Writings About Music

Saptaka Sea:

Sailing In the Melakartas of Karnatica

no words can describe
the emotions of spring

This poetic phrase by the legendary T’ang poet, Li Ho, translated by David Young, expresses exactly the way I feel when it comes to writing about music.
Normally, when I write liner notes for a new album, it is something I enjoy because after much time spent contemplating, composing and realizing a new piece, it may be a pleasant diversion to reflect on the finished work in the relatively little-explored arena of words. But this was not the case for a flurry of new albums released in 2010. While I could handle the musical pace of so much activity, coming up with liner notes for fifteen new compositions was too much of a good thing. It was overwhelming. Partly for this reason, I decided to write some words about this unique happenstance with my music. 

The pure alap compositions that inspired this writing are California Spring (Suryakanta), Bhairava, Hansadhvani, Rusabhapriya, Dharmavati, Dhirasankarabharanam, Kokilapriya, Kanakangi, Tanarupi, The Girl In the Photograph (Varunapriya) and Ganamurti. Similarly, the works featuring percussion together with melody that led to this piece are Bhairavi, Gamanapriya, Latangi, Chakravaka, Kamavardhani and Ramapriya. Please note that Bhairava and Bhairavi are Hindustani ragas and Hansadhvani is a Karnatic raga.
The melakartas of Karnatic music first came to my attention in the nineties, and I was intrigued, but felt no emotional connection because at the time I was focusing on delving into specific Hindustani ragas, and Karnatic ragas that had been adopted by Hindustani musicians. (Saptaka is the Sanskrit name for cluster of seven, or the series of seven swaras (tones) that collectively form a complete octave.)

It came to pass that later on, as described in Fence Sounds, I was ready to embrace the melakartas on emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual planes. Having spent some time with Hindustani music, I desired to move to a different realm of musical forms, one that was more distant and abstract, yet promising of yielding new musical habitats. 
California Spring (Suryakanta) and Bhairava were my first two alap compositions at this time, and they both used three soft tanpuras and the strong presence of Indian bells, rotating drum and rainstick accompanying the melodic voice intoned by a limpid piano timbre. 
Returning to pure alap composition after Bhairavi and Gamanapriya, which both feature percussion, and also have individual liner notes, I came upon a new presentation for the music accompanying the solo piano voice. For the next six alap pieces, I employed a dramatic synthesized drone first used on Gangadhara (Bhupali) from 2002, combined with a single tanpura, together with much more subdued Indian bells, rotating drum, and rainstick. 
Upon composing with various melas that attracted me, I realized that it would be possible for someone to compose both alap and music with percussion for each of the seventy-two melas, something like Johann Sebastian Bach had done with the twenty-four two and three-part inventions, and the twenty-four preludes and fugues. Of course, to keep the analogy more precise, one might multiply the melas by the twelve swaras of the saptaka to achieve a full eight-hundred and sixty-four potential works. (Any volunteers?)
This leads to an essential distinction between Indian classical music and Western classical music historically between Bach and, say, Shostakovich. Indian classical music melodic sources are drawn from the seventy-two melas, and Western classical uses one major scale and several minor scales, achieving variety through tonal modulation, which is unheard of in Indian classical music. 
The process of selecting which precise tone to use for Shadja (tonic) with each particular mela is fascinating for me. Indian musicians use one tonal center for their entire life, but given the nature of the meruvina, I have used all twelve possibilities in my work. It is an intuitive process that filters the melodic personality of the mela together with my individual temperament, and I frequently am surprised where Shadja turns up. 
Given all the layers and complexities, composing this music was all-encompassing, and the musical realms each mela opened up were too imposing for me to write about in the length I typically devote to each album because of the sheer number of works. Instead, I turned to this format of writing about the over-all experience, and perhaps I will return later to expounding upon each individual piece in more detail. What follows are some brief remarks. (Individual liner notes for all the mentioned albums have been available online since December 2010.)
Hansadhvani, a Karnatic raga related to Dhirasankarabharanam mela, has a deep emotional connection for me already established mostly through a recording by Shivkumar Sharma, and my viewings of two swans that live in a protected place here in Los Angeles. It is a pentatonic raga that is beyond beautiful, with origins rooted in the voice of the swan. My instincts tell me that the raga also depicts the shape of a swan’s body. 
Kanakangi is believed to have been the primary mela at least five-hundred years ago, and that is astonishing because it is practically unknown to Western ears, and most Indian ears of our time. That may not last, however, because I found it to be utterly seductive in both a melodic sense, and the manner in which it accentuates the tunings I employ. I cannot imagine creative musicians not wanting to use Kanakang if only they knew about it! 
Kokilapriya postulates mystery and exoticism, the filigree of connecting glissandi tethering sustained tones both sonorous in the bass tessitura, and windbell-like in the upper registers. 
Dhirasankarabharanam, sharing the tones so recognizable here in the West - our major scale - prompted me to search for new terrain within its sweet familiarity. 

Hopefully, I will find time to write about Rusabhapriya, Dharmavati, Latangi, Chakravaka, Kamavardhani, Ramapriya, Tanarupi, The Girl In The Photograph (Varunapriya), and Ganamurti on another occasion!

As mentioned above, California Spring (Suryakanta) has extensive liner notes, and Bhairava, Bhairavi, and Gamanapriya have brief liner notes. This writing relates to both CDs with and without individual liner notes.

In general, I enjoy weaving melodic utterances from the melas that I do not imagine have been used in Karnatic and Hindustani music, drawing upon my American background in classical, jazz, blues, rock, pop, folk, and country. 
What can I say about the piano timbre I have given so much prominence to here? It represents a distillation, a stripping-down of all pretense and disguise. A close-up illumination of the crossroads between each mela and my personal chemistry. 
The effect is not so far from chanting over a rich ostinato, perusing the musical landscape supplied by each mela, and finding out which direction to move in from moment to moment within the vast framework of each aural canvas.
Following Kanakangi, I proceeded to compose two new works, Kamavardhani and Ramapriya, that include percussion, and so I don’t yet know whether I will use the same procedure for more alap pieces. It is very possible that this arrangement will no longer be the preferred manner for framing an alap, but regardless of whether I add to this particular family, it has been a pleasant surprise to work with … and worth writing about. 

Most recently, Tanarupi, The Girl In The Photograph (Varunapriya) and Ganamurti use the established setting, with Tanarupi using an ud timbre in place of the piano timbre.
- Michael Robinson, March 2010, Los Angeles 


Michael Robinson began recording piano improvisations in 2018.

© 2010 Michael Robinson All rights reserved. 

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.