update: synthraga orchestra…continued

I am writing once again about the “synthraga orchestra” process, this is an update to my last post…because I’ve just set up the fifth video in the series, which bears the somewhat unlikely title of “thousands of leaves fly into the air borne upwards on rising thermals”, which is rendering as we speak…and hearing the audio for the track, well, I am just feeling excited all over again about this remarkable music, how the unlikely trio of itabla pro + n log synth pro + mini synth pro could create this strange, beautiful music.

I rendered the fourth piece, “rustling of leaves, turns to rattling, back to rustling, then silence”, a few days ago as I am desperately trying to break through the bottleneck of unfinished video caused by the delays of “gone native” and take four is very interesting, but I could see and hear myself still struggling with both the technology and the performance.

bearing in mind this was the first time I had ever stacked that many synths, and take four was only the second time I’d added a second melody synth to the mix, so there were bound to be some very minor teething glitches…

not so take five – I can remember, I readjusted the levels, trying to make the entrance and exit of the second synth app, the mini-synth pro,  a bit less jarring than it had seemed during takes three and four – so this version is…right…it is evened out, and that also helped my confidence in the performance – I can tell I am more relaxed, I am into what is being played, I am fully engaged with the piece rather than, as on take four (not yet released), mostly engaged with the piece and partially engaged with trying to remember what buttons to push and when!  this time, on take five, penultimate take…it just flows.

I could not be more pleased with this series of pieces, and take five ticks all the boxes for me, so far, anyway, because it’s been many, many months since I played these pieces, and an equally long time since I first mixed the audio tracks, so really, when I go to put together the video (six months later in this case, to the day) it’s like the first time I’ve heard the audio track, and this one was a really pleasant surprise – I knew there were some pretty acceptable takes here, but this is better than acceptable.

so while setting the video up, I watched the performance and listened to the audio for the first time in six months – and I was so, so surprised – whereas in take four, I saw a musician struggling and winning, but in take five, suddenly, all the pieces fall into place: I am calm, I know exactly which buttons to push when, so this leaves me completely free to just…improvise a melody.  now, I am a guitarist, who happens to have played piano and then keyboards for many many years…but I am not accustomed to the idea of being able to play just a melody – that’s a new experience.  I’ve always had to play two handed, never as a soloist using just one hand.

itabla takes the place of me needing to use both hands when playing the piano, leaving me completely free to concentrate on melody – a melody that works appropriately with the beautiful tabla and drone tanpura produced by itabla.  so for the first time in my life, I can solo with complete and utter freedom with my right hand only, using the left hand sparingly to play the odd bass notes, or, bend my lonely eastern melody in the strangest ways possible using the pitch bend wheel…and when I watched the film, what I saw was a melody being created, from a quiet but creative  place, in a wholly unplanned and unscripted way – it just happened, and I was the guy who happened to be sitting there in front of the keyboard when it appeared.

I start the piece, with the perfectly timed simultaneous entry of the tanpura and the first note of my melody…from that moment, the piece flies by, and I very, very nearly catch it as it does.  I watch in amazement as I tackle the “central solo” the one where the second synth comes in – I dive in as if I had it planned, and my inner roger powell just takes over – I play the solo, and then, even more surprising, at the end of the solo, I then take it down to a super low note, hold it “just so”, so that the arpeggiator pattern can cycle through a couple times, then hit the stop button (going back from two synths to one at this point) with perfect precision…and then carried on with the rest of the piece  as if nothing had happened.

OK, so I got lucky – the middle section came out pretty well.  surely, I will mess up the ending…but no; once again, things go surprisingly well; I play the outro of the piece, and come to a conclusion – I stop the tabla, I stop playing my melody, letting off that same very low note – leaving the tanpura running.  I sit for a moment, listening to the tanpura drone for a couple of moments…then suddenly, I reach up, play three notes, pause, play three more notes, then simultaneously hit a single, very high note and stop the drone on a dime – all is if rehearsed.  which is it absolutely was not.

in a way, I don’t mind if this is the best piece of the six, or if takes five and six are even better than take five – I’ve been pleased with all the tracks, even the slightly unsteady take three, but take five is the kind of take that makes it all worthwhile, the one that didn’t get away…the one that worked!

