Prompted by an exercise in The Jazz Harmony Book by David Berkman (highly recommended) I’ve been having fun harmonizing the Christmas tune Silent Night. What to hear a few experiments? Here are the first five settings I’ve done. The audio files are generated directly from my notation in Finale.
Here are a few clips of my recent practice of Hindustani-style vocal alap. They are works in progress. First is the pre-dawn Rag Lalit:
To Western ears Lalit may be one of the more “exotic” sounding ragas and you might think it is therefore one of the most difficult to sing. There are definite technical challenges here (in particular getting an accurate intonation of komal dha in the middle octave when it is approached from tivra ma) but overall I find the mood of the rag so enveloping that I don’t need to work too hard to maintain its distinctive character — the experience of singing it is trance-like and not particularly cerebral.
Second is the early-morning Rag Ahir Bhairav:
My teacher considers Ahir Bhairav to be an “open” raga without many formal restrictions (therefore lending itself to experimentation) but I have found it quite challenging to express, because its character seems to depend on a proper balancing of the darkness from komal re with the brightness from the Ga-ma-Pa-Dha region. Without continuous attention to integrating those bright and dark elements, the alap can come out sounding like something of a hodgepodge. For me at least, there’s more active “work” required to hold things together here.
Third is the evening Rag Desh:
In contrast to Lalit and Ahir Bhairav where the alap may proceed by “visiting” and bringing focus to individual notes of the raga in succession, Desh calls for a phrase-based approach where the alap consists of the repetition and elaboration of a melodic signature.
Here’s a clip of me doing a Hindustani vocal alap in Rag Yaman Kalyan.
In my previous post on the so called “overtone scale,” I questioned whether any scale defined in the context of 12-tone equal temperament can be said to mimic the harmonic series. I provided an audio example that shows how accurately tuned harmonic partials seem to fuse into a single tone, whereas when those partials are altered to match equal temperament, the composite sound is rough and unstable. My point was that the special perceptual properties of the harmonic series depend on accurate intonation, an appropriate pattern of amplitude decay, and appropriate registration; we should be cautious about assuming that any scale constructed in equal temperament will somehow inherit the special properties of the harmonic series by virtue of an incomplete resemblance to it. My aim in the post was not to call into question the musical worth of any particular scale (and certainly not to address George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept as a whole), but only to point out that the Lydian Dominant scale shouldn’t be called an “overtone scale” when played on the piano or any tempered instrument: that name is misleading.
In this post I’d like to share another simple audio example that might help readers form their own judgments on the matter. If the scale 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7 really does invoke the harmonic series in our minds, even when we hear it on a tempered instrument, how would that scale sound if its pitches were brought into exact alignment with the harmonic series? Would that tuning bring us closer to the essence of the scale, or would it conflict with what we want to hear?
In the first audio example below, you will hear the Lydian Dominant scale rendered on an equal-tempered organ. The ascending and descending scale is followed by a short tune that I wrote in the scale. In the second audio example, you’ll hear the Lydian Dominant scale tuned so its pitches match the harmonic series, followed again by the example tune. The just intonation ratios used in the second clip are: 1/1, 9/8, 5/4, 11/8, 3/2, 13/8, 7/4. You will hear that the second, third, and fifth degrees of scale sound similar to what you hear in equal-temperament, while the flat seven, the sharp four, and the natural six are quite different. (The flat seven is tuned to the seventh partial, the sharp four is tuned to the eleventh partial, and the natural six is tuned to the thirteenth partial.) Which tuning do you prefer?
Clip 1 — Lydian Dominant Scale in Equal Temperament:
Clip 2 — Lydian Dominant Scale in Harmonic Series Tuning:
In this clip I sing a Hindustani-style vocal alap in Rag Marwa, accompanying myself on tanpura. Marwa is a difficult raga to sing as phrases often avoid sa (the home note) and seem to establish dha or re as an alternate tonic. When the true sa is finally heard, the experience is more of a surprise than a comforting return home. In the recording here I’m attempting to sing with the specific intonation I learned from my teacher. The tanpura sometimes takes me an hour to really get in tune, as does the voice, and the raga should be sung at dusk, so it’s taken me many evenings of practice to get a usable recording. This one is far from perfect but it felt good to make and I hope you enjoy listening.
