Monthly Archives: January 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.