Saturday, January 8, 2022

 Seven years since posting last!  I had no idea how the blogosphere worked, and had hoped to elicit interest and responses that would create a dialog.

This is just a trial to see if it shows up.  If so, maybe the blog can reincarnate in some way

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Sampler of World Music for the Guitarist

Before tackling the elements of an American or Western raga, as suggested in a previous post, I would like to take a side excursion:  to “….  return to the most basic response we have when thunderstruck by a piece of beautiful music”.  In this excursion, I want to share some of the primary musical places that have affected me most deeply and are continuing sources of inspiration, under the rubrics of “World Music” and “Western Classical Music”…….

A Sampler of Music for the Serious Guitar Improviser/ Explorer

I came to the world of acoustic guitar exploration from a background in both Western classical music and world music (just beginning to open up in the West in the 1950’s and 1960’s).  Although I didn’t pursue a career as a classical guitarist (I still play a limited repertoire and keep up technical exercises), the idea of a commitment to the deepest and profoundest experiences that one can have in both Western classical and world music is one that I still cherish. 

I would like to provide here a smorgasbord of world music experiences in the hope of widening and deepening the perspective of guitarists who like me are exploring the possibilities of new music.  I will not to even try to be comprehensive or “informed” about this selection.  I am not an academic or an ethnographer, but an active musician myself.  These samples come from a lifetime of my personal enjoyment (and idiosyncratic taste).  What I do hope to share are some major places along the way that continue to enrich my own musical journey, and hopefully to inspire yours to new heights. 

I have purposely included music here of some extended length.  One of the aspects of exploratory music is learning to appreciate a much larger sense of time itself.  As the poet Gary Snyder once said to a fellow worker:  “It’s not a long trip; you’ve just got a short mind.”

There are a few other things immediately noticeable about this list.  First, is that I am giving few samples of music from Europe or the Americas.  I feel that most of the major traditions of music in all of these countries already have a very prominent place in the consciousness of musicians in America;  most even have large audiences and very active advocates promoting concerts and airtime.  So I may only try to fill in a couple of less known places in that Western panoply of music.  

The other thing that may be less noticeable is that most of the music I am bringing is not “folk music” per se.  Most of these recommendations come from court or classical traditions or at the very least a “high society” form, rather than the folk and emergent forms of musical play.  This could in itself be a subject for future discussion, but for now I will just note it along the way.  I hope the other unifying feature of these selections is that they are all very strong “soul music”, big in “rasa”. 

I am a lifelong fan of the Hindustani classical tradition of northern India.  It was influenced by the Islamic culture of the Mogul empires.  The music of the south, the Carnatic tradition, is perhaps more ancient, associated more with the ancient Dravidian race, and tends to be more oriented toward dance rhythms.

Although most people who know of Indian music at all associate it with the sitar, I have from the first been a much bigger fan of the “sarod”:  approximately guitar-sized, with a flat metal plate instead of a fretboard, and a timbre that is like a bell-like cello.

Ali Akbar Khan, sarod, performing (perhaps with Mahapurush Misra, tabla)

Bismillah Khan, shehnai, with Vilayat Khan, sitar, performing
            Raga Gujari Todi

Ali Akbar Khan with his cousin Ravi Shankar, sitar:  a concert in 1972, shortly after the death of Khan-sahib’s father Allauddin Khan, considered one of the greatest musicians of all time in India

Shivkumar Sharma, santoor
            Here with master tabla player Zakir Hussein:  Raga Kirwani, at a festival in Poona, with crickets!!

Debashish Battacharya, Indian slide guitar
            An NPR “Tiny Desk Concert” with a vocalist:

Rajendra Prasanna, bansuri

Sultan Khan, sarangi;  Zakir Hussein, tabla:  shorter Raag Basant

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, performing a “qawwali”


Japanese Koto by Shoko Murata:  duet with shakuhachi by Michio Miyagi:  “Haru No Umi”:    

Japanese Koto by Nanae Yoshimura:  Miki “Autumn Fantasy”  (more modern exploration):

            Japanese Shakuhachi (artist unknown):           

Chinese Pipa by Yang Jing:

Chinese erhu, an unadorned solo:

Tuvan throat singing (a "solo duet" with higher harmonics)

