Hike-in musical event

September 28, 2014

This morning eight William Paterson University students joined me on my first hike-in musical event.  I’ve been dreaming of doing this for some time and it was every bit as rewarding as I thought it would be.  The premise is simple: hike somewhere with some folks, stop and make music, then hike back.  Here we are in the parking lot:

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Some of these students are in in my Indian Music class, and the others heard about it and decided to join us.  All of them are smart, hard working, and creative.  We talked as we walked, about a forty-minute hike to the top of High Mountain.  They asked me all manner of questions about music, practicing, and life, which I answered as best I could.  I also asked them questions about their lives, which are varied and interesting.  As a professor I am by definition in the business of being a leader and a role model for these young talents, but it’s a position that strangely makes me uncomfortable.  As I go deeper and deeper into music my feeling of humility grows ever stronger.  Although it’s true I’ve built a good career for myself and had many professional experiences that are worth sharing with my students, in some sense that is all superficial.  The real core of music is as mysterious to me now as it was thirty years ago when I embarked on this path.  What do I really know?  Only that I love music as much as ever, and am grateful to be on this journey.

So we hiked.  The weather was gorgeous.  The fall colors shimmered in the slight breeze.  We found a good pace that worked for everyone and soon enough we were at the top of the mountain.  We made ourselves comfortable on a big rock and got underway.  I brought a drone box up to serve as the tanpura, and also a nice silk kurta to complete the picture:

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I sang Raag Todi, one of the most powerful and deep ragas of North Indian Hindustani music.  I sang it in the traditional Dhrupad style, with alaap, jor, jhala, and then the bandish (composition).  The text for the composition was most appropriate.  It’s a very old one about the mystery of music and how people who say they know a lot about music don’t actually know much at all.

I found I was a little nervous.  It took some time for me to calm down and get my voice stable, but the breeze helped smooth things out a bit.  You miss some nuance when you’re not under the microphone, but it’s also a bit more comfortable and less exposed.

As I explored Todi the sun grew ever higher in the sky.  The students could see New York City from their vantage point.  I had my eyes closed most of the time, but when I opened them I noticed that they were attentive and seemed at peace.  Dhrupad is very natural in many ways.  Combining it with natural settings amplifies its power.

After I finished we discussed the raga for a few minutes and then headed back down.  Again we talked and again I was impressed with how committed they are to a life in music.  They know it’s not easy, but they also know that creative music is as important to the human condition as air, water, and sunlight.  It was a wonderful morning; one I will never forget.  I’m honored to have shared it with such extraordinary young people.  The future of creative music bright indeed.

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The Dhrupad Mela is a four-day festival of Dhrupad in Varanasi, U.P., India, usually held in late February around Shiv Ratri.  2014 marked its 39th year.  The concerts start around 7:00 p.m. and go until about 7:00 a.m. the next morning.  They are held under a tent by Tulsi Ghaat, one of the centers of the city, right on the river.

Varanasi is pretty intense.  There is a magical energy to the place, and it has been a bastion of Indic culture and intellectual achievement for millennia, but it is has fallen into serious disrepair in recent years.  The city has a horrendous rubbish problem and the roads are crowded and dirty, with the usual Indian panoply of animals, humans, and vehicles. 

The tent for the Dhrupad Mela holds about 200 people and at times it was jam packed.  Since it is a mela there are different levels of musicians.  None of them were rank beginners, but there were plenty of intermediate-level performers.  While listening to them wasn’t inspiring, it was educational, and I was glad for the opportunity.  The issues that I’m struggling with in my own singing were often on display and it was helpful for me to hear them from outside my body.

Dhrupad is a small field and there are very few performers working at a high level.  As far as male singers go, my gurus the Gundecha Brothers and a handful of others are singing at the highest level.  I heard several other big-name Pandits and Ustads at the Mela but they were horribly out of tune, their voice culture was flimsy, and they were distracted and unfocused.  That’s a big problem for this music.  In the Western classical tradition if a bad orchestra butchers a Beethoven symphony at least Beethoven is lurking in the background; at least there is an incredible work of art in there somewhere.  But with Dhrupad the responsibility is 100% on the performer to maintain every aspect of the artistry, and the most fundamental parameter is singing in tune with the tanpura.  When that is gone, nothing remains but mannerism.  I heard a lot of Dhrupad mannerism, but precious little Dhrupad.

