Mundai Malhar: Trombone Quartet

This piece was composed in India in 1987, and eventually premiered at a “New Ensemble Music” concert in 1990. The performers: Bob Pilkington, Jim Messbauer, and Andy Knepley on trombones; Leslie Havens on bass trombone.

It uses melodic motifs drawn from the Hindustani raga Mian Malhar, but morphs them into insolent squawking from the trombones. “Mundai” is the principal vegetable market in Pune, and a source of inspirational chaos for many of my “urban” compositions.

I dedicated this piece to my dear friend Tilmann Waldraff.

Dadar Concert, August 13, 2013

Ragas Purvi, Nayaki Kanada, Khamaj (Tappa-ang thumri), and a Sindhi lok-geet — all performed in what appeared to be the world’s largest shower stall. With Mukta Raste – tabla, and Ravindra Lomate – harmonium. Thanks to Nandu Dhaneshwar and Neela Bhagwat for arranging this program at Shivaji Park Nagarik Sangh.

Music videos are below the fold:

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Toronto Concert, July 20, 2013

Toronto, June 20, 2013. Ragas Kamod, Nayaki Kanada, Pahadi, Bhairavi. With Ravi Naimpally on tabla and Raya Bidaye on harmonium, performing under the auspices of Toronto’s Raga Mala society.

Music videos below the fold:

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Pune Concert, August 11, 2013

A mehfil at a private residence in Pune, with Chaitanya Kunte on harmonium and Milind Pote on tabla. A dream team of accompanists, and made more special by the presence in the audience of Rajeev, Medha, and Eeshan Devasthali. A lovely evening.

Here are ragas Chhayanat, Bihagada, Jayant Kanada, Khamaj, Gorakh Kalyan and Bhairavi. There are some other short items which I haven’t posted yet.

Music videos below the fold:

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Composers & Improvisors: Invent Your Own Raga!

This is a rough approximation of the content of my lecture-demonstration on raga. This is how I introduce students in a university classroom to the underlying conceptual structure of raga-based melody:

With a simple recipe for making our own raga.

Here’s what we do:

Start with a tonic – fifth drone. Choose a second degree – either natural or flat. Choose a third degree – either natural or flat. Choose a fourth degree – either natural or sharp. Choose sixth and seventh degrees – either natural or flat.

For example, let’s say we choose: 1, b2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7, 8.

Play or sing this for a few minutes over the drone to experience the intervals.

Now, pick a number between 2 – 4. For example, 4.
Pick a number between 5 – 7. For example, 7.

Now we play/sing the original scale, but this time OMIT 4 & 7 on the way up, and include them on the way down. Thus:

1, b2, 3, 5, 6, 8 — 8, b7, 6, 5, #4, 3, b2, 1.

We play or sing this for a few minutes over the drone so we can learn the interval structure…the diminished triad ascending from the 2, the juicy diminished fourth that emerges on the way down between the b7 and the #4…all kinds of goodies are there to be found. Notice that certain phrases evoke ascent and others descent, giving improvisation a lot of motion.

Just going this far generate a ton of beautiful material. But there is one more refinement we can make on the process which will make our “raga” hang together even better.

Pick a group of three adjacent numbers. Any three; doesn’t matter. Let’s say we pick 5,6,7. Now…take those three notes, and make up a special tweak — just a little phrase, or a small shift in the sequence. For example, we’ll make the descent from the upper octave ALWAYS follow the rule 8, 6, b7, 5 — expressly forbidding a straight pathway.

Mess around with this for a while and we’ll start generating melodies automatically.

There is nothing special about this particular combination of intervals.

There are many ragas in the Hindustani system which are entirely built from an ordinary major scale.

In general, inside any raga, the more complex the intervals, the harder it is to *hear*; the more complex the rules of ascent/descent/tweaking, the harder it is to *think*.

Mess around. See what you can come up with.

Year 9, Month 9, Day 13: Sick Comedy

The Hindu (India) notes that climate change is going to bring us some issues with insects:

How will wind strength impact the migration and affect the flight range of mosquitoes? These and several other parameters are being studied at the micro-environmental level by scientists as part of a national project on climate change to forecast spectrum of vector-borne diseases.

