[ my musical history ]
[ new directions ]
[ on the gathering ]
[ morning raga platform ]
[ story of this place ]
[ this is music now ]
[ on these songs ]
[ new directions ]
[ on the gathering ]
[ morning raga platform ]
[ story of this place ]
[ this is music now ]
[ on these songs ]
my musical history:
My earliest musical memory is on mridangam. A teacher would visit our house, a confident bachelor with the easy american accent of a young immigrant with a musical ear, and I have no idea what exactly he taught me. But what I recollect clearly is the world that came to be in my imagination as a device for recalling and delivering those long compositions, a response to the challenge of keeping them somehow inside and experiencing them on demand. I saw zones in my mind, coded by color and shape - synaesthetic form constants, maybe originally dragged with me across parturition, and then called upon to be put to some purpose, sequenced and associated. These weren't conditioned by any conscious influence or recommendation that I'm aware of - they were, and still are, how I learned to conceptualize time in music. That is, geographically, a passage through places.
A musical family?
Yes, but not professionals.
Amateur, meaning "lover".
My mother was the predominant chaperone of my early musical life. She had the kind of motherly patience that supported attending weekly classes with me of this and that, and overseeing a practice regimen of her own contrivance at home, albeit one suited more to her own methodical bent than to my flights of fancy. With a somewhat stern manner, evincing a taste for discipline in music (the example of which has stood me in much better stead later in life than I realized at the time), she would count the 10 toothpicks from left to right as I rendered each piece in the repertoire - each exercise, étude, song - perfectly, repeatedly. Mistakes didn't pass muster. Start over. Learning new material? Add it to the list - the end of the list. Practice always starts at the beginning. An eye to fundamentals.
Alongside a lifetime acquaintance with carnatic music ran other currents in parallel. I began piano lessons pretty much as soon as I could reach the thing, just as I had begun mridangam when I had nearly the appropriate wingspan. I remember our first group class, where the guy demonstrated piano technique by executing an arrangement of the theme from Superman. Calculated to win over a young audience, I guess. But I wasn't hooked. I was not a natural piano player, and I would go on record in later years proclaiming the piano a "barbaric" instrument, citing equal temperament, discrete (and "wrong") intervals, and other purportedly idealistic vilifications of the thing. I have since recanted completely, by the way, especially in light of the music of Sviatoslav Richter, and also Conlon Nancarrow. Very different from each other, but to me they both bring out the percussivity of the piano. On a piano, the sound is essentially hammered into existence.
Then began my long friendship with the violin. I took to the violin with much more earnest attention. Somehow it better fit the contour of my musical mind, such as it was. And I was a little older. My sister had played the violin, and by way of comparisons a decade apart I was reminded that "her fingers came down like hammers". My mother had also learned to play at that time, and did so again along with me and also continuing afterwards of her own accord. Not only was it the Suzuki way for parent and child to learn together - she also had a knack for it, and again, the discipline. My mother has always been the first to rise in our family, and for many years the sounds of her violin practice would be intermittent with her morning prayers.
Speaking of the Suzuki method, it was for me a blessing and a curse. The blessing was - music was music, not ink. Learning by listening was the thing - same as carnatic music. So far so good. The curse was - I never learned to properly read music. Not in twenty years of violin playing, believe it or not. I played maybe 10 books of Suzuki compilations, and I loved some of the violinistic music in there - Boccherini, Vivaldi, Bach. I learned to hear it from inside the fingers. I was occasionally a soloist in school orchestras - playing that melody from Pachelbel's Canon, for instance. But I would never learn it from the page. It would always be "Play it again..." from my lips. "No, just play it again." Sure I would then refer to the staff notation as a shapely reminder, and eventually I got some faltering ability to translate the glyphs. But sightreading? Forget it. I think sightreading piano music is a monumental human achievement, beyond my ken completely.
I also played percussion in middle school band. Pep rallies. Region and State chair tests. And yes, band camp. In Lubbock, TX, at Texas Tech University, where the water tasted like pennies. One time at band camp I spent too great a proportion of my allowance playing arcade games. But after an audition that went more haphazardly than expected, but with good technique and sound, I was placed in a relatively selective performance ensemble, where I was to learn four-mallet vibraphone technique within one week. Boy did I make an improvised hot mess out of that job! Neither did I have the back for marching toms, I learned. So much for high school band.