I can’t remember a time when I enjoyed making half a dozen videos as much as I’ve enjoyed making the “synthraga” series of videos, with just one more to go…and at the same time, I’ve had ongoing, the remarkable experience of creating videos for scapes 16, 17 and 18 (not yet released), in between the synthraga recordings – and that has been a really interesting experience as well, particularly because those videos, actually, all 18 of the scape videos, have the remarkable attribute of having for their “video master” be a single still image – with the challenge for me, to try to animate and bring that still image to life…I’ve now done this 18 times, I’ve taken a still screenshot of each scape, and made it into a video…somehow.  I’m getting the hang of this video thing.

but it’s also nice to have a straightforward video to work on, and this new track has been a really exciting experience, I can’t wait to upload this (it will be going up sometime in the next week or so) but even more exciting, I still have take 6 to look forward to…as well as about 982 scapes requiring…animation.

guess I better get back to work then.

a new dave stafford genre – “synthraga orchestra” revisited

today I am going to talk about a new kind of music that I’ve been working with now since may, 2012 – or rather, I am just getting caught up with a new kind of music that I invented in may, 2012 – and I’ve dubbed this new process the “synthraga orchestra”, and the music that is output, “synthraga”.  I’ve talked about this before, the reason I am thinking about it now is that I’ve just produced and uploaded the first video from the session, which has turned out really, really well.

on may 19th of this year I did my some of my first experiments using more than one ipad application in a live setting, specifically, a set-up where I use itabla pro for drone and percussion, in the form of tanpura and tabla, and on top of that, I play a melody on my 88 key MIDI keyboard, driving another ipad application, a really nice synth named “nlog synth pro” – and that’s the basic set-up – but, wanting to push this “how many apps can I drive at once, realistically” question a little harder, a couple of the improvs include an additional application as well, another nice synth called “mini synth pro” – so two melody synths on top of tabla and tanpura – and that turned out to be the answer for now – two seems to be the maximum at the moment with no special set-up.

I did try adding a third synth, but the output got really, really confused – so I need to read up on how to best layer applications – I know you can do more than two, but I am very lazy when it comes to details like setting MIDI channels and so on – so I managed to get a great sounding basic set up, with minimum effort – which just allowed me to play – and this first video really encourages me, because it shows on film that the ipad is not in any way shape or form a “toy” – it’s capable of making serious music – but without the kind of serious set up that I would have to do say in SONAR, to accomplish this.

in fact, while the set-up is a little bit tricky, on film, it looks easy – I am tapping away with authority as the piece progresses – first, I start off playing the melody with no accompaniment from the itabla pro application.  then I reach down and switch over to the itabla app, and a moment later (all the while, playing the melody synth using nlog synth pro) I switch on the tanpura.

I continue to play with nlog pro synth melody and now, underlying tanpura, for another minute or so; then I reach down and enable the tabla.  I then play the main body of the song, for another couple of minutes, and then, reverse the process: the tabla come out, the tanpura continue, then – everything stops.

it works beautifully, and I am looking forward to producing the next five “synthraga orchestra” videos over the coming weeks, and I hope you will give them a listen – I really think this might be a genre of music that I would, over time, record quite a lot of – it’s quite, quite relaxing, and I really put the pitch bend wheel on the synth to great use too – which makes sense when you are playing what is essentially, a modified raga – I was pleasantly surprised how useful the pitch bend wheel was in creating these pieces, which sound pretty much like the label on the tin: “synthraga” – playing now on the synthesizerHD channel on YouTube.

see you there!

the music of the moment – a new kind of dave stafford music ? – “synthraga orchestra”

well, by complete accident, I think I have created a new kind of music for myself, a kind of music that I’d really like to do a lot more of, work out this new process really well, so that I can play pieces that are truly beautiful and inspiring. the good thing is, technology is making it possible for me to play this music live, so that is even more exciting – live performance, with tanpura drone and tabla drums – and it’s wonderful fun to do!

in my head, I am thinking of this new kind of music as a “synthraga” – and that’s because on may 19, 2012, I set up a scenario where I could have an application, itabla pro, providing both tanpura drone and tabla percussion, and then I also set up between one and three apps, synthesizers, that I could use separately, or ganged together, to play melodies on top of this beautiful rhythmic “bed” of indian sound.

