Ragini_Todi_-_Google_Art_Project

Todi is often characterized as the quintessential morning raga. As a student of Indian music who was not brought up in “raga culture,” this classification has often perplexed me. Todi is melancholy, even severe – some say it is full of pathos – and it lends itself to a slow development with very long, gradual, even lazy meends. What does this have to do with morning – late morning, no less – a time of brightness and increasing activity, when the day is just getting into swing? My teacher thinks Todi’s status as a morning raga may actually be an anomaly, a case where the ethos of the raga doesn’t correspond in a clear way to the prescribed time of day, even though the association between the two has grown strong through tradition.

I’ve always been intrigued by Ragamala paintings that aim to visually depict the spirit of each raga, but they too can be perplexing, at least to someone not steeped in their tradition. While these 16th and 17th-century images are beautiful, the scenes they depict can seem to bear little relation to the mood of a raga as one experiences it. This is how I felt about the typical illustration of Todi, which includes a female musician playing the veena, in a forest, in the morning, to a group of attentive deer. How does this serene, pastoral image capture the pathos of Todi?

Looking closer at the descriptive text that is sometimes provided by curators of Ragamala paintings, one finds a clue. A caption from the National Museum in Delhi describes the musician here as “a damsel of dazzling complexion separated from her lover and like a yogini [who has] renounced the world, abides in the grove and charms the deers with her melody.”

So then, Todi expresses the loneliness of the morning as it would be experienced by someone beginning the day in the absence of their beloved. In singing Todi, one can imagine singing of this loneliness, of this love for the absent “hero,” to the natural world, to the receptive forest, to the gentle, empathetic deer.  The brightness of the morning, the hastening activity, takes on a different character when one is missing someone as it happens.

Singing Todi with a Sa-dha tanpura as I do here is revealing as the drone changes the character of each note. The minor third, komal ga, takes on an unexpected brightness since it makes a perfect fifth above the minor sixth, the dha in the drone; the komal re, a perfect fourth above the dha, is also resonant. The dha itself becomes a place of rest and security. Sa, the tonic, has an unusually somber disposition. Ni and Ma are unstable.

This clip is a first exploration of this beautiful rag, recorded before I had considered the Ragamala painting shown here.  My teacher feels this clip already has a fitting ethos, but as I continue to practice, I’ll be seeing if I can connect with the rag even more deeply by contemplating the painting and its story.

Massachusetts State House at night, seen from a vantage point inside the Brewer Fountain, a Boston landmark, which — I was surprised to learn — is one of sixteen copies of a piece by Michel Joseph Napoléon Liénard situated around the world. Liverpool has one and so does Tacna, Peru; there’s one Geneva and also one in Launceston, Australia. I had to climb into the fountain last night to take this shot — luckily the water wasn’t running. I believe the Greek sea-nymph depicted here, one of the fountain’s four main figures, is Galatea.

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It may be a secondary and unintended “function” of fire escapes, but they sure cast beautiful shadows.  This kind of geometric intrigue is abundant in an urban setting and while I never get bored with it, I sometimes feel there’s a problem of too-muchness: as one sets out to take this sort of urban-geometric shot, one gathers a host of beguiling images with no way to choose between them.  A few years ago I decided to shoot in squares because it made me work harder and it made successful shots rarer but more easy to recognize.  A square is a tight space.  Nothing can really “stretch out” in a square and you can’t use long diagonals to convey a sense of flowing, easy motion.  A square frame can expose the asymmetry of an image and make it look lopsided, while the same square frame can make a highly symmetrical image look stylized, pretty but not dynamic.  In a rectangular composition you can leave some corners unaddressed, establishing a hierarchy of active versus inactive areas, but this is harder to pull off in a square, where all four corners exert a balanced magnetism: if the eye is drawn to one corner of a square and finds nothing interesting in that place, there’s a greater risk of disengagement.  For an image to seem truly dynamic in a square it needs to struggle against the square’s symmetry in some way while still being full and balanced enough to do justice to all the available space.  It is fun to step away from these challenges sometimes and not shoot in a square.

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One way to evoke the size of something enormous is to show only part of it.  Enclose the entire object in a frame and it will look small, but let it bleed over the edges and it will look huge.  The most dramatic use of this technique I’ve seen is an engraving of the Tower of Babel by the artist Barry Moser.  At first, Moser’s depiction of Babel looks like a mistake, as if the artist had missed the subject and only shown some imposing rock that partially obscures its base, but as you contemplate the small section of tower that can be seen rising up beyond the rock, just beginning its ascent at the image’s upper left corner, you realize Moser has shown us all we need to see.

Though the effect in this image of the George Washington Bridge is not nearly as stark, I had Moser’s engraving in mind when I shot it.  The photo is something of an outlier for me since I don’t usually find the kind of connection I seek when I shoot from such a distance, but I was pleased with what happened here.

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This is a second tune I wrote for Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is the Thing With Feathers.

 

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

 

On a technical front, the beginning of the piece is in the Dorian mode, but the flattened sixth is introduced in some places for dramatic effect; the reprise is in the Mixolydian mode.  The bass line here is not really an independent melody but just a simple accompaniment (unlike the interpretation I posted earlier in Renaissance counterpoint).  I rendered it with some vocal percussion: bum, bum, bum, etc.  I’ve been working on the tune for a while and have gone through multiple iterations of smoothing out passages that felt difficult to sing.

No matter how earnestly one strives to be “objective” in taking a photograph, and no matter how resolutely one avoids editing the image after capture, it’s problematic to claim that any photograph depicts the “reality” of the scene or even that it shows what a person standing at the scene might have observed with their naked eye. Every photograph is an interpretation. Photographs exist in two dimensions and have borders – even frames – while reality comprises no less than three dimensions and it does not have edges the eye can see. A photograph represents the choices of the photographer – what lens to use, what aperture and shutter speed to shoot with, what distance to stand from the subject, where to focus, what to exclude, what moment to take the shot, which shot out of dozens or hundreds to preserve, how to print and frame the image, and where to display it – a photograph represents these choices as much as it represents the “truth.” But does the impossibility of an objective photograph mean that photographers should not strive to be somehow objective, somehow faithful to what they saw? Does the unattainability of an ideal mean that an artist should not still pursue the ideal? If we acknowledge that photographs are synthetic, that they are creative products as much as they are factual documents, should we then engage in the synthetic aspects of photography without any restrictions, allowing ourselves to edit and transform images in any way that might satisfy our artistic vision? Or are there times when we should resolve that while we could edit an image to make it more beautiful, more striking, more dramatic, we won’t?

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This clip is a brief setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem Hope Is The Thing With Feathers for two voices. I’m singing both parts here. The upper voice carries the text while the bottom voice accompanies with “eee.”

 

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

 

I sought to express Dickinson’s text using counterpoint that would be as simple and easy to sing as possible, so the piece is built of short phrases that use common Renaissance contrapuntal devices, with nothing florid, and nothing remotely experimental, not even an accidental. In such a plain style the palette for text expression is limited, and yet in choosing between a narrow set of “legal” possibilities, one always finds certain musical gestures that resonate better with the text, while others only sound nice. It can be fascinating to compare very simple melodic lines and notice how one line carries the meaning better than the other, even though they differ in only a note or two.

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