The audience was 90% foreigners, and most of them were young, counter-culture “hippies”.  I’ll explore that phenomenon in another post, but it was interesting to see how few Indians were there. 

Despite how enjoyable the Mela was in many respects, the infrastructure for the venue was poor.  The presenters had put up thin sheets as a “roof”.  When it started raining the second night the sheets immediately soaked through and water started dripping vigorously onto the audience.  We moved around to try to find dry spots, but it was fruitless and after about twenty minutes of this the audience largely cleared out.  Those who stayed were herded into a building in the back where we could stay dry and still see and hear the performers, but the connection with the artists was lost.  Add to this the constant noise of Hindi pop music blaring from neighboring houses, car horns, fireworks (for Shiv Ratri), dogs and monkeys running around the venue, garbage littering the venue, including near the stage, etc., and I felt badly for the artists.  It’s sad to see an artist of the caliber of Uday Bhalwalker having to perform in such sub-standard conditions.  I suspect some of this is partly because Dhrupad as a genre is still somewhat ghettoized compared to Khyal, but it was also largely just typical Varanasi/Indian lousy infrastructure.  As much as I love India and Indian music, I passionately hate the infrastructure problems here.  It is so depressing to see such a rich and deep culture held back so strongly by lack of basic infrastructure. 

The third night the presenters had made somewhat of an effort to offset the impending rain by putting up tarps.  However, they were full of big holes!  By 11:00 p.m. it again started raining heavily and within minutes there were rivers of water pouring through the holes.  The artist at that moment was shrieking away, completely out of tune, and I decided I had had enough.  I went back to my hotel and practiced for a bit and then listened to a recording of Gundecha Brothers.  I had an incredible mystical experience when listening to that recording, which I’ll discuss in the next blog.

Despite my kvetching, I’m very glad I attended the Mela.  I learned a great deal and when the weather was good I had some wonderful moments listening to the top artists.  I applaud the presenters for keeping it going.  I know from personal experience how much work it is to make something like this happen.  But they should work harder to find better financial backing in the future to produce a more professional environment.  The artists deserve better.

Artistic Success

January 22, 2014

I’ve been on this planet long enough to notice why some people in my field develop into first-rate artists and others don’t.  My students ask me all the time if I have any secrets or tips for gaining mastery as a musician.  Spending time with the remarkable Gundecha Brothers has confirmed my thoughts on this matter.  They perfectly embody what I think are the traits needed to become a great musician, which are (in this specific order):

  1. Talent
  2. Passion
  3. Vision
  4. Work Ethic

Let’s look at each of these.  The notion of musical talent is complex and involves a lot of #2 and #3, but at its most basic level is the ability to learn music quickly and accurately, a feeling for the nuances of pitch, and good basic rhythm.  These are skills that can be developed, but a certain amount of it has to be innate, and if you don’t have it from the beginning, you’ll never get it. 

However, even the most talented people will get nowhere if they aren’t passionate about music.  You have to really want it, more than anything else.  It has to get you excited.  You’ve got to feel a burning desire to make music that is more powerful than anything else in your life.

But talent and passion still aren’t enough.  What are you going to do with that talent and that passion?  What is your vision?  You can love music more than anything else, but in order to develop to a high level you need to be able to point that talent and passion in a specific direction, otherwise you’ll just drift.

