Category Archives: Indian Classical

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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0, 1, infinity: a digital art music tour

It is only recently digital music production capabilities start to provide means for expressing nuances of Indian music. This is true with software and tools, virtual instruments and the means of human-computer interaction.

The most commonly used music creation tools, viz., sequencers/daws provide an interface and workflow that suites creation of orchestral compositions using western musical idioms quite efficiently. Many tools provide advanced capabilities for transforming and creating novel forms that adhere to the principles of western music. Indian music, which is pretty archaic in its representation and even codification*

Virtual instruments (I mostly use VSTs these days) is another area of digital music that has expansive support for traditional, conventional and novel instruments and sounds and many of them are eminently playable. However, the same design and implementation decisions that is heavily biased towards western music production makes them rather clumsy to use in an Indian music context. It is true there are Indian instruments available as VSTs (typically packaged under “ethnic”, “world” or “exotic” category!), but their playability, especially live playability is quite suspect. Some instrument developers try to compensate for the limitations of the daw and keyboards by providing prebuilt transitions and phrases. However, I find them of very limited use since my compositions need more than just occasional riff of an “exotic” instrument.**. Recently, however, more VSTs that consider such dynamic and nuanced articulation and provide a way to execute them even in live setup more or less naturally. Many of the new modelled instruments (as against the sampled ones) seem to have a better handle in this at this time.

Influence and adaptation of instruments from other musical cultures including the European to Indian music has been going on for some time. However, major impact in musical expression itself started happening the wide spread adoption of orchestral instruments as the background for popular music. Harmonium is another one of those instruments that changed the way Indian music is expressed. MIDI keyboards and other controllers for interacting with digital music tools were a direct copy of piano keyboards with some additional capabilities. However, except for some fringe, experimental ones, none of them provided a way to provide nuanced tonal control that Indian music demands. This was the case until a few years ago when a new class of MIDI instruments stated to appear in the market. These are collectively referred to as MPC (Multi-dimensional polyphonic controllers). A new extension for the age old MIDI standard to accommodate larger amount of per note data to support these controllers were also developed alongside. The result is several new MIDI devices that even look drastically different from standard piano keyboards that came to the market in last two/three years.

One such instrument is Linnstrument, which has a matrix layout of keys instead of the linear piano one. This is similar to the fret layout of many string instruments. It also provides four different parameters to be controlled separately for each note, viz, velocity, pressure, timbre and pitch. This is much closer to what a physical instrument like sitar or violin provides. Breath and bite controller from TEControls is another device, which while not provide note data, is capable of capturing x-y movements and bite pressure along with breath.

0, 1, infinity is in some sense, celebration of these tools and methodologies available to produce digital music that includes the extensive melodic nuances of Indian Music. It is also my journey from being an analog bamboo flautist to a purely digital musician.

The video above is from premier performance of the tour at David Hall, Fort Kochi. The tour will continue till March exploring more and more aspects of these new possibilities. This is movement 3 from the tone poem named “Night in the Meadow”.

*While Indian classical music, especially Karnatic has very strong body of formalizing, this is more about the static structure of music rather than a dynamic performance. Thus the gamakas (meend), exact durations, microtonal assignments etc. are left out of the representation system. So, a written version of Indian classical music only gives an outline.

**The situation is better for percussive instruments though. There are excellent Indian percussion libraries available. My complaint is mostly about melodic instruments, as this is where Indian music drastically differs from other musical expressions.

Bhoopalee, lasya mohini…

Oh yes, I know it is quite cheesy. But I couldn’t resist the pun.

Anyways, I have a kind of love hate relationship with Bhoopali. When we were young, my sister and I had this music teacher, who spend a lot of time in that good old Mohana Varnam. It still leaves a bit of bitterness when thinking about it. But, later on, I learned to love Bhoopali, mainly by some wonderful performances by Chaurasia and Amjad Ali Khan.

So, here is my second one. So far, so good.


After over 2 years, my first recording

Well, I sorely miss making music. I did for the last 2 years. It has been quite hard to break the ice. So, this is what I am trying to do from now on. I will post whatever I record here. Instead of waiting for something to be “complete” which it usually never does, I will post the first mix down.

So, here is the first one. This could be the beginning movement of a song, but right now it is just 9 minutes of indulgence in Mishr Pilu.



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