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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.

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.

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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The most challenging, time-consuming, and fascinating part of making my tanpura album, Uncommon Drones, was getting the instrument in tune for each track. I’d like to share some observations about the tuning process in a way that might be helpful to anyone who wants to know the “backstage story” of the album, as well as to those readers who play the tanpura or have an interest in the broader topic of just intonation.

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Here is an exploration of beautiful Rag Puriya.  Puriya uses the same notes as Rag Marwa but emphasizes them in different ways.  The most notable feature of the rag is perhaps the way the major seventh or Ni is held long and becomes a point of rest, while the tonic or Sa is often avoided.  In Puriya and other rags where the tonic is weak, one has a choice of how to handle a resolution to that note.  One can return to the tonic in a dramatic and grand way, as if something that had been longed for is finally being realized, or one can return to the tonic without ceremony, making sure not to linger too long, as if this resolution were a passing event and not a grand occurrence.  In this alap, I chose the latter approach, keeping Ni as a point of focus, and not assigning much gravity to Sa even when touching it.  This is the first alap recording I’ve done using a tanpura track from my album Uncommon Drones (I am using the Sa-only track in B, though the Ni-Sa and Ga-Ni-Sa tracks are also appropriate for this rag).

 

 

I’m delighted to share this wonderful performance by Matthew McConnell of my canon on the theme from Carol of the Bells. Note the energy Matt brings to the canon and the way he uses the harpsichord’s buff stop midway through the performance for a special effect. Matt and I are making great progress recording my whole cycle of canons and look forward to sharing more recordings in the coming year. Happy holidays!

I’m excited to announce a new recording project in progress, dedicated to the Indian drone instrument, the tanpura. Here is a very special selection from the album:

 

The tanpura has an important but seemingly thankless task: to produce a steady, continuous, and basically unchanging sound for hours on end, as the background for a vocal or instrumental performance, or for meditation. What could be interesting or special about a tanpura album?  For one, I’m playing what I believe to be one of the best tanpuras in the world, made by the late Hemen Sen; further, I am exploring many of the beautiful but uncommon ways of tuning the instrument. The most common tuning has one string playing the fifth of the scale (Pa) and the other strings playing the tonic (Sa), but other possibilities abound, and to my knowledge they haven’t been amply recorded. There is also a big difference between getting a tanpura acceptably in tune, which can take a few minutes, and getting it “radiantly” in tune, which can take hours of searching and adjusting, and on some days proves entirely impossible. I have been recording my tanpura in many different playing sessions to capture the very best of what it can produce. I’ve written a bit about the tuning process in the album notes and will be posting some blog entries on the topic as well. While the tanpura usually fades into the background, I am recording it up close here and am performing it with more variety and expressiveness than the typical detached playing style demands.

This project began with the goal of creating some tracks that I could use as accompaniment in my own singing practice; I then thought that these tracks might be useful to other singers, and later realized that some of them might be useful also as a tranquil background for yoga, meditation, and so on.

The track I’ve posted above in Pa Ni Sa Sa tuning captures a very rare moment where the instrument seemed to come alive and put me in a trance.  Listen to up to 4.20 to hear the full session, which is repeated several times to create an extended clip.

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