There is one question I’ve been asked many times about my work: when I use Indian elements in my western concert music, how can I avoid making the Indian music sound like something more than a caricature of what Indian music really is, like I’ve just inserted things that sound stereotypically ‘Indian’ into a piece of essentially western classical music? How can I avoid being reductive of a musical tradition that is so complex and involved?
This is something I thought about a lot at the beginning of my exploration of Indian music in my work, and I can understand why other composers would see cause for concern on this subject. Because of my particular process of integration, though, is not really of much concern to me anymore. While, at some point, I will go into detail about that process and my thoughts on reduction and emulation, I want to talk about another interesting phenomenon: my encounters with western classical music in India.
We arrived Delhi late at night last month, and by the time we got to the Taj Hotel, it was after midnight. Walking into a beautiful lobby with blossoms floating in white marble fountains and gold filigree work on the walls and ceilings, the first thing I heard was a Bach Partita. You can imagine my surprise to just have been sitting in Vermont with my mentor, Susan Botti, not twenty four hours before, thinking that her incredible new chamber work, Gates of Silence, was the last western classical music I would hear for quite some time, and then arriving in India only to be welcomed by Bach hours after touchdown.
Every morning at the Taj, I would cross the lobby for breakfast to the sounds of a Brahms rhapsody, a Vivaldi concerto, a Mozart sonata. And every morning I would spend those ten seconds asking myself why a culture that has such beautiful music of its own would choose to play the music of another culture in a premier hotel named after their most defining structure.
A few weeks later, I called my advisor at Delhi University and the music that came over the phone in lieu of a ring was a recording of Fur Elise. Again, you can imagine my surprise to be talking to the dean of a major school of Indian classical music and hearing Fur Elise as her ringtone. It’s not just cell phones, like in the states – in India, cars play songs when they reverse, and every so often I will hear a car on our street backing up to the tune of a Kreutzer etude.
It’s interesting to realize that I am suddenly in a culture where western classical music is the caricature. I wonder what elements of our music Indians single out as stereotypical. Of course, since that is the body of work I have spent my life studying, it’s hard for me to hear it in any reduced form, but I am keenly interested to know what the elements are to which it is reduced. Westerners hear flatted second scale degrees, melodic intervals of augmented seconds, modulated buzzy drones and high-pitched, nasal-sounding voices, and at the most base level, equate it to Indian music.
But what are the recognizable pakads* of the west? And what can those non-western perceptions teach us about our own music?
*pakad (पकड़) is one of my favorite words in Hindustani classical music. It literally means to catch, or grab. So the pakad is a phrase by which you can “catch” the raag, by which your ear grasps it. I guess you could even call it the raag’s “catch phrase” – it encapsulates the essence of that raag. I often think of a raag as a scale with personality, and the pakad is the embodiment of that personality. Also, the commonly accepted transliteration above will do you no good – the sound at the end doesn’t exist in the west, but it is my favorite letter in Hindi: ड़ (rna) – so think of the word as saying “pucker” but flipping your tongue back at the r, so that the tip of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth and comes forward to make the r sound. A very spunky word.