Music

Writing a Tabla Concerto

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my musical focus this summer has been on writing a concerto for tabla and percussion quartet, for tabla artist Shawn Mativetsky and members of the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble. I undertook this project along with five other composers who wrote concertos of approximately 8 minutes each, as part of the Shastra 2018 summer workshop organized by Payton MacDonald. It has been a wonderful experience in every way.

Here is a recording of the first movement of my concerto. Turn up the volume, it’s meant to be heard loud:

My goals for this first movement were quite specific. I wanted to explore how material from a traditional tabla composition or kaida could be shared by a four-player percussion ensemble. The idea is that that other instruments in the ensemble — cymbal, bongo, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, bass drum, tam tam — should each focus on a certain aspect of the tabla part and echo it, reflect it, or otherwise imitate it.

I should note that the idea of playing tabla material on an instrument other than the tabla is not new. All tabla compositions can be recited vocally using syllables that refer to specific strokes or stroke combinations — this vocal recitation is a central part of traditional tabla practice. Moving beyond tradition, percussionists like Pete Lockett and Dan Weiss have experimented with mapping each of the individual tabla strokes or bols to the Western drumset. However, I had a four-player percussion ensemble to work with and I wanted to go beyond merely translating the tabla part to one other percussion instrument.

One way I could have approached my piece is to take a long, fully-composed tabla solo and assign each tabla stroke to one of the ensemble instruments, thereby creating a direct orchestration of the tabla solo. For this piece, however, I took a different approach as I wanted to leave room for a more creative interplay between tabla and ensemble. Instead of trying to orchestrate an extended tabla composition, I took a short, four-bar composition as my seed material. The piece begins with the tabla stating this four-bar composition, after which the tabla player is free to improvise variations on the seed. As the tabla player goes on improvising variations, the ensemble echoes different aspects of the seed itself, staying true to its original form. This means that the outcome of the piece is quite dependent on the tabla player’s improvisational choices. When the tabla player creates a variation that differs markedly from the seed, the tabla part will seem to contrast with what the ensemble is doing; but when the tabla player restates the seed or creates a variation that’s close to its original form, the tabla part will seem to be in sync with the ensemble.

Neither I nor tabla soloist Shawn Mativetsky were sure how well this would work before we got to the rehearsals, but it turned out to work better than expected. Shawn told me that as he played, he found it interesting to hear the “shell” or “skeleton” of the kaida continuously echoed by the ensemble. He said that the oscillation of being in and out of sync with the ensemble, as he played closer and more distant variations on the kaida, added a level of variety to the piece which kept it interesting.

Another point to note is that the ensemble in this piece consists of melodic instruments like marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel along with purely percussive instruments like cymbal, tam tam, bongo, and orchestral bass drum. In writing the piece I faced the question: How does one create a melodic interpretation of a purely rhythmic composition? How to introduce pitch in a way that emphasizes the character of a rhythm rather than distracting from or overtaking that character? I had begun to think about these questions in working on my earlier percussion piece Escher’s Drum.  With Escher’s Drum, the melody came about in an expected way when percussionist Gavin Ryan chose to perform my purely rhythmic parts on pitched gamelan instruments; with the current tabla piece, I wanted to “melodize” the rhythm in a more deliberate way. The result can be heard in the repeating riff played by marimba and vibraphone.

The piece begins with a kind of fugal introduction, where the tabla part first states the kaida, and then the cymbal enters, imitating the tabla’s na strokes. Next the bass drum enters, imitating a different aspect of the tabla composition, the resonant bass strokes ge. Next the tam tam can be heard to double the tabla’s tun stroke.  (This was an aspect of the piece I was unsure about: the tam tam has a long sustain even when the player attempts to mute it, while the tabla’s tun stroke is quickly muted by subsequent strokes.  Would the tam tam’s tail be too long? In fact I think it worked out fine, as the tail creates a kind of textural mass that’s welcome in the piece.)  Next the vibraphone enters, doubling the tabla’s na strokes as the cymbal had begun doing earlier. And then the marimba enters, playing a riff that aims to interpret the tabla part melodically.  The vibraphone joins the marimba in this effort and eventually they play in canon. Later the glockenspiel enters, imitating the tabla’s na strokes mostly on a single note, but with bits of melody suggested. Then the bongo enters, trying to copy the tabla part as closely as possible, while the tabla moves to an accompanying role, the cymbal switches to a contrasting rhythm, and the vibraphone plays a chordal vamp. In the final part of the piece we hear the glockenspiel play a cadential melody three times, in dotted quarter notes, with the final statement skewed so that the last note aligns with the final rhythmic accent on the sam of the teental cycle.

A number of things about this piece worked better than I expected in live performance, including the improvisational freedom in the tabla part that led to that part being in and out of sync with the ensemble, and also the sustained tam tam strokes that added textural mass.  What didn’t work as well as I imagined? For one, I expected a greater timbral contrast between the marimba and the vibraphone, and I was depending on this contrast to create a sense of variety as the shared “riff” is stated many times by both instruments in the opening sections. In the recording, there’s less timbral contrast between the two instruments than I’d like, and so I feel the statements of the riff can seem too repetitive. I’m not sure this is a compositional problem though; it could probably be “solved” by a different recording technique along with contrasting mallet choices for the vibraphone and marimba parts.  The present recording was made from a distance with a pair of AEA N8 ribbon mics in a Blumlein stereo configuration.  If I could do it over again I’d move the marimba and vibraphone closer to the mics, or if even more luxury was afforded, I’d add add additional mics to isolate each of those instruments, and I’d then bring them forward in the mix so their individual characters could be heard more clearly.

The second movement of my concerto, a brief “interlude” that’s meant to be like a deep breath between the two intense outer movements, can be heard here:

The third movement of the concerto explores how a percussion ensemble can join the tabla in a traditional cadential composition or tihai. We would have needed a little more rehearsal time during the 2018 Shastra session to get a good recording of this third movement, but I’m delighted to have such great rendering of the first two movements, and I hope to continue writing for tabla, to continue collaborating with the wonderful folks at Shastra, as well as with anyone else who might be interested to join me in similar cross-cultural musical explorations.

My photography from the 2018 Shastra rehearsals can be seen here.

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