mood and action.
The two part structure of Burmese music functions to emphasize and support the tonal and accent patterns of the spoken language and because of this it may continue to thrive. The repertoire, so strongly associated with an older cultural tradition. may not last so long. The electric bands and the new repertoire continue to grow in popularity. The piano, now often electrified as well continues to be used. In whatever direction Burmese piano may go, however, it is certain that U Ko Ko will long be considered one of its most important interpreters and stylists.
Robert Garfias, UCI
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last updated 5 November 1995