Eternal Favourite: Raga Darbari

I’m back again on my all time favourite raga, the king of the Indian Raga pantheon : The King of Ragas, The raga of Kings : Raga Darbari

Darbari lends itself naturally to the sarod, with its deep introspective tone. There are many good compositions in Darbari, and I thought I’d showcase one particular one which is not heard publicly much nowadays,

I’ve recorded – Raga Darbari, Drut Ektaal (fast 12 beat tempo) by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, which he first played in the 80s – and then very rarely thereafter. In fact, this composition is hardly heard nowadays. I outline the composition without rhythmic metre and then the “implementation” of it at 250 bpm fast 12 beat cycle (Ektaal) -which is a tad faster than the original.

This compositions was originally played to tabla accompaniment with Sabir Khan, in what constitutes one of the definitive Darbari recordings of all time.

I decided to play the composition at length without rhythm to expose the subtleties of this composition. This is a multi layered construct – there are a lot of things going on – the mood of this grave raga, an underlying rhythmic framework, as well as a structure built on that famous masterpiece by Ustad Amir Khan (vocal) – Yaare Man Biyan Biyan. The composition balances the competing pressures of technical activity with keeping the mood of the raga intact (it doesn’t take much to destroy Darbari’s gravity, turning it into a Bollywood song – the poor raga has been much abused in this manner)

Then I play the full composition with the metre at 250bpm.

Here is the Youtube video:

A digression for the New Year : Raga Desh (Des)

I woke up on New Year’s Day 2015 with a burning desire to play Raga Des (Desh), a beautiful raga from the Khamaj group of ragas which I’ve written about before….

Of particular interest to me were compositions in fast 12 beat time cycle (Ektaal), and by fast, I mean reasonably fast, much faster than what can be usually played on the sarod (especially in the older styles, who emphasize the plectrum hand more than the hand playing the notes).
However, this approach has great risks – the real possibility of going offkey at any time due to the speed.
So, the only way to get the perfect note is to relax. But if you are rushing at this speed, it’s hard to relax !!
Hence, perfection at this speed can only come from being in a fully meditative state – being one with the composition – from hours and months of practice, to the point that your mind has overcome the mechanical stress of getting the notes out, and is focussing on the nuances instead. A tiny nuance can completely change the whole feeling of the composition.. and this is something that should be spontaeneous, not contrived. That’s the whole appeal of Hindustani Classical Music – the element of spontaenity and surprise…
As a great fan of both the vocal style and that of my teacher -sitar maestro Ustad Shahid Parvez, I concocted two compositions from each of these idioms.

Firstly, the USPK (USPK is shorthand for Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan) composition – what I like about this is the symmetry of the composition. As with everything he plays, there is a method and a plan. I’ve changed everything except the first line, but have tried to keep the same theme going.

The second one is a very famous vocal composition called : Beeti Jata Barkha Ritu
Beeti Jaat Barkha Ritu
Piya Na Aaye, Ae Ri
Ae Ri,
(O friend, The monsoon season is slipping by,
but my beloved hasn’t come yet)
I forget the second part of the composition, having looked  at this a long time ago…
Ideally, I would have played this at a slower speed, because it allows better use of subtle embellishments, which get squeezed out at higher speeds.
Des is such a beautiful raga … compositions in every possible taal abound, so this selection is very niche…

Sound Production on the Sarod: Some Perspectives

I recently had the opportunity to discuss sound production as a subject with senior indian classical instrumentalists.

