Saturday, June 18, 2011



More Music I’m afraid.

Until last night, my knowledge of Indian music could have been written on a very small piece of paper. In the background of my mind,it has always intrigued me, although clearly never quite enough ever to get me off my backside to do anything about it. In 2011, as part of my “Get your Arse in Gear” Year, I had booked to see Ravi Shankar in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. He was playing a 90th Birthday Celebration concert last night, and along with the faithful, I presented myself in the fabulous auditorium for the 7.30pm start.

I thought the evening was fantastic, a real breath of fresh air. He’d written a really decent and understandable synopsis of the structure and history of Indian Music for the programme, and, for once, three pages of explanation seemed to cover the basics really well. I am a firm believer in a little knowledge being a great help in such things.

His group was made up of six players including himself. Two percussionists, two additional Sitar players and a flautist. They were all brilliant instrumentalists, the percussionists especially so. They could make the drums talk and seem as if they were almost alive.

The first thing which strikes me about Indian music is that it is driven by rhythm and a gradually unfolding melody. No chords or harmonising occurs, which is very different from the way Classical music in the West is structured. Given that the Sitar is a multi-stringed instrument, I find that a bit strange, but that’s the way they do it, so there.

The music uses a different tuning from the Western eight note octave, and it all seems to move along a bit like a complex version of Tubular Bells with a phrase being repeated and then being very gradually modified with one note changing at a time. There is considerable use of what he calls microtones which send shivers up my spine. The dissonance which this causes, and the subsequent transition and resolution back to a more comfortable harmonic base is something I don’t experience often in conventional Western music.

The Raga, which is the central core of Indian music is quite a rigid structure. They all seem to start with a contemplative, almost introspective, slow section played by the soloist. It then develops into a section where there is much more rhythmic freedom, and a series of variations is worked out by the sitar. On a nod or a pointer from Ravi Shankar, the “rhythm section” joins in, with a marvellous ever changing support to the lead instruments. Sometimes they are in opposition and sometimes in beautiful synchronicity with the sitar, and the transitions from one to the other are really pleasurable.

It develops almost in a jazz style, with Ravi Shankar pointing to the various other players to take what sound like their own improvisational solos. The musicians interact and play off each other, leaving it all with an odd balance of individual freedom and collective togetherness.

His programme notes explain that none of these Ragas are written down, and the players learn them directly from the Guru, with no musical notation involved. Presumably this means that each performance although based on a base “melody”, is unique and depending upon how the leader wants to lead the variations, it can go off into one of many directions.

As the piece develops, the tempo continues to increase almost imperceptibly until, at the end it has built up to a brilliant and frenetic climax.

Symphony Hall is a wonderful venue for such music. I don’t know anywhere with better acoustics, and a combination of newly acquired Hearing Aids, a beautiful sound from the instruments, and the Hall’s razor like clarity of sound made for a perfect acoustic experience. Within the group, the sharp edged Sitars, with their mesmerising and slightly soporific bagpipe-like drones were complemented by the lovely breathy flute playing, it all being underpinned by a gorgeous range of percussion. Sonic perfection, to my ears at least.

I came away quite exhilarated. His group of players clearly revered him, and they had been obviously playing with him for many years, the whole ensemble being very tight. You could feel an almost religious respect towards him from the others which was rather beautiful and touching to watch. When he walked very slowly onto the stage, you could see and feel his obvious frailty, and quite frankly you wondered how he was going to cope with it all. But when the Sitar was placed into his hands he was almost electrified into action, and if you closed your eyes, there was no way you’d ever have thought the person playing it was in his tenth Decade. Quite remarkable.

I feel a bit as if a door, which I had left shut for all my life, has been opened just a bit. The music is literally a different world from what I’m used to and know, and its freshness, beauty and different tone structure is really exciting.

I can feel an ominous click onto the Amazon website coming on.



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