I had another mind and soul-expanding lesson with Ramakant Gundecha last night. We spent most of the time working on the syllables/vocables used in the alap portion of a Dhrupad vocal performance. By the end of the lesson I understood how much poetry is latent in those phrases. Although they don’t literally mean anything, when used correctly they can communicate a vast array of emotions and feeling (rasa). Suddenly the singing of raga just took another leap and became even more complex and fascinating. As my ears are opening up to the subtleties of tuning the intervals, as well as developing a more clear, free, and stable voice culture, I am now confronted with the challenge of integrating those parameters with the syllables. It will be an infinite dance that will challenge me the rest of my days on this planet.
I am finding now that when I return to my Western keyboard instruments (marimba, vibraphone, et al), they sound very different than they used to. I find it almost funny that there is no way to slide between, say, C and C#. As I’m learning with my vocal studies, there is an entire universe of sound in there! I’m beginning to really understand something that I have intuited for many years, which is that Western keyboard percussion instruments are fundamentally out of tune and therefore should not be thought of as melodic instruments in the classic sense. Not only are they in equal temperament–which is a compromised tuning to begin with–but most of the time even the equal temperament is out of tune. This is especially true with marimba bars, which because they are wood are subject to the vagaries of weather, humidity, etc.
That doesn’t mean that they are inferior to the voice, though. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Western music lacks melodic potential. It’s just different. As I practiced Robert Morris’s fabulous piece Stream Runner (a work I commissioned from him myself) yesterday I experienced melodic mastery in a different way: through the ears and pen of a composer who is thoroughly fluent in the 12-tone language (among others). The lines in that piece just sing. They are really gorgeous, but in a completely different way than the phrases that Ramakantji shared with me in our lesson. But they are definitely melodic, and resonate in my mind’s ear for hours after I’ve left the practice room.
I’m busy applying for grants to spend a year in India with the Gundecha Brothers at their Gurukul. The majority of my time there will be spent singing and taking lessons, but I’m also hoping I’ll have a chance to discuss these issues with the other students there. It is without question the central point of my life’s work, and perhaps the central point of our time.