William Tallotte

junior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2012/2013
discipline Ethnology
Affiliated member of the Centre de Recherche Patrimoines et Langages Musicaux (PLM), Paris-Sorbonne University

Research project

Rāga Performance in South Indian Ritual: A Contextualised Analysis of Musical Improvisation


In the field of Indian music, improvisation has been mostly discussed and analysed in relation to the fundamentals of the melodic and rhythmic systems and according to the way these fundamentals are varied and organised within a structured form. In melodic improvisation, for instance, the characteristics of a musical mode (rāga) –i.e. scale, intonation, ornamentation, pivotal notes, specific formulas– and a set of compositional elements serve as “models”. In that perspective, the musical analysis of an improvised form, through an audio recorded performance and its minute transcription, could amount to identifying and classifying “models” and then drawing out, according to different axes, their possible correlations as well as their relationship to theory –Hindustani or Karnatic. A few authors, however, have begun to expand and partially renegotiate this analytical approach by –for instance– questioning performers or taking into account the audience. Primarily concerned with these approaches and the perspectives they open, our research on improvisation is an attempt to slide from the description of “models” to the analysis of practical and cognitive uses of “models” in the course of performance.

The present project focuses on the analysis of musical improvisation in South Indian ritual art-music –i.e. the music of shawm and drum players of the periya mēam orchestra. It will provide an in-depth study of improvisation in which musical along with religious and social functions of Hindu high castes ritual performance will be addressed.

Beyond local issues, the main objective of the project is to develop innovative tools and methods, both relevant to (ethno)musicology and anthropology, in order to analyse musical improvisation as a performative and creative process –i.e. aesthetically, emotionally and socially significant. It will engage with issues of transmission and performance, including the structures and processes of improvised performance as seen by the performer and the listener. Verbalised musical and extra-musical knowledge will thus complement and highlight musical analysis so as to provide a more holistic approach to the question.

This project would build on and contribute to recent and ongoing research projects in Europe (the UK, France, the Netherland, etc.), centred on improvisation, performance, implicit knowledge, and musical analysis.



William Tallotte is ethnomusicologist with a regional focus on South Asia. His areas of specialisation are religious music, music and ritual, musical analysis, and modal improvisation. He holds a Ph.D. in Musicology/Ethnomusicology from the University of Paris 4-Sorbonne. He is an affiliated member of the Centre de Recherche Patrimoines et Langages Musicaux (PLM), Paris-Sorbonne University, and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Selected publications


‘L’œil du hautbois. Son, espace et images divines dans le culte śivaïte, Inde du Sud’, Gradhiva, no.15, 2012, pp.202-223.


‘Captiver/séduire. Note sur la gestuelle des joueurs de hautbois nāgasvaram’, Transposition, Musique et sciences sociales, no.2, 2012.


‘Music and Performance. Toda Music’, in P. Hockings (ed.), Encyclopædia of the Nilgiri Hills, vol.2, Manohar Books, New Delhi, 2012, pp.618-624.


‘Sans excès. Musique et émotion dans un culte śivaïte du pays tamoul’, Cahiers d’Ethnomusicologie, no.23, 2010, pp.173-194.


‘L’improvisation comme pratique sociale. L’exemple des nâgasvarakkârar, hautboïstes sud-indiens’, Tracés, no.18, 2010, pp.105-120.


CDs (Fieldwork recordings, text, and photographs)


Inde du Sud. Musiques des monts Nilgiri. Kota, Toda, Irula et Kurumba, 2 CD, Ocora Radio France /Musée du quai Branly, C 560250/51, 2012.


Inde du Sud. Les fleurs et les cendres. Hymnes à Shiva, 1 CD, Ocora Radio France, C 560197, 2009.


Inde du Sud. Periya mēam. Temple de Chidambaram, 1 CD, Ocora Radio France, C 560178, 2003.


junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2011/2012
discipline Philosophy
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
discipline Art History