Azure Miles Records ~ The Music of Michael Robinson

Influences 101: Indian Classical Music

by Gregory Taylor

November 2003

The Madison Farmer’s Market arrayed around the Capitol square downtown every Saturday morning is shutting down as winter approaches. It’s one of the things I actually missed while I was living abroad last year – making the counterclockwise pilgrimage with a cup of coffee and a fresh buttermilk donut, and a rucksack full of weirdo potatoes, tomatoes, Thai pesto, and drunken goat cheese, and um… enjoying our own local Andean musical franchise.

While you may not know much about weirdo potatoes or drunken goat cheese, you probably know about the Andean music franchise. Three to seven street musicians which always include at least a guitar and one or more pan flutes, with the remainder varying only slightly, as does the repertoire. My friend J. swears that at least some of the group performing in the train station in Utrecht were busking the streets of New York City only month earlier, and I am almost inclined to believe him. We have our very own outfit rat cheer in Madison.

I’m mentioning this because I have noticed a new wrinkle to their repertoire this past fall: the addition of a drum machine. While our local outfit has gone electronic in terms of sound reinforcement some time ago in search of that louder and more reverby Zamfir sound, the decidedly non-Andean trap set (courtesy of the Roland corporation) spitting out these crypto-hiphop patterns caught my attention right away – although I appear to have been the only person in the audience who found this unusual. Everyone else was nodding appreciatively at the fat kickdrum sound and replenishing the cash pile in the colorful upturned Andean toque down front.

It’s probably my fault for having just enough ethnomusicology under my belt to whinge about the “authenticity” of a tradition when its own adherents and participants don’t hold similar views at all. Or maybe I’m just not sufficiently attuned to the “folk” aspects of electronic music (apart from the commercial fetishism that keeps secondhand EMS Synthis forever beyond my reach, thanks to the shamans at eBay) to make the connections a bit closer to home. But when Darwin asked me if about writing the occasional rant for Creativesynth about the place where my own life as a critic and composer and radio programmer cross, I thought of starting with something folksy. Literally.

I thought I’d say a few words of praise about some electronic music that has at least some of its sources in non-western traditions. I figure I can manage two bits about this which include some pointers and rants, and I can save more obscure and annoying matters for later on.

I’d like to say something about Indian classical music and electronic music to start with:

<start rant>

Electronic and experimental composer could do a lot worse than to study and think about how a raga performance might provide a great model for thinking about making pieces.

<end rant>

And why would I want to rant at electronic music people about studying (or pilfering) raga forms? Easy—It is one of the world’s great musical organizational frameworks, particularly in situations where the materials may be unfamiliar to a listener. But I suppose I need to say something about what a raga is first, don’t I?

This is the part of writing this whole piece that I worried about the most, apart from possibly amusing or offending people by invoking the game of Whack-A-Mole later on: Trying to ask a simple question like “What is a raga, anyway?” often elicits the sort of vague and confusing answers that never lead to a second question. Some of you may have your own stories about asking those questions and getting answers that simultaneously imply the ineffable and indefinable greatness of something AND the notion that even asking the question brands you as one of the great unwashed. It’s partially because the whole tradition of Indian classical music (both Hindustani and Carnatic) is long and sufficiently broad and subtle that you don’t want to do any injustice to it any more than you’d want to describe electronica as “a bunch of bleepy stuff.” But here goes:

(A note to the student of Indian music: I am about to horribly oversimplify your whole tradition. It cannot be helped.). My favorite definition of a raga comes from Harold Powers, who says that a raga is neither simply a scale or mode, nor is it a tune—it’s a continuum with one of those things at either end and a lot of distance between.

The idea that you’ve got something that’s both a collection of things and their ordering arranged along a continuous domain is an idea worth thinking about—Imagine that a raga would be a broad enough collection of pitches and melodies that we could lump a minor-key Bach chorale, a tango, “Hernando’s Hideaway” and Morton Feldman’s “Palais de Mari” in the same rough territory, and do so without much irony. The breadth of that might also help to explain how your acquaintances who study Indian music can spend a whole year and only have worked on a single Raga the whole time.

The other gross oversimplifications that I wanted to mention has to do with the way that a performance is structured.(over). Simply put, you start from zero, laying out the scales and patterns (defining the “feel” of the piece) without an overlying rhythmic structure, Then, you add a pulse and/or a rhythmic structure to it. After everyone is accustomed to that, you speed it up and everyone gets a chance to showboat. I can almost feel the chilly and faintly antiseptic sting of all those martinis thrown in my face by angry fans of Indian classical music, but I hope you see where this might be leading: it’s a really interesting exoskeletal kind of form. You lay out the basic materials, focus, and then set the thing alight in such a way that an attentive audience can both understand the materials and get a sense of the skill and understanding of the people performing.

