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Finding Home in Music – Uncovering Moments of Magic in Hindustani Classical and Jazz

Written by Anant Shah, 23rd August 2020

Being confined to our homes for the better part of the past four months has made many of us question what “home” really means to us. In my conversations with friends and colleagues, I’ve noticed that many have come to prefer their family homes, even electing to stay back once the pandemic subsides. But just as many others have realised that their idea of home isn’t really the physical space they find themselves in. For them, home is elsewhere. It isn’t a space that ties them, but a piece of art. 

As someone who finds himself in this latter section of people, my understanding of home is a feeling shrouded in my personal experience with music. One of those embarrassing stories that my parents tend to bring up at inopportune moments is their memory of me at age four confidently trying to explain to a friend of theirs the virtues of the singing of the maestro Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb, while of course being completely oblivious to the theory and history surrounding it all. Growing up to an eclectic collection of sounds, from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to Dave Brubeck, my personal taste has grown to be one characterised by diversity. And somewhere, through all of this, was a refrain one heard – the need to improvise, to innovate, and to personalise your craft. As much as I disagree with a lot of my parents’ tastes today, the idea of bringing yourself into your music has stayed with me.  

Now, bear with me for a moment, because unpacking this specific idea of home within music requires me to delve into the theoretical and structural composition of the two genres that I grew up on – Indian Classical and Jazz. Let me try a small experiment here for you to understand its conception in the former. 

Sa..Re..Ga..Ma..Pa..Dha…Ni…….

(Do..Re..Mi…Fa..So…La….Ti……..)

I would wager that while reading the above almost all of us would instinctively sing the missing ‘Sa’(Do) in our heads, regardless of our musical background. That final “Sa” to me is “home.” A place where our minds and hearts connect automatically without any need to discuss anything. Both Indian Classical and Jazz are genres that are on a quest to help people find those singular moments of universal comfort. In doing so, they construct, for me and many others, a musical sensation of “home”. 

To Sayan Sinha, a multi-instrumentalist based in Delhi, the last “sa” that we sang earlier in our head is a product of not just our exposure to the tune, but also a consequence of the theoretical construction of the music. We hear the same frequency in even multiples of itself – meaning the initial “Sa” is simply doubled in each successive note. By that sense we have the tendency to come back home to the final “Sa” even if its a different octave because we hear the frequency in even multiples of itself.

Overtone Series

Each note has its own set of harmonics which are frequencies that are also produced by most instruments when a certain note is played. Every note also has its own set of overtone and undertone series. An overtone is any frequency greater than the fundamental frequency of a sound. When those particular frequencies are whole number multiples of the fundamental one, they are referred to as harmonic partials, or just partials. The undertone series or subharmonic series is a sequence of notes that results from inverting the intervals of the harmonic series. Imagine a mirror reflection of the harmonic series but going down instead of up. These don’t occur naturally. The notes in the overtone series thereby create feelings of resolution (or a feeling of home) in contrast to the rest of the notes which, in most cases, act as facilitators for feelings of tension.

But the undertone series can provide us with spicier connective tools, a dominant feature in ‘darker’ raagas in Indian music and a sound explanation to the concept of plagal cadence in western music theory. To go just a little further into the theory, when we look at the ‘harmonic series’ of a note we can see that certain notes of the scale are audible even when the fundamental frequency is played.

English Multi-Instrumentalist Jacob Collier, renowned for his reharmonisation, perfectly breaks down harmony in this video.

Although professionally trained in classical violin, Sayan is infatuated with the kinds of experimentation he is able to do with Jazz and Indian Classical through improvisations. Playing around with the idea of tension and release can come very handy when improvising over an unfamiliar structure, in both the harmonic and rhythmic aspects of the idea. When a tabla player improvises over a rhythm, its natural for him to sway from the original groove to something swung or polyrhythmic, playing around with the percentage of swing and incorporating both swing and polyrhythms. It might initially feel a bit off but somehow the performer gratifies the listener by reverting back to playing the initial pattern, once again instilling this sense of home. The same concept can be seen in drummers or percussionists. Melodic tension is equivalent to the diversion of the note/s from the overtones and even the undertones. The base framework that these genres provide musicians is as important to as intuition. 

Two exquisite instances of this theory being put to practice come to mind. The first is this distinct recordin of the Legendary Ali Akbar Khan’s- Lover’s Melody from 1982 in Raga Zila Kafi.

This raga is moulded beautifully by the Sarod Maestro by using the minor 3rd which is ‘Komal Ga’ and the major 6th which is the ‘Dha’. These function as the primary notes that cause the tension followed by the gratifying notes with the perfect 5th – ‘Pa’, and the Root or Base Note – Sa. The rest of the notes act as intermediaries that bridge the gap between these two and maintain the flow of the music.

Armenian Pianist Tigran Hamasyan, in his complex and beautiful composition- Fides Tua, performs a similar execution of this theory.

The piece starts with a hauntingly beautiful A section – an expressive composition over a bed of chords based around the melody in the key of G minor. In the B section the listener is exposed to dramatic rhythms characterised by a dark and melancholic tension leading into a cathartic resolution that crescendos into a rythmic and surging solo. Another quirk to notice here is the approach of using chromaticism, ie the approach of using notes that are foreign to what the composition is based on. Tigran uses these notes to heighten the tension and the eeriness of the already melancholic B section which in turn heightens the gratification of the perfect resolution, ending the song with the ‘Sa.’

The idea of home in these genres, while still being somewhat personal to each individuals imagination, does have some validity as a universal feeling. One subset of Hindustani Classical Music known as Khayal, which translates to “thought”, possibly best embodies this. Within any composition there may be several small thoughts and ideas floating about. Jazz progressions and theory essentially teaches us that there are no “wrong notes” as long as the ones after make sense- an idea that opens up possibilities for Hindustani classical players to expand on different ragas in different keys in the same song.

Tuning into any radio station or scrolling through the top hundred in your streaming application of choice, it’s immediately obvious that these genres aren’t a part of what we consider mainstream music today. As someone who’s studied these genres, I see their diminished popularity possibly based in the theory applied to their form of music. For example while hip-hop, Rap, EDM, and Pop music all have beats which are fundamentally simple for our brain to follow, Indian Classical and Jazz use variations of these same beats with complex time signatures that most people only start connecting with after they have been exposed to the creation of such music. Resonating with the progressions used in these genres one may argue requires a little bit of patience, a trait most of us have lost somewhere in the extreme speed at which we are all living in. The gratification might be delayed, but it is all the more powerful. 

The next time you listen to Shakti, Miles Davis, Jacob Collier, Kumar Gandharva or Zakir Hussain you’ll realise that they are not randomly “jamming’ together. There’s a grammar, a structure and a technique that combines to produce the intense emotions you might feel on listening. Maybe this is a singular interpretation, but I imagine they’re each finding their way home, just as we all want to.

Experience Further: The song has a certain meditative quality to it. I often find myself immersed in the repetitive rhythm ,with a constant pulse running through the song building up the tension. Several instrumental pieces have inspired me but this particular one captivates me and has perhaps been one that I’ve played the most through this lockdown period. Even if my mind wanders off to odd places, that rhythmic pulse in the song always pulls me back home.

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About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture through investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society

Disclamer

All views and opinions expressed in the articles, videos are personal to the Author/Editor(s) and don’t mean to offend any individuals, organisations, institutions or communities.

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