Discussion on sound production in the context of Indian Classical music has been very limited – Indian classical music discussion seems to be limited to unstructured discussions with very little “shop talk” among the musical fraternity on any operational issue that they face.
For an active musician, sound production is probably a huge topic by itself. However, an objective discussion is not possible on this topic, given that the product itself cannot be well defined. And to me, that’s perfectly ok, as the whole topic of music is by its very nature, a human experience. So much of what follows recognizes the subjective nature of the topic – the idea is to stimulate thinking, and share ideas, rather than come up with a definitive model.
Our key topics for discussion were:
1. How important is sound production?
2. What makes for good sound production?
3. What are some operational considerations  re: sound production especially for a practicing musician?
The outcomes and consensus items are discussed below.
Sound production remains one of the most critical tools to enhance the entire experience for both listener and artist. The sound is essentially what the performer  is “selling” to the audience.
Sound production consists of :
1. The primary source : say the instrument or the voice
2. Secondary devices: amplification, recording or sound distribution devices.
Leaving the second category alone for the moment,  let’s consider the primary source: the voice or instrument.
My particular point of interest is the instrument (sarod), so let’s further restrict our discussion to this one instrument.
As our discussions with the maestros progressed, several key points were recognised:
1. Sound production is very individual – two people can pick up the same sarod, and produce very different sounds, playing the same notes. I have first hand experience of this, with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.
2. Attention to detail in the technique plays a huge role in sound production. Especially on instruments like the sarod, with infiinite nuances of sound possible due to the construction of the instrument as well as the playing style, attention to detail is fundamental to improving one’s sound. As instruments have become more refined compared to older variations, the fingering and stroke technique is vital in producing the desired sound effect.
3. There is no “right” sound by itself, however, clarity, tunefulness, volume and space play a vital role. The exact combination of these  is left to the performer. Silence, or space is also very much a part of the sound.
4. In turn, the technique needs to be modified to achieve one’s desired sound. If you wish to emulate Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s sound, clean picking and smooth string changes without  noticeable loss of volume is a pre-requisite. This can be achieved to a degree with good scale practice, but the final ingredient remains elusive (this is why his disciples sound similar, but not exactly the same as him – the X factor !)
5. The musicians I spoke to summarised all these factors into one word : the musician’s “touch”. The touch is the total package of the sound production technique.  Each person needs to  develop their own touch. This takes years of study, reflection and practice to develop. Musicians often spend decades developing their final, unique touch, which is their hallmark.
The starting point of a good “touch” is tonal accuracy. This is incredibly hard to do. Even the greatest maestros have some tonal imperfections (however, senior maestros have an error rate of six sigma or less !).
Which then takes me to the next point- how do you maintain tonal accuracy if you are deliberately focussing on it? In a 3 hour concert, you cannot focus on every microtone at all times- your creativity and spontaneity will be impacted by this. The answer, as discussed by the maestros is that there is a point of technical mastery in which the instrument becomes an extension of the person. Basic technical accuracy then becomes a given. Yes, the finer points do merit special consideration, but the artist is almost running on rails as far as tonal accuracy is concerned. In that situation, the only risk is if the artist is attempting something which is highly complex or intricate. Say a “murki” (a type of embellishment) which is hard to execute. The maestros felt that with practice, these can be overcome to produce a consistent level of performance.
The key takeout for me was to focus on the attention to detail in each and every microtone and to make better use of space in my practice to further develop my desired sound and to constantly record and review my own sound to keep improving it continuously.

An inspiring book for all performance artists

I recently read Steve Martin’s autobiography : Born Standing Up

Part philosophical treatise, part how-to guide, it’s a deep dive into how a performance is created-an intersection of art and science, intense honesty and brutal self examination. He delivers an elegant and sophisticated analysis of his journey from Disneyland to sold out shows and hit movies with not a single gripe against anyone, solely focusing on improving his art using audience reaction as his guide. Whether you play classical music or hard rock or dance Bollywood and are serious about your art form, this book delivers invaluable insights.

Key points for me were:

1. A performance requires special planning and treatment, especially if you have a paying audience

2. It takes time to develop your own style –  you will inevitably start out with someone else’s material, but with hard work and honesty, you can develop your own

3. This is a long hard slog

4. Complaining about how the world is sabotaging you is probably not a good strategy – no -one owes  you a living.

5. Intense and brutal self examination is important, as is the advice of mentors and seniors.