Some Thoughts on the Drone

The drone lives at the center of Hindustani music, and yet I think its significance has rarely been stated completely. To say that it affirms or creates the tonality is to state the obvious; rather, think of the number of musical systems in the world in which the drone is implicit or only occasionally stated. Why then is the tamboura so essential in Hindustani music? In concerts, a singer often gestures to the tamboura players, indicating “more force, more volume!” — why?

R. Murray Schafer, that marvelously creative Canadian composer and educator, offers us a complementary pair of terms, gesture and texture. Hindustani melody is gesture refined and elaborated; gesture with fractal sub-gestures endlessly revealing themselves to careful listening. The complement to a gesture is a texture, where elements are sustained with enough consistency that they form a ground, a backdrop — a context within which isolated ideas can be heard and appreciated.

Virtually all music can be described as a mixing of these two; different traditions and aesthetic paradigms call for different proportions of figure to ground, and for them to have varying degrees of relative importance. Hindustani music is richly gestural. Is the tamboura merely a supplier of texture, then?

I think not, for the instrument has been cunningly designed with another result in mind as well. Of course the tamboura supplies the ground against which the singer’s figure is understood; that’s obvious. But I want to look, and listen, more deeply.

The tamboura’s strings come equipped with tuning mechanisms that are persnickety beyond normal standards of belief. Just watch the artists prior to a mehfil, sitting in full view of the listeners, fussing endlessly with tiny bits of thread passing between the strings and the bridge, plucking, tuning, again plucking, again fussing with thread — adjusting the instruments till a whirling buzz arises from all points along the string. When properly played, no plucking sounds are audible at all, and the omnipresent buzz emerges in a seethe of overtones and secondary crescendi.

Wonderful! No plucking sounds at all! Writers on Indian music all too often grab any convenient, string-y, verb to describe what a tamboura player does: ‘plucking,’ ‘strumming.’ How misleading! No, playing tamboura, I don’t pluck; I don’t strum. My fingers are almost parallel to the strings, and with a firm pressure, I allow the strings to roll off the balls of my fingertips. There must be no attack, no sense of the sound beginning here.

Elsewhere in his indispensable book “The Tuning of the World,” Schafer makes a interesting statement:

“All the sounds we hear are imperfect. For a sound to be totally free of onset distortion, it would have to have been initiated before our lifetime. If it were also continued after our death so that we knew no interruption in it, then we could comprehend it as being perfect. But a sound initiated before our birth, continued unabated and unchanging throughout our lifetime and extended beyond our death, would be perceived by us as — silence.”

Indian music is richly self-contradictory, at many levels of experience, understanding and practice. Here is one of the most basic and central of these contradictions: the tamboura is in a way an instrument (perhaps the only such in world music) whose mandate is the creation and sustenance of a special kind of silence. Silence is essential for listening and concentration, and thus for memory, and the social function of the tamboura is to enforce the first two elements, thereby triggering the third for performer and listener alike. But the only kind of “bad tamboura playing” musicians recognize is playing which calls attention to itself, perhaps with strong plucking sounds or a harsh rhythmicity that noisily demands attention. Good tamboura playing is a self-negating process; the tamboura player has long been uncredited at concerts or on recordings (although this is now changing). No tamboura technique is ever taught, no virtuosi are recognized, and the instrument’s only history is that of mechanical improvements in string-making, bridge-carving and tuning mechanism.

Of course it produces music, in a way, and it would be risible to deny the instrument’s musical function, which again has been clumsily stated by most writers on Indian music, who refer to it, more or less, as “the inevitable drone.” The carefully designed bridge mechanism ensures a maximum of sustain, at the same time amplifying the higher harmonics of each string. Plucked sequentially, the strings create sizzling sequences of ascending and descending partials that don’t seem to come from anywhere in particular. The effect (especially when several instruments are played in concert) is to charge the air with moving overtones, constantly shifting position and prominence.

There is another aspect of the tamboura’s sonority that repays attention: a commonly recognized phenomenon known as the “phantom fundamental” demonstrates that when a series of harmonic overtones, minus the tonic, is played, the listener’s ear and mind supply the missing low note. The tamboura’s strings are usually tuned to the tonic, the fifth above, and the octave above that, duplicating the intervallic relationships of the second, third and fourth overtones in the harmonic series — thus implying a tonic yet an octave lower.

The absence of initial attack in the tamboura’s string-plucks renders its sound as close as we can get in the corporeal world to the ideal of anahata nada, the ‘unstruck sound’ so often cited as something to be heard “only by yogis and mystics” — and ensures that the instrument’s resonance triggers a single, suspended, non-linear sense of time. The sound-envelope of the tamboura is thus an invitation to concentration, to a kind of hypnosis that reduces an entire evening’s proceedings, whether pedagogical or performance, to a single concentrated instant.

11 Feb 2015, 11:54pm
by Krishnaraj

Wonderful! I am an Indian, a flute maker by profession, make hindustani bansuries and have listened to some Hindustani music. I know how a tambura captures one in a sort of trance, but never thought one can express this experience so perfectly in words! Great.

Brilliant choice of expressions to define that ultimate substratum of great Indian classical music. Only someone who loves music immensely will go to such lengths of syntactic improvisation!

15 Jul 2014, 2:16pm
by Tomal Hossain

Extremely insightful. I thought I was sold on the tanpura after Reading Martin Spaink’s article ripping on Electronic Tanpuras. This has exponentially reassured me of a live Tanpura’s greatness.


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