October 5, 2011

Learning the Raga language

Although her workshop started at 4 p.m. on Friday, Indian violinist Vidya Dengle was already sitting cross-legged on stage in Kresge Recital Hall, Ford Center for Fine Arts at 3:45 p.m. waiting for her audience to arrive.
It was her first time to Knox since 13 years before and her fourth time to America. Despite the relatively unfamiliar environment, her face shone bright and radiant as she smiled at her incoming audience.
As the crowd was sparsely finding their seats, Dengle gently settled her violin on her lap and politely asked the thirty-some people in the theatre to move up to the first three rows. The crowd, composed mainly of music majors and faculty, silently and respectfully obliged, still getting acquainted with her forward and unassuming demeanor.
After a welcome from music professor Sarah Day O’Connell, Dengle began her workshop by saying that she would not be playing Indian classical music. Because the genre of Indian classical music incorporates many different things and can be difficult to classify, she wanted to be more specific. “Raga music,” a type of modal music, was what she was going to play.
Ragas, as Dengle described, are like scales in that they have “a descending and ascending order,” but you “stop on certain notes that enhance the raga,” producing a “meditative” quality. In other words, the raga is not just the notes themselves, but how one plays the notes.
Dengle demonstrated this characteristic by emphasizing the fact that ragas, of which there are hundreds, each have their own allotted time slots. Some are to be played in the morning, some in the afternoon, some at night, some in the spring, some in the summer, etc. With this in mind, Dengle proceeded to play a raga for each time of day and for each season. With each season, she would describe the different aspects of nature that would change with the music, whether it’s the flowers blooming, birds singing or leaves falling—all these have influence on the raga.
At the end of her workshop, there was time for the audience to ask questions, and Dengle was rife with long-winded and informative answers. One question led her to speak about the complexity and intensity of the relationship between guru (teacher) and shishya (student), many gurus still requiring their students to move in with them for study.
When she was asked what she was going to play that night for her performance she said that she did not know yet. Amazingly, she had only played with this specific tabla (Indian drum) player twice before.
But this short notice was not abnormal for Dengle. She compared her approach to music with that of the jazz musicians who she had gone to see at Jazz Night on Thursday. She pointed to how musical friends would come up and sit in on tunes that they hadn’t practiced with the band before, but that they just knew the feel and general gist of from practicing scales and transcribing solos. In the same way, the knowledge of the ragas and rhythms provide Dengle and her tablaa player a sort of toolkit for the improvisation that drives Indian music.
The response to the workshop was very positive, especially among the music majors and jazz musicians that attended. Seniors Josh Garties and Sam Lewis, both members of the Cherry St. Jazz Combo, enjoyed seeing how the style of raga music paralleled and differed from their own.
“I learned a lot musically and culturally,” Garties said. “It is a very different way of approaching music.”
Lewis, a drummer himself, appreciated the economical approach of Dengle’s style.
“I found the use of the drone really interesting, and the fact that so much musical variety was built off of a very small variety of tools.”
More importantly, he valued how the workshop shed light on areas of commonality between cultures that otherwise would not be seen. The correlation makes him think about what unifies culture generally, and how music can play a role in telling us about ourselves.
“Since these two traditions developed completely apart from each other over long periods of time … if something’s almost the same about them, you gotta wonder why that is.”

Sam Brownson
Sam Brownson ’12 majored in philosophy and minored in anthropology and sociology. This is his second year copy editing for TKS; he is also currently a post-baccalaureate fellow in music and theater and will be composing the music for two productions as part of Knox’s Repertory Theatre Term. A self-described grammar Nazi, Sam worked as a TKS reporter and as a writer and editor for his high school newspaper before joining the TKS editorial staff. He also manages social media for Brownson Properties in Holland, Mich.

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