Indonesia gamelan


Oud:  in Arabic, this is “al oud”, which became “the lute”, grandfather of the guitar

Hamza El-Din, oud:  

Anouar Brahem, oud; Kudsi Erguner, ney:      

Abdullah Chhadeh, qanun (an Arabic zither):

Toumani Diabate, kora:

Stella Rimbasai, mbira:


Mariza, fadista:

SOUTH AMERICA  (some of these could be classified as “classical”:  I only included them here because I love them so much)

Villa Lobos:  Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5:

Barrios, “El Ultimo Canto”  (Berta Rojas):

Mercedes Sosa singing songs of Atahualpa Yupanqui:

HAWAII  (you already know the slack key guitarists)


Please let me know if any of these do something for you.  Thanks.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Toward a Western Raga - II

Silence and Sounding, Emptiness and Fullness

Before we jump into the “thinginess” of a Western raga, we would do well to try to encounter the substance, the essence of Indian raga, what its suchness is.  I say this because I believe that in the end an “Western raga” is going to be an American or Western flavored incarnation of “raga-ness”.  And you'll note that I have shifted to the term "Western", instead of the more parochial "American", raga.

I titled this particular essay “silence and sounding” because as we become mindful of the world of Indian raga, we quickly notice that raga is always emerging from silence, but also that in the Indian view silence is not just emptiness or non-sounding but the universal matrix of creation, the result of the vast “OM” by which the universe has come to be and through which it continues to be sung into existence.  The actual beginning of an Indian concert is:  darkness in a space set aside for the concert, a spotlit central area, the smell of incense (universal expression of prayer), the gathering then stirring and gradual quietening of the “audience”, the artists’ “Namaste” (acknowledging the presence of God in everyone and everything present), fine-tuning the instruments, and then the drone of the tanbura.  When did the concert begin?  Perhaps when you first heard it was going to happen and started to anticipate going….

It is almost negligible, a thing easily overlooked, this mindful attention to setting.  But its importance cannot be stressed too much.  When the concert begins with the first “formless” improvisation without rhythmic pulse, the “ALAP”, it is clear that we are in new uncharted territory.  I think many Westerners are initially uncomfortable with this great opening out into silence, with the long stretches of time as the musician begins to savor each not, every interval, and enters the unique psychic landscape of the RAGA.  Where is this going?  When will it start?  Is he ever going to go on to the next note? Where is the tune?….  It is time to learn to savor the music, drink it deep, note by note, let it enter you as you enter it.

The silence is the setting for the notes; the notes are what the silence hoped for, conceived, gave birth to….

When poet Gary Snyder worked on ocean-going freighters, a fellow seaman once started bitching about the length of the trip.  Snyder’s response was, “It’s not a long trip; you’ve just got a short mind.”  The first lesson of the RAGA is that the journey contains the goal:  it is the being here now, becoming totally involved with the RAGA in a relationship that is not “equivalent to” but in fact IS an actual relating to a living being.  That’s right:  Indian artists become so involved in the love relationship with the raga (each associated with particular gods, with certain emotions, with seasons and time of day) that in the words of one vocalist it “becomes everything; it is everywhere.”  And this relationship arises as a new thing, therefore out of “darkness” and emerging from silence. 

Since this is an encounter of living beings, it rests on the flow of breath.  If I had to identify the single biggest failing or blind spot in the play of musicians generally, I would have to say that it is a lack of breathing and of space and silence.  I often actually feel breathless when listening to some guitarists:  there is no let up, no space to breathe, no time to ponder or appreciate.   Also, this has nothing to do with the sheer number of notes per second, but everything to do with being open to the depths of the mystery of being. Anyone who meditates quickly learns that thoughts need not disturb the silent communion one is engaged in.  Living beings are breathing beings:  breathe in, breathe out.  The rhythm of nature.  Play a note, listen to the note.  The silence around the note allows its mystery to expand and be perceived; paying attention to that silence will guide you to where that note wants to go, to what its partner is, to what the responses to it may be called forth from one’s own depths….