when I was playing the pieces – six of them, all of substantial length, I wasn’t convinced that it was really “working” – I had my doubts if a synthesizer was a valid melodic device to play over an indian rhythm.  however, when it came time to listen back to the tracks, my opinion changed completely – it works really, really well indeed, which surprised me greatly – I would have thought that synth + tanpura + tabla might have been a disaster, but really, all six takes succeed, one or two of them need a little bit of attention, and a few of them are just exquisite right out of the box – thanks mainly to the genius app that is itabla pro.

the first take, “felled trees float rapidly down river” starts with a ghostly, lone synth melody, that plays for about a minute, then the tanpura enter, then the tabla – the piece continues – then I bring in a second synth, and play a lot of very strange melodies, including violent up and down sweeps of the pitch bend wheel…and then, I switch back to synth one, the ghostly one, and continue with the pitch bend antics but in a more subdued way.  for me though, it’s the tabla that make the piece – constant, beautifully recorded – they are just lovely.  the tabla stops; but the drone continues, the ghostly soloist returns, then suddenly, the tanpura and melody just fade away – and a new kind of dave stafford piece is borne.

take two could not be more different; two synths are operating at once, one a stuttering, chattering beast, the other a slow, long, wah sound, the two play together for several seconds, with lovely oscillations and delays – then, the tanpura enter – which just sounds amazing on top of these two wildly moving synth voices, and it begins to set a mood, the soloing on the dual synth voice is just wonderful, the drone of the tanpura really enhancing it – then, suddenly – the tablas enter, and we are away. “branches splaying flying outward – powerful gusts of wind” – once the tablas start going, the chattering synth melody begins to move up and down the keyboard, following it’s own melody line, up and down the scales, then ending up in the high registers – the tablas stop, some amazing synth sounds happen thereafter – then, it’s just tanpura – and we are gone.  another remarkable piece of music from nowhere, I had no plan, I just set up the instruments and just…played.

the third piece starts with a strange, half-strangled square-wavish sound, as usual by now, the drones enter first, always, to set the mood, while the synth melody plays alone, the drones envelop it and make a lot of beautiful noise.  a heavy bass note emerges, then repeats – the tablas enter – and then the strangest thing ever happens, a sort of extreme, in your face wah based synth plays a short sequence – surprisingly – then disappears – then – reappears thirty seconds later, just the most unlikely synth voice you could imagine, it’s arpeggiator based, but it’s the sudden starts and stops – while the original voice continues to play melodies, in fact, it now goes solo, including several interesting pitch wheel motions – then, back to the extreme arpeggiated voice, which if at first was almost irritating, you now can’t help but really like it, and it’s the unusual justaposition of this weird solo voice with the lovely drone/tabla backing, it’s SO unlikely – that it actually works, really, really well. “rustling of leaves turns to rattling, then back to rustling, then, to silence” is a very strange, but very wonderful piece of music, unlike anything I have ever created.

our fourth piece here, “hailstones rattle down the hillside, into the empty riverbed” starts with a mysterious, minor key solo synthesizer that is more fender rhodes than synth, but it sounds wonderful with the tanpura drone and tabla, and most of this piece is taken up with this subtle instrument, it gently plays a lovely melody atop the perfect rhythm kept by the tablas, courtesy of course of the remarkable itabla pro application (which just underwent a fantastic update) – then suddenly, a technological disaster, by accident, the volume increases dramatically, some strange musical events occur, then it goes back to normal – and then, the middle section synth solo comes in (and, the “loud” section can be normalised in post-production, so it’s not a problem) – with again, a most unlikely voice, a very squelchy modified sine wav with a lot of glide, a lot of delay, and a lot of insane pitch wheel bending from the synthesist – that’s me!.  again, a sound I would never pick to go with an indian backing – it shouldn’t work at all – but, it works really well !!! – then returning to the rhodes-like sound and quickly dissolves into nothingness….