And that brings us to the last trait necessary for artistic success: work ethic.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Gurujis have arrived at the Gurukul at 10:00 a.m. to put in five hours of teaching, coming straight from the airport, where they arrived after an overnight flight following a concert.  They never stop.  They’re either performing or teaching.  When they’re in town they teach seven days a week.   Once in a while they might go for some tourist activity when they’re traveling, but that’s about it for entertainment.  Mostly they work.  And work.  And work.  I challenge you to name one great musician who is any different.  You might have a great vision of what you want to achieve as a musician, and you might be very talented and passionate, but if you’re not willing to give up your Friday nights and Sunday mornings to long, hard hours of practice you aren’t going to make it.  I’ve done pretty well for myself as a musician, but as far as talent goes, I’m somewhere in the middle.  Not the best, though certainly not the worst.  But I’m deeply passionate about music, I’ve had a vision of where I wanted to take that passion, and day after day, week after week, and year after year I work at it.  Not because I have to, but because I want to.  I just love making music.

People ask me all the time “how do you do it all?” and people also ask me why I work so much.  Well, here’s the secret: it’s not work!  Work is paying taxes or sitting on boring committees.  Music is bliss and a privilege.  I’m happiest when I’m composing or practicing, and the more challenging the project, the more satisfaction I get out of it.  I can manage a lot of things at a high level because I work on them every day, and because for a long time I’ve had a vision of how I wanted my life to turn out as a musician.  I’m also fortunate that I’ve had guidance from the best people in my field, who have all embodied the traits listed above and are always inspiring.

I just got back from a week in Germany with Alarm Will Sound (AWS).  It was an interesting experience.  I expected when I landed in Frankfurt that I would feel a strong sense of relief at being back in a more familiar Western country.  But I didn’t.  I felt disoriented.  Everything was amazingly clean and functional.  The trains even have a ten minute guarantee (or your money back), definitely not something you’ll find in India!  But it was cold, both literally cold and there was a palpable feeling of distance from the people.  The wealth is staggering.  It seems everyone is wearing expensive clothes and carrying fancy purses and briefcases.  Everyone is busy, busy, busy, constantly checking their phones and looking worried.  No one talks to you.

Being back with my old friends in AWS was a treat, but it’s a completely different experience than spending time with my friends at the Gurukul.  At the ashram-like Gurukul we’re in a quiet, rural environment singing justly tuned intervals over a drone all day, which produces feelings of peace and centeredness.  The students are quiet and humble.  They rarely use profanity or make jokes with sexual innuendo.  Drugs or alcohol are expressly forbidden at the Gurukul, as is sexual relations with other students or friends.  The students only speak respectfully about our Gurus, who encourage us to focus 100% on Dhrupad and not get distracted by media and pop culture.

My AWS friends, on the other hand, are bundles of nervous energy.  They’re very, very smart, and have access to a nearly 24/7 diet of media and technology via their phones and tablets.  They talk fast about a wide range of subjects, though by far the most popular subject is media, for which they have a voracious appetite.  Internet memes, phone apps, TV shows, websites, movies, etc.  A few of them are readers and prefer to discuss books and articles, but most of them are passionate about media.  Profanity is more common that at the Gurukul.  They are irreverent, witty, and energetic.

And of course the music is different.  The biggest thing that I noticed is that in the West—especially in larger ensembles—there is a much starker line drawn between rehearsing music and performing it.  Rehearsals are often tedious affairs, with very detailed work done on minute sections of a piece.  This is necessary, of course, and one of the reasons AWS has risen to the top ranks is because their Alan Pierson leads the willing players through such focused, disciplined rehearsals.  But it can be boring.  Many times I would look around and see half the band playing with their phones or reading books while waiting their turn to polish some difficult passage.  However, when the concert rolls around they are completely focused and involved in the music.  They can turn it on or off.  Teaching is generally also a separate activity, though AWS is involved with some interesting educational initiatives right now.

In Hindustani music the lines between practicing and performing and teaching are blurrier.  My Gurus include students on almost every one of their concerts, including big ones at major venues.  (The students are playing tanpura and singing backup vocals.)  And when practicing Dhrupad one is just as engaged as when performing it.  Part of this is because it is a soloist or chamber ensemble tradition, so one is pretty much always singing or playing, but it’s also because Dhrupad involves improvisation, which isn’t something you can turn on and off as easily as you can an isolated melody or riff.  This is why our lessons with Gurujis often turn into informal performances.