But I did prevail on my parents to get me a drumset. What they were thinking, I'll never know. Disquieting my whole neighborhood, over the years I did develop, ad hoc, some kind of drumset sensibility. At first this process was presided over by Dave Weckl and Buddy Rich, as well as an aspiration to cymbal ownership. But the drumset also became the centerpiece of many a post-pubescent get-together. Nirvana, Collective Soul, Guns N' Roses. An interesting chapter. Around this time I also subscribed to Columbia House - remember those mail-order record clubs? The Fugees, 311, Alanis Morissette, Mariah Carey, even the Macarena single! A nod to inclusion in popular music society, which I never fully achieved, despite these and despite my many self-made radio mix-tapes. I have always marveled at people whose taste truly is a product of its musical decade - the kind of folks who can rattle off top hits by year and tell you the names of tours, distinct from the names of bands. Actually I have this same fascination for the Bollywood-knowledgeable too. What year what song was in what film, who sang playback, who lip-synched. But I myself am a waste at antakshari.
Then Dave Matthews Band and Phish, traces of whose bumper stickers have survived a more than dozen years on my car. Yes, I listened to Phish extensively. Those were the heady early days of the .mp3 free-for-all. I believed Phish were the epitome of freedom in music. And from a certain perspective, they are. I learned to discern fluctuations in the coherence of their hive-mind as a band, and variance in crowd energy among their many performances of the same song in different venues. This way of listening to a recording as testimony to an event, not just a record of sounds, has been carried over intact to my process these days of poring over a large volume of recordings of carnatic concerts, in some cases spanning 5 decades and more of a singer's career. (Palghat Mani Iyer, probably my favorite musician in history, is reputed to have said he would not be able to assess the worth of any singers in the generation succeeding him because he preferred to withhold judgment until after a half-century of their careers, and thus he probably wouldn't live long enough to say.)
Now about my father. My father is a titan in my musical life, and not by design. My father is a burster into song. A veteran of this. In our homelife, at any time, incidental to any activity, would come forth strains of alapana - free "unfolding" extempore in carnatic music - and of no mean conception. My father has a grip on ragam in carnatic music that is unquestionably my most valuable inheritance. This steady stream of melody into my life has been the glacial influence in the development of any musical depth in me. I don't know what would be the direction of my musical compass without it.
I didn't gain perspective on the uncommonness of his spontaneous pidi-s ("takes" on a ragam) until it was eventually revealed in the faces taken aback of my teenage friends in the car, or on the tennis courts, or over pancakes. What to them came as a surprise to me remained as my pole star. Inevitably am I asked, from all corners, "Who is your guru?" As if it is a critical passcode else my music is silent... I have only a single memory of ever sitting with my father face to face and learning music, and what I thus learnt led to my maiden public performance at the Meenakshi Temple of Houston (Pearland, actually), which pleased a Thyagaraja Aradhana crowd given to appreciating the delicate efforts of young children, and very supportive. In later years, my bearded father would don a headscarf, gird himself with a marching tambura, and play the part of the itinerant bard for this annual festival celebrating an 18th century composer today revered as a saint.
Actually, the robust world of South Indian classical music in the United States deserves special praise. Without it, I would not have turned out as I did, for better or for worse. Carnatic music rasika-s (aficionados) are awesome. The community is vibrant. It is not trivial to train *so many* kids. It's difficult music! And a great proportion of those kids get to loving it, in their own quirky way, and end up humming it all over the place in that nasal manner that identifies a carnatic musician at twenty paces the way counting along the knuckles while muttering with a blank gaze marks a student of tabla.
Recently I was in the studio audience for the filming of the final round of "Carnatic Music Idol USA", a reality television show produced by a South Indian television station, filmed in San Jose, CA, and aired in India. This is South Indian classical music's rigorous answer to "American Idol". All the contestants were American high-schoolers, just about, with unmistakeable came-of-age-in-america accents, in some cases augmented by impressive Tamil as well. Same format - a panel of celebrity musicians, flown in from India for the purpose, and the contestants are grilled. But that's where the similarity with American Idol ends. The on-the-spot musicianship demonstrated by these young'uns would put many avant-jazz and math-music heads in their place. Credit to teachers and parents, but even more credit to a tradition with scope and room for the historically unprecedented energy of the internet-empowered American teenager.
