Shastra is a community of artists dedicated to creating meaningful, cross-cultural music that connects great musical traditions of India and the West. Through festivals, recordings, educational events, and commissioning initiatives, we are a nexus for musicians to share their artistry and bring this music to the world.

Welcome to Shastra!

shastra-annual-campaign-bannerShastra is an organization that connects musicians working in both the Indian and Western musical traditions, provides a forum for cross-pollination and support of one another’s work, and a creates a platform to showcase this beautiful and unique music to a global audience.

We invite you to peruse our site: Scroll down further on this page to peruse the Shastra Blog. We post interviews with musicians, release video footage from Shastra events, and bring you news from the Indian-Western crossover community. You can become acquainted with our diverse group of featured Artists through their individual pages, which include some information about their background, and an audio ‘snapshot’ of their work. Visit our Calendar page to learn about events in your area. Learn about our educational initiatives, including our recent collaboration with Face the Music on our Parampara page. And apply for the Shastra Symposium 2016, our first peer-reviewed conference. We are looking for musicians from all over the world for this unique event.

We would love to hear from you! Please get in touch with us with your questions, to be on our mailing list, or to see how you can get involved in the organization. Welcome to the Shastra community!

Best,

Payton MacDonald and Reena Esmail
Artistic Directors

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A Universal Music

by Aakash Mittal: acclaimed saxophonist, composer and improviser.

The full version of this article appeared in New Music Box on October 11, 2016.

“I hear what you are going for,” Hafez said to me. “You have clearly worked on this music and developed these Indian ornamentations within your improvisation.” It was my first week at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music in 2013, and I was fortunate enough to get a lesson from saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist Hafez Modirzadeh. I had just played a solo saxophone piece that I had developed over the previous couple of years and my adrenaline was pumping a little more than usual. Hafez’s recordings were frequently on my playlist, and I was excited by this opportunity to study with him. After a slight pause to think about my solo, he suggested, “But you know the goal is to move beyond ethnic stylizations towards a concept of universal music.”[1] Universal music? No ethnic stylizations? That blew my mind. “That’s not even my idea,” Hafez continued. “John Coltrane said that.”[2]

I felt the thrill of the unknown. Prior to this lesson, I was fervently driven by a personal mission to express the hybridity of my biology and experience as a half-Indian/half-Euro-American person within my music. The search for stylistic confluence manifested itself in numerous trips to study in India and four recordings of original music that explored Indian concepts, environments, and sounds within my jazz quartet. Despite my commitment to an ethnic-identity-driven music, Hafez’s words resonated deeply within me. On an intuitive level, I knew that this was the next step in my journey. I had a deluge of questions. How is universal music possible? Is not music, like language, born of culture and environment? Is not each musical style a unique expression of place and experience? For years, ethnic stylization had been one of my favorite aspects of music. I treasured the diversity of forms music seemed to take across cultures. Could I really abandon an idea so integral to my identity? In a sense, Hafez’s challenge threw into question everything I believed in artistically.

Hafez’s call to action was only the first of many revelatory experiences during that opening week in Banff, Canada. Composer/pianist Vijay Iyer gave me the first building block I would use to develop my ideas surrounding universal music. In a room full of workshop participants, he said something akin to, “Genres don’t exist. They were invented by record companies to sell albums. Genres are an attempt to categorize a community of people who come together and create something.”[3] Once again, I was confronted with a paradigm shift. My musical training, rhetoric, and artistic upbringing had been a world of categories, styles, and genres hinged together. I thought of the countless hours spent trying to play a style correctly and how often I seemed to fail in that goal. At that time, I was already bothered by the mentality that our musical ancestors had somehow received the divine right to invent and that all the rest of us could hope for was to imitate. Yet I was encumbered with the popular notion that I needed to “learn the rules” before I could “break them.” At what point were the rules learned and the breaking could begin? The goal of stylistic execution was perpetually in conflict with my interest as I attempted to occupy both worlds. I embraced Vijay’s comment. He was giving me the words I needed to articulate what I believed and felt all along.

The concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it. In order to define a style, we homogenize seemingly congruent elements across people and time to assemble a grocery list of digestible characteristics. Jazz is reduced to a collection of ride cymbal patterns, walking bass lines, seventh chord voicings, and improvised chromaticism. Hindustani music becomes a modal jam within odd time signatures peppered with exotic ornamentations. Music that was once riding the crest of mutative feedback loops becomes frozen in time. What is left is a shell of compiled theories, historical patterns, and reductive features often devoid of the processes and unquantifiable elements of creativity. The genre now exists abstractly. It looms over us large and menacing as we struggle to determine if this composition is ambient or minimalist and if that improviser is playing hard-bop or post-bop. In our desire to identify the sound, we lose the nuance of each performance that made the music so powerful in the first place.

When examining art through the lens of style, we are immediately bombarded by another problem: what person or which group of people has the privilege of defining a genre and its characteristics? In the history of music, the role of the definer becomes a political conflict. Within North Indian communities, the term classical was often attached to raga music as a way to equalize their own complex and highly structured sounds in the context of colonial rule.[6] Definitions of jazz often illuminate racial polarity and social movements in the United States, while European classical forms often frame class and patronage systems. Who has the power to define music? The critic? The academic? The audience? The artist?

When I started looking at music through the lens of human interaction, what emerged was a world of collaborations. I realized that my favorite works of art were born of very specific relationships that existed within a flowing spectrum of social dynamics. One of my favorite polymaths is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose friendship with C.S. Lewis was pivotal in his work. Tolkien once said of Lewis, “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence,’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”[8] Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother Theo acted as patron and critic to the artist in addition to his familial role.[9] We could list creative dyads for the rest of this essay: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. Individually these people are certainly hard workers and creative thinkers, but what struck me was the realization that their work was always collaborative. Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius re-inventing genres within a vacuum. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.

In this argument against genre, I am not suggesting that we eliminate the words bebop, minimalism, or dhrupad from our vocabulary; rather, I am advocating that we change the way we think about and use these words. These words represent people who lived in a very real place and time. They navigated the struggles of life while creating, discussing, disagreeing, and influencing each other. Yes, past communities of people shared musical vocabulary, but each person’s use of that vocabulary was ultimately unique. This recognition that traditions and genres are simply people engaging in the exact same creative processes we have today is liberating. We are no longer obliged to contain our creativity within someone else’s box, and we can take the “greats” off of their pedestals and bring them back down to earth.

Summer Workshop: Composing with Indian Rhythm

Have you ever wanted to learn the basics of Indian classical music, or deepen your knowledge of the art form? Have you been interested in incorporating Indian musicians into the music you write? Composing with Indian Rhythm is an opportunity for Western-trained composers to do exactly that. Hindustani tabla player Shawn Mativetsky and composer Payton MacDonald team up to co-teach a four-week intensive workshop. Apply now, until April 15th!

Summer Workshop: Composing with Indian Voice

Hindustani vocalist Saili Oak and composer Reena Esmail team up to co-teach a six week intensive workshop where students receive intensive training in the fundamentals of Hindustani (North Indian) classical music, with instruction on the best practices for incorporating Hindustani music organically into your music. Apply now, until April 15th!

The music in this is video was composed by students in the 2016 summer workshop.

Shastra Summer Workshop Series: Composing with Indian Voice

We are so excited to announce our Shastra Summer Workshop SeriesApply now until April 15, 2017, for Composing with Indian Voice, led by composer Reena Esmail and Hindustani vocalist Saili Oak. Receive in-depth instruction in Hindustani music and learn how to bring Indian musicians successfully into your music. Workshop and record your new Bhajan arrangement with Saili Oak and string quartet. The program runs July 1 – August 6, 2017.

