I just got back from a week in Germany with Alarm Will Sound (AWS). It was an interesting experience. I expected when I landed in Frankfurt that I would feel a strong sense of relief at being back in a more familiar Western country. But I didn’t. I felt disoriented. Everything was amazingly clean and functional. The trains even have a ten minute guarantee (or your money back), definitely not something you’ll find in India! But it was cold, both literally cold and there was a palpable feeling of distance from the people. The wealth is staggering. It seems everyone is wearing expensive clothes and carrying fancy purses and briefcases. Everyone is busy, busy, busy, constantly checking their phones and looking worried. No one talks to you.
Being back with my old friends in AWS was a treat, but it’s a completely different experience than spending time with my friends at the Gurukul. At the ashram-like Gurukul we’re in a quiet, rural environment singing justly tuned intervals over a drone all day, which produces feelings of peace and centeredness. The students are quiet and humble. They rarely use profanity or make jokes with sexual innuendo. Drugs or alcohol are expressly forbidden at the Gurukul, as is sexual relations with other students or friends. The students only speak respectfully about our Gurus, who encourage us to focus 100% on Dhrupad and not get distracted by media and pop culture.
My AWS friends, on the other hand, are bundles of nervous energy. They’re very, very smart, and have access to a nearly 24/7 diet of media and technology via their phones and tablets. They talk fast about a wide range of subjects, though by far the most popular subject is media, for which they have a voracious appetite. Internet memes, phone apps, TV shows, websites, movies, etc. A few of them are readers and prefer to discuss books and articles, but most of them are passionate about media. Profanity is more common that at the Gurukul. They are irreverent, witty, and energetic.
And of course the music is different. The biggest thing that I noticed is that in the West—especially in larger ensembles—there is a much starker line drawn between rehearsing music and performing it. Rehearsals are often tedious affairs, with very detailed work done on minute sections of a piece. This is necessary, of course, and one of the reasons AWS has risen to the top ranks is because their Alan Pierson leads the willing players through such focused, disciplined rehearsals. But it can be boring. Many times I would look around and see half the band playing with their phones or reading books while waiting their turn to polish some difficult passage. However, when the concert rolls around they are completely focused and involved in the music. They can turn it on or off. Teaching is generally also a separate activity, though AWS is involved with some interesting educational initiatives right now.
In Hindustani music the lines between practicing and performing and teaching are blurrier. My Gurus include students on almost every one of their concerts, including big ones at major venues. (The students are playing tanpura and singing backup vocals.) And when practicing Dhrupad one is just as engaged as when performing it. Part of this is because it is a soloist or chamber ensemble tradition, so one is pretty much always singing or playing, but it’s also because Dhrupad involves improvisation, which isn’t something you can turn on and off as easily as you can an isolated melody or riff. This is why our lessons with Gurujis often turn into informal performances.
One is not better than the other, they’re just different. The improvisational language of Dhrupad gives it an immediacy and level of communication with an audience that I rarely feel with Western classical music. And the purity of the music produces feelings of wonder and peace that I rarely experience when listening to modern Western music. But the notated tradition, the large ensemble, and disciplined rehearsal practice of a world-class Western ensemble like AWS produces an astonishing and inspiring variety of musical sounds and concepts. The ability of my friends in AWS to traverse such different musical terrain over the course of a single concert is mind blowing. It is a testament to their musicianship and discipline, as well as their far-ranging intellectual curiosity. It is stimulating as a listener. Even though it uses extensive improvisation, Hindustani music, by contrast, is much more homogenous. Indian classical musicians rarely experiment with form or orchestration.
I feel lucky to be able to bounce between the two worlds. It’s humbling and inspiring, and also useful as I can take what I perceive to be the strengths of each tradition and the community that perpetrates it and make those strengths a bigger part of my life.