July 12, 2014
After two years of training and dreaming I finally got my chance to ride the Tour Divide, a 2,800 mile mountain bike route that goes from Banff, Canada all the way down to the Mexican border. Before I would ride, though, I spent a few days in Banff, which is a wonderful town.
Finally we got started at 8:00 a.m. on Friday morning, but alas, the weather was unbelievably bad. It rained every day, for hours and hours on end, with each day only giving us an hour or two of clear weather. The rain was cold and it turned to snow up on the passes.
My body and bike held up just fine, but I just wasn’t focused. I’m going through a lot of big changes musically and professionally and I kept thinking I should be home practicing and composing. However, I still averaged about a 100 miles a day this time, and finished 450 miles of the route in five days. That was much slower than I had hoped for, but the elevation and weather was giving me some trouble. I rode from about 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. each day.
The terrain was a mixture of single track, double track, gravel roads, and pavement.
Sometimes the trail just disappeared and became a river, like this photo below of the bottom of Flathead Pass. We had to carry our bikes for miles through the icy cold water, or try to navigate the brambles on the side of the “road.” Fun!
I rode with other people off and on. I never tried to catch up to stronger riders as I didn’t want to injure myself. That was a good strategy.
There was a lot of hike-a-bike. Miles and miles every day. In the photo below are some avalanche remnants across the trail on Whitefish Pass in Montana.
So, somewhere in the middle of Montana I called it. I have no regrets. It was an incredible experience. I’ll be back next year and I look forward to finishing it. Not a second goes by that I don’t think about that route. It’s very original and American in all the right ways. There’s nothing else like it in the world, riding the spine of our continent from one end of the country to the other. I really appreciate Jessica’s support. She “gets it.” I’m a lucky guy. I also appreciate all the efforts of the people behind the scenes, like Matthew Lee, Joe Polk, Crazy Larry, and the folks at ACA. Congrats to the riders who finished. One day I’ll be able to say the same.
March 29, 2014
Last night I enjoyed performing and lecturing at the remarkable Godrej India Culture Lab. I was amazed to see a large corporation running an experimental, interdisciplinary program with the only goal of exploring and seeing what might be possible. Many American corporations have open-ended R & D departments, of course, but they are technical in nature and ultimately the goal is produce revenue-boosting products. Once again I’m impressed with how much energy Indians invest into the arts and creative thinking. Special thanks to Sachin Nikarge and all the good folks at USIEF for initiating this event and bringing me down in such a nice fashion.
Parmesh Shahani runs the India Culture Lab. He’s an intelligent and gregarious man who travels constantly and has an insatiable intellectual curiosity. It was clear he runs a tight ship, but with a healthy dose of irreverent humor. Hi colleague Diane was my host and she showed me around and made sure I was comfortable. She was especially keen to show us the warehouse where they had hosted a large multi-media/audience-participation event the previous year. On a long afternoon over 7,000 people attended the event. Impressive, to say the least.
I started with a short performance of John Cage’s “Solo No. 58” from his opera Song Books, in Dhrupad style. The performance went well, though I’m still quite uncomfortable singing with a microphone. My voice isn’t as stable or rich when amplified, but I think the solution is just to perform more and spend more time with the mic and find the right space. (I have one at home I can practice with.) After I sang for a bit I gave a lecture on Indian/America fusion music, especially the music of Terry Riley, Michael Harrison, Shawn Mativetsky, and Reena Esmail. The audience seemed to enjoy the talk and I fielded many good questions afterwards. I always enjoy sharing my music with non-specialists. They often hear music in ways I don’t since I’m so deeply entrenched in the technical aspects of being a professional musician. All in all, it was a fabulous way to end a life-changing Fulbright experience.
March 5, 2014
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.
February 16, 2014
Many of my friends at home have asked me about Dhrupad, so here are some questions and answers:
What is Dhrupad?
In India there are two major systems of classical music: North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic. Dhrupad is a genre of music from the North Indian Hindustani system. Dhrupad is characterized by long tones, extreme precision of tuning pitch, and the use of syllables such as “ahh ruh nuh nuh.” Some scholars believe these syllables have their roots in a particular Vedic chant. Dhrupad performances typically unfold in four parts: alaap, jor, jhala, and bandish. The alaap, jor, and jhala only use the syllables, and increase in rhythmic density and complexity. In a full Dhrupad performance these sections may take at least an hour. The “bandish” is the composed composition, using text. The barrel drum the pakawaj joins here. Dhrupad includes improvisation, of a highly codified and sophisticated nature.