track number five (“thousands of leaves fly into the air, borne upwards on rising thermals”) again has a lovely, rhodes-like beginning, very mellow, really nice melodic playing as first the tanpura drone, then the tablas enter, just waiting for that completely out of control, mad, glide and delay, brash synth solo – in fact, this track uses exactly the same set up as track four, so it’s a second attempt to control this mad scenario of controlling multiple synth apps from one keyboard – it works, but the solo section is quite insane, but still, a lot of fun, with amazing pitch bending going on – and it’s wonderful to hear the crazy, brash voice AND the beautiful rhodes voice jam through the long, improvised mid-section – in the end, resolving down to just the rhodes-like sound…and through that lovely outro, tabla stop, continuing rhodes-like melody, and eventual drone fade and ending…beautiful stuff!

a third and final attempt using the same set up, track six, the final take of the session – entitled “the moon lights the heavens reflecting on the forest canopy below” – each time, the sound balance a little better, the transition from the rhodes-like beginning and end sections from/to the louder, brash/crazy middle section is more balanced – the piece begins to really, really  work, although the beginning of the middle section is STILL a shock, in terms of increased volume; the strangeness of the voice, etc. – although lots of great X-Y pad action makes that voice very, very interesting – a long, descending riff works beautifully – and the arpeggiation is just fantastic!  I love this solo I think best out of the three, it’s sudden, like the other two, but it’s very fluid, and it has a very crazy atonal section with lots of VERY warped pitch bend and X-Y manipulation – beautiful.

the inevitable return to just the rhodes-like voice is welcome after the extensive solo, but I believe that I can find a way to balance this out – I think that the right reverb may smooth this somewhat awkward transition between middle solo and the beginning and ending sections.  a beautiful, calm, rhodes-like solo finishes the piece, and the series…of course, fading to just solo and tanpura, and then fading away completely…

as I mentioned, when I was actually doing these, I was not sure if any of them was “working” – there are certainly some strange combinations of odd-synth-voice-choice to backing, but the way I played the parts, as if it were “supposed” to be that way – really makes the pieces just work somehow.  I would say off hand, that all six are imminently release-able – which is amazing, really – OK, maybe I should only release the first three plus which ever out of takes 4, 5 or 6 is “best” – so, four great takes, two very good takes – but it’s the concept here, the idea of playing synthesizer as the melodic instrument on top of tanpura and tabla – it sounds weird on paper, wonderful on tape. (or on digital, actually!).

I wanted specifically to recount this session, because I believe that I will be trying several more along these same lines, although I may incorporate the guitar synth rather than the keyboard synth – although to be fair, both is probably the best idea.  I could certainly command a larger “orchestra” to play over my indian backing tracks…I can forsee playing live on both keyboard synth(s) and guitar synth, using itabla pro as the rhythmic and drone backing – I believe that, over time, I can expand and perfect the “synthraga orchestra” concept, technology, and set-up – maybe even eventually do live streaming performances of synthraga pieces – why not?.

 

all I know is, I am loving this new sound, kinda found it by accident, but that is what I would call a very, very happy accident, because it’s given me yet another unique kind of dave stafford music to play, along with my ebow loop set up, or my various guitar synth string orchestra set ups, I now can add “synthraga” to the menu – and the best thing of all, they are all LIVE performance set ups – no other way to go if you ask me!

what we’re listening to – the ravi shankar collection – 10 CD – 2012

I have always had a soft spot for indian classical music; for me, it started, as it did for so many young musicians, when beatle george introduced us to a remarkable young musician named ravi shankar around 1966 .  I am so, so fortunate in that I actually got to see ravi play on three occasions, once, in 1974, when a massive indian orchestra was the opening act on the george harrison tour – and that was absolutely brilliant, I had never seen indian music performed live, and to see and Indian orchestra led by ravi shankar as my first experience – that was truly remarkable, and again later, at a special concert held at ravi’s home…and finally, again, a few years after that in a more formal setting, I was very fortunate to have seen ravi in concert with his daughter anoushka – and that was truly something to behold, father and daughter, master and student – but I will tell you what, anoushka’s ability on sitar has skyrocketed so incredibly much, that her playing sometimes challenges those positions of “master” and “student” – I believe that in the fullness of time, that anoushka may be an even greater player than ravi – and that is saying something.  time will tell.

