Music, Voice

Todi

Ragini_Todi_-_Google_Art_Project

Todi is often described 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? One of my teachers thinks that 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.

Music, Voice

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers II

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.

Music, Voice

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

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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Music, Voice

Puriya

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).

 

 

Earth, Music, Voice

Who robbed the woods?

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?

Music, Voice

Purvi

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 should be performed higher in the morning and lower at dusk (though one can find commentators who suggest the exact opposite).  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 as I learned it from my teacher, 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.