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.

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.