Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 10. 1962.
Music of India
Music of India
Sir,—It is a shame to see your able music critic refusing to apply the same standards of judgment to music outside his normal experience as he does to works with which he is more familiar. I don't agree with him that Ravi Shankar's Music of India is "one for the specialists," and I think that he is doing a disservice to people who are interested in a new form of music, even if they do not know much about its technical structure.
I would be the last to claim that I know anything about the mathematics of music beyond the most elementary rules of harmony, but I don't find that this hinders me in my appreciation of its intrinsic qualities. Although I agree that the development of taste and discretion is an important part of the proper appreciation or music, I'm afraid that I am one of those poor people who in the last analysis Judges his purchase of records by what he likes.
I have seen Ravi Shankar in person, without any previous knowledge of Indian music and he impressed me very strongly. I have played my Shankar records to other people, and have discovered that I could communicate my enthusiasm for him to them through his music. I continually replay the records and find that my experience — I can't honestly say my knowledge—broadens each time.
My total impression of the music is varied. The first thing that struck me was Shankar's incredible virtuosity. He improvises all the time except for the opening theme and several set pieces in the final section of his ragas, the classical model form of the Hindustani school of Indian music. The sitar, a sort of grown-up guitar, is complicated in its design and even more in its range of effects. Shankar claims that he has been studying the instrument for 25 years and is still not its master.
The second impression is of the care-fully induced mesmeric effect, largely established by the continuous drone of the tonic and dominant supplied by the tambour, another, considerably less complicated instrument of five strings.
The third is of the complex rhythmic structures—cycles of 16, 12, 11, 9 or 7 beats are common. Those are established and built upon by both Shankar and Chatur Lal, his virtuoso drummer, who plays the tabla, a pair of small drums which look a little bit like kettle-drum bongos. The high-pitched head of the smaller drum reinforces the tonic drone, and the larger one has an almost incredible range of pitch and tonal quality.
Shankar and Chatur Lal interweave rhythm and melody until the barriers between them seem to be broken down—or at least circumvented—perhaps by osmosis!
The fourth impression is that, despite the music's strangeness to Western ears—it has no harmonic structure and relies on quartar-tones quite a bit—it has an intense emotional effect. From the state of semi-hypnosis. If the conditions are right, one is conveyed by the music through a wide range of emotional experience.
So it's not jazz, despite the improvisation and the bluesy quarter-tones (sometimes uncannily like the blues), because it is less sardonic than genuinely and unabashedly emotional. It's not romantic either, because of the mystic quality of its effect. And it is most definitely not Western. But I labour on about its content partly because I was personally impressed by it, and partly because I was rather pleased with myself that I could honestly justify a theory that I have long held that true artistic achievement rests in the ability to communicate to any human being who want to listen.— Yours etc,