Space between notes

Indian music is about the space between notes. It’s also about the space within.

For over twenty years, every one of my attempts at resolving the problem of expressing my musical ideas digitally hit the wall of above realization.

Indian music is fundamentally monophonic. If mono-melodic is a word, that might be more apt. It is about creating a single melodic line that remain complex enough to be interesting. There’s a gap in time that a strand of moving frequencies want to traverse. Of all the possible paths, I need to find the one I didn’t traverse before, but the one that leads to the next.

My favorite part of Indian music, especially Hindustani classical, is the primacy of improvisation. It calls for continuously creating new ways of moving in time and frequency. It’s like building an intricate structures on the go, while maintaining uniqueness. Something like the growth of crystalline structures in a super saturated liquid. And like that process, here too, I need to super saturate my brain with musical ideas, dissolved melodic strands.

I like doing that. Very much. For the music that get realized is something new for me as well. Performance here is not about retelling, nor recreating.

When a group perform music together, It’s about being part of the whole. Our individual expression needs to be congruent to the rest. It is relative to the rest. Producing music as group is exhilarating, and very fulfilling. But to make this togetherness happen, there need to be a musical framework that supports this. European classical music traditions (let’s call it western classical), probably influenced by group worship traditions of Judaic religions, came up with a strategy based on creating spectral structures. It try to fill the audible spectrum with static structures. The movement then is morphing of these spectral artifacts to the next in quantized time. Being written for and performed by many people (or polyphonic instruments like piano, organ), it also specifies the limits to individual freedom.

In contrast, Indian music revolves around an individual and it mostly involves monophonic instruments. It’s not restricted by conditions related to other simultaneous sounds. It’s about creating a structure in time. Expression doesn’t happen across the spectrum in static time, but as a defined, narrow frequency band continuously moving along the spectrum. It is by exploiting this temporal movement that Indian music finds its expressive power.

Digital music, and electronic music in general is a product of the western classical and art music traditions. Naturally most of the electronic music products in the market align more with western music. Until two or three years ago, the availability of even sampled Indian instruments were a rarity among virtual instrument and synth vendors. While Harmonium is currently widely used in Hindustani music, Piano key arrangement and playing techniques are not very conducive to produce Indian music.

Another aspect of electronic art music is that, a large portion of it is still produced in non-live settings. Even in the live EDM, majority chose live remix/DJ strategies than creating new and improvised elements. There are, of course, exceptions, but since tool makers usually fulfill the requirements of majority users before attending to the niche.

So, for a non-commercial musician like me, there were not a lot of options to work purely in digital domain, especially in a live setting.

In the last couple of years, there have been a few instruments that try to get away from the traditional piano keyboard approach to MIDI controllers for digital music. In general, these instruments provide a vastly enhanced level of interactivity. While it is already possible to manipulate and control large number of parameters of virtual instruments and sound modules, the way to interact with them were at best cumbersome. One could setup control surfaces with many buttons, pods and sliders, but remembering and fluidly using them live is a tremendously difficult task. If one add to the demands of improvising something like an Indian raaga, this very soon become impractical.

The key to playability is easy and contextually clear access to various parameters of the sound. This means that, I should be able to access and modify the parameter in an intuitive way that doesn’t require me to come up with difficult to execute workflows.

As an example, lets assume we want to play a sampled violin. In a traditional keyboard setup, I will use the piano keys to communicate the note and its initial velocity using my fingers, use the expression pedal for controlling dynamic expression, additional key switches on the keyboard for selecting the right stroke or sound, pitch bend lever or wheel, mod wheel to control timbre, pedal, a few buttons on the controller to change additional characteristics of the sound like the bow pressure or speed etc. Not only that we run out of limbs pretty fast, it also causes a huge information and perception load to effectively utilize.

If one looks at how a violinist plays the physical violin, she is manipulating several things at the same time as well. However, everything a violinist has to do is within the immediate context. There is no need to take your hands off and tweak a knob to change the pressure of the bow, or use a different mechanism to play a legato or portamento. The resulting workflow is much less cumbersome and easier to remember and develop muscle memory. This is crucial when producing original music, especially in an improv setting, as most of the brain is working on the evolving structure of the music rather than the details of workflow.

In a follow up article, I will describe how some of these new protocols, virtual instruments and hardware controllers come together to create a setup that is very close in its interactivity and expressiveness to some of the traditional physical/analog instruments.

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