Canadian Musician - March / April 2018 - Page 29

WOODWINDS Dr. Daniel Schnee is a multi-instrumentalist who has performed worldwide with 21 different Juno and Grammy Award-winning musicians. He has been internationally recognized as a graphic score composer and is a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz musician Ornette Coleman. By Dan Schnee T A Guide to the North Indian Raga hough there have been numer- ous introductory articles written about North Indian classical music for beginners or musicians from outside the tradition, a good many of them focus on each note set (raga) like they are simply scales to be ascended and descended like jazz rudiments; like reading Hamlet out loud somehow makes one a skilled Shakespearean actor! Unfortunately this approach has led to a great many misunderstandings and poorly wrought hybrids. The most profound and successful expres- sions of North Indian music, though, have occurred when cultural context and termi- nology has been explored, and all involved are connecting on a mutually understood conceptual level. This conceptual understand- ing is not only absolutely essential; it is also very interesting and deeply inspiring. For example, the word used to describe a “flat” note is komal, meaning “soft.” So to play a flatted note, you are softening a natural note, making it tender. Even this one definition alone gives us a better sense of how one’s mental conception of musical terms can change one’s creative approach completely. Another great example is the word raga itself, derived from ranj, which means to be dyed or coloured, something to take delight in. Know- ing this, one ceases to view ragas as merely “scales” and comes to see their true power as an expression of feeling in a greater system of painting, poetry, sound, and time. To do this, we will explore three key areas that will help you get started: mood, orna- mentation, and pitch. Mood Like so many other types of traditional music from Asia and the Middle East, the creation of an evocative mood or “flavour” (rasa) is paramount. It is why saxophonists so often fail to make ragas sound like anything other than W W W. C A N A D I A N M U S I C I A N . CO M scale exercises, as they are not aware of the significant and unique relationship every raga has with emotional evocation. This relation- ship not only includes the various techniques for each instrument, but even what time of the day it is – whether it is diurnal or noctur- nal music. For example, the ragas named Manj khamaj and Jog are most profoundly felt between midnight and 3 a.m., while Jogiya is performed at daybreak, alluding to the dawn meditations of monks and ascetics. The raga Miyan ki malhar, on the other hand, can be performed at any time during the rainy sea- son, or at midnight during the other seasons. Another key aspect of understanding ragas is comprehension of the emotional implications of a raga through the study of its related ragamala: a painted image that visually captures the spirit and mood of a raga. Each ragamala also includes an ac- companying contemplative poem known as a dhyana, which captures the anthropomor- phic character of a raga in terms of its noble masculine and feminine traits. So to actually study a raga, one also studies and meditates upon various relationships between poems, images, sounds, time, and season – a process much deeper than just playing the notes up and down. This will then properly prepare you to study each raga’s pakad: a unique musical phrase that defines its flavour and proper expression. Ornamentation Of course, this means that in order to create a mood, one needs to master certain tech- niques to give their instrument or voice the maximum effect. This is where the knowledge of essential types of North Indian ornamen- tation is vital: the key without which a raga sounds no different from a generic set of notes. There are five ornamental techniques one must study: the kan, miind (pronounced mee-nd), andolan, murki, and gamak. Each note can be given a slow and delicate oscillation (andolan) – not a vibrato like in western styles of music, but rather what one might describe as a beautiful waver. The note can also be augmented by a kan, a subtle grace note played from below or above to highlight a tone. This is usually the first ornament one studies, as it helps one get used to more elaborate murkis: two or more grace notes played before landing on a pitch. A good example is the three-note murki: rapidly playing the notes E, D, and C as a de- scending triplet before landing on D again. Pitch The one technique that really brings a raga alive is the miind, a continuous “slide” from one note to another. In fact, the miind could be called the most significant part of traditional North Indian music, as its proper execution is the source of much beauty and emotion. Creating a fast, “shaking” miind be- tween a kan and a note is known as a gamak, which gives the ornament a beautiful “vroom” sound. And, as North Indian classical music also contains microtones (shruti), the possibilities for artistic expression are very great. Each microtone can vary five to 20 acoustic “cents” from standard tunings, and apart from the natural fourth, fifth, and octave of a raga, all other notes can be microtones, considered ati komal (“very soft”) or tivratar (“very crisp/ sharp”), in the case of an augmented fourth. These ideas and techniques occur in both vo- cal and instrumental music, but studying and imitating the great akars – vocal improvisa- tions using a long vowel “ahh…” in particular – by the masters is an extremely efficient way to hear the ideal moods and ornaments that will make your ragas laden with rasa. North Indian classical music is a global treasure, so I encourage you to explore its subtlety and beauty. C A N A D I A N M U S I C I A N • 29