Anyway, so I claim my father as my guru, to his demurring, although really my guru has been the unquenchable life of his music more than the content, which I moreso owe to thirty years of open ears. From him I learned how to love music, which is the real lesson, persisting amidst permutations of purpose over the years. From time to time during my childhood he would farm me out to one or another of the local teachers of carnatic music, from whom he would also reverently learn songs in the hour after mine. I remember when Agassi defeated Ivanisevic in the Wimbledon final - it was right during one such weekend carnatic music lesson. But he always maintained his own taste unabashedly, and his own improvisational flourishes. My father is the kind of person who will march to the front row of a concert and sit there throughout, grimacing honestly if the music is not up to snuff, yet always with a kind word of encouragement afterwards, especially for a younger musician, new to the stage. And although not herself entirely given over to it, my mother did have some affinity for carnatic music as well. But as for her own musical enjoyment, on Saturday mornings she would listen to a weekly radio program of Bollywood classics, broadcast in the suburbs of Houston, TX, where I grew up.
Next chapter. Some people who know me and my music are unaware that as a high-schooler myself, I became a serious student of tabla. In this domain, I had a clear guru, and he was Subhendu Chakraborty. For five years I was his first student of the day on Saturday mornings. First my father and I, and then myself alone when I could drive, would wake him up with a knock on the door, and the ritual was to sit there and play "terekita taka taka" until he composed himself and sat down to join me, join in, and ultimately toast me in speed incrementation. Then I went on to learn kaida, tukra, gat, dheredhere, dipalli, tripalli, gopuccha, paran, chakradar, the works. He always gently admonished me to "put pressure", meaning hit the drum harder and more consistently, and he practiced what he preached, a modest man with memorable stamina. The most interesting thing about these lessons, in retrospect, is how much was left unspoken and undefined - make of this what you will, said the silences. This has been my model of integrity in teaching. In an improvisational art form, an instructor is really a lion-tamer, and must be equal to the true lesson of "Be what you are. Be fierce."
And likewise, some folks don't know that I spent one summer in the bay area as a 12-year-old, learning from Swapan Chaudhuri on recommendation from my teacher in Houston, who knew him. I sat with him one-on-one on three occasions or so only, over the whole summer, in the presence of many older students, I remember. And his forceful criticism of my habit of immediately writing down all variations was bitter medicine and a different standard, and ultimately left me in tears he did not see, although an observant and mature student followed me to the car on one occasion afterwards, complimented my tone and understanding, and reminded me that it was a privilege to even be allowed a one-on-one session at such an age. I wonder to this day who that was, and if I know him now, and if he remembers. Afterwards, my father and I would eat at Yak and Yeti Nepali restaurant in San Rafael before crossing the bridge.
One effect of all of this was that I later became a fairly good player of nagma / lehra on violin. This is the supporting role of providing the repetitive melodic backdrop that gives cyclic context to a tabla solo. An asset and a liability both, I can't but hear the tabla compositions for what they are. Again, I hear them from inside the fingers. When all went well, I would play flexibly and musically, accommodating any natural subtle pacing requirement of different sections ostensibly in the same laya (tempo), without the mechanical rigidity of a metronome nor the tabla-solo-is-a-sideshow philistinism of the mercenary accompanist. But when I mistook the pattern of the rhythm, by the same token would I unfortunately be forced into deciding where the beat should land, rather than simply trusting it to land where it ought to, like a good nagma player probably should. Win some, lose some. I carried out this process performing with some famous tabla players before desisting - Subhankar Banerjee, Anubrata Chatterjee, Salar Nader, Sameer Gupta.
On tabla myself, I once accompanied Alam Khan's improvisation class at the Ali Akbar College of Music. This was after a day hike on the Dipsea Trail, overlooking the coast on the other side of Muir Woods. Wanting to wait out rush hour on the bridge afterwards, I went to the college and proposed taking a nap there, which was graciously allowed with good humor. Then I woke up in the evening to the class convening, and I was interested in seeing what an improvisation class would be all about. I offered to accompany the class on tabla. I remember finally convincing Alam by claiming that it "Could be fun!". I think some of the college regulars may remember this. Anyway we carried on, and I have a fond memory of it. Afterwards Alam commented that I had somehow managed to make those house tablas sound alright, the ones with "AACM" written on the kinar (outer rim) in sharpie. That was probably the culmination of my tabla career. In fact, I don't think I've played whatsoever since that day.
But that's skipping ahead; back to the ranch. Or to the University of Texas at Austin, at least. As I began college, owing to some or another spell of adolescent philosophizing, I became fixated on the guitar. I came to think of it as the pinnacle instrument. One or many notes, melody, harmony, rhythm. The ultimate vehicle for musical exploration and other ends, I believed. This thought process had precedent in me - there was an earlier time when I had obsessed over the chitraveena, a slide-veena whose apparent seamlessness appealed to a desire in me for unfettered expression. I never got my hands on one, but I did go so far as to macgyver the family tambura, subjecting it to experiments with different cylinders for slides. Film canisters suggested themselves, but hadn't enough mass. Filling them with quarters added a momentum concern.