But What About the Microtones?

by Andre Fludd, January 18, 2017

From the moment I started studying South Indian classical (Carnatic) music as performed on the electric guitar, the biggest question I’ve received is “but what about the microtones?” Thanks to the work of the great Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Veena Balachander in the 1960s, everyone from the metalcore guitarist to the international businessman knows something about Indian classical music; namely, microtones are what make Indian music different from Western music. The next logical assumption is that a Western fretted instrument like the guitar can’t possible fit in such a tradition. Yet, in the capital city of Carnatic music, Chennai, India, there are plenty of musicians performing classical music on guitar, mandolin, and even keyboard. Has South India secretly parted with their microtones? Well no, but some talented musicians such as Guitar Prasanna, and the late Mandolin Srinivas have taught the world a lot about how so-called microtones can be played on Western string instruments.

I would argue that the guitar is the most versatile Western string instrument, and that isn’t just because I’m a guitarist. In jazz it can be used to accompany a big band, mimic the solo lines of a trumpet, and some guitarists can even do both simultaneously. The guitar has a significant Western classical repertoire, and can recreate the music of many other classical instruments. And every teenager who enters Guitar Center on a Saturday knows that it is essential to nearly every rock, blues, and singer songwriter genre around the world. One of the reasons why the guitar is so versatile is because it has equal tempered fixed frets. This allows one to play any scale made up of the guitars 12 notes without retuning, which in turn gives way to advanced harmonic possibilities. Everything from the Well-Tempered Clavier, to jazz chord substitutions is possible because of this temperament system. Carnatic music is quite different.

When a Carnatic vocalist sings, for example, they do so against a tonic and dominant* drone as opposed to a chord progression. Not only are chord progressions not utilized, but singing to a drone also naturally gives way to a more in tune or true tempered sound. As such, the Carnatic tradition would not benefit from an equally tempered system, which is the first reason why, on a theoretical level, many Western instruments should not fit. Carnatic music is made up of a combination of songs and improvisations that are composed from ragas, or scales with built in melodic vocabulary, and gamakas (microtones), the second reason why Western instruments might appear to be an anomaly. But there are also some similarities between Carnatic and Western theory. Both traditions utilize the same seven primary pitches, and then build 12 total notes.** Moreover, in a single scale no more than 7 notes are ever employed at one time. Still, one could argue that scale temperament and microtones must separate the two traditions, but is this argument justified?

The hyperbolized comparisons between East and West have been around for hundreds of years, and extend dialectically far beyond music: traditional vs. modern, mysticism vs. science, and yes, melody vs. harmony. Luckily for us, music may be the area where these polarities are most easily dispelled. Let’s start with the classic musical examples: the piano, a product of the Western industrial revolution, and the very precise mathematical tunings that influence how a vocalist might otherwise naturally sing. In India, there is the polar opposite: a hand-made tambura (string drone instrument) that is carefully tuned by ear, allowing a vocalist to sing perfectly in tune using just intonation. But these narratives very colorfully ignore much of their respective traditions. For example, Western string quartets and choirs have no limitations in regards to temperament, while the Carnatic tradition’s most revered solo melodic instrument, the Saraswati veena, has fixed frets that are not perfectly intoned.

We move to Microtones, an oddly intimidating word that is usually reserved for Eastern music and maverick experimental Western composers. Yet, within Western music there are coloratura and glissando techniques, and in Carnatic music, ragas that are mathematical instead of phrase-based. Can a blues musician really be affective without bends, or gentle scoops from one note to another?

Every musician understands that intonation is extremely important, which is why we all spend countless hours attempting to perfect it. There is a very small spectrum of what is considered in tune in any genre of music, but a spectrum it is nonetheless, and many instruments fit into it. Moreover, although gamakas are often microtonal, they can be employed on a diverse array of instruments including Western fretted ones. In the case of Carnatic music, fretted instruments certainly have a lasting space, which has been demonstrated by successful musicians who pioneered their use: Guitar Prasanna and the late Mandolin Srinivas. When one listens to them play, it is clear that the beauty of Carnatic music is maintained in their music.

