Motorcycles!

I love motorcycles. I’ve been riding motorcycles off and on since I was six years old, and they’ve always loomed large in my consciousness. Seeing America on a motorcycle is an inspiring experience. Motorcycles connect one with the road, the elements, and the vehicle in a way that isn’t possible with a car. On a motorcycle you feel the gear shifts, the Gs on the turns, the speed. You’re literally sitting on the engine, and every firing of those pistons reverberates in your body. Riding a motorcycle is visceral, energizing, and centering. It requires tremendous concentration, and tremendous skill. In its own way, it’s very musical: the sound of the engine purring, the rhythm of the turns, the whistle of the wind.

I own two bikes. Here’s a photo of my 1992 Honda CB750 Nighthawk:

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And another because, well, it’s cool:

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I’ve put some big miles on that bike, over 8,000 in the last two years. I bought it used from a guy via Craigslist. I had it regeared, got a new petcock, and a few other things. That’s an amazing bike. Even though it’s carbureted, the carbs are of the most refined type at the pinnacle of carburation technology and once it’s warmed up it just purrs. Motorcycle enthusiasts regularly refer to the CB750 as one of the best bikes ever made for all-around general use and although I’m not an expert I suspect they are correct. It just never fails and it is very, very smooth, with an even power band and heaps of torque and power. It’s phenomenally reliable and lasts a long time. I regularly see posts on forums from guys who have put over 100,000 miles on their CB750s. I’m only at 29,000, so I have a ways to go. I plan to keep that bike for a long time and continue doing bigger trips on it.

But as much as I love that bike, it’s a bit much for just getting around town, so I recently picked up a second bike, a 2011 Suzuki TU250x:

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This bike is frequently listed as one of the finest commuter bikes ever made. The fuel injection is buttery smooth, and repairs and maintenance are a snap. It’s bullet proof in the same way that the Honda is, but it’s over 140 pounds lighter and geared in such a way that it excels at lower speeds. The lighter weight makes it much easier to park and deal with traffic around town.

I got the Suzuki just a few days ago from a woman who only put 850 miles on it in the last seven years (but her husband kept it running during the down times and changed the gas and oil, etc, so it wasn’t just sitting). It is literally in show room condition, absolutely perfect. They kept it garaged and on a battery tender the whole time they owned it.

So now I’m riding it, and I hit the 1K mark on the odometer today:

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I took an early morning ride and hit some back roads:

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45 mph was the fastest zone I hit, mostly I was in 35 or 40 mph zones. Even though that bike is only 250cc and just 16 horsepower, the Suzuki engineers did an amazing job at getting every ounce of power out of that thing. It holds its own quite admirably up into the 60s. Of course, it’s not the Nighthawk, which as a 750 and with 75 horsepower excels at higher speeds, but the 250 has more than enough power for what I need around town. And it averages 75 miles per gallon!

There’s nothing better than seeing small-town America on a motorcycle:

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I was all grins, all morning, as I traveled on back roads up into New York state:

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Got to see some cool stuff, like these small planes at a rural airport:

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Smaller bikes are the way to go. With a top speed of 126mph the 750 is very capable well into the 90s (don’t ask how I know that . . . ), and completely rock solid at interstate speeds. And for smaller roads the 250 is more than adequate. Americans like bigger bikes, but that’s mostly just ego and posturing. With smaller bikes you actually feel the bike and you feel the ride. And what a sweet ride it is!

And to finish, yes, I’m very careful out there. I do everything you’re supposed to do: I wear full armor (head to toe), high vis reflective clothing, full-face helmet, I avoid driving during rush hour and dusk and dawn, I never speed, I never drive under the influence of anything, and I always assume people can’t see me and don’t care. I always have an escape route planned, at all times, at every instant. I watch videos every week on how to improve my safety, and I’m taking a second, advanced safety course this summer. I ride dependable bikes that put me in an upright position for better visibility, and I keep them maintained. I don’t ride to look cool or “get chicks” (I already have a super chick, thank you very much), I ride because I love it, and I want to stay alive as long as possible so I can keep doing it.