With freshman zeal, I proclaimed to my roommate that I would become the "best guitarist ever". This was a project doomed to failure from the start, by both arrogance and immaturity, which seem to be commensurate. And also by the unsuitability of the guitar to my musical disposition, it turned out. As I progressed somewhat in fingerboard knowledge, always this or the other modification to the instrument would suggest itself. If only the notes could be sustained at will, and volume modulated dynamically. If only the frets would vanish. If only the tuning interval would be consistent between every string. If only this were more like a violin...
But I continued to apply myself, and it was during this phase that I gained a working knowledge of chord movement in jazz. I had studied music theory in high school - I think I even took the Advanced Placement test. But here my aim was to play in one of the university jazz combos on guitar, and jazz chord voicings are quite another thing from four-part harmony. A new set of glyphs, these encoding quite a lot of interesting meaning. My ear was equal to the task. I could hear most any cluster of notes as a ragam played all at once. But my hands cried mercy. Unfettered expression this was not. Mired in an all-too-human domain of compromises and workarounds, my music-of-the-spheres mentality was thoroughly frustrated. In the eleventh hour, I gave up totally and reverted to violin, which felt like returning to Ithaca. Stéphane Grappelli, hello. I got a Real Book and sank myself into standards, thinking them the database for becoming a jazz musician. Autumn Leaves, Straight No Chaser, In Her Own Sweet Way - all that jazz. I liked the Cole Porter tunes, and later when I heard bird on'em, I got it. It hadn't dawned on me that nowadays standards are mostly played in hotel lobbies and by jazz studies professors. I also read voraciously about jazz history. I soaked in the salacious stories about Prez and Lady Day, the accounts of Duke Ellington's pomade and class, and I took them to refer to a cultured, cocktail quaffing slice of American life I had yet to encounter. I also started acquiring records, well-documented as the jazz century has been. I've listened to everybody's desert island discs, from the Hot Fives to the second Miles Davis Quintet, Live at the Plugged Nickel. Some stood out, like The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. That recording has character. Later, I would spend a few years in the box office for the SFJAZZ Festival. If mathematicians are machines for turning coffee into theorems, I was a device for turning ticket sales into album purchases. And by the way, it was at SFJAZZ that I was exposed to a high-functioning nonprofit approach to the music business, which would later influence my thinking about the Sangati Center.
This jazz combo wasn't the only university ensemble I played in. I sat in the gamelan, I played forró, I read string quartets. Getting into the mariachi band was highly competitive, being in Texas, although that would have been great fun on violin. And I also took part in the classical Indian ensembles. My role was melody in the tabla class, tabla in the melody class. Pakkavadyam (side instrument). I also raided the music library, chiefly aiming to unearth exciting old music from any source. One piece that made an impression on me was etenraku from the repertoire of Japanese gagaku court music - especially because once while it was playing I fell asleep, or more accurately I fell into a hypnagogic trance, during which it lodged into my consciousness with its reedy droning and the utterly majestic pace at which the melody unfolds. Ati vilambit. I would also voraciously attend concerts of all stripes, benefiting from Austin's famous and eclectic culture of live music. I used to religiously collect all the programs from these, cataloguing them for some future use that has never materialized. Although I fancied myself a budding connoisseur, really I was more of a culture vulture, eagerly taking in the Yo Yo Mas, Wynton Marsalises, and Marcel Marceaus by queuing up once a semester to avail myself of a special student discount (the same strategy others would employ for the sake of football games, not one of which did I ever attend, which I mildly regret.) Like one of those kids at a carnatic concert precociously identifying each ragam and scribbling down the setlist, I would take notes on what struck me about a performance, and I still do this, and I still prefer a notepad or my 'brainpad' to an iPad. I also had a work-study type job as a stage manager for the recital hall in the school of music. I took in my lifetime quota of MFA recitals. More power to those many bright-eyed graduates, but what has become of them all, I wonder?