~
Andre Fludd is a Ph.D. student of Ethnomusicology at the City University of New York, and a student of Carnatic (guitar) music, who presented some of this fascinating research at the Shastra Symposium 2016. Listen to him play “Abogi Varnam” here.

*Some ragas require the drone to be tuned to tonic and sub dominant.
**There are technically 16 notes in Carnatic music, but the 4 additional notes are a special category (vivadi swaras), which are derived from combining the original 12 with specific movements.

A Reflection on the 2016 Shastra Symposium

Check out this wonderful reflection on the 2016 Shastra Symposium by Priscilla Cordero. Priscilla is an undergraduate student at William Paterson University, and a musician, ethnomusicologist and anthropologist of sound!

“The three days of the symposium were filled with many inspiring conversations and opportunities to explore. This whole event was significant because (even as one of the presenter’s pointed out…) this was probably one of the few spaces in our region where people who are interested in cross-cultural musical phenomenons and projects could come together for a discussion. The presentations ranged from composer’s debuting and talking about their work, to performances that showcase both Indian classical and Western influences, to new technology and systems to accommodate cross cultural communication, and a dissection of classical, pop, indie, fusion and every genre in between.

“One of the greatest aspects of the symposium was the intimacy throughout the weekend; the personality of the symposium was kept light and welcoming, which is probably a big reason why I stayed as long as I did. Simply as an attendee, I was able to have lunch with the presenters, make connections, and felt comfortable enough to ask questions freely. This isn’t the case in many other situations like these. The relaxed ambiance of the symposium made the entire weekend so much richer and allowed for more learning opportunities than had it been run with formalities.

“If I’m to highlight one session from the entire weekend, I would say I was most touched and intrigued by the last one. Pavithra Chari is a musician from New Delhi, India who wears many hats. She is a composer, performer, educator, etc. While everyone shared their life work, her speech to the symposium attendees was particularly raw and personally driven. I’m not sure if she would identify this way, but from my perspective there was something so innately feminist about it all. Calling upon the feminist theory, “the personal is political,” Pavithra’s fusion of Hindustani classical with ethereal electronic music was so authentically her and embraced tradition in a unique way. I was able to see Pavithra again when she came to my class the following Monday; she led a discussion on her life as an indie/classical fusion artist and composer in India with our class. Her band Shadow and Light can be heard on Soundcloud!

“So what did this weekend mean for me? It meant that I was in a space surrounded by those with the same particular interests that I had, which is a really cool thing especially in academic settings and the topic at hand is reworking and undoing the western dominance in social and artistic standard. It was reaffirming that I was in a space that I needed to be in at that moment, that I had arrived to a moment of right place and right time in my life.”

Priscilla Cordero (October 7, 2016). Read more on her blog, Synced Heartbeats.

Peter Lavezzoli on Alice Coltrane’s Gospel Kirtan

How many of us have heard the work of Alice Coltrane? After getting a taste of her unique sound at the Shastra Symposium 2016, we reached out to author and musician Peter Lavezzoli to hear more about her music and spirituality – both defined by the influence of South Asian culture on the West. Check out his article below and listen to “Sivaya,” from her 1977 album “Transcendence.” Thank you, Peter!

“There is so much to be said about Alice Coltrane/Swamini Turiya Sangitananda (1937-2007), whose astounding life and career was not given proper attention in a biographical volume until Franya Berkman’s Monument Eternal (2010). In addition to her listening public, it is easy to see why Mrs. Coltrane (born Alice McLeod) attracted so many students, as she embodied several powerful aspects of musical and spiritual life: an astonishingly self-assured African-American woman who was one of the most accomplished Jazz and Gospel musicians of the 20th century, creating her own unmistakable style on pedal harp and a variety of keyboards; wife of the most famous yet most uncompromising Jazz musician of the late 20th century, John Coltrane; and subsequently an ordained Swamini in the Vedanta Hindu tradition, a vocation that directed her personal and musical steps for the remainder of her life.