Dhrupad is said to have originated from an even more ancient religious music form, Prabandha (2nd to 7th AD). The language of Prabandha was preeminently Sanskrit, whereas Dhrupad used mainly medieval Hindi or Brijbhasha. Today, modern Hindi is also used. The word Dhrupad is the Hindi form of the original Sanskrit, Dhruvapada, a combination of Dhruva = structured or rigid, and Pada = word.
The birth of Dhrupad coincided with the Bhakti movement of Vallabh Sampradaya and resultantly was devotional in nature. Dhrupad was sung in temples, the singer facing the divinity or it was sung by Vaishnav mendicants in their wanderings. This was the genesis of the Haveli Dhrupad. From this early chanting, Dhrupad evolved into a sophisticated, classical form of music. (Last two paragraphs from Uday Bhalwalker’s website)
How does one learn to sing Dhrupad?
One learns this music directly from a guru, or teacher. Dhrupad can’t be learned from books or audio tapes or YouTube videos. One must apprentice under a master teacher for several years to gain the proper understanding and techniques.
Is it difficult?
It is extremely difficult. I have a parallel career as a Western composer and percussionist. I graduated from the most competitive schools, procured a tenure-track job, and have toured the world in that capacity, performing Western classical music in top venues like Carnegie Hall, so I can state with authority that singing Dhrupad is as difficult as learning Western classical piano or violin or percussion.
Can a non-Indian learn this music?
Yes! There are many non-Indians performing Dhrupad at a high level all over the world. The color of one’s skin or country of origin is no matter. Just as people from Asia or South America have become virtuoso Western classical or jazz musicians, so have many Westerners become virtuoso Dhrupad performers.
The singing style is different than Western classical singing, right?
Yes, it is. It is a totally different voice culture. Dhrupad singers never use vibrato, as that would destroy the pitch precision. We also use more resonance in the nasal cavity, though a proper Dhrupad voice should always be rooted in the throat.
Does Dhrupad include improvisation?
Yes, though it is of a highly codified and sophisticated sort. One doesn’t just “jam out” on a mode. It takes years and years of dedicated to practice to learn to improvise correctly in the Dhrupad style.
But wait, I thought you had a career as a Western composer and percussionist . . . ?
Yes, I do, and I maintain that as well. I’ve learned over the years how to balance the forms of music and practice more effectively to maximize my time. It is possible to do both at a high level, though one must be extremely disciplined.
What is the drone instrument and why do you use it for Dhrupad?
The drone instrument is called a tanpura. It is the large, guitar-like instrument with four strings. Typically one of the lead performer’s students will play it, seated behind the soloist. The strings are tuned so as to emphasize the root note of the raga, the tonic, or the shaddhaj. Tanpuras are magical instruments. When tuned properly they emit a whole rainbow of fundamentals and overtones, producing a highly complex sound field called a drone. This drone is essential for Dhrupad performance. Every note a Dhrupad performer sings or plays must either disappear into the drone or bounce back from it in a very specific way. The pitch precision of Dhrupad is only meaningful in combination with a tanpura; one needs the tanpura as a reference point for each note. Some performers also use electronic tanpuras, especially for practicing or performances where it isn’t possible to use a real instrument.
Is Dhrupad “hippie” music?
Many Westerners associate Indian classical music with Ravi Shankar and the “hippies” of the 1960s, and the attendant drug and free-love culture. This is regrettable. Most Indian classical musicians are highly disciplined people who work very hard at their art form and live a conservative lifestyle. Indeed, Ravi Shankar himself was such a disciplined musician and while he was glad that Westerners were interested in his music, he discouraged his Western students from using drugs and leading a sloppy lifestyle. This music is far too difficult to practice or perform while stoned or tripping.
Is Dhrupad a kind of meditation?
Yes it is. Listening to Dhrupad will clear your mind and body and open up you to higher levels of thinking and feeling. And it will also energize you if you listen carefully. When I hear a good Dhrupad performance I have tremendous amounts of energy for days. It is both calming and energizin
Is the tuning system different than Western music?