Of course, I was one myself, for a lesser degree. As an undergraduate, I wrote a thesis called "Raga: An Improviser's Perspective". In it, essentially I claimed that raga-s occur in the minds of musicians as irreducible "aesthetic facts", needing to be perceived whole in order to be fruitful for improvisation. I was reacting to a trend I discovered in Indian classical music scholarship of analyzing raga-s piecemeal, citing snippets from lengthy transcriptions of alapana to produce lists of ornaments which yielded nothing to the understanding, according to me. My advisor pointed out the view prevailing in ethnomusicology that raga-s are not absolute entities with corresponding divine forms (the ones mutilated by sage Narada in the lore), but are situated in particular musical cultures, conditional, mutable, relative to circumstance. I was unimpressed. Thus began my disenchantment with ethnomusicology.
Towards this thesis, I had spent my entire junior year in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India, doing "fieldwork" as a "participant observer". Yeah right, really I spent the year brushing up on my Tamil and conducting in earnest a refinement of my violin technique according to the demands of carnatic music. I set myself to the peculiar challenge of being able to play all raga-s in all keys. That is, I maintained a violin tuning in fifths (EADG rather than SPSP) and devised my own system of fingering to accommodate any tonality. If you understand what I'm saying, you know that this is a tremendous challenge. I ended up devoting years of my life to this, not without some advance in proficiency, enabling me to append a performance to my thesis, wherein I played a thodi alapana in four different keys successively. For these and other efforts I was awarded two generous fellowships for further study towards a doctorate in ethnomusicology - the Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies, and the Javits Fellowship in the Humanities, the latter issued by the US Department of Education. The regard attached to these landed me an audience with the dean and an invitation to be the student convocation speaker, in which office I held forth about the role of art in daily life, or some odd.
Meanwhile, I had occasion that year to attend a conference of career ethnomusicologists at Harvard, no less. The impression I left with was clear - my path does not lead here. Here were the politics of an undergraduate seminar writ large. Here were the professionals under whom I would apprentice as a graduate student, and I found that a prospect with no appeal. So, chagrinning those who had recommended me, I declined the fellowships, turned down admission to graduate school, and moved to San Francisco on a whim and a prayer, hoping to find it fertile ground for a future in music. At first I got by with a little help from my friends. I sold tickets to jazz concerts. I cut my teeth as a gigger, learning the ropes and some new words - hustle, blurb, promote.
Actually, Austin had seen an earlier gigging phase, the very first being to accompany the Austin Symphony's annual debutante ball. That year they had selected an "oriental" theme or somesuch - I played tabla with a sitarist and dancers, and they had hired some camels too. I think even the idea of me playing without a shirt was floated, but sank. Anyway, later I would go on to take up with the Oliver Rajamani band, a fixture of exoticism on the Austin scene. Oliver was a sincere cat, representing Roma (Gypsy) music apparently taken back to its ultimate roots in India - tamil, even. He dug that I could sing the backup vocals in tamil, and since the violinist spot was already taken, I played oud - his oud, whose beautiful unfinished face bore the sweat of my forearm after our rambunctious performances at El Sol y La Luna cafe on South Congress (SoCo). Oliver introduced me to stagecraft, with his shock of curly black hair, booties, and embroidered shirts unbuttoned to the solar plexus.
Back in SF, in time I would become involved in the founding of VidyA - the most legit carnatic-jazz outfit you'll hear. I was with the group from the beginning, through to when we became the first resident performing artists at the Red Poppy Art House. The ensemble's aesthetic is an organic admixture of South Indian music and jazz, much as jazz originated as an organic admixture of African and European music. I was all-in, but I have to admit that my contributions may have been a weak link. First, there was the unwelcome challenge of amplifying the violin for live performance in a jazz band with drums and a saxophone. There is no happy result, in my opinion. Second, my lifetime project of all ragas, all keys - tailor-made for this music - ended up a mild success conceptually, but only a mediocre demonstration in performance. It never got to be very fluid - the craft did not disappear behind the music. As a result, as a violinist I was self-conscious and cerebral, and some of what's best in my music nowadays was at that time defeated or invisible. Eventually VidyA and I parted ways, on good terms and with mutual support.
At this time my father was profiting from retirement by undertaking an annual concert tour in India. This was a respectable endeavor, in my opinion, and one year I traveled with him and accompanied many of the concerts. We played at the Thyagaraja Vidwat Samajam in Mylapore (Chennai), the temple in Nanganallur with the idol of Anjaneya so big that the priests do abhishekam by elevator (and the immense vada-mala would feed an army - of monkeys), and one memorable performance in Vizag at night, outdoors, with the bright lights trained on us attracting insects to such an extent that I watched as a flying ant went into the violin.
