Two recent concerts of Indian classical music—one presented by Kalakendra, the other by Dance Mandal and Michael Stirling—made a good contrast in listening experiences. One was a family affair, local vocalist Stirling accompanied by his friend Joss Jaffe on tabla and his daughter Lucy Stirling on tambura, all in a cozy little Buddhist temple off SE Hawthorne run by Nepalese dancer Prajwal Vajracharya.
The other was more like a pick-up basketball game: Kalakendra’s latest concert at the Old Church, starring sarangi player Pankaj Mishra, santoorist Chiradip Sarkar, and tabla whiz Abhishek Basu. The three musicians exuded a vibe that was polite and friendly but far from warm and familial. Their aura was all about showing off and one-upping each other, the kind of competitive spirit you hear in the old jazz supergroups.
Both concerts featured music inspired by the human voice, though only one had an actual singer. And there’s another Indian classical music concert coming right up here in Portland—it’s tonight, in fact, at First Baptist—and this show features not one but two vocalists.
Singers Are Queens and Kings
After asking the room of twenty or thirty serenely enthusiastic audients to silence their phones and “live without electronics for a little while,” Michael Stirling praised the vocal traditions of India, saying, “singers are Queens and Kings.” He told the audience that when Ali Akbar Khan was teaching at his college in San Rafael, he would bring his sarod to class only on Fridays; the rest of the time, it was singing lessons. Even in the context of Western music, Stirling’s affinity for vocalizing goes back to college: his bass teacher once told him sing along while he was playing, a recommendation which he initially found ridiculous but came to enjoy.
Stirling gave a brief description of tala, comparing the Indian rhythmic cycle to a wheel, with the individual beats as the spokes. He asked Joffe to play a standard tintal pattern and began tracing a circle in the air, saying “one” every time the pattern arrived back on the downbeat—beat one, or sam, “which is the most important thing.” Stirling followed that with a brief explanation of the tambura his daughter Lucy was busy tuning, demonstrating its four strings and describing its function as the keeper of the tonic note, sa, which is the melodic/harmonic equivalent of the rhythmic sam (read more about all this here). Together, sa and sam represent home base: Everything Is On The One. At this point, Dance Mandal founder Prajwal Vajracharya arrived, Stirling said “just on time!” and an audient whispered “he arrived on the one!”
Stirling started with two late afternoon ragas, Bhimpalasi and Madhuvanti. “Madhuvanti means honey,” Stirling explained; “it also means love.” It’s an unusual raga, part of the Multani family, a little like a Western melodic minor but with a raised fourth to give it an expressive, conflicted aura. The two ragas complemented each other well, sharing some melodic features—most notably the vadi on pancham (scale degree five) and a sugar-sweet shuddha dhaivat (that major 6th) that Stirling squeezed thoroughly in Bhimpalasi and gently in Madhuvanti. That pancham was especially exciting: it’s the fifth scale degree, and a lead character in the harmonic overtone series. There’s a sort of acoustic vanishing act that singers with a fine sense of intonation can achieve with perfect fifths—like the Buddha who is said to be able to exist and not exist according to will, a power the gods themselves envy. Hearing it in person never fails to delight.
Stirling, a student of singer Pandit Pran Nath (who according to legend used to practice raga in a river, tuning to the sound of the water), sang with an earnest enthusiasm and a fine attention to detail befitting his experience and lineage. He mostly sang actual songs, with lyrics and everything, a stark contrast to the more abstract syllabic approach we heard from Uday Bhawalkar in May. Stirling explained that “ragas inhabit us as we inhabit them,” reading a line from the third raga, the gamelan-like Tilang: “Saraswati is on my tongue.”
Stirling then decided he had one more in him and retuned the tambura for the midnight raga Malkauns, a favorite of Pran Nath that Stirling called “a cleansing.” It’s a heavy but peaceful raga, not especially dissonant to Western ears but with some odd tuning quirks and a bitonal feel due to its emphasis on ma, the fourth scale degree. Like a room thick with incense, the spirit in the room became more and more intense, Stirling’s voice audibly tiring but still clear and luminescent, reverberating into the show’s warm afterglow, following us out into the cool fragrant night, where the audience quietly dispersed, exhausted and exhilarated, like a bunch of kids after a good long swim in the lake.
Earlier, as Stirling went to fetch his phone so he could read the lyrics for Madhuvanti, he joked about his age and the lifelong dedication Indian music requires of its practitioners, telling the famous story of legendary cellist Pablo Casals’s riposte to anyone who asked why he kept practicing into his eighties: “I think I’m getting better.” After the first two ragas, Stirling said, “we have one more thing prepared, and then maybe we’ll have some surprises.” His phone, forgotten on his lap, said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” The look of shocked, amused delight on Stirling’s face was priceless.