The statistics about motorcycling look bad on the surface, but once you take out of the equation all the drunk motorcyclists, the ones without helmets, the ones who are speeding, the ones who haven’t had any safety training, etc, etc, the numbers are not far off from cars, and some people argue it’s actually safer because you’re actually paying attention to what you’re doing. Of course, not everything is under my control, but I’m doing what I can to make the statistics work in my favor. At the end of the day, I think the risk is worth it for the immeasurable improvement to my life. Life is short, and I want to ride, and see this amazing country this way.

Thanks for reading, and ride safe!

Quick Overnighter

It’s a busy time of year, but I still managed to get in an overnight bikepacking and music trip. I have to make time for these things. I’ve been too much in the company of humans for the last few months and I’ve lost touch with the infinite thread that keeps me grounded, that I only find with sustained physical effort in natural surroundings.

So, I used some of the routes from the good folks at Marty’s Reliable Cycle and I pedaled about 70 miles from Morristown to Stokes State Forest. I was mostly on the Patriot’s Path for the first part, which runs the gamut from flowy and smooth to abusive and punishing. Here’s some of the flowy stuff:

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Here’s some of the abusive stuff:

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That kind of singletrack is a blast on a normal mountain bike, but it’s tougher when you’re loaded down. Here’s my rig:

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That photo also shows why some of that singletrack is so slow. Deadfall! Lots of it! We had some big storms this winter and the trails are a mess of deadfall. Some of the riding was on the order of pedal for 30 yards, unclip, lift bike, repeat, repeat, repeat. Slow going, but still way better than doing paperwork . . .

It was also slow going because of the mud:

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I often had to walk around that stuff because I didn’t want to destroy the trail and because it’s nearly impossible to ride through it. Here’s my front tire, getting sucked in:

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At any rate, I had a blast, as you can tell from this photo:

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I just love being out there. I didn’t do any singing this time, but I spent a lot of time listening to the woods and the creatures that live in them. The sounds are just incredible, and so varied, and so nurturing, and so inspiring to me as a composer and improviser. I spent 40 minutes sitting in the dark after the sun went down, out by the lake at Stokes Forest, listening to the frogs. Their individual chirps mass into a drone of phenomenal complexity and ever-changing sonic color. Extraordinary. I fell asleep in my sleeping bag, totally exhausted, my ears ringing with frogs, feeling refreshed and inspired.

The next day I took a slightly shorter route back, for a total of about 135 miles. I only climbed something around 6,000 feet total, so it was pretty mellow, but still a nice outing. Bikepacking in New Jersey is pretty cushy because of the abundance of services, but the singletrack is tough going sometimes. At any rate, I’m super excited about my Sonic 8 adventure this summer in Vermont, and I think I’m basically on track with my training.

Marty’s Fat 50 2018

Every year the good people at Marty’s Reliable Cycle host their “Fat Fifty.” Anyone can sign up for it so long as your tires are at least 3 inches or bigger. The route is an out and back, 25 miles each way, mostly dirt rail trail. Since it’s January in New Jersey the weather can change dramatically and today we were treated with cold (about 25 F), wind, and wet, muddy conditions. Parts of the trails looked like this:

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The result of riding in this kind of muddy water at freezing temps is that your bike freezes up. I had to stop twice to clean out my upper pulley wheel because it had frozen shut. Check out the pictures of all the ice on my bike:

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And here are my shoes, with a covering of muddy ice:

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It was a tough day. I finished in about 5 hours, which was my target. The route this year was mostly flat (the single track section was eliminated because of the heavy rain yesterday) so that meant grinding along in wet, soft dirt at freezing temperatures. If you stopped pedaling you’d drift to a stop in just five feet. It was pretty punishing and my legs were trashed by the end. I rode mostly by myself, enjoying the solitude and the beautiful scenery, though working hard. I wore a heart rate monitor and I was able to keep my HR right around 130 for most of it, which is sort of Zone 2 or 3 for me. Enough to be really working, but sustainable for 5 hours. But I’m wiped out, and tomorrow I’m taking a day off.