Meanwhile, over these years a curious phenomenon would surface from time to time. I have always represented musical thought to myself by singing, and I think most musicians do, to some extent. The voice is an embodied instrument, close to the source. In tabla and carnatic violin culture both, you've gotta say it before you play it. And of course I've sung my whole life, starting with my very first performance. So naturally sometimes I would resort to snatches of singing in order to communicate an idea in rehearsal, or to understand a phrase before translating it to the instrument, or just for the pleasure of it. (I'm constantly humming to myself. Come close and see.) And it would often happen that, upon hearing one of these occasions, someone would say to me, "Oh, you ought to sing more." My sister even predicted that a transition to singing would be my saturn return threshold phenomenon. She was right.
At the beginning of 2008, I put down the violin once and for all, cold turkey. I graduated. I finally faced the music. What had been whispering all along, but at that point became a shout, was that the violin was so difficult for me compared with the voice. So many frictions, such a filter on creativity. Certainly I had profited much from putting my mind through the ringer of violin technique. And, returning to the idea of a pinnacle instrument, the violin does have a claim on it. But it is not a perfect instrument, and moreso was I an imperfect player.
And additionally, alongside developing musicianship, as time went on my being-in-the-world was developing as well, as it is wont to do in everyone. What I mean to say is that some new, humane goals began to creep into my musical practice - a concern for communicating something worthwhile, for one thing. And in this regard, I found in singing an apt means and a grounding influence on my music. 'What do you want to say?', I suddenly realized, was a musical question.
The voice may issue directly from the person, without mediation, but consequently the flaws of the voice cut deep, and are very personal. Here were the new constraints. Health and vitality are more a condition of singing than of wielding a tool. Furthermore, no longer with the excuse of tangled fingers and string switching as technical limitations, the question of "What is your sound?" also became unshrouded.
I found myself for the first time seriously taking up my deepest musical roots - old school vocal carnatic music, the subliminal soundtrack to my life, now finally the apple of my ear. This was a revelation. This music sings. Pushes all my buttons. In my blood. What's more, I rediscovered that the carnatic concert culture of the middle of the 20th century is an apex of cultivation. Energetic, spontaneous, devoted, with room for personality, humor, and heights of skill. This stuff is a credit to humanity. I listened to concert after concert, and thought "If this has happened, it's a good universe." And the push of ambition started to give way to the pull of vocation. I had chanced upon acculturation to a music with roots as old as memory, but that had refreshed itself so beautifully within living memory, and on record. If I could participate in it, I should.
And I could. I remember once walking in the rain at night, coming home from stage managing a concert in college. I looked up into the yellow sodium streetlamp, my vision obscured by moisture on my eyelashes, and I composed variations to myself. Sangatis, developments in melody, one of the principal avenues for orthodoxy in carnatic music, but also for highly individualistic invention, if you dare. With nobody else around, I was as a youthful swimmer dripping in physique, moving for the joy of it, happy to embody vigor - I came up with them because I could, because they came out of myself. They were the proper activity of my awareness; they were creation and appreciation as one.
But at first I bristled at the specificity of carnatic music. There's a diamond in the rough, I thought. And so arrived "New Directions in Indian Classical Music." Basically a duet with mridangist Anantha R. Krishnan, whose gameliness was a gift, New Directions was a project to render carnatic music as free-improvised, "pure" music. As if the music needed freeing or purifying. In hindsight, it was a sort of purgatory for me more than for the music - an atonement for taking so long to see what was under my nose, and a trial by fire. Talk about being a lion-tamer. (Did you attend one of these concerts? Then you know what I mean.)
New Directions lasted about two years before spending itself. Innovation is a mayfly. And as for what has come next, maybe you should come to one of my concerts...
New Directions in Indian Classical Music was an ensemble commissioned by the San Francisco Foundation and active from 2008 - 2010. Essentially, it was a project to render Carnatic music as free-improvised, "pure" music. As if the music needed freeing or purifying...
Carnatic music is traditional devotional music from South India. With its origins in ceremonial temple music, Carnatic music has flourished in recent centuries as an independent artistic tradition, especially in the hands of a trinity of composers centered around the temple city of Tanjore, South India. These composers are today revered as saints, and their compositions, transmitted in an unbroken oral tradition, form the majority of the modern Carnatic repertoire.
These compositions, largely written in the krithi song form (an elegant structure with many movements, each with nested variations called sangati-s), are devotional, but also address social issues. Often improvised on-site during the travels of their itinerant-scholar composers, the songs at once celebrate the local ishta-devam, or "preferred divinity", and sthala-puranam, or "story of the place", meanwhile elaborating the personal philosophical views of the composer, typically with a focus on renunciation of material desires, piety, and simplicity. Even the pen-name of the most revered composer in Carnatic music, Tyagaraja, literally means "king of renunciation".
