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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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.

Dhrupad FAQs

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

Sayeeduddin Dagar

Z.F. Dagar

Z.M. Dagar

Manik Munde

Bhavani Shankar

Wasifuddin Dagar

Ritwik Sanyal

Mallik family

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.

 

  1. The Classical Music

I think India’s classical music—especially Dhrupad—is some of the most perfect music ever created.  It has everything: the depth, refinement, and seriousness of Western classical music, the structured improvisational rigor of jazz, the tunefulness of pop music, the deep grooves of folk music.  The Raga system has endured thousands of years and it will endure a thousand more.  It is truly one of India’s greatest gifts to the world.

  1. The People

Like any country, India hosts the whole gamut of humanity, from the very best to the very worst.  But the best Indians are some of the best people on the planet.  They are as cultured, intelligent, educated, creative, and honest as the best from anywhere else, but what makes them distinct is their depth of emotional sensitivity and the openness of their hearts.  I know that’s a generalization, but it’s true, and something Indians are justifiably proud of.

  1. Good Chai

It’s possible to get a good cup of chai in America at someone’s home or a fancy Indian restaurant, but the stuff they sell at Starbucks, et al, is pure nonsense.  And even if you do get a good cup of chai, it’s just not the same as on the side of a road somewhere, while striking up a conversation with a friendly person.  And the best of all experiences is enjoying a fine cup of chai in someone’s home while sharing a laugh and watching the kids run around.  Good chai is a powerful conduit to strengthening social bonds.

  1. Small Businesses

The large corporate businesses that have destroyed many towns in America are making inroads in India too, but thankfully they are still far outnumbered by small businesses.  It’s a marked difference that one feels every day.  The shop owners here generally care about doing good business with you because they aren’t paid by the hour.  They have to retain their customers or they won’t be able to survive.  So they work with you, they’re genuinely friendly, and happy to help you out however they can.  It makes shopping much more personable and meaningful.

  1. Commuting by Motorcycle

Motorcycles and scooters are ubiquitous in India, and they are a great way to get around.  They are much more fuel-efficient than cars, take up less space on the road, are easier to park, fun to drive, and are much cheaper to buy and maintain.  Everyone rides them here, from rich to poor, men and women. 

  1. Efficiency

People generally have less money here and so are more thrifty and efficient.  For example, in America the roads are taken up with giant SUVs that only have one person in them.  In India people pack into smaller cars.  People don’t run A/C here unless it’s really hot (like over 100 degrees), etc, etc.  The very rich are still wasteful, but the rest of the folks are not.  It’s something I’m going to try hard to bring home with me as a lifestyle change.

  1. Kid-Friendly Atmosphere

With the exception of some hard-core classical concerts or theatre productions, it’s fine to bring kids anywhere here.  In fact, it’s encouraged.  Family is at the center of Indian culture and people are used to having kids around.  It’s really nice to be able to bring the kids everywhere and not worry about people giving us mean stares or “tsk tsks” when they make some noise or touch something.  And people here will go out of their way to help you be comfortable with the kids.

  1. Respecting One’s Elders

In Western cultures the respect for elders has eroded completely away.  I see millions of young people in Western countries who are adrift, and whose lives would be greatly improved if they would simply tone down their ego and open their hearts and minds to the wisdom of the elders in their society.  This is something I figured out on my own in my early 20s.  It made my time at university and beyond much more productive and enjoyable.  I’m enjoying spending an extended time in a culture that still values its elders.

  1. The Historical Monuments

Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Sanchi, Sarnath, etc, etc, etc.  India has incredible historical riches.  I feel so much wonder at the gorgeous art, architecture, and the colorful stories that surround them.  It is simply mind-blowing to look at a sculpture that was made 5,000 years ago.

  1. Rooftop Culture

Earlier today I was practicing my drum on our roof while enjoying a sunset.  My kids came up and played for a while and my neighbor came out on his roof and said hello.  Some boys were flying kites on their roofs a few houses down.  It’s a party up there every day and it’s really fun.

  1. The Food.

It’s such a basic part of my life I take it for granted, but I do love Indian food.  I marvel at the way a good cook can coax so much subtlety and nuance out such simple ingredients.  And the variety as I travel around the subcontinent is astonishing.

  1. The Smile and Head Bobble

Most of the time it means “yes.”  But sometimes it means “no.”  And sometimes it means “thank you.”  And sometimes I have no clue what it means.  But it’s really endearing and infectious.  My own head bobble is getting better and better.  I’m pretty sure I’ll bring it home with me next year! 

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.

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!