The Galaxy of the Raga: 1

To me, art is very much about ideas, as much as it is also about a direct experience. Our society and the way we live and think could be very different, were it based on different ideas. If you don’t believe in the Myth of Progress (that we just keep improving our lives, collectively finding better ways of doing things), then you may start asking, as I do, why certain ideas win over others in the course of history and why we take certain paths beyond the point of no return. Some people believe that music, and the ideas contained therein, are highly causal to social change, being a fulcrum on the way we think. I would like to believe this too, but fear that I would be overestimating my own importance. Still, I have always felt that the approaches I take to my music are important and that musicians have a strong social responsibility for the vibes they put out to the world. For this reason, I have seriously questioned the assumptions underlying the art. 

                       Some big things are happening in our world at the moment. One is the radical loss of bio-diversity, caused not by an ice age, but by us! A less talked about phenomenon is the parallel loss of cultural and intellectual diversity: a mass extinction of ideas, languages, stories and other cultural forms in the wake of a global monoculture. Could there be a relation between the two? Does losing the wild places mean losing the wilderness in our minds? So few seem to be offering much resistance to this great homogenization of human culture.

Hence I feel that there is value in preserving real diversity of human thought and take pride in nurturing an awesome traditional music that is based on, not just different musical structures, but on a different way of relating ourselves to the world. In this series of posts I will explain some crucial features that make traditional Indian music different from mainstream Western music and give suggestions on their greater significance. 

Firstly, tradition Indian music is modal, meaning that melody is produced normally by single tones in succession, often against the backdrop of a drone that sustains or repeats the tonic note (tone 1). The tonic is fixed throughout the piece, giving a sense of stability and stillness, and eventually a transcendental effect.

Occidental music (and now most of the music we hear) is, by contrast harmonic, meaning that melody is normally embedded in clusters of tones which form harmonic progressions and give a sense that the tonic or root tone is shifting. It’s exciting, colorful, and thrilling in its sense of perpetual movement and agitation. There are also modal traditions in European music which hark to the Middle Ages (e.g. Celtic pipe music, Breton dance, Gregorian chant and hurdy-gurdy), but true modal music has become rare due to a tendency to ‘modernize’ traditional forms by making them more resemble Western music (?!).

So what is the difference in experiential terms? In modal melody you are stringing the tones on a thread, one by one. This means that the relation between the tones, their ‘harmony’ (the word in Hindi is samvaad , which means ‘speaking together’), is produced over time in the memory of the listener. Each tone leaves its impression on the auditor’s ‘heart-mind’ (man) and the modal musician is working on this ‘inaudible’ level of experience. As each tone in the mode is repeated it becomes homeopathically more potent, mingling into an omni-resonance known as raga in the Indian tradition. If one particular raga is maintained over a longer period of time (like an hour or more) its effect accumulates to produce a sort of melodic trance. But to reach this state, the listener needs to be sensitized to the impressions that the music is creating on her heart-mind.

So this is a process-oriented way of experiencing the world, a capacity that seems to be more developed in unindustrialized, earth-connected peoples. For example, an anthropologist in the 1950s, trying to ascertain whether Australian aboriginals were capable of identifying abstract concepts of number, discovered a capacity to perceive grouping in terms of transformations over time (from Marie-Louise von Franz, Number and Time, p70). In other words, the aboriginal perception of grouping takes into account the memory of any changes that have occurred in that group- a skill no doubt vital for people whose life so heavily depended on their ability to perceive patterns of transformation in nature. In the same way, listening to modal music is about being aware of processes over time and enjoying the effect that these patterns have on one’s inner body.

Without being able to articulate or identify these concepts, I recognized the psychic potency of modal music when I was first attracted to it. There was also the obvious trance-inductive effect of hearing a sustained tonic, or what you can call a ‘drone’. We lose the excitement of shifting the root chord, as in mainstream Western music, but gain a sense of a secure foundation that supports the ascent to transcendental ecstasy. In other words, traditional Indian music is vertical, rather than horizontal. It’s more about affecting a transformation of mind (what we might think of as a vertical movement), than moving through space with our mundane mind.

My own predilection for trance experience made modal music a more interesting option. But taking on new technology requires a new way of working and new tools to work with. Classical Raga music provided crucial keys to this new endeavor. One of the most important was the key to liberate myself from what is probably the most tyrannous and ubiquitous dogma of Western music: the system of equal temperament. This fascinating and highly technical subject will be the topic of my next post…