John Cage’s 18 microtonal rāgas are found in Solo for voice 58 from Song books (1970).
To perform them, the dhrupad and experimental music specialist Amelia Cuni decided to apply experimental procedures to dhrupad vocalism and to elaborate her Indian music background in a new music context. She also wanted to explore an influential contemporary composer’s take on rāgas and step back from her personal involvement with the tradition and observe it from another perspective.
In collaboration with the Berliner Festspiele and several other contemporary music venues, Cuni’s interpretation of Solo for voice 58 was premiered in Berlin in 2006 and has been performed since then at several European and U.S. festivals.
This according to Cuni’s “Chance generated ragas in Solo for voice 58: A dhrupad singer performs John Cage” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society XLI [2011–12] pp. 127–54; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-23192).
Today is Cage’s 110th birthday!
Below, a studio recording of Cuni’s realization; a full live performance can be viewed here (the performance starts at 10:00).
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustānī vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by rāga performances, and he wanted a demonstration.
After a specially prepared vegetarian dinner, Thakur began with hindolam, which depicts valor. “When I was soaring in the high notes of the rāga,” he later recalled, “Mussolini suddenly said ‘Stop!’ I opened my eyes and found that he was sweating heavily. His face was pink and his eyes looked like burning coals. A few minutes later his visage gained normalcy and he said ‘A good experiment.’”
After Thakur brought him to tears with rāga chayanat, which is meant to depict pathos, Mussolini said, after taking some time to recover, “Very valuable and enlightening demonstration about the power of Indian music.”
Il Duce then returned the favor: Producing his violin, he treated Thakur to works by Paganini and Mozart. Again, both agreed on the music’s power to evoke emotion.
“I could not sleep at all the entire night,” the vocalist recalled, “wondering whether the meeting had really taken place; I thought it was a part of a dream.” The next day, two letters from Mussolini arrived—one thanking him and one appointing him as director of a newly formed university department to study the effect of music on the mind (an appointment that he was unable to accept).
This according to “Omkarnath Thakur & Benito Mussolini” by B.K.V. Sastry (Sruti 163 [April 1998] pp. 19–21; RILM Abstracts 1999-26342).
Although the exact date of this meeting is not recorded, we know that it took place in May 1933—80 years ago this month! Below, Thakur performs rāga bhairavi.
In “Why Hindustani musicians are good cooks: Analogies between music and food in North India” (Asian music XXV/1–2 (1993–94), pp. 69–80), Adrian McNeil notes that culinary topics are frequent—sometimes even favorite—subjects of conversation among Hindustani musicians, and that a notable number of top Indian musicians are also expert cooks. He attributes this phenomenon to the similarities between the cognitive and sensory aspects of the two activities, and proposes a “culinary perspective” on rāg.
Offering a basic “culinary recipe” alongside a basic “melodic recipe”, McNeil similarly juxtaposes, in a two-page spread, a photographic “depiction of potato with ginger and puris” with a rāgamālā “depiction of rāg sārant”. Further positing a “melodic conception of food”, he recounts examples of Indian musicians using culinary analogies to illustrate musical matters, and cites a use of the phrase biryāni chicken khā (eat chicken biryāni) to convey a rhythmic pattern to a hungry mrdangam player.
Ethnomusicological monographs are often published with transcriptions, photographs, and recordings; the printed texts present the primary information, while the other materials serve a secondary, supporting role. For ethnographic recordings, these functions are reversed: The recordings themselves are the primary concern, and the other materials fill in contextual or technical information.
Some publications occupy the border between these two types, where neither the printed texts nor the other materials can be definitively deemed secondary. The raga guide: A survey of 74 Hindustani ragas, published by Nimbus in 1999, is an example of such a multifunctioning publication. On its four CDs, each rāga is portrayed in a three- to six-minute rendition by a top-ranking performer; this is arguably the primary information, and RILM classified the publication as a sound recording. But the 196-page book in the package is hard to consider merely supportive—it includes analytical and historical notes for each rāga and its performance, including its basic structures shown in both Western and Indiansargam notation; full transcriptions of the ālāp (introductory) sections of each recording; and 40 full-color reproductions of rāgamālā paintings
These visual depictions of rāgas involve the various extramusical associations that theorists have assigned to them; for example, this visualization of the Hindustani rāg bhairavī from about 1610 depicts women worshiping at a shrine to Śiva, embodying the rāga’s association with both Śiva and feminine energy, and evoking the colors of its traditional early-morning context.
Below, the śahnāī player Bismillāh Khān (1915–2006) renders rāg bhairavī.
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