With climate change influencing all aspects, including health and agriculture, CSIR through its network of institutions is seeking to develop sustainable mitigation strategies at local level. As part of this, a national project — Integrated Analysis for Impact, Mitigation and Sustainability — has been initiated to leverage multi-disciplinary expertise available at CSIR for developing suitable models by taking into account various geographical variations.

Pesky little buggers, aren’t they? September 6:

A common prognostication from those who are attentive to the geopolitical implications of climate change is that unimaginably large numbers of people are likely to become “climate refugees” in the coming decades. Indeed, as rising sea levels wipe out coastal lands, disappearing glaciers no longer provide sufficient water for agriculture in mountainous areas, and intensifying drought bakes the areas in between, it’s a fair bet that millions will lose their land and their hopes, if not their lives.

But humans are only the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg when it comes to climate-caused displacement. Countless plant, animal and insect species are going to be racing to new habitats; these lifeforms, just like human beings, will be struggling to survive on a transforming planet — but their interests aren’t always going to align easily with ours. The increased prevalence of insect-carried diseases like dengue fever is a case in point.

While diplomatic preparations will be necessary in a post-climate-change world to avoid resource wars and border conflicts, it is equally necessary to develop medical communications and infrastructure to cope with these smaller (but equally significant) “refugees.”

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 6, Day 21: Now Let’s Not Always See The Same Hands….

Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper, discusses the climate problem from a Pakistani perspective:

Pakistan is no stranger to being plagued by multiple crises. News headlines are usually dominated by issues like terrorism, extremism and power shortage but an even more alarming danger could affect the future of Pakistan if it is not tackled on a priority basis.

The dangerous threat we all know as climate change has been virtually left off the radar by our less than visionary leaders when it comes to issues of national priority.

Environmental degradation costs Rs 365 billion annually to Pakistan and unsafe water and sanitation costs Rs 112 alone in terms of financial damage.

A comprehensive report was first highlighted in December 2012 which shows alarming trends of climate change in Pakistan.

The report entitled ‘Climate Change in Pakistan – focused on Sindh Province’ forecast low agricultural productivity from lack of water for irrigation and erratic rainfall. Conditions in the fertile Indus delta, already facing saline water intrusion and coastal erosion, are expected to deteriorate further.

Data gathered from 56 meteorological stations show heat waves increasing from 1980 to 2009, a period marked by glacier retreats, steadily rising average temperature in the Indus delta and changes in temperature pattern in summer and winter.

Ghulam Rasul, chief meteorologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department and the main author of the report, told that although Pakistan’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is low, it is among countries highly vulnerable to climate change.

Yes indeedy. June 6:

As global heating accelerates, Pakistan and neighboring nations will face enormous challenges in the coming decades. It is a cruel irony that those of the world’s countries which have contributed the least to planetary greenhouse emissions are the ones facing the most immediate damage from their effects, while the major sources of carbon pollution are relatively protected by lucky accidents of geography from the consequences of their actions.

Analysts predict that as water shortages intensify and agriculture becomes less predictable and productive, climate change’s strategic impact will include bitter resource wars, a catastrophic development. While morality demands that industrialized nations take immediate steps to reduce atmospheric carbon output, it’s equally imperative that the countries currently suffering the most from this human-caused destabilization strengthen their infrastructure to prepare for times of shortage and privation, while reinforcing diplomatic and cultural systems to ensure that the likely humanitarian crises can be peacefully resolved.

Warren Senders


An Excellent Sort Of Memory: Creativity in Khyal Singing

This essay was written for the recent Learnquest Conference and printed in their program guide.


“The past does not influence me. I influence it.”
— John Cage —

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
—The White Queen, to Alice —

Hindustani music is rich in paradoxes of aesthetics, pedagogy, personality, imagination and execution — paradoxes which, ceaselessly spinning, provide a source of creative power within this complex and interdependent universe.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the endless push and pull between imagination and tradition. A khyal performer is expected to show the imprint of her or his teachers, and therefore the imprint of their teachers as well. A performance is unsatisfying to the educated listener if it is entirely of the moment; rather, the imprimatur of multiple artistic and pedagogical generations is what lends depth and resonance to a singer’s music. To the educated ear, a singer’s influences lend themselves to as many interesting combinatorial possibilities as the notes of a complex raga.