I was using my fat bike with 5 inch tires, which were a bit overkill for these conditions, but I cranked them up to 10 psi, so they were pretty hard. I was glad to have the extra width for the big puddles, though.

I enjoyed the challenge, and I was impressed with how good of a job Marty and his crew did in providing a fun environment. They had empanadas, beer, a fire, and a cool hat for schwag. I even got to hang out with Marty, the man himself! I highly recommend this ride.

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Marty’s Fat Fifty birthday training ride

It’s not every day you turn 43, so I decided to challenge myself on my birthday with a 43-mile fat bike snow training ride. Every year the awesome folks at Marty’s Reliable Cycle hold a “Fat Fifty” ride in January. It’s 50 miles of snow riding, mostly rail trail, with a few miles of steep single track in the middle a few miles of pavement to get to the trails. You can use whatever bike you want as long as the tires are at least 3″ wide. Mine are 5″, so I’m good to go. I’m signed up for the event in January and I need to start training for it so I jumped on a group ride.

There were about 20 or so people at the start, and we got rolling at 8:00 a.m. sharp. It was wicked cold, at around 19 degrees F (-7.2 C) when we rolled out, with some wind to boot. I kept the mutants at the front in sight for a while, but I felt I was pushing too hard for a training ride, so I settled back after a bit and found myself in a nice group with Greg, Denise, Lisa, Mark, and Barbara. Here are a few of us, all smiles. (All of these pictures are from Denise. My phone froze and wouldn’t work!)

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We stopped at a store about 15 miles in and a woman looked at us and said “you’re crazy!” I laughed and responded with “Yes, but we’re HAPPY!” I get the “crazy” comment a lot, but I think people are completely turned around on that one. Getting to places under one’s own power isn’t crazy, it’s empowering and inspiring and deeply nurturing. What’s crazy is sitting in a car, then sitting at a desk, then sitting in a car, then sitting on a couch, then going to bed. THAT’S crazy in my mind.

But I digress. So we pedaled and pedaled. It looked a lot like this:

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The snow wasn’t deep, but it still required a lot of work to ride. I’ve only had the fat bike about six months and I’ve used it exclusively for short, intense, gnarly single track. This was my first time doing a long, slow grind on rail trails and I found it very tiring. It’s sort of like a trainer workout, though much more dynamic and beautiful with the fresh air and lovely woods. Here’s a shot of Lisa at the top of the one steep climb:

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After several hours we made it Calafon, a small town about 20 miles in. The rest of the crew decided to go the final five miles and then turn around and head home (the route is an out and back), but I needed to get going because I had family commitments, and frankly I was getting tired, so I rode home alone.

Although I love riding with friends and groups, I also love the solitude of being in the woods (or the desert or the mountains) by myself for long periods of time. The ride back was tough, but also transcendent. I was getting sore and tired, but I was also finding my purpose again after a rough few weeks emotionally. I was reminded that it’s the struggle that makes art and life and love and athletics worth it. The process, not the product. Getting my ass kicked on a fat bike in the woods when it’s cold and grey is a beautiful thing. I got up the next morning feeling inspired. I also felt ready to train hard for the Fat Fifty and to put in a good effort on the day. It’s not a race and I could care less if I’m the last one to finish, but I’d like to ride a bit faster than I did on my birthday.

Thanks to Greg, Denise, Lisa, Mark, and Barbara for being fabulous riding mates. And thanks to the great folks at Marty’s for putting together the Fat Fifty. If you’re thinking about riding it I highly recommend it. If you don’t have a fat bike just go down to Marty’s and they’ll help you out. You don’t need a suspension fork for this ride. I have one, but I kept it locked out the entire time. My tire pressure was at 6 psi, but I think that was actually too low for those conditions. It is icy in a few spots, so you’ve got to keep your wits about you, but otherwise it’s a safe and enjoyable ride. (One tip: if you’re using SPDs be sure to keep your multi-tool handy or bring a small screwdriver so you can dig the ice out of them if you need to stop and walk as they’ll get all caked up.)