so it began with ravi shankar, his influence on the beatles at first, hearing those strange, strange indian instruments in the george harrison song  “love you to” from revolver – of course, everyone cites “norwegian wood” as the watershed moment, but actually, for me, I always felt that was just a bit gimmicky, it’s not serious – but, as with all things george harrison, it became really serious, really quickly – and “love you to” is the first – the drones on “tomorrow never knows” are the second – and then the masterpiece, “within you without you” – which is absolutely brilliant.

then for me, when it really hit me just how good this music really, really is – was hearing, and seeing the film of, the concert for bangladesh. the main piece from that opening act of the film and the concert, “bangla dhun” is an amazing piece of music, and it’s melody haunts my brain to this day, I love the incredible musical interplay between shankar on sitar, and the master of the sarod, ali akbar khan – “bangla dhun” is a duet of the two then-masters of indian classical music.

but we are not here to talk about george, we are talking today about indian classical music, that 3000 year old oral tradition – that to me, makes the entirety of western music seem like a tiny blip on the screen when compared to the rich tradition of the “rag” or “raga” – which have been handed down, from teacher to student, for over 3000 years.  western music has nothing to even compare to that…

it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started collecting the music of ravi shankar, and it was slow going – there wasn’t much readily available, but I did start to build my collection.  and because I’d seen ali akbar khan play at the concert for bangladesh, I also became very interested in the music of the sarod, which is the sitar’s lesser known cousin, and I began to collect both shankar and khan CDs in earnest.

other styles of indian classical music also came into the mix, including some of the master players and performers:  pandit hariprasad chaurasia, an amazing flute player, probably the master of the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute, is a favourite of mine, and I also have a love for both Indian vocal music, or the very hauntingly beautiful music of the indian violin as played by master musicians such as dr. l. subramaniam.

but for me, it was the holy trinity of ravi shankar, the master of the sitar, the undisputed master; ali akbar khan, the undisbuted master of the sarod; and alla rakha, the undisbuted master of the tabla.  hearing them play together at an early age (I was a young teenager when the concert for Bangladesh took place) left an indelible impression on my young brain, and I’ve been enjoying their music ever since.

few have arisen to challenge these three; for ravi, his only competition, in my opinion, is his own student and daughter, anoushka, otherwise, no other sitarist has come along to challenge his superiority, I don’t know of any challenger to ali akbar khan who simply reigns supreme on the sarod, and maybe, at a stretch, you could say that young bikram ghosh is at least holding a candle to alla rakha’s ability on the tabla – I’ve seen ghosh play (in ravi shankar’s living room, but that is definitely a story for another blog…) and I can tell you he is an extraordinary player – whether he is alla rakah’s equal or possibly better, I don’t know, I doubt it…but it’s a close raise, both men are insanely skilled with the very complex and intricate rhythms – which are often delivered at a breakneck pace!

so the other day, when I got one of those “pre-order this brand new collection by ravi shankar” emails – it was a bit of a no-brainer, especially when I realised that for a mere twenty quid, I would be adding no less than ten full CDs worth of shankar music to my collection – how could I not order it?

it arrived a few days ago now, and I was able to get the first five discs ripped and named and onto my ipod so I could listen to them earlier today, and what a pleasant day it was, too, because of this music.  a few days later, discs 6 – 10 joined them, and it was then that I could really immerse myself in this massive body of work – I can’t get enough of it at this point.

some of the music is familiar to me already, because I already own the very, very beautiful “in celebration” box set, so there is some overlap, but that is hardly an issue – I’m actually pleased that this collection is ten CDs, because at that quantity, you can actually begin, just about, to get an idea of the amazing career, and the amazing talent, of the man named ravi shankar.

it’s all here – solo ragas, duets with other Indian musicians, and the obligatory east-meets-west (probably my least favourite I would have to say) – including shankar’s first two concertos for sitar and orchestra in their entirety – and they are fantastic, it’s a star-studded disc too, zubin mehta, andre previn, yehudi menuhin as guest violinist, rampal as guest flautist, and so on…the usual suspects – but, all at their best under the challenge of trying to play along with a master like shankar – and the result of that challenge is some truly amazing collaborations, with some pretty terrifyingly fast and remarkable playing.