But don't take my word for it. Here's a more nuanced description:

Ken Zuckerman article

You'll find a whole recording of a traditional performance that contains both the audio and the printed commentary on what's actually happening.

Ken Zuckerman performance (video at bottom of page)

There are a squillion great examples of both the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions of Indian classical music out there, and I wouldn’t know where to start in terms of naming my favorite. But if you’re curious about the basic idea of what a raga is and how a performance is structured but haven’t yet developed the um…lengthy attention span necessary for the performances (and are maybe a little curious about the instrumentation), I’ve got just the thing for you. It’s a booklet with 4 CDs bound inside that contains 74 (yes, you read that right. 74) 3-5 minute Hindustani ragas, accompanied by texts that describe their basic materials and give you a little historical backgrounds (I haven’t mentioned it, but ragas are also considered to be connected to all kinds of extramusical phenomena such as season, time of day, color, and emotional states).

Raga Guide

It’s a really great place to start, and also a great resource if you’re going to hear an Indian performance and want to familiarize yourself with it, or if you find out that Jon Hassell based something on “Fourth World: Possible Musics” on Bhairavi, you can actually put the thing on repeat play for a while and get it properly “mounted” in your brain. It’s a must for the geographically decentralized but curious listener.

An additional and instructive dilemma for the electronic music maven who considers their strong point being an ear for timbre may involve getting used to the timbres and performance techniques of Indian music (especially the vocal work). Some it may strike you as an acquired taste, but remember that you probably thought that beer tasted funny once, too.

There are some obvious “big names” in the contemporary music world who’ve made the leap from their own studies of the Indian classical tradition to their own more individual styles, with people like Terry Riley (especially his “Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets,” “Shri Camel,” or “The Harp of New Albion”) LaMonte Young, Jon Hassell (his “Aka/Darbari/Java (Magic Realism)” has a nice set of variations on the raga Darbari), or John McLaughlin. Although not all their work uses electronic instrumentation, I think that the way they structure their performances might suggest some interesting directions.

Since I don’t want to belabor any comments on how looking at raga structures might spark some interesting ideas as you work with your own materials, I thought I’d end by recommending some work to your attention that you may not be as familiar with: someone whose resolutely electronic compositions do use raga forms, and do so in a way that’s nowhere near pastiche or casual plunder.

Michael Robinson is nothing if not productive, and the online catalog at his website azuremilesrecords is probably fairly daunting (his work is also available through CDeMUSIC at CDeMusic too). Simply put, the work all raga-based, and – in terms of his conceptions of performance and grasp of the tradition – is reverent without being slavish. It’s a singular body of recordings that – to my ears, anyway – lives somewhere between traditions. In the course of my radio programmer career, I’ve sat through quite a lot of recordings that claim to be influenced by one tradition or another (there was a time when ethnoambient work enjoyed some fashion, and it was a particular problem for me then), but it’s rare to find the influences based in something other than an urge to plunder samples or to resort to pastiche. This isn’t that stuff.

His recordings are strictly anchored in the “sample playback unit with non-ET scale capabilities” area, which means that some of you who make as much music as you listen to may find yourself wondering about other timbres or synths from the git-go, imagining the works in other (perhaps less humid) acoustic spaces, or thinking that spatializing pitches across the sound field may create the audio equivalent of watching someone playing Whack-A-Mole. But that’s good trouble – he’s done such a good job and created such a believable audio world that it’s not only satisfying, but makes you wonder about what might be next… “music that makes you want to make music,” so to speak.

The website is loaded with samples and you yourself are always the best judge of what’s interesting. If your interest extends beyond MP3 cruising, I’d personally suggest starting with Michael’s “The Listening Earth” as a starting place. While there are other discs that feature some non-CD-length pieces (the earlier “Hamoa” or “Rainbow Thunder,” I think that disc is the best overall survey of his work. If you’re interested in the longer form discs, I’d recommend either Kaunsi Kanada or the more percussively oriented Mian Ki Malhar. I’m still trying to digest his most recent 4-CD performance Dhani, whose time scales are really demanding (the pulseless Alap section alone is 2 CDs in length), but it’s interesting to see how this stuff breathes over the long haul (and I do mean long), and Michael has created a really personal and compelling body of work that serves as an antidote to superficial cultural plunder.

Composer and performer Gregory Taylor is Senior Content Developer for Cycling ’74 and radio host of RTQE on WORT-FM in Madison, WI.

This was the first column by Gregory Taylor for creativesynth.com, a website that is no longer online.