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Schooley’s Mountain Bikepacking

The good folks at Marty’s Reliable Cycle have several great routes posted on their site HERE.  Marty’s has become the nexus point for all things bikepacking in New Jersey.  They’ve been hard at work hosting clinics, putting together group overnighter rides (which are a blast, I went on one a few weeks ago), and doing the hard work of developing routes and maintaining trails.  I strung together two of their routes, the Schooley’s Mountain Bike challenge and the Fall Bikepacking Adventure route.  Thanks to Jesse and Megan for their hard work on these.

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I started at the Morristown Marty’s location and hung out a bit with Jesse and Dennis.  Jesse warned me that the Schooley’s route would be slow going in places.  He was right about that.  The route mostly follows the Patriot’s path, which ranges from gravel to pavement to gnarly single track.  I was only a few hundred yards into the first segment of gnarly single track and I started to wish I brought my front suspension fork.

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The singletrack is dominated by rock gardens like what you see above, which are tough to negotiate on any bike, but a fully-rigid, full-loaded 29er is exactly the wrong tool for the job.

But there are some nice flowing sections, like this:

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Staying on the trail can be tricky, though, especially with all the leaves down.  Do you see a trail in the photo below?

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Hard work is always rewarded, though, and there are also some nice views.

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The Schooley’s Mountain Bike challenge route is about 26 miles so I thought it would only take me about three hours, but it was around four hours before I finally rolled in to the Marty’s Hackettstown store.  I spent some time hanging with Mike, Megan, and the other awesome folks there, and then I got going.  By this time it was getting dark and cold and I was getting tired.  Originally I was planning to ride all the way to Stokes State forest from Hackettstown, but given how late it was getting I decided to camp at Kittatiny instead.  I always feel some weird “hard-core bikepackers guilt” when I make those kinds of mileage adjustments, but the single track was so much slower and harder than I expected that it was really the best decision.  I was starting to get in to The Slog zone.  I’ve spent thousands of hours there before, but I wasn’t really in the mood for it on this trip.  I wanted a challenge, but I always wanted to relax a bit.

The hike-a-bike gets tiring, as does the constant on and off the bike, lifting over deadfall:

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As it turned out I had a phenomenal full moon once I got to the campsite (which was empty) and once I pitched my tent, I spent some time singing Raag Chandrakauns, a lovely late-night pentatonic raga inspired by the powers of the moon.

I was up early and pedaling back home again before dawn.  I took my time, stopping at several streams and lakes to sing and listen to the sounds of the water.  I have a big project brewing in my mind for next summer in Vermont that will involve bikepacking, film, and music, like the Sonic Divide.  I meditated on that project as I pedaled home.

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Check out the nice flowing water in the back of the photo below.  That was a lovely spot for singing.

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I also spent time thinking about my rig and what I would do differently.  Next time I will use a front suspension fork and a seat-post dropper.  A full-suspension bike would be even better for the single track, but then I would lose the space in my frame for my frame bag.  It’s always a compromise for routes that have a mix of surfaces.  The suspension is overkill for the pavement and gravel sections, but once you’re in the middle of the gnarly singletrack you wish you had it.  I think just running the front fork and the dropper post would be the sweet spot for this route.  I’ll have to carry a backpack, though, for the stuff that would ordinarily go in the saddle bag.

Overall it’s an amazing route and one I look forward  to doing again.

Busy year!

I’m not sure how a whole year went by and I didn’t update this once, but maybe it had something to do with the Sonic Divide.  The good news is that I did it.  I premiered 30 pieces in a month, at remote wilderness locations that I got to under my own power, pedaling my mountain bike 2,500 miles from Mexico to.  I Canada.  I also filmed the whole thing and I have finished the first draft of my first documentary film, called the Sonic Divide.  My assistant editor is working on it now and we will have it done in a few months.

It was a massive project and I’m still amazed that I pulled it off.  The level of vision, preparation, discipline, creativity, and courage it took was well beyond anything I’ve ever attempted before and I’m proud of my accomplishment.

