by Robert Garfias, Professor of Music
University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
While many of the elements found in the music and dance traditions of Burma find earlier counterparts in ancient India, Burmese music and dance styles also show clear parallels to traditions in other parts of South East Asia. Ancient India fostered and developed a concept of music based on a combination of several different types of instruments played together in an ensemble. While India chose to develop its music with an emphasis on the soloist (vocal and instrumental) accompanied by a drummer, those cultures of South East Asia which had formal contact with ancient India retained the ensemble idea. Within this large ensemble context each area of culture developed its own style and form, adapting the music and dance to local tastes and incorporating increasingly large numbers of new works and forms which further delineated the national style.
Burmese music and dance can thus be thought of as a distinctly Burmese development which arose out of the South East Asian setting of an ancient Indian culture. Compared with the musical style of neighboring cultures, Burmese music and dance are lively yet graceful, frequently relying on sudden contrasts and touches of whimsey. Burmese dance, like its counterparts in other Asian cultures, is depicted as a stylization of the motions and postures of everyday life. These movements are strung together in slowly executed turns interspersed with rapid movements and leaps. The head, arms, and upper torso are employed more consistently than the lower limbs except in those styles which incorporate the kicking away of dancer’s train or the execution of leaps.
The music of the Burmese hsaing ensemble moves in a manner which closely parallels that of dance. Music and dance interact in an equal partnership. The orchestra frequently introduces a theme with the expectation that the audience will recognize the melody and then begins modifying it with its own unique contrasts and variants. Much of the repertoire is drawn either from folk forms or from the vast body of classical songs of the Burmese court. Many of the folk songs, court songs, and much of the special theatre music have, for Burmese audiences, come to be associated with specific contexts because of their regular usage at festivals and celebrations as well as at certain specific moments in Burmese drama. If for example the hsaing ensemble begins to play the myin gin, a special composition used in the days of the court to make the horses dance, everyone knows that the action on the stage portrays something about horses, whether it be a group of noblemen on horseback or someone riding a hobbyhorse. There are special pieces played when the action takes place in the dark or when someone is moving stealthily on the stage, and other selections when there is a chase. There is even special music for combat with specific phrases for the use of swords or the bow and arrow. The noble rhythm of the byo indicates a joyous occasion or a Buddhist festival or it may signal the end of a performance. The use of the ye gin or the sido gyi indicates a setting in the royal court. The lively ozi and dophat rhythms conjure up a village festival.