At my voice class yesterday I sang Whither Must I Wander? by R. Vaughan Williams for my teacher and some other students. This was my first time running through it with the wonderful collaborative pianist J. Marzan and I learned some new things about the piece from our interaction. I took a recording on my phone and thought I’d share the clip:
Home no more home to me, whither must I wander? Hunger my driver, I go where I must. Cold blows the winter wind over hill and heather: Thick drives the rain and my roof is in the dust. Loved of wise men was the shade of my roof-tree, The true word of welcome was spoken in the door - Dear days of old with the faces in the firelight, Kind folks of old, you come again no more. Home was home then, my dear, full of kindly faces, Home was home then, my dear, happy for the child. Fire and the windows bright glittered on the moorland; Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild. Now when day dawns on the brow of the moorland, Lone stands the house, and the chimney-stone is cold. Lone let it stand, now the friends are all departed, The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old. Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl, Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and flowers; Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley, Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours. Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood - Fair shine the day on the house with open door; Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney - But I go for ever and come again no more. R. L. Stevenson
Time and time again I find that technical challenges in music amount to the same basic problem: how to achieve independence between coupled parameters so that you can control one parameter without interference from the other. For example, one “parameter” might be pitch, and another might be volume. The question is: can you sing higher without getting louder? Of course, there may be times when you want to do a crescendo on an ascending run, but what if a diminuendo on that rising line would sound better – can you sing high and soft at the same time? The challenge is to break the coupling or correlation between higher pitch and higher volume so that you can explore different relationships between those attributes, all in search of the best expressive choice.
Such musical challenges remind me of the more general issue of prejudice and how to overcome it. Without delving too deep into the psychology of prejudice, I think it’s fair to say that prejudice often involves a belief and a behavior that are mutually reinforcing. For example, let’s say you’re a generally shy person and you think parties are annoying. You have a prejudicial belief about parties (that they’re annoying because they’re always filled with loud people who gossip about trivialities) which supports a prejudicial behavior (you avoid parties and try to leave early whenever you’re forced to go to a party) which reinforces the belief (you never have the opportunity to enjoy a party so it’s easy to continue thinking they’re all bad). In many cases the belief has some merit (many parties are annoying for the very reasons you’ve identified) and the behavior has some merit too (avoiding parties shields you from discomfort). However, the belief is incomplete (some parties are actually filled with people you’d enjoy meeting) and the behavior has significant disadvantages (avoiding parties means you miss all the good ones).
An example of prejudice in music might be that you think high notes are hard to sing. You believe they’re hard because you’ve often experienced tension and vocal cracking when you reach into your upper register. And so you behave anxiously when it comes time to hit a high note, either shying away from it and under-supporting the note or else applying too much breath pressure and punching the note – in either case, the unpleasant outcome reinforces your belief that high notes are difficult. Indeed there’s some merit to the belief (high notes do require a more coordinated technique than those in the comfortable middle of your range) and there’s some merit in the behavior too (you’re right to avoid a note that you really can’t sing, and when you do sing a high note you’re right to support it with strong breath). But the belief is incomplete (high notes can in fact be easy when executed with a relaxed but precise technique) and the behavior is limiting (avoiding high notes prevents you from learning to sing them, whereas exaggerating them prevents you from singing them beautifully). Your challenge as a musician is to break your prejudice about high notes – a system of mutually reinforcing beliefs and behaviors – that you may have developed through years of experience in handling this parameter in a certain way.
In some musical scenarios, the prejudice that impedes you may be of more psychological kind, where beliefs and assumptions play a strong role, as in the example we’ve just seen of a singer who’s anxious about high notes. In other cases, the prejudice is less rooted in higher-order psychology and more in physicality – in your tendencies and habits regarding how you use body. For example, in playing any instrument that requires two hands (like piano or guitar) you need to learn to control your hands separately – to make each hand perform a complex motion that is coordinated with the other hand’s motion but still completely different from it. One hand should not prejudice the other. But even if there are no beliefs or fears in the way — even if you don’t hold the preconception that your left and right hands should always act similarly — you might still discover that you have a physical inclination to move your hands in dependent way, so that when one is playing loud or exerting a lot of pressure, the other hand tends to follow suit. “Habit” or “predisposition” might be a better description of what you face here than “prejudice,” but the challenge to overcome is similar. Can you make one hand play loud and the other play soft, and then have them switch dynamics? Can you make one hand play a triplet rhythm while the other plays in duples?
If you want a systematic way to get good at playing a piece, try listing the most significant parameters in its performance, and then come up with small exercises or experiments in controlling those parameters independently. Ask which of your own biases make the piece difficult to perform — which biases inhibit independence? Consider whether those biases are rooted mainly in belief, or mainly in your physicality, or perhaps in both – and find ways to disrupt them. Break unnecessary couplings!
Can you play more smoothly without getting slower?
Can you sing more softly and tenderly without getting breathy, or louder without getting shrill?
Can you keep a strict rhythm in one hand while playing a loose rhythm in the other?
Can you play guitar louder with the right hand without exerting more pressure on the fretboard with the left hand?
Can you sing passionately without gesturing with your hands?
Can you sing higher without looking upward?
Can you play one note very loud without also playing the next note loud?
Can you switch from playing one guitar string to another without a change in tone?
Can you compose two melodic lines that sound good when played simultaneously even as they maintain distinct personalities?
Please share your own examples.