Silence and emptiness in music may be like the dark matter that constitutes the majority of the matter in the universe.  Both Jung and the Hindu saint Ramakrishna compared consciousness itself to the lotus that arises out of the dark muck of the deep of the lake floor, which travels then up through the sea of the unconscious, and which then emerges on the surface:   our conscious experience like a Zen cork bobbing on the swells of the deep ocean.

My first classical guitar instructor, Fred Gibson, had a saying that became an anthem for me, representing the true path of the guitarist:  “You can play as well as you can hear.”  Everything depends on listening, and if you want to hear truly deeply, you must hear with your entire being.  When I first heard a raga performed by Ali Akbar Khan, it felt like the voice of the sarod was emerging up out of my own vocal chords, so intimate and true as the experience.

Earlier I said that silence is not a question of the number of notes being played or not. 
    There is silence and breath that can be found in drone notes.   
    There can be relaxation and open space in the midst of a run of notes as well as in the temporary surcease of notes.  
    There is a silence and space for breathing and recollection of a kind found in repetition.
    There is a sense of silence and space the musician can create through dynamics:  “filler notes” and “inside voices” can be played softly.  There is a noticeable lack of dynamics in the playing of many acoustic steel string guitarists today, and it’s unfortunate.

Here is a great quote from the book “Brush Mind” by Kazuaki Tanahashi:

                “A painting without negative space is like music without silence.  For music to have intensity, the silent part must be done well:  a still moment can be the highlight of a performance.”

This is a quality of breathing that is difficult to put into words but which we can immediately recognize when we pay attention.
Again, Tanahashi:    

We cannot create space.  When we try to make it, it is dead.  But without our effort it does not appear.  When we let it come, it is alive.

For the guitarist, breathing is something that has to be consciously incorporated into your playing.  Performance anxiety has two very destructive side effects:  unconsciously speeding up and the tendency to hold one’s breath.  There are very concrete things you can do (in addition to just “remembering to breathe” as my classical instructor would admonish) to increase this quality.  
      One is simply to sing everything you play, even (maybe especially) the short technical exercises.  Do this until you feel that your fingers are literally expressing your own voice.
      The rhythm of Call- and- Response is one that builds space into music, as it resonates with the rhythms of breathing.  
      Another excellent practice I recommend derives from the jazz practice of “trading eights”  (or “fours” or “twos”).  This is when two musicians jam and alternate, each playing eight measures (or four or two) and then laying off while the other responds with his/her own eight.  
      If you are practicing with small motifs (I will speak of this in another essay), observe this rhythm of trading off:  for example, a two-bar phrase followed by a two-bar silence (keeping the drone going).  
These and other practices will not only restore breath and space to your music, but will also begin to bring shape and interest to your explorations, a living breathing shape that keys into your listeners’ own living rhythms.

There is also a very fertile ground of silence and space found in rhythm itself.  As a soloist, I am often performing without the benefit of an accompanying percussionist.  To remedy this, one has the audience’s own participation of active listening to rely on.  After establishing a clear and strong rhythm, one starts leaving out notes and begins to syncopate against the beats that would be played by the drummer.  This is a very satisfying practice for both performer and listener, as it heightens the sense of participation and the sheer joy of the rhythm.

If you have not gathered by now, I think of silence and space and breathing as the darkness out of which life emerges, and the true way of the guitarist is the “no way” of letting the silence sing.  The darkness is the true source of fullness and energy and life.  Darkness symbolizes the end of “minding”, replacing it with mindfulness:  our light is darkness to God, and vice versa.    Welcome the silence and enter its home.

As Tanahashi says,       “Let the brush see it.”

For the guitarist,             “Let your fingers sing it.”

“With no surroundings there can be no path, and with no path one cannot become free.” 
Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Toward an American Raga - I

What does it mean to try to establish or sketch out or even think of a school of “American raga”?  In fact why raga at all?

If you are thinking of playing in a raga style, it must be because you have heard Indian classical music and felt it resonate in your soul.   That primary experience should always be kept in mind as we explore what it might mean to bring the raga approach to our own explorations.  

I will not attempt to define what raga means, other than to say that it is a fractal kind of word.  By that I mean that it refers to the scale of a tune, the melody and known structures of performances, and to the actual living improvised performance of the tune.  It is that last term which is of vital importance for this discussion.  There are many fine websites online for you to explore the traditional Indian meaning of the word raga.

