Posts Tagged ‘Music’

The Music of Poetry

January 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

For many years, I sat with a teacher of Hindustani classical music, not learning myself, but watching him explain the complexities of the art to others. When guiding a student through the vilambit phase of a raga, the teacher instructed him to envision a child asleep: the singer should aspire to pouring honey into the child’s ear, to give it the sweetest possible dreams without waking it up. (Translating this instruction into English deprives it of much of its charm, unfortunately.) Once the student began the drut phase, the instructions underwent a dramatic change. In the drut, the listener must be kept awake and engaged, unable to turn away from the music. Instead of vilambit-style vistaars, the singer was told to use sargams and taans, to be like a firecracker. The two parts of the raga are completely different, as are the pleasures they offer the listener. (more…)

Education: The Myth of the Market

December 18, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

 

Some years back I had written an article the main message of which was the following: The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it. I wish to resurrect some of the arguments in the context of the recent discussion on the appropriate medium of instruction for early education in South Asia (On Being Stupid in English).

I found it ironical that a case was made for early education in English because in India untold millions are clamoring for English. In the post I had referred to an earlier article (Macaulay’s Stepchildren) to record that Lord Macaulay had used exactly the same argument in 1835 to support the use of English as the medium of instruction in India – in his view the superiority of English was evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 17

September 16, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In the last installment we introduced the classification scheme in which the ragas of Hindustani classical music are grouped into ten parent families called thaats. Little is to be gained by my describing these thaats and listing the ragas that belong to each; this information is now readily available on scores of websites (one relevant to this topic is here). I prefer to share my own explorations of this schema in the hope that some readers would come up with insights that have eluded me thus far.

Personally, and this is surely a function of my ignorance, I haven’t found the schema to be of much use (because of its many exceptions) asides from the help it provides in identifying closely related ragas. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 16

September 6, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

If you read the last installment you would have picked up a clue to what a raga is about. Keep five swaras (S g M d n) in the air and you are beginning to work with the raga Malkauns. Ergo, it seems reasonable to infer that if you picked a different set of swaras, you would be working with a different raga. Of course, sculpting a fine raga out of these building blocks requires a few more details that we will discuss later but this is a good enough point to start.

However, if we proceed in this ad hoc way, we would be able to list lot of ragas but we would miss out on the schema that organizes the large number of ragas into more manageable sets. In particular, we would miss out entirely on identifying ragas that are related closely to each other. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 15

September 4, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I hope you have watched the video clip I linked in the last installment. If not, I will urge you to do so now because what you will be watching is a visual demonstration of Hindustani classical music. This video will enrich your understanding of classical music more than any number of words.

Let me explain. What you are watching is an incredibly skilled performer who can keep three balls in the air for an extended period all the while creating new and intricate patterns that are non-repetitive. This is an output that rests on an enormous amount of training and endless hours of regular practice. To appreciate the performance you have to keep your eyes open and focused on the patterns made by the balls. And the response that it evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 14

August 29, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

We have completed two stages in this series – the physics of sound in general and the technical foundation of musical sound in particular. These give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music (the swaras) and of how they fit together according to the principle of intervals or ‘musical distance’. With this understanding we are ready to explore how music is constructed.

Many more good textbooks are available in this domain although I find them heavy on content and information and a bit light on communicating the intuition and concepts. I will therefore continue this somewhat off-beat introduction that seeks to reproduce my personal struggles and discoveries and the ways in which I pieced them together. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 13

August 26, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I hope by now readers have fully internalized the most essential characteristic of music. It is not the frequency of a swara that is important; rather, it is the interval between swaras or the ‘musical distance’ between them that is critical. One can start from any frequency; as long as the subsequent swaras are at the right distance, one would be in the realm of music.

We had started this series with the claim that while all music is sound, not all sound is music. In doing so we had made the distinction between music and noise. We are now in a position to elaborate on this distinction.

Think of construction in which the building block is a brick. If we dump a load of bricks on a plot of land we would have an untidy sight to behold. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 12

August 23, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

We concluded the last installment with an explanation for why there are 12 and not 7 swaras in a saptak. We will take a breather in this installment going over the names of the new swaras thereby completing our knowledge of the alphabet of Indian music. This would prepare us for a perspective on music as a language.

Recall from the last installment that the sequence of swaras in a saptak now appears as follows:

S * R * G M * P * D * N S

The asterisks denote the five new swaras added in the saptak (the black keys on a keyboard – note the characteristic 2-3 pattern mentioned before). (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 11

August 20, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In the last installment we established the relative frequencies of the seven swaras in the saptak and thereby their relationship to each other. We concluded with two questions: Why was the frequency of the reference note (Sa) not fixed at some absolute value? And, where did the five black keys on the piano octave come from, i.e., Are there 7 or 12 swaras in the saptak?

As often happens, the answer to one question provides a clue to the answer of another. The answer to the first question is really quite intuitive. Vocal music is the dominant genre in the Indian tradition and, as everyone by now will know, every human being has a distinctive voice. Not only that, the voice of the same individual changes over time. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 10

August 19, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

At last we are in a position to answer two fundamental questions: First, why are there so few elements in the musical alphabet? And second, why have widely dispersed civilizations separately discovered the same musical alphabet?

Recall that the range of frequencies that are audible to the human ear extends from about 20 Hz to about 17,000 Hz. This is a huge continuous range that can accommodate an infinite number of stopping points. But as was mentioned earlier, the ear cannot distinguish very small differences in frequencies and of those that it can distinguish, not all combinations are musical or pleasing to hear. (more…)