Qanun [kanun, k’anon, kanonaki]. Plucked Box ZITHER or psaltery of the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia; it is trapeziform in shape, one of the sides being rectangular. It is a classical instrument of the Arab world and Turkey (kanun); although the qanun is known in both oral and written traditions, it is little mentioned in theoretical writings earlier than the 19th century. An anonymous Persian treatise (Kanz al-tuhaf) is one of the few in which it is described but the description bears little resemblance to present-day models. The instrument’s dispersal in the Arab world does not seem to go back beyond the 19th century. It was introduced in Algeria in 1835, in Morocco by 1916 and in Iran at the beginning of the 20th century. Turkish writers agree that the qanun in its present form was introduced into their country during the reign of Mahmud II (1785-1839) by a Syrian immigrant, Umer Effendi, from Cairo. It would thus seem that the instrument was diffused from the area of Egypt and Syria. Although it was known in Iraq, it was less popular there and was supplanted by the santur.
It is difficult to follow the evolution of the qanun; probably it had gradually faded from use and was then revived and spread from Syria and Egypt, through Istanbul. The interactions are such that the Arab qanun and the Turkish kanun cannot be considered separately. The word qanun for a musical instrument has no place in classical Arab lexicography. Etymologically, it derives from the Greek kanon (‘law’, ‘rule’).
The more recent history of the qanun resumes at the time of the technical revolution that reached Istanbul in 1876. There is a gulf between the old qanun and the new, the earliest examples of which were made by the Istanbul instrument maker Mahmut Usta. The older type did not immediately disappear, however; the Arab Music Congress at Cairo in 1932 noted the existence of two types, the newer marked by the use of small brass levers on the (player’s) left of the case close to the pegbox.
These are called ‘orab (‘carriage’) in Arabic and mandal (‘that which supports’) in Turkish; they may be between 14 and 24 mm in height depending on their positioning; there are two to five for every three strings on the Arab qanun, and five to nine, even thirteen on those from Turkey (Armenian models never have more than two). Intervals can be minutely adjusted by rotating the levers, which control the tension of the strings; this permits a full range of keys. The introduction of the levers, with their characteristic noise when raised or lowered, encouraged the construction of larger instruments.
On the older model, each string passes through a groove in a ridge placed at an oblique angle on the left-hand side of the instrument before being attached to pegs; the tension controls the tuning. The introduction of levers in the modern type enabled the strings to travel in the same grooves at a less acute angle, indeed almost straight. The strings are thus supported by the placing of the levers. The grooves are small slits, the same width and number as the strings. A less obvious innovation in the Turkish models was the modification of the bridge. In earlier examples, the bridge rested directly on the resonator. On the modern Arab qanun manufactured in Egypt, it is supported at a height of about 5 cm by five feet placed at intervals across the width of the instrument; the Turkish kanun has only four feet.
The characteristics of the ‘ud have been described many times since the 10th century. The vocabulary surrounding the qanun, however, is relatively recent; it has come through Egypt and its terminology often relates to that of the ‘ud and in Turkey to that of the baglama. The instrument consists of a flat box, 3 to 6 cm (or even 10 cm) thick, made of walnut or maple wood (formerly mahogany or plum).
The Turkish kanun is made of walnut, plane, pine or ebony. The longer side varies in length between 75 and 100 cm (some models are as large as 120 cm); in the past, before the invention of levers, a length of 60 cm was known for the Turkish instrument.
The short side is between 25 and 45 cm and the width ranges from 32 to 44 cm. The perpendicular section is always on the player’s right. About one-fifth of the surface consists of a narrow section covered in skin (formerly fish skin, now sheep skin or more often an artificial fabric) which runs the length of the instrument. On the left, the soundboard has a number of round soundholes. In order to the left follow the levers, nut, pins and peg box, which is affixed to the sound box. The number of strings – once of gut, now of nylon – has always varied. Although courses are generally of three strings, some instruments have a single string at the bottom and then paired strings. During the 19th century the strings numbered 66 to 75. Nowadays the figure has stabilized at about 78 strings for the Egyptian type of qanun and 72 to 75 for the Turkish (although in the 19th century, 81 was the rule in Istanbul). For playing, the instrument is rested on the player’s knees or on a table.
The strings are plucked by ring-shaped plectra placed on the index fingers. Arab performers play in octaves or double octaves. The right hand is notated in the treble clef and the left in the bass, as for the piano; in Turkey, however, the treble clef is exclusively used.
There is a minute delay in attack between the two hands in playing unison passages, the elaboration of ornamental passages leading to a sense of space. The range of the qanun varies between three and four octaves, those with the larger compass being the most recent models, especially those in Egypt. There are two different methods of tuning: one, the method of the late 19th century, followed in Turkey, proceeds by descending 4ths and rising octaves; the second, described in Syria, starts with the highest string and descends gradually, depending much on the player’s auditory keenness. The method of adjusting the intervals is a matter of dispute among Arab musicians, but nowadays Western tempered tuning is more or less general.
The technique and playing style of the qanun seem to be the product of continuous evolution over a long period. In the classical epoch, the term is first mentioned in the story of A Thousand and One Nights, under the title qanun or qanun misri. Contemporary iconography confirms that the instrument was almost certainly held vertically. An example of a Byzantine fresco from the 16th century shows a trapezoidal instrument with a right angle; the diagonal was held against the player’s chest while the crook of the left arm supported the lower right-hand corner of the box. The right hand, it seems, was thus free to produce a continuum of sound (an effect still preserved on the Indian surmandal). When the vertical position gave way to a horizontal one, the technique was certainly more varied. In any event, two determining factors of the qanun – a trapezium with a right angle and a horizontal position – are recent. Before the invention of the levers, the left hand could move the entire length of the string, in the style of the Japanese koto.
This technique did not allow for any great virtuosity and precluded anything but monodic playing. With the freeing of the left hand from this constraint at the end of the 19th century, players of the instrument became more flexible; the new virtuosity led to many of them becoming professional. The consequent temptation to apply new ideas of harmony or polyphony has been great, and the instrument readily adapts to this.
These developments can be seen in the qanun concerto by the Turkish composer Ferid Alnar and in the three “Suites folkloriques libanaises” for solo qanun by Toufic Succar. Concern for the renewal of tradition has brought several players of the instrument into prominence, including the Egyptian Sulayman Gamil and the Tunisian Hassan al-Gharbi. Among all the Arab instruments, the qanun is the best suited to modernization. Nevertheless, those who passed on the older tradition should not be overlooked. In Egypt, these include Muhammad al-‘Aqqad (1850-1930), Mustafa Rida (1890-1952); and Ibrahim al-‘Aryan (1898-1953; noted for his many compositions in the Ottoman style). Others of note are the Syrians Fawzi al-Qaltaqji and SaIim Sarwa, the Turks Haci Arif Bey (1831-85) and Vecihe Daryal (1908-70) and the Armenian Elia Pehlivanian.
(Source: The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments.)