Yes, if you mean the Western piano, which divides the octave artificially into twelve equal notes. This system is called Equal Temperament, and while it has advantages for the harmonically-advanced music that developed in Europe in the 19th century, it is very square and unnatural for modal music, which is what the Indian system is based on. Dhrupad musicians mostly sing justly-tuned intervals, that is, intervals with low ratios that are found in the natural harmonic overtone series. (E.g., a 3:2 for a perfect fifth or a 5:4 for a major third.) These intervals feel quite different than the intervals you hear from a modern piano. They resonate in your body and your mind in a very different way. They’re not necessarily better than Equal Temperament, but I argue that they are more natural for singing over a drone. That being said, my favorite percussion instrument is the marimba, which is in Equal Temperament! I’ve performed hundreds of concerts as a marimba player and the instrument sounds beautiful to me. The tuning discussion is far too complicated for a FAQ. Take me to a sushi lunch and I’ll explain in detail; it is quite fascinating.
Some Dhrupad Artists who have made recordings and have YouTube videos that you should check out:
Gundecha Brothers (the best!)
Uday Bhawalkar (also amazing!)
Nancy Lesh-Kulkarni (a Westerner who has mastered Dhrupad on the cello, a wonderful musician)
Senior Dagar Brothers
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):
- 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.
December 31, 2013
I’ve been India for almost six months; I’m two-thirds of the way through my trip. My Hindi has gone from about 10% to 20%. (I took a class a few years back and can read and write the basic Devanagari script, but I only speak a little bit.) Not bad, but far below what I had planned.
“This will be my fourth trip to India,” I said to my friends back in June, before we left. “And this time I’m going to leave speaking Hindi.”
It’s not going to happen.
Why? Because learning a language is an emotional experience for me, and I only have the energy for one language at a time. I thought I could learn to sing Dhrupad at a higher level and get my Hindi together simultaneously, but what I’ve discovered is that the emotional energy required learning a new musical language is equally intense to the emotional energy required to learn a written and verbal language. My primary objective coming here was to get my singing to a much higher level. I’m on track in that regard, but it has taken every ounce of physical, emotional, and intellectual energy that I have to stay on track. I’ve tried working on my Hindi late at night after a full day of practicing and going to class and studying recordings, but I’m just too wiped out. It goes in my head and then it’s gone the next morning. It doesn’t stick.
(The other big issue is that most of the people I interact with here speak English, and most of them are fluent. There’s no reason for them to use Hindi with me when we can communicate much quicker and better through English, and most of them want to practice their English.)
Way back in March of 2013 my friend Kaliope told me that learning a language is an emotional experience. She teaches in a French school and is 100% fluent in English, French, and Greek, so she knows what she’s talking about. I thought I understood what she meant at the time, but I didn’t. Now I do.
What does that mean that learning a language is an emotional experience? For me it means that words and phrases (spoken, written, or sung) are rooted in real-world, physical experiences that are intertwined with feelings. I learned the Hindi words and phrases that I know well through real experiences. The book work is useful of course, but only as a supplement. I can’t learn a language from a book any more than I can learn a style of music from a book.
Learning Dhrupad is the same thing. When I sing certain phrases in certain ragas I have very distinct memories of when Gurujis taught me those phrases or when I picked them up from a recording. I also remember the feelings I had at those moments. They are not just sequences of notes; they are definitive moments in my live, real emotional experiences.
I’m pretty hard on myself, much more than most of my friends realize because of my sunny disposition, so I’ve been beating myself up about not doing better with my Hindi (among other things), but perhaps some time in the future. I know enough to get by with Hindi/English conversations, and I can read signs and I do reasonably well with pronouncing the text in the traditional Dhrupad compositions I’m learning (which I write in Devanagari since it’s much more precise than the English transliteration). But that’s probably about as far as it’s going to go with this trip. Maybe I can come back some time in the future and do a two or three-month immersion intensive. But for now my focus is Dhrupad, and how lucky I am to be able to focus on that. My life is vastly better now that I’m singing Dhrupad at a higher level, something I could only have achieved with nine months of intense immersion under the right teachers. It’s an infinite journey, but I’m actually becoming a bit of a Dhrupad singer, something I’ve dreamed of for years. I’m looking forward to sharing this amazing music with my friends and audiences back home.
December 19, 2013
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.