One is not better than the other, they’re just different.  The improvisational language of Dhrupad gives it an immediacy and level of communication with an audience that I rarely feel with Western classical music.  And the purity of the music produces feelings of wonder and peace that I rarely experience when listening to modern Western music.  But the notated tradition, the large ensemble, and disciplined rehearsal practice of a world-class Western ensemble like AWS produces an astonishing and inspiring variety of musical sounds and concepts.  The ability of my friends in AWS to traverse such different musical terrain over the course of a single concert is mind blowing.  It is a testament to their musicianship and discipline, as well as their far-ranging intellectual curiosity.  It is stimulating as a listener.  Even though it uses extensive improvisation, Hindustani music, by contrast, is much more homogenous.  Indian classical musicians rarely experiment with form or orchestration.

I feel lucky to be able to bounce between the two worlds.  It’s humbling and inspiring, and also useful as I can take what I perceive to be the strengths of each tradition and the community that perpetrates it and make those strengths a bigger part of my life.

First Dhrupad performance

October 8, 2013

Last night I gave my first Dhrupad performance.  It was at a small house concert we organized.  Several of the neighborhood families came over.  They each brought some food and  drink.  Image

We gutted the dining room area and laid down a rug and pillows.  We lined the back walls with chairs for folks who preferred to sit up a bit more.

I sang alaap, jor, jhala in Rag Todi, as well as a composition I wrote that is based on a Walt Whitman poem.  The performance lasted about 25 minutes.  My friend Roman Das accompanied me on pakawaj.  He’s a fabulous player and a great person.  After I sang, one of my fellow Gurukul students also performed.  His name is Vic and though he’s much younger than I am at 23 years old, he’s been studying Dhrupad for four years and is thus a kind of senior student.  He gave a nice performance.

I felt a little keyed up before we started.  Even though it was just a casual house concert, I viewed it as a kind of “midterm” test for the last three months of work here in India.  I think I passed with good grades, though.  When I listened to the recording today I heard a lot of good things.  My voice has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year.  There is still much to do, but of course it’s infinite.

Our neighbors were just wonderful.  All of them have been so nice and welcoming.  Indian hospitality is alive and well here in Lake Pearl Spring and I’m honored to know them. Curiously, though, none of them knew anything about Dhrupad.  So there I was: a white man foreigner from Idaho, U.S.A., explaining the basics of this ancient Indian music to native Indians.  That’s the 21st Century for you!!

Jessica took pictures and managed the kids.  We put the little ones upstairs in front of a movie.  Nonetheless, there were frequent squabbles and crises.  All of which she managed with her characteristic grace and intelligence.

I’m looking forward to more performances down the road, but for the next few months it’s back in the woodshed for lots and lots of practicing.

There are a few things I didn’t expect to be doing while in India.  Teaching the music of Justin Bieber is one of them.

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Some background first: As part of my Fulbright grant I’m doing a little teaching at the Gundecha Brothers’ Gurukul.  I offer a lecture every few weeks or so.   I’ll be covering a variety of topics throughout the year, including an overview of Western classical music, some basic Western music notation, tuning (including Just Intonation and Equal Temperament), and basic orchestration.

This has put me in the curious position of being an ambassador for Western music to the Indians.  I say “curious” because back home it is the reverse: I am often an ambassador for Indian music to my Western students and colleagues.  Misunderstandings abound on either side.  Many of my Indian friends believe that all Western classical music is in equal temperament, that there is no improvisation in our tradition, our music is entirely technical and devoid of feeling, and there is no melody.  All false.  My Western friends believe that Indian classical music is out of tune (actually the reverse is true, it’s often more in tune than most Western music), that there is little variety in Indian music, the voice culture is unrefined, and that Indian musicians don’t use notation at all.  Again, all false.

Indeed, it seems that my career has more and more taken the shape of being a kind of negotiator between the two traditions.  I’m even building a major non-profit organization right now with my brilliant colleague Reena Esmail, in which we will focus on artists who have created a whole new kind of music that brings together the two traditions in meaningful ways.  We are planning festivals, educational experiences, etc.  More on that later.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to Justin Bieber.

