First Baptist Church

MusicWatch Weekly: The magic is in the middle

Prog, Shaw, Wolfe, African funk, Indian classical, and an Austro-Bohemian tribute band

There are a handful of things that make a city’s musical culture feel complete. You need several symphony orchestras and large choirs, and they all have to be pretty damn good. You also need several smaller choral and instrumental ensembles overlapping with and supplementing the larger bands; ideally, these smaller units will be a little more adventurous, and probably a lot more stylish.

You need an ecosystem of local and touring bands across the various spectra of genre and heft, not just the big names and your friend’s solo noise-pop project but a solid middle-register balance of lesser-known but high-quality musical acts. This middle ground principle applies equally to rock, jazz, classical, and all the rest: the magic is in the middle.

Finally, you need a diverse assortment of music from a variety of cultures. After arriving here from the sprawling metropolis of [redacted] in 2001, I knew Portland was a Serious Musical City when I saw just how easy it is to hear Indian classical music here–to say nothing of the broad assortment of groups playing music rooted in traditions from Africa, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Latin America, Russia, and so on. Touring acts come from all over, which is nice, but it’s the abundance of local-international musicians that’s really impressive.

We’ll talk about all of that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the Big Fish and its Favorite Bohemian.

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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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