Inspired by activists like Warren Senders, Andrée Zalesk, and Kannan, I’ve wanted to create some music about a shared concern: climate change. So, I was happy to come across Emily Dickinson’s poem “Who robbed the woods?” The poem admits multiple interpretations, but I take it as being about the rape of our natural environment. Emily would not likely have had “climate change” on her mind but surely she could have been familiar with people and organizations who do not treat our shared home with respect. I’ve been working all month to set the text to music (for baritone and piano) and have just finished a draft of the composition. I have put together a rough demo recording where I am singing against a software-generated piano track; while my vocal delivery here has not benefited from much preparation I think the clip does convey what the composition is about; I wanted to share the rough version “early” and invite your reactions to the poem itself and to the way I’ve tried to interpret it musically. Thanks for listening. Please follow along with the text:

Who robbed the woods,
The trusting woods?
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please.
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say?

Here is an alap in Rag Purvi.  I’m particularly fascinated by this rag, and the clip here happens to be one of my favorite alaps that I’ve managed to record so far.

Rag Purvi makes for a very interesting comparison with Rag Bhairav which I explored in my last post.  It would seem that the two rags have nearly the same pitch material.  Bhairav has komal re and komal dha while the other swaras are shuddha; Purvi has those same swaras with the addition of tivra ma.  In Western terms, Bhairav has a flat second, natural third, natural fourth, natural fifth, flat sixth, and natural seventh; Purvi has those same pitches with the addition of the sharp fourth that prevails over the natural fourth.

They have similar scales and yet Bhairav is a morning rag while Purvi is a dusk rag.  As a student of dhrupad I’ve tried to grasp what it really means for a raga to be associated with a specific time of day.  How does being a morning versus a dusk rag impact the way the rag is actually performed?  One very concrete impact is on the way the pitches are intoned.  Reams of material have been written on intonation in Indian Classical Music and by even mentioning the topic I know I’m treading into an area of much heated discussion and debate.  However, to summarize what I’ve learned from my teacher, the pitches that admit flexible intonation (like komal re and komal dha) tend to be performed (or at least, should be performed) higher in the morning and lower at dusk.  The higher intonation creates an active, rising quality in the note that evokes the energy and brightness of morning, while the lower intonation creates a falling quality that represents the setting sun.  A good performer does not push the pitch up or down arbitrarily, but rather achieves a higher or lower intonation by changing the reference point that is kept in mind while singing.  In Purvi, the very low intonations of komal re and komal dha arise by keeping shuddha ga, which is very strong in this rag, always in mind as one sings — searching for the re and dha that seem most aligned with the ga.  In Bhairav, although there may be a temptation to emphasize ga because it sounds pretty, that swara should not be given too much emphasis and in fact it can be intoned slightly high to give it a less stable quality; in Bhairav, the intonation of dha comes from taking sa as the reference point, and in turn the re emerges from dha.

The clip of Purvi that I’m posting here is the first time I’ve been able to hit the dusk srutis consistently in this rag, though I had worked on the same challenge in my earlier take on Rag Marwa.  It is difficult to do.  Because the dusk srutis are so low, there is a temptation to make them as low as possible, but that results in their being simply too low; there’s a contrasting temptation to make them too high, since the brighter, morning srutis are perhaps more standard and familiar, and are easier to “find” because sa is an easier reference to work with.  However, when the shuddha ga is kept firmly in mind, the intonation of dha and re can settle around it in a way that really does unlock the special mood of a transitional time of day.

The controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale appears to position those who advocate for freedom of expression against those who advocate for cultural sensitivity. The conflict is artificial.

The right to free speech may be honored and protected without being exercised at every opportunity.

Racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression may be fought without ascribing the worst possible intention to every careless or insensitive act.

Above all, we should be good neighbors to each other. That means we should avoid offending each other without a good reason; conversely, we should explore all avenues before taking offense. I should risk offending you, and you should risk offending me, if one of us has something important but uncomfortable to say. But I should not risk offending you, and you should not risk offending me, if the only gain is a fleeting thrill for one of us, while the loss is our relationship itself.

You might perceive a Halloween costume as offensive, while I might consider it silly and benign. To be a good neighbor to you, I should avoid wearing it. I should avoid it simply because I know it offends you, and because I value our relationship as neighbors above whatever fun the costume would afford me: I should make this choice even if I can’t fully understand the costume’s significance in your eyes. In respecting you, I should not fear that I have jeopardized my own freedom of expression, because that freedom is still available. At the same time, if I were to wear the costume, and if you were to see me wearing it, you should not condemn me without knowing my intent, and if my intent is frivolous, not malicious, you should treat me as someone ignorant, not malicious. If, in the end, you choose to look away from the costume, you should not feel that you have given up the important battle against the prejudice you see represented in the costume; the battle goes on.

Here are demos of my first two songs for baritone voice and piano, on contrasting poems by Emily Dickinson.  It’s taken the past two months to write these — the compositions are complete, I think!  The audio isn’t final though: I’m still working on vocal delivery and am hoping to record these again with a real accompanist (in these clips, the piano part is played by rather unforgiving software).  Feedback on the compositions is welcome.

I many times thought Peace had come
When Peace was far away—
As Wrecked Men—deem they sight the Land—
At Centre of the Sea—

And struggle slacker—but to prove
As hopelessly as I—
How many the fictitious Shores—
Before the Harbor lie—

Perhaps you’d like to buy a flower,
But I could never sell—
If you would like to borrow,
Until the Daffodil

Unties her yellow Bonnet
Beneath the village door,
Until the Bees, from Clover rows
Their Hock, and Sherry, draw,

Why, I will lend until just then,
But not an hour more!

Here’s a short piece I’ve just finished writing for guitar; maybe it will become part of a series.  The style here is romantic and the texture is more homophonic than contrapuntal, a departure from the keyboard-oriented canons I’ve been working on recently.  It feels good to now be writing for the instrument I actually play.  This is in fact my first “composed” piece for guitar — my past guitar work has been improvisational and it’s taken me some time to move from a spontaneous to a planned approach to working with the instrument.   One thing I’ve learned is that writing for guitar involves a constant interplay between abstract musical thinking and a nut-and-bolts examination of the instrument’s possibilities and tendencies.  I suppose that’s true for any instrument, but it’s especially so for the guitar because the guitar is polyphonic, but not in the rational, orderly way the keyboard is polyphonic; instead, in a quirky, limited way, where the fingers of the left hand can quickly become immersed in a nightmarish game of Twister if the composer isn’t careful.  But one nice thing about being the author of the piece you’re playing is that if a certain note gives you trouble you have the authority to change it, and I did that several times in the course of practicing this!  In the clip, you’ll hear me playing my 2009 Connor guitar.  Feedback is welcome.


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