Asian Music and Dance

Writing ragas for orchestras

In May, the London’s Royal Festival Hall premieres new compositions that use the elements of Indian classical music within an orchestral setting. Composer and mentor to the musical venture, Howard Skempton looks at how western composers have incorporated Indian musical influences. 

I have in my possession a book called ‘Music of India’.  Published in Calcutta, it contains essays by two ‘Westerners’: Captain N. Augustus Willard and Sir William Jones.  A note on the dust jacket, itself apparently bleached by exposure to the Indian sun, boasts that, ‘although written in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the papers bear the high water-mark of scholarship, erudition and research on the scientific and artistic development of Indian Music, vocal and instrumental, and its prodigiously subtle aspects’.  The style of the essays is elegantly archaic and one is sometimes taken aback by a faint whiff of moral superiority, but the approach to the music, and the cultural and religious context, is admirable. 

Given the knowledge and pioneering zeal of these early writers, it seems likely that early twentieth-century English composers interested in Indian music would have been moderately well informed.  A notable example was John Foulds (1880–1939) who moved to India a few years before his death. More famous, perhaps, was Gustav Holst (1874–1934), several of whose works were influenced by Sanskrit literature.  The purely musical debt is less clear;  the ‘tender austerity’ (Imogen Holst’s words) of later works suggests a temperamental affinity to Indian music. 

“Olivier Messiaen’s aim in much of his work was transcendence, both spiritual and (in the literal sense) temporal.”

More thoroughly rational was the great French composer, Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), whose music was strongly influenced by the Indian rhythms he discovered as a student.  The melodic material, modal but colourfully chromatic, resembled ragas, but did not have an explicit reference to them.  His aim in much of his work was transcendence, both spiritual and (in the literal sense) temporal.

This hankering for timelessness was also a principal concern of American Minimalists of the 1960s.  The true pioneer of Minimalism, and the most committed explorer of endlessness, was LaMonte Young.  In Composition 1960 No. 7, the single instruction is for the notes B and F sharp (a perfect fifth around middle C) ‘to be held for a long time’.  Such music seems quintessentially of a spacious New World, prompted in part by humming telegraph lines, spectacular landscapes and the possibilities of magnetic tape. But Young also had a passion for tuning and exuberant melody.  He became a disciple of the remarkable vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath, and was joined in 1970 by a friend and colleague of many years, Terry Riley, whose In C (1964) has become a classic.  Even at this time, Riley’s music was notable for its regular pulse, its use of modes, and its call for improvisation.  A third composer, Philip Glass, had lessons with the great tabla-player, Alla Rakha.

As disciples of Pandit Pran Nath, and in contact with him until his death in 1996, Young and Riley had a profound understanding of ragas. Yet each remained true to the experimental, strongly individualistic tradition of his youth.  They were always ‘in tune’ with Indian music and the mixture of self-discipline and joyous conviviality informed all their music-making, but their own integrity, and their respect for the integrity of Indian culture, dissuaded them from incorporating ragas in their music.

Significantly, neither LaMonte Young nor Terry Riley have shown interest in writing for orchestra.  The whole point about orchestral music is that it is conducted rather than collaborative.  Whether reflective or dramatic, it is designed for the concert hall:  it has no choice but to play to the gallery.  Chamber music, intimate or virtuosic, is composed for small groups of players, and with a smaller venue and audience in mind.  It seeks to encourage a rapport between musicians, and between players and listeners.

I myself developed a passion for Indian music in my teens through hearing no-nonsense broadcasts by the BBC featuring the greatest artists.  I still have a reel-to-reel tape of performances by Ali Akbar Khan and the Dagar Brothers.  It was at this time that I was listening to new music from Europe and America and making my first strides as a composer.  I was drawn particularly to the work of Morton Feldman, with its refreshingly original attitude to time and form.  The tender harmonies of Feldman’s music and the tender melodies of Indian music were something special.  My debt to Indian music is palpably clear in my orchestral song cycle, The Moon is Flashing, a BBC commission dating from 2007.  The longest movement is a 15-minute setting of D.H. Lawrence’s Snake.  The orchestral writing is extremely economical, providing a radiant backdrop to the vocal line;  seeking to support the voice, and never to overwhelm it.

I have always taken Indian music to my heart.  I mentioned recently that its techniques have been assimilated rather than incorporated.  As composers, we have a whole world of music to absorb; we do this in our own way, and on our own terms.

There is a new generation of musicians who seem naturally to embrace both worlds.  Three very different examples are Param Vir, Nitin Sawhney and Wajahat Khan.  Param Vir is a master of the orchestra but his style is uncompromisingly modernist.  Nitin Sawhney’s music is rich, complex and eclectic.  Wajahat Khan is of course a virtuoso performer on the sarod, but also a composer with considerable knowledge of Western music.

Raga Mela is an exciting invitation to contemporary ‘classical’ composers to explore the possibility of writing ragas for orchestra.  It is the brain-child of spnm (Society for the Promotion of New Music) and its current, inspirational Artistic Director, Kuljit Bhamra.  Four composers, Richard Glover, Graham Ross, Matthew Sergeant and Charlie Usher, have been selected to write ‘new ragas’ for the BBC Concert Orchestra.  These four, ten-minute pieces will be included in what promises to be a wonderful evening at the Royal Festival Hall in May.  For those of us with a professional interest in today’s music, this event will be irresistible.  Experiments may fail, of course, but the convivial atmosphere of the occasion will sustain the spirits of even the most sceptical.

“The problem on the larger scale is capturing the artistry and subtlety of Indian music.”

The problem on the larger scale is capturing the artistry and subtlety of Indian music.  I cherish the memory of a recital by the Singh Brothers in a suburban house in Barking some thirty years ago.  The audience numbered twenty or thirty.  Everyone seemed to know each other, except me, the only non-Asian, and I was treated as an honoured guest, with great kindness.  The Brothers sang until late in the evening.  I was beginning to worry about catching the last train home, but food appeared and was passed round.  After which, there was more music.  We sat against the walls of the living room.  The singing was gentle and magical.  A tiny microphone perched precariously on its stand, simply to catch the performance for posterity.

‘Raga Mela’ by the BBC Concert Orchestra is at the Royal Festival Hall on May 6th 2009.



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