 

now, I really feel like these collaborations do need to be here, and some of them are absolutely essential, and absolutely musically stunning – shankar instinctively knows how to use the orchestra as a gigantic music foil for his sitar, and both of the “concertos” are well worth your serious consideration – I think they are brilliant.

but for me – no offence to anyone – for me, my personal preference is when the musicians are all traditional indian classical musicians.  I think the “east-meets-west” experiments are necessary, and, they would have been an essential tool in introducing this strange instrument, the sitar, to uncertain western concert goers and classical music enthusiasts – and I am sure that by working with the great western conductors, composers, and players (and shankar has worked with so many great names, including people like phillip glass) that shankar advanced the cause of indian classical music from totally unknown to a high degree of recognition – and it’s stayed that way – you hear indian music everywhere, in films, on television, and I believe that all-pervasive presence can be directly traced to the work that shankar did in the 50s and 60s promoting indian music to the great western masses – it worked – he succeeded.

so while I really enjoy the orchestral works, and in fact, some of them are nothing short of amazing – for me, it’s just the “ordinary” ragas that I crave, where you have ravi on sitar and (usually) one tanpura player providing the drone – and then just let this young man play!

and what can I say about his playing that hasn’t already been said a million times, I feel singularly unqualified to even comment – all I can say, as a guitarist, brought up in the western tradition, my admiration for the unending skill that ravi possess, the knowledge in his head – the knowledge in his fingers – he is truly the master of the instrument.

if you watch the opening section of the concert for bangladesh, you can see it, you can hear it – the best player in the room, of the whole night, despite the presence of all of the great western players there – is undoubtedly ravi shankar.  he is a good three or four times faster on his instrument for starters – leaving harrison, clapton, preston, russell and crew in the dust – and harrison himself later remarked that after ravi’s set, that the western music seemed dull, lifeless – and as excited as I was and am about the first post-beatles performance by george – he is right, it really does seem quite lifeless after “bangla dhun” – and it’s in the players’ attitudes too – you watch ravi shankar and ali akbar khan as they play, and they are transcendent, smiling, joy flying from mind and fingers – it’s a celebration of a beautiful folk melody of bangladesh, it’s playing that raga with everything they had, with so much love and so much obvious joy – and then, when the western section of the concert starts – everyone has their head down, no one is smiling, the band is not really in tune, not really in time, and not exuding anything except perhaps weariness.

of course, there were problems for some of the western players, clapton was in the middle of his heroin years, and was hastily cleaned up for the show (where he does not play spectacularly well, if I am honest), george himself was having anxiety and panic from having to go onstage again after NOT having had to since 1966 – he was vomiting before the show – so it’s quite a down, dour affair – which is such a shame!

don’t get me wrong, I love seeing george playing tracks like “wah-wah” live, seeing and hearing him play his best beatles songs and especially, seeing him play songs from the amazing “all things must pass” album – that’s awesome in itself, but I am afraid that ravi really stole the show before the harrison section of the night ever began.  and I am sure that for george and the others, listening to ravi and ali play, and then having to go out there and recreate the “hits” – that must have been disheartening. for me, after the performance that shankar and co. give on that night – well, no one should have to follow something so bloody good – it’s just not fair.

I guess I am saying, if you have not heard/seen the amazing duet between ravi shankar and ali akbar khan that is “bangla dhun” from the concert for bangladesh, hasten ye to do so now – it’s fracking remarkable.

normally when we do a “what we’re listening to” blog, I try to single out certain pieces and talk about them, in this case, that is nearly a futile idea, because I don’t have the requisite language to even describe this music – it’s ravi shankar!  the only pieces I can even talk about with any sense of understanding are the east-meets-west pieces, and to my mind, they are not the highlight here – the highlight is whenever ravi puts his fingers to the strings of his sitar – any time he does this.  when he begins to play, my attention immediately focuses sharply on what he is doing, the scales, I try to think about the uncanny fact that for each rag, there is a specific basic scale – which is one series of notes when ascending, and another when descending!

that idea in itself – well, OK, the western equivalent is “modes” – so it would be as if you played in D dorian mode in the ascending and in D phrygian in the descending – but, there would be hundreds of combinations – and of course, within each rag, there will be standard deviations – and non-standard ones taken by more experienced players – that idea, to me, is just mind-blowing, it’s so, so clever – because that means that the mood of the raga can be controlled – if one scale, say the ascending one, has a “positive” mood, then the piece can be positively influenced by doing a lot of work with ascending scales.  conversely, if the descending scale has a “negative” mood, that might then allow for wistfulness or sadness or even downright heartbreak, simply by accentuating the descending scales.