“As with many artists who commit themselves to a spiritual path, Mrs. Coltrane took extended leave of her professional career to focus on her private and spiritual life, deepening her own practice while working with a growing number of students at her own Vedanta Center, many of whom would sing with Mrs. Coltrane in what essentially became a Gospel choir. And it is precisely this aspect of her work — merging distinct elements of Gospel music from the Black Christian Church with devotional Bhakti Hindu chanting and singing in the practice of Kirtan — that would become one of Mrs. Coltrane’s most strikingly original contributions to music, and which is the focus of this very brief overview. Although her professional hiatus as a recording artist lasted 26 years between the live trio album Transfiguration (1978) and Translinear Light (2004), we do have a small but exceptionally satisfying body of Mrs. Coltrane’s work in this genre that we will describe as “Gospel Kirtan.”

“Alice McLeod’s childhood roots in Black Gospel can be traced to her first playing organ at age nine for Mount Olive Baptist Church in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Astutely aware of the timbral nuances of the various keyboards in her arsenal, Mrs. Coltrane could have chosen to utilize her signature Wurlitzer sound in her Gospel Kirtan music – for it is on the Wurlitzer that she developed a tone, fingering, and pitch bending, which gave the Wurlitzer an uncanny resemblance to the North Indian shehnai, another one of her innovations that merits its own elucidation in a separate study. But in a surprising move that would distinguish her Gospel Kirtan from other areas of her work, Mrs. Coltrane chose the Fender Rhodes as her medium for these performances. The Fender Rhodes electric piano had become widely used in Black Gospel churches because of its compact construction and affordability as compared to larger organs such as the Hammond B3, while the softer timbres combined with the powerful bass tone of the Rhodes also became a strong selling point among Gospel keyboardists. In adopting the Rhodes for her work in this area, Mrs. Coltrane brought listeners into direct contact with the sound-world of the Black Church, giving her Gospel Kirtan an impressive authenticity.

“Although Mrs. Coltrane publicly released an album (now out of print) completely devoted to Gospel Kirtan — Radha Krsna Nama Sankirtana (1976) — as well as having recorded several albums during her hiatus that were privately released by the Avatar Book Institute, the most readily available examples are on Transcendence (1977), with four Gospel Kirtan tracks that comprised Side B of the album. Each features the call-and-response of the Black Gospel and Kirtan traditions, with Mrs. Coltrane on lead vocal, followed by her student choir, who play a variety of percussion as well as hand claps, while Mrs. Coltrane plays her Fender Rhodes.

“One of the obvious features of her Gospel Kirtan is that, unlike traditional Kirtan in the Indian style, Mrs. Coltrane’s compositions are based on Western chord changes.“Sivaya” is in E-flat minor 7, with regular shifts to B-flat minor 9, A-flat 7, and D-flat 7. “Ghana Nila” is in D-flat 7, with shifts to G-flat 7 and A-flat 7. “Bhaja Govindam” is in C, with shifts to E, F, and G. And finally, “Sri Nrsimha” is in D minor, with shifts to G minor and occasional C. The vocal approach very much favors the Black Gospel side of the equation, with Mrs. Coltrane and her choir singing in a decidedly Gospel style, displaying all of the impassioned inflections and gruffness one would expect to hear from Mavis Staples or Mahalia Jackson. Mrs. Coltrane’s Gospel Kirtan is clearly in that lineage both musically and vocally, and in light of her use of chord changes and bass lines as played on the Rhodes, the only element that would easily identify this music as Kirtan are the lyrics, taken from Bhakti Hindu devotional chants and songs. In most other respects, these performances are steeped in the Black Gospel tradition that Mrs. Coltrane had known since her early Baptist childhood years playing church organ in Detroit.