For example, Vamanrao Deshpande (in “Indian Musical Traditions”) recounts the khyaliya Miya Alibaksha’s response to the singing of Bhaskarbuwa Bakhle:

“…in response to a request from Alibaksha Saheb, Buwa took up the vilambit khayal ‘Tu aiso hai Karim’ from raga Darbari which was followed by the fast khayal ‘Nain so nain.’ The recital was punctuated with appreciative comments from Miya Alibaksha: ‘This is the gamaktan of Haddu Khan Saheb; this is reminiscent of Faiz Mahammad Khan’s elaborative skill; this is Rahimat Khan’s phirat (rapid ‘wandering’ passages); this intricate tana reminds me of Mubarak Ali….Bhaskarbuwa’s music is excellently developed in all respects.”


And Mohan Nadkarni describes Bhimsen Joshi’s interweaving of source material in his biography of the great vocalist:

“It is in his drut singing that Bhimsen presents a rare amalgam of gayakis as diverse as those of Gwalior, Atrauli-Jaipur, and Patiala. For example, right in the midst of a Patiala-style sapat taan, he can startle his listeners with a lightning array of intricate, odd-shaped patterns from the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana. A sarangi-like, seemingly slippery flourish from the Kirana style would then be deftly grafted to the laya-oriented taankari of the Gwalior tradition. Who else, but a maestro of his talent and genius, can achieve such marvelous homogeneity in content, treatment and approach?”

While this would suggest that a singer is collagistically assembling a performance from a collection of vocal mannerisms, techniques, and methods, the model of khyaliya-as-bricoleur is incomplete. Singers who’ve received training from multiple teachers do not automatically become creative aggregators; they are in fact more likely to display a kind of musical multiple-personality syndrome in which different pieces are rendered in the styles of their originators. I vividly remember a Pune concert in the mid-1980s in which a young vocalist (who has since gone on to recognition and acclaim) rendered successive pieces in the styles of three separate major vocalists. The first piece was a Marwa uncannily sung in the style of Amir Khan, the second a Darbari Kanada presented a la Bade Ghulam Ali, followed by an equally derivative thumri. While the tonal material of the ragas was skillfully handled, the artist’s music was hardly “excellently developed in all respects.”

Musicians sometimes choose security over danger, exalting their own preceptors and lineage at the expense of their own individuality. There are two ways this manifests. The first is an over-reliance on traditionally sanctified methodology; those who play it safe in this way are criticized with words like “dry” and “grammatical.” The second is epigonisation, in which the Master is imitated so thoroughly and completely that all vestige of the human artist is submerged under the borrowed mannerisms and repertoire of a single more charismatic and culturally dominant figure. A prominent disciple of a very popular khyal singer was known within the musicians’ community as “HMV” — His Master’s Voice — for his slavish duplication of his guru’s mode of singing.

The road to genuinely innovative musicianship in the khyal idiom, then, is as cluttered and obstructed as any Indian street. A singer can be too timid, too dominated by a single guru or charismatic figure, too susceptible to the influences of the moment or those of the century.

While the central paradox (a constantly changing improvisational genre operating freely within the constraints of centuries of tradition) is unresolvable, a study of the ingredients of musical expression offers some insight.

In any khyal performance we witness the superimposition of multiple sets of constraints and stipulations within which the singer is charged with finding himself or herself.

Most obvious to the listener is the raga itself. Ragas provide the tonal material for extensive improvisations and elaborations; taught orally, they can be described structurally using widely understood formulae (N notes in ascent, N+x notes in descent, this note emphasized, that note de-emphasized, this melodic phrase heard cadentially, that melodic phrase heard rarely, this part to be treated strictly, that part to be treated freely, the whole adding up to a recipe for sustained variation). A singer must present this material accurately, avoiding not just errors of intonation or omission but also unintended passages from other ragas with similar structures. Certain ragas are common property; others are so inextricably associated with particular artists or lineages that performing them is fraught with pitfalls for anyone outside the proprietary circle. The challenge for the khyaliya is to render the raga with structural fidelity while finding something new — a melodic road less traveled by. A singer who offers only the standard formulae may find praise for his or her fidelity to the tradition — but is equally likely to be dismissed for lack of useful insight.

The fact is that even in the most tightly constrained raga structure, there are always new combinations, phrases and gestures awaiting discovery. A singer who abdicates this responsibility fails the central task of khyal.

