Writings about Music
Indian classical music and American jazz are both theme and variation forms centered on improvisation. Beginning with a known musical entity, either a raga or song (composition), respectively, musicians of the highest order extemporize according to their expressive and technical feelings and thoughts of the moment. Thus, the same raga or song (composition) may produce highly diverse interpretive results on different occasions by the same artists, with the ability to find new expositions and nuance being paramount among the qualities that define a great musical artist.
Origins of specific ragas are often shrouded in mystery, originating in the distant past, without any clear record of who found the raga. I say found because it is believed that ragas have always existed, and musicians are said to discover ragas rather than invent them.
If we consider jazz beginning roughly with the Swing period and ending roughly with the Modal period, the basis for improvisation consisted primarily of Broadway Show Songs and blues forms, with the lyrics of the songs equally determinative of their essence as the music itself. Indeed, voluminous composed melodies with lyrics have been a central component of ragas as well.
Consider the myriad flavors of blues compositions and improvisations in jazz, from Artie Shaw to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, and there is a variety of shadings and musical profiles reminiscent of Nature’s multitudinous assemblage of flowers and trees. Or consider the plentitude of ragas constructed with the basic materials of Kafi Thaat, recalling how every evening in our lives features a different combination of sky hues, planet and star positioning, moon radiance, temperature, breezes, etc.
Artie Shaw's innovative approach to improvisation influenced subsequent trail blazers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Konitz.
Shivkumar Sharma brought the santoor into the realm of Indian classical music together with a host of technical and expressive innovations for all musicians.
This brings us to my larger point, which is how the musical improvisation informing Indian classical music and American jazz is modeled upon the infinite variety and perfection of Nature, including the bodies of human beings, and including cyclical movement, which in raga means tala, and in jazz means chorus.
Humans and animals are constructed of the same basic elements the world itself is made from: Air, Water and Earth. Fire represents intellect, and Ether is both the Space we live in, and the Space beyond our earth. Improvisers play what may be elucidated as hieroglyphics of their unique body chemistry and gait, magnifying inner, silent cadences into articulate sound art tempered by experiential strata from both rustic and urban settings.
With musical impulses spawned by a richly diverse cultural milieu including not only jazz and Indian classical music, but also various forms of rock and pop, and Western classical, intent and hope is for my music to sound alive and spontaneous - an improvisational spirit suffused into composition. Many of my works have titles drawn from natural phenomena. This occurs when I find the music's language, form and image in confluence with nature's rasas (moods), processes and elements. All of my music springs from communion with nature filtered through the prism of personal temperament.
My personal experience with midnight raga Darbari Kanada comes almost entirely from the recordings, live performances, and personal interactions with vocalist Pandit Jasraj, whose title is The Sun of Music.
After fully notating a new work, I program a meruvina, my name for the combination of software and hardware used, to perform and record the piece in real time. I never change a single note of a composition even if it is over an hour long and includes over seventy-five thousand individual events, the reason being that notation only begins after a composition is completed internally followed by filling in precise details. The concept of The Long Line, whereby a composition or improvisation possesses a compelling flow from beginning to end, is a quality all composers and musicians throughout world history have hoped to attain, echoing eventful cycles of the earth.
- Michael Robinson, May 2017, Los Angeles
© 2017 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).