Chiradip Sarkar

Indian Summer

September concerts, including one this weekend, showcase the role of the human voice in Indian music

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!”

Jaffe, Stirling & Stirling performed at DanceMandal. Photo: Prajwal Vajracharya.

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.

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MusicWatch Weekly: female gaze

Concerts bringing a female perspective to macho myths and music, and Latin American sounds top this week's Oregon music

Women: bad, deceptive, must be tamed. Seeking knowledge: bad, dangerous to entrenched power. Blind obedience: good.

That’s how a certain sexist serial Twit might regard the Adam & Eve myth, which describes original sin, all right — by a misogynistic patriarchy against half the human race. And it does go a long way to explain why we’ve struggled for millennia in a culture that demeans both women and the pursuit of knowledge. A concert on Friday at southeast Portland’s TaborSpace resists Adam & Eve myth-ogeny via San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s 1996 song cycle Eve Song , which retells the tale from Eve’s modern, feminist perspective. Heggie, best known for his opera Dead Man Walking, sets Philip Littell’s variously angry, funny, joyous texts to a half-hour of diverse music ranging from lullaby to operatic aria, ballad, and Kurt Weill parody.

Image from forthcoming “Eve Songs” film. Photo: Diana Powe.

EveSong Project’s show raises funds (you can help!) for an original, made-in-Oregon film version of Eve Song produced by Disability Arts and Culture Project, Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company and Divergent Opera, which strives to make opera more accessible through diverse casting and rethinking traditional performance practices. Classical singers Jena Viemeister and Vakare Petroliunaite sing in dialogue as Eve and Lilith, Adam’s first wife/demon. Pianists Kira Whiting and Rebecca Stager accompany them in Heggie’s songs as well as music by Eugene composer Susanna Payne-Passmore, and Prayers from the Ark, Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker’s charming 2011 mini-opera setting poet Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s ten little requests from various animals (cat, bird, goldfish, et al) aboard Noah’s Ark.


The 3rd Annual SHOCK OPERA TEASER (2018) from Guignol Fest on Vimeo.

Speaking of gender-bending singing (which we will do much more of next week in this space), how about an opera based on the career of OG cock-rocker Alice Cooper? Shock Opera: An Alice Cooper Story happens this weekend at Portland’s Paris Theater.

And speaking of women rewriting stereotypical female roles, check out  the Ingenue’s Revenge, which ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley describes as “a cabaret revue that puts forward a classic character type but asks the potent question: What happens when that sweet young thing starts to lose her innocence and reclaim her power? Answering through an array of classic and contemporary showtunes will be Sarah DeGrave, Caitlin Brooke and the ever-dynamic Cassi Q. Kohl.”

Still another female-centric original opera, Tango of the White Gardenia, premieres this weekend at Lincoln City Cultural Center. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of this Cascadia Concert Opera production.

Think “DJ” or “sound artist” and many will assume “dude.” TBA Festival’s SI performance (in partnership with that valuable Portland arts space) Friday night featuring sound artists The Creatrix ( from San Francisco), Isabella (Boston), and Decorum (PDX), proves otherwise, with S1 DJs adding to the vibe.

Hunter Noack performing outside. Photo: Joseph Ash.

This time of year, we Oregonians often choose outdoor landscapes over indoor soundscapes. But with Hunter Noack’s In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild, we don’t have to! You can hear him play classical and contemporary music on his Steinway, with wireless headphones to make it feel more intimate if you like — in a number of alluring alfresco locales around the state this week, including Smith Rock State Park Wednesday, Sunriver Resort Thursday, and Eugene’s Mount Pisgah Arboretum Tuesday. Read my ArtsWatch profile of Noack and his peripatetic pianistic project.

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