The raga repertoire subsumes the bandish repertoire; certain songs are likewise known and performed by, almost all professional singers, while others are a single singer’s “personal private thing.” Ragas are sometimes announced by their affiliations. It is common to speak of an “Agra bandish,” or a “typical Jaipuri chiz,” and educated listeners will recognize these pieces like old friends, acknowledging their association with particular styles and the expectations this raises for the specific content of a performance.

There are some compositions (e.g., “Sakhi mori rum jhum” in Durga, “Jabse tumhi sanga” in Bhoopali) which were fixtures in the professional repertoire of the early twentieth century, but have now become propadeutic vehicles on which aspiring singers can cut their teeth. The American baseball great Yogi Berra once commented of a particular restaurant that, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.” It could be said of these songs that, “Nobody sings them anymore because they’re too popular.”

Conversely, a “rare” bandish may be announced with considerable fanfare. Some of these items are in fact newly composed — but Hindustani musical culture devalues the new and exalts the old. More prestige accrues to an ancient or unusual song than to a new item, so it’s not uncommon for performers to give their own compositions a provenance far back in the tradition, sometimes including the pen-name of a noted historical composer in the song text, lending the piece further credibility. While it’s tempting to regard this reverse plagiarism as an ethical transgression, it can also be seen as an organic manifestation of the tradition’s fluidity and creativity: four hundred years after his death, Sadarang (the pen-name of Niyamat Khan, a great khyal composer) continues to create new material!

The particular structure of the bandish may have a huge influence on the performance as a whole. This is especially true of medium and fast tempo songs, whose rhythmic structures and melodic contours direct improvisation in particular ways. For example, a song with high syllabic density nicely supports text-based rhythmic variations (known as “bol-bant”), while one with fewer syllables and more prominent melismata is a felicitous vehicle for virtuoso melodic passagework.

Intersecting with these fields of constraint is the responsibility a singer bears to her or his musical extended family. The guru, the guru’s guru, the guru’s guru’s guru, the guru’s brother’s guru, the guru’s brother’s guru’s brother’s disciple, etc., etc. — all contribute to an environment in which some musical behaviors are privileged above others, leading eventually to culturally accepted formulations in which particular lineages (known as “gharanas”) are recognized for expertise in particular aspects of khyal.

Musically adept listeners can recognize a singer’s gharana very easily — and conversely, if a singer’s gharana is known and announced, a trained listener will already have a good idea of what the performance will be like. In performance, khyaliyas are expected to develop a coherent portrait of their lineage — while they’re also developing the raga material and exploring the contours of the song. Singers may be criticized for violating the aesthetic guidelines of their gharanas, or for being overly conservative in their expression of those same guidelines — a dilemma which parallels the critique on raga-interpretation grounds. From one perspective, the gharana provides the conceptual framework for a raga’s expression; from another, the raga is the medium through which a gharana’s characteristics are expressed.

The guru himself or herself is the principle source of a khyaliya’s repertoire of songs and conceptual resources, and respect for the guru is foundational in Hindustani pedagogical tradition. Singers frequently attribute their own successes in performance to their gurus’ virtue and genius. In much the same way that the bandish is a single crystallized expression of a raga’s characteristics, the guru can be understood as a single human expression of a gharana’s salient features — and in the same way that singers strive to express the raga’s essential qualities, they wish to express some of their guru’s musical conceptions as well. The guru’s experience, values, aesthetics, vocal production, kinesics, and a host of other elements are, for better or worse, transmitted to the disciple.

And, finally, there is the individual singer herself or himself. Singers strive to integrate the influences of repertoire, gharana, and guru in the moment of performance and in the process of teaching their own disciples; while the precise relationship is always fluid and varies from artist to artist — and indeed from moment to moment — the general tendency is an avoidance of extremes — what can be described as a “conservation of innovation.” An unusual repertoire item (a rarely heard or newly composed raga or bandish) will usually receive a palpably traditional mode of presentation, while a predictable repertoire choice may need to be counterweighted by a more novel treatment if it is to engage listeners. The most notable exception to this principle would be Kumar Gandharva, who presented newly composed ragas in a highly original style, triggering tradition-versus-innovation controversies that continue to this day.

