Arjun Verma and Sudhakar Vaidyanathan (courtesy of Old First Concerts)
Last night at Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented an evening of North Indian Classical Music featuring the young sitar virtuoso Arjun Verma. Verma studied with Ali Akbar Khan for roughly the last eight years of that master’s life. This would have been after Khan had settled in California and served as Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz. This was also a time when Khan would make regular visits to San Francisco and perform in several of the earliest programs presented by O1C.
The Western world first became aware of North Indian Classical Music during the Fifties through the earliest tours given by Khan and Ravi Shankar. Yehudi Menuhin also played a key role in promoting their performances and recorded a series of sessions with Shankar and his musicians, primarily between 1967 and 1968. Through both concerts and recordings Western listeners began to become aware of the raga as an approach to music making, whose documentation reaches back earlier than the first millennium BCE.
A raga is a gamut of at least five notes that serves as a framework for improvisation. The first raga to be performed last night by Verma, along with drummer Sudhakar Vaidyanathan and a drone provided by Rhiannon Ledwell on tanpura, lasted for about an hour. However, just as a symphony is divided into movements, the act of playing a raga goes through a series of episodes, which can also be called movements.
While symphonic movements are usually distinguished by different genres, the movements of a raga have more to do with how the music itself is made. The raga usually begins with an introduction to its constituent gamut without any strict rhythmic structure. Those notes are subsequently fitted to a simple metric pattern, followed by more sophisticated interactions between pitch and rhythm, usually also entailing the introduction of percussion. As the content itself becomes more elaborate, so, too, does the tempo increase, culminating in a finale of intense rhythmic and thematic activity.
All this makes for a somewhat demanding listening experience. As is the case with much of the jazz repertoire, attention is concerned less with what is being played in favor of how it is being played. However, while most of us are familiar with the instruments and performing styles of a jazz combo, the “building blocks” of North Indian Classical Music tend to be much less familiar; and the fact that listening experiences tend to be less frequent means that it can take a while for the mind behind the ear of the attentive listener to adapt itself to what emerges from this approach to making music.
From that point of view, I should come clean about the fact that my own mind is just beginning to find its way; and this was actually my first encounter with an experience lasting on the scale of an hour. (My times date back to those folk festivals at which usually at least one North Indian group would come out to “do their thing” for about fifteen minutes. Last night, therefore, was a significant reality check, albeit a highly satisfying one.)
Ironically, there was one brief moment that seemed to bridge Eastern and Western cultures. When Verma was first introducing the pitches of his raga, their was a passing gesture that recalled a similar approach to introduction encountered in Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane.” In retrospect this was less surprising than it seemed at “first contact.” After all, “Tzigane” was composed around Gypsy tropes; and the origins of the Romani people can be traced back to northern India. (That connection never seemed to surface in any of Menuhin’s sessions with Shankar.) As Duke Ellington famously said, “It’s all music;” and, if I were to call out any specific listening experience that served as a framework for negotiating Verma’s one-hour approach to a raga, it would have to be past encounters with similarly exploratory efforts at the piano by Cecil Taylor.