One way to pursue that primary soul experience of raga would be to immerse oneself in the Indian system of music itself and attempt to become a practitioner.  For those tempted to this path, be forewarned of the tremendous demands this path will make.  Indian music is a tradition of several thousand years standing, and is a self-contained musical universe with no relationship at all to Western music or Western theory.  Moreover, the path of the aspiring musician demands hours of practice every day, and it’s usual “arc” assumes at least 10 years of steady practice before playing one’s first raga.  The greatest recent master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan, was trained by his father, the legendary musical genius Allauddin Khan, and from the age of 6 onward Khansahib (as he is affectionately and reverently referred to) practiced 18 hours a day, most of the time with his father in attendance correcting his every mistake.  In fact, this kind of musical training was really only made possible by the old social order of the rajas, who were wealthy enough to fund music schools within their palaces and support the musicians and their families for life.  For this reason, Khansahib acknowledged that even within the Indian tradition itself, he might be the last of the traditional players.

All of which is why I decided not to attempt that path myself.  In addition, I am also deeply steeped in Western music and have no desire to abandon its influences.

How to respond to the beauty of Indian classical music?  As a musician, what can one do to try to open one’s own practice to something deeper and more beautiful?    If not to assimilate oneself to the Indian tradition, it is to do what one can to bring as much of the approach into one’s own native practice, without becoming a “wannabe Indian”.  Along the way, we might see that by not trying to recreate the Indian tradition we are also allowing the greatness and beauty that already exists in Western classical music to flow into our process too.  This already begins to create the setting of an American raga, the sense of inclusiveness.

Then, what are the essential elements of Indian classical music that are translatable or transferable to our American experience?  And what are the commonalties of our experience of the beauty of music?

I think one must return to the most basic response we have when thunderstruck by a piece of beautiful music.   Personally, that experience has always been as though someone had cut open the top of my skull and allowed me to float up and experience a totally new landscape of feeling I had never suspected existed.  Sometimes one feels just a huge expansion of one’s heart.   If you have experienced anything like this, being struck with awe, delight, a new-found freedom and magnification of expression and feeling, then it would be wise to keep this living experience enshrined in your heart as you move forward:  this is what we hope to achieve as we play and explore music, not the mere replication of a shadow of someone else’s expression or tradition.

Having said all that about the primary and primal experience of beauty in music, common to all music and cultures, I will then say that I have reached the conclusion that an “American raga” is not possible without the presence of a spiritual practice of some kind.  Looking at the millennia-old system of Indian classical music, one sees that the music is intimately and totally integrated with Hindu and Muslim cosmology and spiritual practice.  Indeed, the Indian raga and music has been called a “technology of spiritual exploration”.  Even within the Indian system itself one is supposed to work with a guru.   Can there be any denying that our experience of Indian music is so striking for the very reason that it consciously and directly resonates with our inmost experiences and aspirations?  I think not.
To attempt to build a system of American raga without incorporating a spiritual practice would be to reduce everything to technique and mimicry, trying to make Indian-music-like sounds.  This is doomed to failure (which has been proven over and over again as Western musicians make shallow attempts to incorporate Indian music into their styles).  In this, my own first raga-style teacher Robbie Basho was correct in insisting “soul first, technique later.”  However, I would modify his saying to the much less punchy “soul is primary; technique supports and helps give expression to soul”.  I do not share Robbie’s disdain for technique, and will have a lot to say on that score later.  The bottom line, though, is that without soul, without one’s own personal on-going spiritual practice, trying to bring Indian music into a Western approach becomes just a mechanical replication of scales and riffs.

You will notice that I do not try to define what your spiritual practice should be:  this in itself begins to point to a more “American” approach to raga, and opens the way to complexity and richness.  

Trying to import Indian music whole hog into our music is a temptation for the mind:  the mind loves systems and Indian music has had several millennia to contemplate and systematize itself.  Ragas are associated with particular gods and goddesses, with seasons, with times of day, and specific emotional states.  I would just make a pitch for you to pay more attention to your heart than your mind in this essential matter.  It is a much darker and more difficult path, but the only one that will keep your music authentic and your own light burning strongly.  Mindfulness is the "sine qua non" of this approach.