And it’s amazing how I’m now developing a whole new dimension in my career as a film maker.  I’ve always loved film and always secretly wanted to make films, and now I’m actually doing it.

The Sonic Divide was so successful in so many ways that I’m already pumped up for my next project in 2018 . . . to be announced next year . . .

 

Sonic Divide

After a busy few months in August, September, and October in which I was quite busy singing Dhrupad, but now I’m back in the world of contemporary music, playing percussion and singing.  My big project is the Sonic Divide.  This is by far the most ambitious and difficult project of my career so far.  I’m very excited about it and it’s fueling my practicing with a great deal of positive energy.  I invite you to check out the website.  All the information is there.

Winter Woodshedding, the Path to Sadhana

The last few months have been pretty hard-core winter here in New Jersey.  It’s cold, often grey, and the days have been short.  It’s not my favorite weather, though I’ve made a good faith effort to embrace the energy of the season and put it to good use.  Hence the intense practicing.

I haven’t been doing any traveling or concertizing, just holing up in my basement room, shedding away.  “Shedding” is short for “woodshedding,” a term jazz musicians coined that means going deep into practicing.  (Some of the major jazz musicians in the early part  of the 20th century were banished by their families to practice in the backyard woodshed . . .)  In the Hindustani realm we call it “riaz”, which basically means dedicated practicing.  “Sadhana” is yet another level, where the practicing and life become entirely intertwined, one and the same, complete dedication.  Here is a good and short interview with one of the major Hindustani musicians of our time discussing this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ThcVhMxZYg.

I feel it is arrogant to say that I’m completely in the realm of sadhana (especially as there are distractions at home with the kids and various administrative duties I have to attend to for the university and otherwise), but still I’m pretty much wrapped up with practicing, composing, and teaching from early morning until late at night seven days a week.  Of course I take short breaks to rest my mind and body, but then I’m soon itching to get singing or playing marimba again.  The inspiration is flowing.

In fact, I DID have a musical event scheduled for last night (March 5), a late night experience up at the university.  I was planning to sing some Raga Chandrakauns and then bring in the beats, but Mother Nature had other ideas.  She unleashed a powerful snow storm that shut down all of North Jersey and shut down the university.  I was disappointed as I had put a lot of effort into promoting the event–not to mention the work to get ready musically–but what could I do?  Well, there was one thing I could do and I did just that: practice.  I put in a good session on marimba and also sang.  It was quite lovely watching the blizzard outside through the window while I sang Raga Chandrakauns!

Dhrupad tours 2014

The most significant thing that I’ve accomplished in the last few months as a musician is completing two tours as a Dhrupad singer.  When I embarked on the Fulbright journey a year and a half ago I never dreamed that I would someday be performing as a Dhrupad singer.  I imagined I would go much deeper with it and it would become a bigger part of my life, but that it would mostly service my creative work as a composer and improvising percussionist.  But things changed.  I practiced hard (and continue to practice hard) and by the time I left India my Gurus were encouraging me to perform.

I work best when I have deadlines and targets.  I knew that if I didn’t have any performances lined up my practicing would languish and my progress would slow considerably.  So back in April I set up two Dhrupad tours: one in the Midwest and one up in the Montreal area.

The Midwest tour included four performances at U. of Wisconsin-Madison, a yoga center in Madison, U. of Northern Illinois, U. of Michigan, and a performance/workshop at Oakland University near Detroit, Michigan.  Todd Hammes accompanied me on these concerts, playing tabla.  Pakhawaj is typically the preferred instrument for Dhrupad, but there are no pakhawaj drummers in the Midwest.  I’ve known Todd for a long time so it was a great excuse to work with him.  He played beautifully and I enjoyed my time with him very much.  I learned something important, though: the tabla don’t have quite sustaining power of the pakhawaj, so we had to adjust the tempos upwards a bit so things didn’t sound so empty.  Interesting.

The performance at Madison was especially engaging for me as I was singing in the Morphy Hall, the same place I heard my Gurujis the Gundecha Brothers about twelve years ago.  Little did I know then how much they would change my life . . . At any rate, all five presentations in the Midwest were successful, with good turnouts.