“One of the most powerful sonic aspects of these recordings is Mrs. Coltrane’s masterful use of bass lines on the Fender Rhodes, providing an essential underpinning that is perhaps the most crucial ingredient of all. This is especially evident on “Sivaya” and “Ghana Nila.” These bass lines — which are the lifeblood of Black Gospel music – are played with such authority that the listener might feel that in spite of Mrs. Coltrane’s many years as a Jazz musician and Hindu Swamini, she had actually never lost contact with her roots in the Black Christian Church. Moreover, a new listener somehow discovering these tracks with no prior exposure to Mrs. Coltrane’s other work in Jazz or Indian music might well assume that she was exclusively a Gospel artist — which speaks to her mastery of the form.

“It is the opinion of this writer that Mrs. Coltrane’s creation of Gospel Kirtan is one of the great achievements of 20th century music, albeit tragically underexposed, as it shows with astonishing immediacy how these two distinctly Western and Eastern forms of devotional music could be seamlessly and beautifully merged. And as was always Mrs. Coltrane’s concern in the wake of her husband John’s passing, her invention of Gospel Kirtan was yet another profoundly important step on the path toward a more universalist spiritual language in music… another step on the path toward a love supreme.”

– Peter Lavezzoli (November 29, 2016)

Michael Harrison’s Project with Mashkoor Ali Khan receives New Music USA Commission

Shastra is excited to share composer Michael Harrison’s recent collaboration with his vocal guru Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan. Harrison spoke about this beautiful new work and his decades-long engagement with Hindustani music – including pure intonation applied to Western instruments –  at the Shastra Symposium 2016. Listen to “Tarana” here:

“Last month I was honored to have the opportunity to share four of my recent works with the most amazing group of cross cultural musicians at the Shastra Symposium. The work that captured the most attention was a Tarana, which is part of a collaborative CD with my Indian vocal guru Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan creating new works for multi-track Indian vocals, just intonation piano, tabla and tanpura. The project received a New Music USA commission and the recording and production was sponsored by American Academy of Indian Classical Music. The works are being composed using the basic structures and materials of North Indian classical music including raga, tala, alap, bandishes, gamaka, taans, and structured improvisation; but the juice comes from adding compositional structures, multi-tracking and piano, such that the Western hallmarks of harmony and polyphony become integral elements of the music.

“Tarana features Mashkoor Ali Khan singing one of his rare and old traditional taranas in raga Yaman Kalyan. He and guest vocalist Daisy Press also sing composed taans, harmony parts and countermelodies, with tabla played by Meghashyam Keshav, a disciple of Pt. Anindo Chatterjee, just intonation piano and tanpura played by me, and co-produced by Chris Botta at Staple Chest Audio. Although Indian classical music usually includes a lot of improvisation, this work is completely notated; yet the tightly structured 6-minute work still allows for the music to come alive. Because Ustad is a master of a centuries old aural tradition, he has never needed to read music. Therefore we developed most of his parts based on things that he already knew, with countermelodies and harmony parts that he learned by ear.

“To provide a little background for my work on this project, since 1978 I have studied and practiced singing Indian ragas on a daily basis, first as a disciple of the late Pandit Pran Nath, and his two foremost Western disciples, composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and since 1999 as a disciple of Mashkoor Ali Khan. When I was first getting started, La Monte encouraged me to study and practice the music in its pure form rather than creating hybrids. Whether consciously or not, I took his advice to the extreme. As a result, although practicing Indian music has profoundly influenced my life and work from the beginning, it has only been the past five years that I have directly used materials from the genre in my original works. La Monte’s advice enabled me to dive much deeper into the music; and decades later, with relatively equal training and background in both Western and Indian classical music, it comes naturally for me to merge elements from these diverse traditions. As a result over the past few years I have shifted my riyaz (daily practice) from singing with the tanpura, to singing and playing ragas on the just intonation piano. It is incredibly rewarding to start each day by exploring the merging of the two musical traditions that I love best. Now I am more excited than ever about the possibilities, and it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to collaborate with my Ustad!

“You can hear Tarana and other related works and receive updates by “following” our project here: New Music USA Profile.”

– Michael Harrison