Given a spiritual basis and practice, what are the other things about Indian ragas that are essential and that we can bring into our own American practice?
I’ll take up what I feel to be the central elements that can be brought over into an American raga in my next essay, but I’ll say for now that I believe them to include the following:

·         --   The connection of the voice to soul, to body and to the world
·         --    thus, a MELODY-DRIVEN music, melody understood as the expression of the soul
·         --    A sense of ABSOLUTE SCALE:  notes as “states and stages”
·         --   The lessons of fretless instruments
·         --    IMPROVISATION
·         --    RASA:  the full spectrum of emotions and their place in our spiritual journey
·         --    Rhythmic complexity

·         --    And, formal elements such as   ALAP, “ragmala”, various sections of a raga performance

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

i. Prelude to an American Raga: Why I Am (and Am Not) an American Primitive Guitarist

The music business doesn’t know what to do with these flocks of fingerstyle guitarists (including me) exploring new ways to play the acoustic steelstring guitar.   Our recordings get thrown into a “New Age” pigeonhole by program directors and marketers, which is not as demeaning as it sounds because in the music biz that category is also used for any type of world fusion or non-traditional instrumental music.  Maybe that particular categorization was begun by the Windham Hill phenomenon that virtually created the new category of “new age” music, beginning with Will Ackerman, Alex DiGrassi, et al.  I was warned of this pigeon-holing by my friend Joe Weed, a nationally known fiddle player and guitarist who found his own wonderful album “The Waltz of the Whippoorwill” being promoted as “New Age”:  no singing?  Not old timey, traditional, roots or folk?  Must be New Age!

Once you get a little more focused on what new guitarists are doing, the niche is then generally referred to as “American Primitive Guitar”.  This is a term that apparently trailblazer John Fahey came up with.  If so, even at its inception the term must have been more than a little ironic, since Fahey’s influences included not only old blues masters whom he helped to rediscover but also masters of modern western classical music.  Maybe he felt the term enthroned a movement in which musicians are mostly self-taught, a true folk movement.  

Whatever the reasoning, the term has stuck.  It’s of further historical interest that the vast majority of young and old guitarists who are exploring fingerstyle playing play in a style that is directly derived from Fahey himself.  Most obviously this is evidenced by the continued use of bluegrass style “double thumbing”  (the “Travis pick”) which was so prominent in Fahey’s signature style.

In my view, there are three main streams of fingerstyle playing in this general niche of exploration.  My college pal Will Ackerman (founder of Windham Hill) refers to them as “platforms”.  The real trailblazers from the early 1960’s were John Fahey (so the “Fahey Platform” which is based on double-thumbing and flows out of American folk and blues), Robbie Basho (so the “Basho Platform”, which is a rhythmically free, melody-driven style derived mostly from Eastern music, especially Indian classical ragas), and about 15-20 years later the innovations of Michael Hedges (the “Hedges Platform”, which features especially his creation of the “tapping” style of play along with percussive effects).

This is not to minimize the great guitar work of guitarists who are highly schooled, skilled, and allied with more traditional streams of musical exploration.  Here are the whole great school of British and Scottish folk musicians (John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, etc), Celtic guitar, jazz and folk fusions (Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, Pierre Bensusan, etc), and the more classically oriented free explorations of innovators like Ralph Towner.  The distinction I am making is that the movement of guitarists I am speaking of is more of a folk movement, although not allied to traditional music genres (like jazz, blues, roots, Celtic, etc), mostly self-taught, and seeking new expressions.

I think there can be little doubt that the field is dominated by “Fahey Platform” guitarists, and almost no exponents of the Basho or raga-style platform, (Steffen Basho-Junghans in Germany is one of the few).  Which brings us to my own explorations.  I have always preferred the term “free raga style” as being a much more accurate indication of what it is I am up to,  in musical roots, in methodology, and in terms of deeper connections (meaning here:  to a view of man’s being in the universe and the place of music in our journey).

