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5.2: Ostinato Based Form

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    Sometimes entire pieces of music are based upon the repetition of one ostinato. This is the case in several traditional African genres such as Gnawa music of North Africa. Gnawa music contains repetitive chanting that accompanies religious trance and can be performed for hours. This same repetitive ostinato is heard in religious chanting of mantras in many religious traditions. In India, Kirtan is a form of chant and prayer utilized by Hindis, Sikhs, and some Buddhists. In a Kirtan performance call and response form is used over ostinatos to create the form. In Call and Response a musical leader sings or plays a line of music and the chorus (ensemble) of musicians responds in unison. In Kirtan and in Griot traditions of West Africa the leader tells historical and religious stories in the call. The variation of the stories satisfies the need for contrast in these traditions. In European traditions ostinato forms were often based on repetitive bass lines (ground bass) and chord progressions (chaconne). Notable among these works is the Baroque Cannon in D by Johann Pachelbel. This piece can often be heard a processional ceremonies like weddings. Melodic variation is often used to create contrast in European works.

    More often it is the case that sections of a larger work utilize ostinatos. In pop music a repeated ostinato is often referred to as a riff. In jazz and Latin music it might be called a vamp. In Indian music it is called a lahara. In African drumming it is simply a rhythm that musicians perform until a master drummer signals the switch to a new section. Minimalism is a Western Art music movement of the late twentieth century in which composers utilized simple repeated patterns to build larger works. Some of the most famous minimalist composers are the Americans Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams. Glass and Reich both acknowledge the influence of ostinato based forms found in Indian and African music.