In this context, any pushing the envelope on my part can be a balancing act, as if there can possibly be some unprecedented depth of feeling compared with past masters. But although Carnatic music continues to enjoy a very active listenership worldwide and particularly in the SF Bay Area, many feel that the purity of intention that characterized the great musicians of the past is not found commonly enough today. What originated as a spontaneous musical outpouring of bhakti ("devotion") now typically occurs as a recitation of centuries-old material that may or may not reflect the personal convictions of the musician, and especially may or may not be relevant to a diverse worldwide audience with every capacity to experience the same wonder and awe as Tyagaraja did, but perhaps with little affinity for Lord Rama, his ishta-devam, much less an ability to understand his understated poetry in the Telugu language. This can place an upper bound on the integrity of the performance, and sometimes makes self-important virtuosic vehicles out of paeans originally written with such humility, intelligence, and fervor.
The realities of the new global context for this (and all) traditional music strain the original cultural coherence of artist and audience, with the effect that the central aesthetic value of this music, its subtle expression of universal human sentiment, is difficult for many new listeners to discover within the disorientation of "This is not my music" or "I don't speak that language" - especially in the case of Carnatic music, which has struggled to attain wider appeal with its focus on vocal repertoire in regional languages (even though it's awesome, right?).
On the other hand, the common concerns of contemporary life are community-building rather than alienating, and thus constitute powerful fertile ground for the introduction of a shared new emotional content into Carnatic music, instead of the nostalgia for bygone eras and obsolete cultural contexts which otherwise commonly accompany the music. The true tradition of Carnatic music - true to Tyagaraja - is for the music to speak to the society, and to be as authentic a personal statement by the musician as possible.
The music of "New Directions" removes Carnatic music from the fossilizing influence of the diasporic concert hall and recontextualizes it as inherently relevant to all listeners, not just acculturated ones. "New Directions" is presented without a strong intention to represent a tradition, and yet owes many traditions a huge debt. Surely we are all standing on the shoulders of giants like Tyagaraja, whose own creative travails furthered an already venerable tradition, and who himself proclaims in one of his most well-known songs, "There are countless great people - I salute them all."
It's good, interesting, sincere music. In fact, I'd rather call it "Good, Interesting, Sincere Music", but you can see how that might be even less descriptive than "New Directions". So, I hope you all get a chance soon to hear it for yourselves.
on the gathering (vs. the recording):
Musicians - admit it. You weren't born making the music you make now. Somewhere there have been inputs - inoculations of musicality, like the language that a poet learns.
Inputs. I think there have been many generations of us now who see recordings as acculturators. Our modern attitude about music is conditioned on the artifact - the sound, the essence, we assume.
Recorded music is an incredible technology. I mean the core of it - hearing later what was heard then. (Let alone electronically created or digitally manipulated music - hearing now what was not heard then.)
But let's face one fact squarely - it does not give you the impression you would have gotten had you been there. Not even close, regardless of fidelity.
Like: facebook is not friendship, but maybe it's starting to look like it, especially if you grew up with it. Or maybe the kids are alright.
And in seeing a recording as something to cherish when it's good, something to learn from, we ought to give proper place to this fact: it is an abstraction from a more robust version of itself - a version situated in people and a happenstance, rather than situated in a relic. What great grandpa would have called music was something you either did or went to - with your body, and crucially, with others.
The human being is the most interesting technology for music reproduction by far. This is my main point here.
And the most durable, in a heritage from forbearing elders to wide-eyed prodigies, whereas you could build a bridge to Hawaii with all the defunct records, tapes, CDs, failed hard drives, etc. (And I think we've already started to do that, with the immense garbage patch of plastic in the Pacific Ocean.)
And the most profitable. Recorded music as a business is now a famous dead horse, but the concert "is that it is", there's no remix, WYSIWYG.
A big part of that is because it's about more than what you hear - the sound is not actually the essence of a concert. You always "had to be there", because what music actually is is an experience that happens once.
Recorded music is like pornography - on demand, get your kicks, scrutinize. But if it starts to seem like your "go to" for having a musical experience, you'd better take a walk and get some perspective - you're settling for a palliative. Remember that sharing is caring.
I believe that the gathering is the condition for true music, which is a people phenomenon, and a communication. And what's best about music is its capacity to order a gathering, to bring people "in concert", with shared experience as a substrate for fellow-feeling as much as for pure aesthetic relish.