The Fahey Platform is dominated by double-thumbing technique and is therefore tied down typically to 4/4 rhythms, and easily becomes mere “pattern picking”, especially when coupled (as it usually is) with open tunings.  As a young guitarist, I came under the sway of Fahey myself, but never found any freedom in Fahey’s style.  This was probably reflective of personal limitations, but I basically just learned to play everything Fahey had created.  Then, having already myself been a passionate fan of Hindustani classical music since 1964, , when I first heard Robbie Basho in concert in 1968, I immediately recognized the promise of expressive liberation contained in Basho’s new raga style. 

The hallmarks of the Basho Platform raga style are:  being rhythmically free (untied to folk fingerpicking patterns or 4/4 rhythms) and often highly syncopated, with attention paid to its emotional/spiritual content, melodically driven and improvisatory.  This last aspect is of special importance to me, as being an improviser is what keeps one’s explorations free, fresh, and authentic.  Although I always refer to this as a “raga style” of playing, once one has liberated oneself from the rhythmic constraints of double-thumbing and those of harmonic structure, the techniques used can actually incorporate and move in any direction whatsoever.  Thus, you may hear in my own explorations strong echoes of Bach or Beethoven, Japanese koto or Celtic resonances, Santoor or oud…..

You may still lump me together with all other “American primitive guitarists”;  it’s good company that I keep.  I ask only that you spell my name correctly!  But for accuracy’s sake, terms like “raga style” or “folk composer” feel like a better fit.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Origins and Ends: Keeping Focused

In Zen one is invited to meditate on one’s “original face”.  In the New Testament, St. Paul even mocks those who look into the Word of God (which "in the beginning" was God) , see what they really look like, and then wander off, forgetting that experience and get lost in everyday existence.  Whether one looks to the East or the West, this is an important exercise.  The same is true in music.

And whether Eastern or Western in outlook, keeping one’s goals and the end of any particular process or exercise in mind is equally important.  We do this all the time with reflections on our own Constitution and Bill of Rights, and with the political process of assessing what our vision for our country is.

My previous post involved a recollection of those first primal experiences that grabbed me by the hair and dragged me into the lair of the Muse.  Of course, one is much more likely to have those kinds of thunderbolt experiences in childhood and adolescence.   That doesn't make them any less valid  (see my previous post about the inspiration for "The Glance").  This is the musical equivalent of First Love.  I have likened it to having the top of one’s head cut open, and then rising up to a totally new and unsuspected view of a mysterious landscape, one that speaks directly of feelings and understandings at the root of reality that one never even knew one had.   I think it’s important for all artists and musicians to keep in mind, to cherish and meditate on these powerful seminal events, all along the way.  It is so easy to not follow a path requiring great effort, discipline, and sacrifice.  And then it is almost as easy to get immersed in the pursuit of craft, of technical excellence for their own sake.  My first mentor, Robbie Basho, always used to say, "Vision first; technique later."  And my own experience has been that often, vision creates technique, by its demands that one stretch to express the new thing. 

And having remembered that original First Love inspiration, one can then cherish the blind hope that one's own fumblings in the dark, by staying true to the night vision, may lead to further connections with this deeper reality, so that one might be a channel for others to experience that rising.....

Never forget your original face.  If the thunderbolt experience of music is a falling in love, we must never forget the Beloved.  In pursuit of that hope, of that crazy dream, one has to learn to listen to one’s own heart and the most subtle movements of sound and silence:  we cannot arrive at the goal by re-creating someone else’s path.   My constant guide in the studio is a saying that my first classical guitar instructor from the 1970's (Fred Gibson) used to repeat:

              "You can play as good as you can hear!"

Attention!   Attention!   Or as the old Christian hymn sings, “Wake!  Awake!”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Warning: What music is meant to do....

I just watched a documentary about Glenn Gould, one of my favorite people, "Genius Within:  the Inner Life of Glenn Gould".  
This put me in touch with my earliest encounters with the music of Bach, and its lifelong effects on me. 
Then, synchronicity being, well, synchronous, this morning I ran across this short poem that I improvised seven years ago (the internet community The Well has a "topic" for writers called "More 2-minute Poetry"), and thought it appropriate to share here:

like it was yesterday
the memory of Bach first ravishing me
so many years ago
flayed wide open
brain unfurled and nailed thin
to black velvet night with star points,
a living specimen,
left hanging as a warning
to any who would heed
the whisperings of the heart

            --   8.17.05