With the July 16 release of Philip Anselmo's first solo album 'Walk Through Exits…
- Posted on May 3rd 2011 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
Doesn't that sound like the opening of an ode to another South Asian deity, Richard Strauss' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra,' globally known for its dramatic usage by Stanley Kubrick at the start of '2001: A Space Odyssey'?
Of course, you might also note that it echoes the arpeggiation of a drone often heard at the start of -- and, generally, throughout -- Indian ragas to establish the piece's root tone.
Intentional? Mere coincidence? A case of over-thinking these things?
Perhaps the latter.
"Any music in the world is based on 12 notes," Khan tells Spinner on the phone from his New Delhi home.
For this project, one thing Khan learned to avoid was over-thinking.
"My father -- who was my guru, my mentor, my guide -- used to say that one has to become a complete musician," he says. "What is complete musicianship? Now I realize. After doing 'Samaagam' I feel anybody who can be called a complete musician is a person who can see beauty and good points in every system. It's very easy to say for any listener that I understand Beethoven and not Amjad Ali Khan. But in music there is nothing to understand. There's nothing to understand in sarod, there's nothing to understand in symphony."
This is a lesson long in evolution. A sixth-generation musician in a family that has laid claim to inventing the sarod, Khan, now 65, gave his first recital when he was six. His father, Hafiz Ali Khan, was a court musician in Gwalior, not far south of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Amjad's talents grew quickly under his father's tutelage, and before he was 20 he was performing internationally, his first US appearances coming in 1963.
Along the way, he's taken many opportunities to study outside of strict Indian traditions, playing with several symphony orchestras including the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He's also served on the music faculty of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And considerable recognition has come, including being awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian honor, in 2001. Now he's passing it along, having mentored two sarod-playing sons, Amaan and Ayaan, who often perform alongside him.
So what does he understand now?
"I'm dealing only with sound," he says. "Sound is the purest form of music in the world. It has to be appealing sound."
Not that this project was without steep challenges. As far as he knows, this is the first concerto for sarod, an instrument of distinct character -- and generally in the shadow of the sitar.
"Sarod belongs to the family of sitar, or banjo and mandolin," says Khan, whose father Hafiz was a revered sarod player as well. "It is very demanding, challenging. It does not have frets like a guitar or sitar. Very slippery. Long climbs of scales is only possible on the sarod."
He does a vocal impression of a sarod, sliding from one note to another up an enticing melodic ladder. "It is a human expression," he proclaims.
But different humans express differently.
"We are using the same sounds," he says. "The systems are different. European music people are writing. But in our system, we don't write. We don't read. We just create. We honor the system of ascending and descending notes."
And this project was about finding ways to work together with the two approaches to playing those dozen notes.
"There was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for me to write music for the orchestra," he says. "And my! Because I can't write or design music, I recorded on CD, I sang and sang and sang, visualizing all the symphony orchestra. And a friend of mine, a British musician, he could read my mind and wrote everything for me on paper. That is why 'Samaagam' was created."
The album 'Samaagam' starts with three short ragas played on solo sarod before the lengthy title suite begins. For this, Khan also drew on the established ragas, but had to approach then in ways that could work both for the way he is trained -- with freedom of improvisation within a framework of a raga's proscribed patterns of notes "ascending and descending" -- and the Scottish musicians' grounding in the playing of written composition. Of course, he's not the first to attempt such a thing, with Ravi Shankar among others having engaged in east-meets-west classical collaborations for generations now. But this had a freshness both for Khan and his Scottish cohorts.
"They are professional musicians and they enjoy working with me and give me so much love and support," he says. "They are very keen to learn how to improvise within their set mode, ascending and descending. There is a segment in 'Samaagam' where I and six musicians improvise in the rule of the raga. They are changing the melodies, someone improvising on flute, someone on violin, someone on viola, cello. So there is a segment with that, but you have to feel when you listen to the orchestra. It was very interesting and they all really enjoyed it. Most Western musicians would like to improvise in the way we Indian musicians improvise, within the set rules of ascending and descending. It took time, but gradually they understood and are still trying to learn how to be more expressive in the rest rules."
"There are five notes," he continues, describing the process of learning the system, singing a scale up and then down. "Within the five notes, or sometimes seven notes, or seven ascending and six descending. Within the restrictive notes there is so much freedom to experiment in harmonization, but [it's] also very challenging for a musician to improvise. They are concert musicians, not the same. Sometimes we are improvising in terms of rhythmic time cycles too, but always maintaining the discipline of ascending and descending."
Oddly, perhaps, Khan has experienced a bit of reverse envy of a different kind of freedom he sees in Western classical music that he'd like to explore some more.
"I do compose some other things," he says. "I get carried away by the sound."
He sings over the phone, a European-style melody.
"As a composer, I take liberty," he says. "I'm not limited to only composing in ragas. Music is free. Most important is to feel the musical notes. Some people can be composed and displayed -- here's the beautiful music. Like Mozart, Beethoven, they never restricted themselves to any particular melody or theme or raga. That option is always open for me. That is also very challenging, to take a raga and get carried away to the beauty of sound and harmonization."
Odd? Or a new odyssey?