And as an acculturator, music people make is much more valuable than music speakers make. You remove the human at peril of losing track of the source. This same problem plagues our food system, and is being recognized. Know your farmer, limit your processed food. Know your singer, limit your processed music.
You're not going to make all your music yourself, and shouldn't. You're not going to attend every concert you'd like to hear, and shouldn't have to. And it's impossible and undesirable to hear "live" much of the music that is being made these days, because humans made it with computers. All of these are liberating, good things, and a credit to technology, and something to be thankful for in our age.
But docking your iPod will never be as enlightening as learning a song from a teacher or friend, pushing play will never be as rewarding as waiting for the guy to retune. And remember that you can never witness without being present - and witnessing may just be what is most human about us, most irreplaceable. It's not what a tape recorder does.
morning raga platform:
Until the stars darken, I'll sing to you.
Until the sunlight falls on my cold skin,
there'll be one more song within.
Singing seems like swimming in a clear cool spring
and sinking heavily into the deep.
The lines are mine, from a song in a venerated musical mode and with a prosody that falls into sevens.
I once sang for a barnraising, which means I began before dawn, properly in starlight, and sang the many workers awake. My stage, built for the purpose, was a simple platform built into a hillside overlooking a valley of mostly oak chaparral, a few modest vineyards, and a small lake. The first audience were a fawn and some swallows, followed by a few healthy and wise (if not wealthy) early-risers in wool hats. I've performed there more than once, and that stage has become known as the 'Morning Raga Platform'.
In such a situation, I'm not going to sing Nidhi Chala Sukhama, which is in the same musical mode and the same sevens, and was written two hundred years ago under very different circumstances. (It was given as a message declining a lucrative court position offered to its composer, and says "Which is contentment? Wealth? Or proximity to God?"). The song survives, but its context has vanished from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, here I am, still aware of its beauty, which awareness is undoubtedly my most precious inheritance.
This is my artistic situation. To me, the "tradition" is relevance. As a singer, I am not a representative or a relic. I don't put on any significant costume in order to perform indian-ness. I am much more concerned about being authentic with myself and sincere with my audience. All the ornate details of Carnatic vocal technique only matter if they adorn a song you feel like singing and somebody else feels like listening to.
So, for a few years now, I've been writing songs and performing them, instead of playing the role of Carnatic stage musician - i.e. virtuoso interpreter. Since I have a degree in philosophy, I sometimes joke that I graduated from philosopher to singer-songwriter.
story of this place / sthala puranam:
A project exploring local song literature,
and the work of Gautam Tejas Ganeshan.
Supported by the Creative Work Fund
In the first phase - four sessions at the Berkeley Art Museum - I invited twelve committed songwriters to perform in the main atrium of the museum as part of "The Possible" Exhibition 2014.
Each session centered on a theme -
Intelligence, Care, Moment, Remaining.
I collected their lyrics in advance, and printed them in four booklets using the printshop set up in the museum as part of the exhibition. These were available to listeners at the sessions, and in the process of making them I became familiar with their songs as written.
In the second phase, I gave four concerts of original songs at a venue just a stone's throw from the museum. The intention was some interface between my path of songwriting and what I had learned about the ethos / zeitgeist / weltanschauung of other local songwriters.
In India, every sacred site has a "sthala puranam", or "story of this place" - an oral history of local flora and fauna, mythical elements, land ownership, etc. - how it came to be what it is now. For some places it's widely known, and for others it's scribed in a secret place under a pavement stone. And what about for this place? It's the bards and griots who tell the tales and sing the stories.
this is music now:
As a civilization, our answer to what life asks of us is mainly to
drive around and pay for things. And for the common good,
we all pay the government, which mostly lurches forward in a
mediocre way. Time happens, so what's next?
Ride bicycles, eat local. OK, but what happened to church?
Congregation was the baby, religion was the bathwater.
We are the most interesting animal, because we have attained
the Wikipedia stage of evolution.
"Green" literally means plants. Climate change has arrived
on the radar of society, and the bottom line is:
have we despoiled the Garden of Eden? We like to be
in beautiful places, and we are capable of working at it,
which is the Economy.
And the Ecosystem is how much life-force is embodied
in the environment - cities and forests, and especially
the whole thing.
Revolution is violent. Evolution is slow. Development is...
happening? There are slums, and there is terrorism.
There are so many ways to blame the system -
but the system is you.
Anyway, we like to practice music as one example of
how humans can behave.