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Umakant Gundecha’s son is named Nirant, though everyone calls him Niru.  Niru is in his early 20s and he LOVES popular music and wants to learn more about Western pop music.  So I’m teaching him the basics of Western notation so that he can learn to read a lead sheet.  I’m also encouraging him to learn some different software so that he can be more effective in a studio.  I’ll eventually teach him some drums if we can find a drum set.  Finally, he wants to learn more about songwriting.

My area of specialty is classical music, but I’ve done some work with singer-songwriters, so I have an idea of how things work in that world.  The first step to learning how to write a pop song is to see how other people have done it.  So, pretty soon I will have Niru transcribe some Justin Bieber songs (his favorite artist) and we’ll analyze them.  We’ll use both the Indian Bhatkande notation system that he knows, in parallel with Western notation.  That way he can reinforce his Western reading skills.   After we’ve analyzed a few tunes, he’ll try to make some of his own.

Again, something I NEVER expected to be doing in India!

Walt Whitman and Dhrupad???

September 1, 2013

In traditional Dhrupad music the performance typically follows a fairly standard format: alaap, jor, jhala, and then a composition.  The first three sections are sung with syllables like “ree, ruh, nuh, toom,” etc.  Some scholars believe these have roots in an ancient Vedic mantra, other scholars disagree.  At any rate, they don’t mean anything any more.  (Though learning to use them in the most beautiful combinations to bring out the essence of the raga is quite difficult.)
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Following those sections the musicians typically sing a composition with words.  (And this is where the drum usually enters as well, to mark the time cycle and provide additional color for the text.)  The texts are usually in some dialect of medieval Hindi (e.g. Braj, Brij Bhasha, etc), modern Hindi, or even Sanskrit.

That’s great, but the problem is I didn’t grow up speaking Hindi.  And while I can learn to speak and sing the words well enough that my accent isn’t a deal breaker, it will never feel entirely natural to me.

I’ve been working on Rag Todi with Umakantji.  After working on alaap, jor, and jhala for the last few months he sent me off to find a composition from one of the senior students.  But none of them had one.  So I wrote my own, using an English text: a Walt Whitman poem.  Several of the other students at the Gurukul though I was being a bit bold since Indian musicians usually don’t compose until much later in life, but I disagree.  After all, I’m a professional composer back home.  I know how to analyze a genre and produce music within that style.  So that’s what I did.  I transcribed a bunch of compositions from Gurujis’ various recordings and modeled my composition after them.  But I used some distinctly Western ideas of word painting.  Why not?  I’m an American!

If I do say so myself, it’s pretty good.  I sang it for Umakantji and he was receptive to it.  I told him that although I was working hard to improve my voice to the point where I could perform some day, I don’t have any delusions about becoming some great Dhrupad singer.  I would have to drop everything and move here for a long time and I’m obviously not going to do that.  Nor am I interested in throwing away my cultural heritage as a Westerner, like many Westerners have done who become involved in this music.  So I have to find my own way with this.  He seemed to understand that.  He had a few good little tips to improve the composition, but otherwise he was open to it.  He indicated that he doesn’t think English (or any of the Romance languages) are really appropriate for “traditional” Dhrupad, mainly because of the cultural ties between Sanskit/Hindi and the music.  I don’t disagree with him.  But as I said, I have to find my own way with it.

The fact is that I have the basic raw ingredients to become a fine Dhrupad singer: a good natural voice, an intense work ethic, and a lot of creative energy.  But I wasn’t born and raised over here.  While the music resonates deeply with me, the culture only partly.  There are many things about India’s culture that I love, but many other things will always feel very wrong and foreign to me.

America has its share of problems, but it’s also got some incredible strengths to it.  Our natural wilderness, our independent nature, our spirit of innovation, our intense work ethic, and so many more.  I can’t let go of those things, nor do I want to.  I’m an American who sings Dhrupad.  And sometimes that means singing some Walt Whitman!