Hundred Strings, Hundred Colors
“Good evening everybody,” said Pankaj Mishra, his sarangi on his lap. “ We don’t know what we’ll play. We’ll figure it out. That’s the nature of Indian music.” Two days after Stirling’s show, Kalakendra brought three touring professionals to The Old Church in SW Portland. Mishra explained that the sarangi, whose name literally means “hundred colors,” imitates the human voice, and indeed it does—in some traditions the sarangi is the vocalist’s constant companion.
A bowed little box-shaped instrument, the sarangi is packed with a few dozen resonant strings that produce an uncanny, unaccountable sound, like a million hurdy-gurdy players creeping through a forest at night. The bow is normal enough, but the bowed strings are not fretted but stopped with the fingernail; this allows and necessitates a super-bendy style of playing, giving the instrument an extremely expressive, Byronic character.
In a sense, the santoor is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the sarangi. Its strings are laid out on a board (like on a zither) and struck by little mallets (like a hammered dulcimer). Its tone is bright and springy, all jangles and wiggles and wheedly-deedlies. Laurel & Hardy, the santoor and sarangi are.
As Sarkar and Mishra started playing, it seemed clear from Abhishek Basu’s face that it would be a difficult beginning. The others seemed to be teasing him, and each other, as they played around with different possible facets of the raga they were exploring together. Mishra might play a long, slow, keening sort of melody, sweet major thirds with more than a few blue notes (Basu grimacing at these), tumbling triplets all up and down the scale, always returning to that weird tasty third, laughing at Basu’s evident discomfort.
Sarkar would answer by tuning and retuning his santoor, shooting out dazzlingly rapid riffs all over the strings before halting to adjust one note or another, taking his time. His chops were great, almost hammy, cute technical tricks, surreal syncopations, left hand muting and guzheng-like bends, all kinds of cool crazy. He too was teasing Basu, who threw up his hands in exaggerated exasperation as Sarkar played flourishes of parallel thirds that are as uncommon in Indian classical music as they are abundant in Mozart.
Sarkar and Mishra quickly realized that Sarkar would be the flashier, fancier, showier player, and relaxed into a sort of friendly competition, Mishra never quite one-upping Sarkar but apparently happy to show off his own considerable chops and otherwise go his own beautifully vibrant way.
When Basu finally started playing, the audience was treated to another oddity: he was using the low tabla, which he later explained is called “pakhawaj tabla” after the larger drum (generally used in dhrupad). He explained that he was using the lower drum instead of his normal tabla because the one he brought was better suited for the Portland rain he was expecting; it seems our hot Indian summer threw his plans out of tune, forcing a drum switch. The substitution worked wonderfully, though, Basu’s low open strokes and quick dhere-dhere and tirekite flourishes all big and bold and powerful in the resonant old church. It gave him a chance to thunder and rumble under Sarkar and Mishra’s musical ruckus, adding a third happily contentious voice to the melee and driving the whole wild proceeding forward.
The three started latching onto certain musical ideas, and a sort of spirit or performative character began to emerge, an entity unto itself, that spooky egregore that everyone who gets really into live music learns to recognize immediately. The competition was part of it, the struggles with tuning and acoustics were part of it, the constant musical and interpersonal adjustments were part of it, and so too was the friendly handshake Basu offered Sarkar and Mishra after they completed that first difficult half-hour or so.
Triplets fittingly suffused the whole trio concoction, and Sarkar took the opportunity to play four-beat patterns against them (later he got into fives, sevens, the whole gamut). Basu drove the group deliberately off the beat, syncopating long passages and coming together not on the all-important sam (or one, that most important thing) but heavily implying it by playing around it, shrugging silently into a shadow downbeat, disappearing into The One, hands in the air like a magician making doves vanish.
The trio ended on Kirwani, a Bach-like harmonic minor sort of raga. Sarkar started ripping out a bunch of nutty arpeggios like Uakti playing Philip Glass. When he really got going, the santoor started sounding like a Hungarian cimbalom, especially when he mirrored Mishra’s earlier blue thirds with a recurring major third straight out of the Romanian folk tune “Ciocârlia.”
Afterwards, the trio grinned happily at each other and began gathering their instruments. Sarkar paused to thank the audience: “without you, we artists are nothing.”
Master and Student
Kalakendra’s season is underway! The next concert is tonight, Friday September 28, at First Baptist Church in downtown Portland. Khyal singer Ajoy Chakrabarty performs with his student, vocalist Anol Chatterjee, accompanied by Gourab Chatterjee on harmonium and Soumen Sarkar on tabla. Chakrabarty runs a music school in India, and when concerts feature teachers alongside their students they generally turn into impromptu music lessons. In contrast to Stirling’s familiar vibe and the competitive play we got from Basu, Mishra, and Sarkar, I expect this quartet will put on an exciting, educational show.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.