in practice, since everything sitarists learn is passed down orally from teacher to student, what happens is that the student…”just knows”, just as the master “just knows” a) what notes to play in the ascending b) what notes to play in the descending and c) when to deviate from this and how much deviation is allowable.

for me, it’s all I can do to play a C major scale with a sense of quality, and having to deal with the almost microtonal intervals that occur in some of the bending in sitar music – I would be utterly lost – I can’t readily “imagine” how they “know” what to do – I really can’t.  it is an art form, a pure and absolutely amazing art form – and it’s unlike any other music I know.

but – somehow – this oral tradition, where the “rules” for each type of raga are known and are passed down from teacher to student over the centuries…it just works!  it works well.  because, the emotion, the joy, the sorrow – well, for a player at the level of ravi shankar – all of these are available, and he expresses all of them with consummate skill.  I also have always loved the idea, which would be odd in western music, that each raga has one scale for ascending patterns, and a DIFFERENT scale for the descending pattern – I think that’s wonderful.  and, each raga has a “time of day” – morning, afternoon, evening, night – and while that might seem whimsical and a bit overly simplistic, the weird thing is – if you listen – you can HEAR this mood, you can “tell” when it’s an afternoon raga.  I don’t know why, although I am sure there are certain rags, certain scales, meant for different times of the day, so by selecting the correct raga, you set the piece in the correct time of day. it’s a brilliant system!

now well into his 90s, ravi has over the past several years, tutored his daughter anoushka in sitar, and has in a very short time comparatively speaking, turned anoushka into a stunningly powerful musical force.  I’ve seen her play a couple of times, and the confidence that she exudes when she plays, well, she knows her stuff, and you know she knows it – is really something to witness. but then she did have the best possible teacher!

she is very much her father’s daughter – she reminds me so much of ravi when she plays (and how could she not!) but she also brings two things to the table that ravi does not: her youth, and her femininity.  the energy that she puts out when she plays is phenomenal, and since I don’t believe that ravi really performs much more these days himself, I very much recommend that you go and see anoushka is you possibly can – she’s at least her father’s equal when it comes to skill and command of that most difficult of instruments, the sitar.

listening to this new collection, I realise, even with the space in time that ten compact discs gives us, that it’s still only a drop in the ocean, it’s only a tiny part of what ravi shankar has accomplished over the past several decades, what he did to publicise and popularise indian classical music, but mostly, for me, the music that he played – the music that he plays with such obvious joy and brilliance.

I would heartily recommend this collection to anyone interested in the music of ravi shankar, I cannot speak highly enough of him, except to say that his music changed my life, his music inspires me, his playing is transcendent, and I would give anything to be 1/100th of the guitarist that he is a sitarist – 1/1000th.

the speed – it’s devastating, burst of notes so quick that you might not be able to say what they are – guitarists rarely achieve speeds close to this when playing, and I think that the best guitarists in the world would all step back, respectfully, when faced with ravi at his fiercest, most flying solos – when ravi is on fire, the whole building starts to burn – and in the case of the aforementioned “bangla dhun”, I firmly believe that the way ravi played that night, the speed, the strength, the clarity – I believe that pushed ali akbar khan to play a blinder himself.  so the two greatest stringed instrument players that India ever produced, made each other play faster and better than they ever had before – and it’s also because of the joy, the flying joy, in the room – that’s also a huge factor in this – but that’s something you have to feel, you can’t see it, you can only sense it – but for me, I sensed it, and I followed, and I listened – and I’ve been nothing but rewarded for my trouble.

