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Sab se Acche Jivan

September 30, 2011

I started studying Indian music when I was thirteen—earlier than I even had much understanding of Western music theory. More importantly however, I can trace back ways that Hindustani music inadvertently led me to avant garde music, and 20th century American composers, Robert Ashley among them. But that’s another story. This story is about a way to explore the combination of the two by accompanying Aliza on the tabla in “The Backyard” segment of Perfect Lives.

A tabla forms the backbone of earlier versions of “The Park,” and “The Backyard,” released together as the album Private Parts. When I met Robert Ashley on the June 7th performance, he told me that when he made that recording in 1977, he told the tabla player (who was apparently actually a sitar player embarrassed to be seen as a tabla player—hence the pseudonym “Kris” in the record’s credits) to just match the rhythm of his words. This is no doubt not something that Kris had any experience with, and regardless of his success, what he actually played are variants of two common Hindustani tala, or rhythm cycles: tintal in “The Park”—a sixteen beat tala; and dadra in “The Backyard”—a six beat tala.

We’ll focus on “The Backyard” for the remainder of this, because that’s the section in question for this exploration. The basic theka (repeating pattern of tabla strokes—think of it like a repeating bass line) of dadra is:

Dha  Dhin  Na  Dha  Tin  Na

but throughout most of the piece Kris plays the following variation:

Dha  Ge  Na-Treke  DhaNaKeTun  -KeNa-  Terekite.

At times he switches to other pattern variants (around 3:40 for instance), and on one or two occasions slips into a fast ektal—a common 12 beat tala (around 19:00 for instance). The variations seem to have little to do with what Robert Ashley is saying, thought-wise or rhythm-wise—more just variation for variation’s sake.

Apologies to those of you not versed in Hindustani tala—a deeper explanation of the above is not to be found here, but a deeper understanding isn’t really necessary. The point is that Robert Ashley approaches this from his direction, and Kris from his own other direction. The underlying pulse of the tabla ties the piece together, but Kris isn’t really mimicking the rhythm of Robert Ashley’s words, not any more than Robert Ashley is following the rhythm cycles of Kris. But what do you expect from the unlikely pairing of a classically trained Hindustani musician with such unprecedented instruction, and an American composer with little grasp on tala? In the end it doesn’t matter, because for better or for worse, the two together, topped with “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s keyboards, create a beautiful, and very successful piece.


But what might it have sounded like if Kris and Robert Ashley were able to more clearly understand each other’s approach? Aliza and I have this option—to utilize our combined knowledge of Perfect Lives and Hindustani music to explore the potential of how the two could meet on equal footing. In the end it might result in nothing, but the journey at least seems like a worthwhile experience. What follows below are some ideas for exploration that we’ve talked over:


Here we do need a brief tala crash course. To boil it down for quick understanding, Hindustani tala is all about the first beat of the cycle, known as sam (pronounced “sum”—just remember, everything adds up to sam!). All tabla compositions, no matter how rhythmically complex they get, always come back to resolve on sam. The same is true of a sitarist or any other Hindustani performer: they break away from the composed melody for improvisational explorations, but they always come back to the melody so that it lines up in the same place with the tala, and culminates on sam. (If you’ve ever been to a concert of Hindustani music, this is the point where everyone in the audience gets really excited.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the idea of text incorporated within tala. Spoken text—i.e. something less rhythmically overt than a song or a rap—that nevertheless fits within a repeating rhythmic cycle the way a Hindustani gat or bandish (fixed compositions) does. Robert Ashley has an amazing sense of rhythm in his performance—an understanding of phrasing, pauses, speed, repetition, and more—but it’s self-contained. Is there a way for Aliza to perform this text so it more overtly aligns with the tala, without loosing the poetics of the words themselves?

We talked about the possibility of each line beginning on sam, and fitting within the 6 beats, or some multiple thereof. In practice, this seemed to be too constricting on the text—remember the goal here is for text & tal to meet halfway, not for one to solely dictate the other. What seems more interesting, not to mention more doable, is trying to get key lines to line up with, or lead back to sam, like the mukhra (melody hook leading to sam) of a gat.

The text of “The Backyard” contains thematic ideas that are returned to again and again, with repeated ideas, and repeated sentences even. These could be places to realign with the tala. This parallels the idea of a Hindustani performance. When a sitarist breaks away from the fixed melody to improvise, in theory he is exploring a melodic “thought.” He leaves the confines of the tala behind, ignoring it even, as he floats over it with his thought. When the thought is concluding, he latches back onto the tala, returns to the melody, and lands on sam. Further improvisations might flesh out this same thought more, but each “paragraph” so to speak is punctuated by sam. This we could mimic with actual thoughts.

Another idea to incorporate tala structure is the points where the text contains numerical lists. “My mind turns to my breath, one. My mind watches my breath, two. My mind watches my breath, three.” etc. Or “This is the hour of the mystery of the barnswallows. One, where do the go in daytime? Two, do they never rest?” etc. Or the listing of the stages of sunset near the end of the piece. These are places I could imagine a larger succession of lines all lining up with the start of each cycle of tala to further punctuate the repetitive nature of the text.

And finally, we discussed the idea of rhythmic leitmotifs so to speak. The text jumps from idea to idea, often returning to a previously mentioned one. Themes, among others, include numbers, breathing, and events happening in the backyard. Kris has a few themes of his own, in a rhythmic sense. He comes and goes with the different variations, but the switches in rhythmic theme and text theme are not correlated. They could be though. Rather than the variations in rhythmic pattern coming just to add some variational flavor, they could correspond to specific thematic ideas. It could be as complicated as each thought having it’s own rhythm pattern, or switches in rhythmic pattern used to group sections of ideas, or as simple as a short fill pattern acting as transition from one section to the next.


In any case, there is a lot of potential to explore, and I’m excited to see what may transpire in the coming month. Let’s just hope it’s not too cold in November to play tabla outside!


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