To describe a khyaliya as “creative,” then, is to recognize the success of a balancing act in which freshly imagined melodies and rhythms are endlessly re-contextualized in a historically-grounded milieu. The listeners’ understanding of a singer’s musical heritage undergoes continual revision in the light of each new passage, each new improvisation.

In the world of the khyaliya, remembering is a deeply creative act, and it’s an excellent sort of memory, working perfectly well in both directions.

Year 4, Month 6, Day 10: Khizr Khud Denge Aakar Sahaara…

The Express Tribune (Pakistan) tells us of the sad condition of villagers in the Northern Subcontinent:

Today fishermen living in one of the hundreds of villages in the Indus Delta have truly understood what the great saint meant to say.

Nearly three hundred families living in Kharo Chan village – which in Sindhi language means ‘bitter jetty’ – have bitter memories to share. Allah Din, a farmer, said, “There was a time when the area was lush green and fertile. For nearly 150 years this area fed all of Sindh with its record rice and wheat produces.” But then, the Kotri Barrage was constructed. “The level of sweet water in the Indus River began to go down and salty seawater began to rise. The once fertile lands turned barren,” he said.

He added that things aren’t better off on the other side of the bank – the residents of the taluka on the opposite side can’t produce enough food to sustain themselves, said Allah Din. He added that because seawater has moved inland and freshwater is scarce, villagers have been eyeing urban centres and packing their bags.

Another resident, Muhammad Ayub, who is a schoolteacher, claimed that corruption and political jousts have worsened the situation. He said villagers oppose the government’s plan to build Zulfikarabad because they feel they will become strangers in their own lands. “The government may create problem for us. They want us to migrate, but we will fight till our last breath against the development of Zulfikarabad.”

This is a generic “we’re all fucked; blame the evil corporations” letter. Let’s just say it needed to be said. May 27:

The effects of the rapidly transforming global climate are keenly felt by the world’s farming and fishing societies, whose collective survival is intimately linked with that of the land. It is a cruel irony that these people are perhaps the ones who’ve done the least to bring about the climate crisis; with greenhouse emissions that are statistically non-existent, they are paying the penalty for the high living standards and modern conveniences of the developed world — amenities which depend on an abundant supply of cheap energy.

The plight of Kharo Chan village (and others like it in the Indus Delta) is a harbinger in microcosm of what may lie in store for all humanity. Unless rapid, comprehensive, and responsible action is taken to address this disaster-in-the-making, all of us — rich and poor, traditional and modern, Eastern and Western — will find that the world which nurtured our civilization has been replaced by one far less hospitable to the vast web of Earthly life.

The corporate entities which have corrupted governments around the world and are delaying action on global warming are standing in the way, not of progress, but of survival itself.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 27: River Deep, Mountain High

The LA Times, on Mount Everest. So to speak.

A warming climate is melting the glaciers of Mount Everest, shrinking the frozen cloak of Earth’s highest peak by 13% in the last 50 years, researchers have found.

Rocks and natural debris previously covered by snow are appearing now as the snow line has retreated 590 feet, according to Sudeep Thakuri, a University of Milan scientist who led the research.

The pessimistic view of Earth’s tallest peak was presented during a meeting Tuesday of the American Geophysical Union in Cancun, Mexico.

Researchers said they believe the observed changes could be due to human-generated greenhouse gases altering global climate, although their research has not established a firm connection.

The team reconstructed the glacial history of the area using satellite imagery and topographic maps of Everest and the surrounding 713-square-mile Sagarmatha National Park. Their statistical analysis shows that the majority of the glaciers in the national park are retreating at an increasing rate, Thakuri said.

Why? Because it’s not there. May 15:

Once we set aside the iconic importance of a shrinking Mount Everest, the really ominous facts about disappearing ice caps in the Himalayas are the numbers of people whose lives depend on them. Whether it’s for irrigation, hydroelectric generation, or clean drinking water, this steady flow from the world’s tallest mountains is crucial for the existence of almost a seventh of the world’s population. If we subtract that water from the picture, what’s left are hundreds of millions of climate refugees, desperate, landless, hungry, thirsty.

But these people may be more fortunate than many in the developed world who rely on elaborate infrastructure for their food and water. Why? Because they can simply look up and see the daily changes on these peaks, they’re not tempted by magical thinking and ideologically-motivated denialism, like those whose air-conditioned lives have allowed them to ignore the climate crisis until it’s already upon them.

Warren Senders