I am so, so glad that I started seriously listening to indian classical music so many years ago, it’s also had an influence on my own music, and I hope it has helped me to not be so rigid in my playing.  I wish now that I’d started playing an Indian instrument when I was young, but since I never did, all I can do now is listen – but the joy of that alone is enough to light up a room.

ravi shankar lights up every room that he walks into – every time.  you will not be disappointed…hearing ravi “trade riffs” with yehudi menuhin – wow, that is just unbelievable, something I never dreamed I would hear, and again, ravi’s presence spurs menuhin onto the performance of a lifetime – and hearing these two masters, sitar and violin entwined in an ever-growing musical intertwining – playing against each other, playing in unison, playing is sequence – the precision, the speed – it’s just dizzying, and the tabla player is hard put to keep up with these two!  what a performance (“swara-kakali” – based on raga tilang) – this piece is new to me, and it is a mind-blowing demonstration of musical proficiency and skill – it really is.

due to my schedule, I split the listening of the set into two, first, I listened to discs 1 – 5, which contain some of the more obvious feats of musicianship, and include a lot of east-west fusion, which is normally a curse word, but here, in this context, bringing ravi’s sitar into a western orchestra setting, or pairing him against the best western violinists or flautists – is an inspired idea.

discs 1 – 5 blew me away completely; a massive number of tracks; huge variety, and collaborations that are out of this world.  but then…I started listening to discs 6 – 10.   while there are still some collaborations, you also start to get what I always crave: pure ragas, the longer the better.  and there are some amazing ones in the second half of this set; ragas you can sit back and really get stuck into, where the players play for 56 minutes (!!) if they feel like it, developing the themes, just creating such an extraordinary atmosphere – the tanpuras, those random drones, just put me in such an amazing mood, those gently caressed notes that drone endlessly in the background as ravi and co. take centre stage…

I even made a playlist of the longest ragas, so I could hear ravi, ahem, without western accompaniment, and just by tossing in the longest of the “regular ragas” – I ended up with a playlist over six hours in length!  I can’t wait to hear it…

one piece in particular from the second half struck me, and I am sure ravi included it because he remembered and realised what an amazing performance it is, is a piece that features ravi’s regular tabla player, alla rakha – and drummers, sit up, pay attention, you can learn more about rhythm from one alla rakha tabla solo than any number of drum solos by ginger baker or carl palmer – and the man plays with his hands, not with sticks!  to say this is a great drum solo – that doesn’t even begin to describe it, it FLIES, and you just have to hear it to believe it, you really do! I am so pleased that this piece has been included – because it’s absolutely brilliant “tabla solo in ektal”.

back in the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to attend a concert by ravi and anoushka at ravi’s home in encinitas, california (near where I lived at the time) and it was there that I got to see the modern day holder of the crown of the “hottest young tabla player around” – the amazing bikram ghosh, and his performance that evening, along with ravi and anoushka, was unforgettable – simply the best drummer I have ever seen in my entire life – full stop.  faster, by far, than any western drummer, more rhythmically advanced, just amazing to see and hear – and you could not see, because his fingers flew so incredibly fast.

the down side to this set?  if you ask me – too many orchestral pieces, not enough traditional ragas – but that is quibbling, that’s my personal greed for straight ragas – I cannot get enough of them – because the orchestral pieces are uniformly astonishing, and I would miss them if they were gone – so really, no, no down side – it’s all up sides – ten of them!

wait – I HAVE thought of a down side – it’s not long enough – it should really be 20 discs.  there – I knew if I thought long enough, I would come up with some kind of negative…

another one? not enough collaborations with Indian classical players, not enough appearances by ali akbar khan on the sarod, the aforementioned alla rakah on tabla, but these are minor, minor quibbles indeed – there are so many positives that they absolutely outweigh these almost negligible “negatives” – please ignore me. 🙂

for two pounds a disk, you are getting some of the best indian classical music ever recorded, and, you are getting a great introduction to the music of the man who started it all for indian classical music.  a note of appreciation too for ravi’s great, great friend george harrison, who helped to bring attention to ravi shankar and the music of india, this excellent classical tradition that predates the entirety of “western music” – now, when I hear the phrase “classical music” – THIS is the music I think of this is the “real” classical music – western classical music is something that came along much, much later….

not that sound quality is really an issue in these performances, but most of the tracks on the ten discs are digital remasters, albeit done at different times and compiled here from many, many sources – but the end result, is a set of discs containing some of the most amazing music I have ever, ever heard – all from the skilled hands of mr. ravi shankar, the undisputed master of the sitar.

I love it!