The tour in Montreal was also wonderful.  Shawn Mativetsky was with me for those three concerts, which included two yoga centers and one bookstore (the bookstore was part of an improviser’s series).  Shawn is a long-time collaborator and although he usually plays tabla he got himself a pair of jori drums, which imitates the sound of pakhawaj.  He really did his homework and his jori playing was just as solid as the pakhawaj drummers I work with in India.

I loved touring as a singer.  Dhrupad is such a sacred and special place.  It was so enjoyable to get up each morning and focus my entire day around the evening performance.  I would sing for a bit, review my compositions, go for a walk, take a nap, stretch, do yoga, and then go perform, feeling the energy of the location and incorporating that into my singing.  Dhrupad saturated my every moment.

I grew by leaps and bounds.  I recorded each concert and listened back the next morning with hyper-critical ears.  Doing this sharpened my ears and I had a chance each night to improve upon the previous night’s performance.  Singing night after night also built a lot of strength in my voice.  I was pretty worn out by the end of each tour, but noticeably stronger as a singer.

This was also the first time I got to sing at Yoga centers and in some ways I prefer it to concert halls.  I’ve been very blessed to have performed as a percussionist and singer at many of the best concert halls in the world and I always enjoy that, but there is definitely a distancing from the audience that I didn’t feel at the yoga centers.  I felt much more connected to my audience.  I suppose it was the lack of formality, but it was really nice.

There is more to come.  Stay tuned . . .  And thank you so much to my Gurujis for all of their support and generosity.

Hike-in musical event

This morning eight William Paterson University students joined me on my first hike-in musical event.  I’ve been dreaming of doing this for some time and it was every bit as rewarding as I thought it would be.  The premise is simple: hike somewhere with some folks, stop and make music, then hike back.  Here we are in the parking lot:

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Some of these students are in in my Indian Music class, and the others heard about it and decided to join us.  All of them are smart, hard working, and creative.  We talked as we walked, about a forty-minute hike to the top of High Mountain.  They asked me all manner of questions about music, practicing, and life, which I answered as best I could.  I also asked them questions about their lives, which are varied and interesting.  As a professor I am by definition in the business of being a leader and a role model for these young talents, but it’s a position that strangely makes me uncomfortable.  As I go deeper and deeper into music my feeling of humility grows ever stronger.  Although it’s true I’ve built a good career for myself and had many professional experiences that are worth sharing with my students, in some sense that is all superficial.  The real core of music is as mysterious to me now as it was thirty years ago when I embarked on this path.  What do I really know?  Only that I love music as much as ever, and am grateful to be on this journey.

So we hiked.  The weather was gorgeous.  The fall colors shimmered in the slight breeze.  We found a good pace that worked for everyone and soon enough we were at the top of the mountain.  We made ourselves comfortable on a big rock and got underway.  I brought a drone box up to serve as the tanpura, and also a nice silk kurta to complete the picture:

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I sang Raag Todi, one of the most powerful and deep ragas of North Indian Hindustani music.  I sang it in the traditional Dhrupad style, with alaap, jor, jhala, and then the bandish (composition).  The text for the composition was most appropriate.  It’s a very old one about the mystery of music and how people who say they know a lot about music don’t actually know much at all.

I found I was a little nervous.  It took some time for me to calm down and get my voice stable, but the breeze helped smooth things out a bit.  You miss some nuance when you’re not under the microphone, but it’s also a bit more comfortable and less exposed.

As I explored Todi the sun grew ever higher in the sky.  The students could see New York City from their vantage point.  I had my eyes closed most of the time, but when I opened them I noticed that they were attentive and seemed at peace.  Dhrupad is very natural in many ways.  Combining it with natural settings amplifies its power.

After I finished we discussed the raga for a few minutes and then headed back down.  Again we talked and again I was impressed with how committed they are to a life in music.  They know it’s not easy, but they also know that creative music is as important to the human condition as air, water, and sunlight.  It was a wonderful morning; one I will never forget.  I’m honored to have shared it with such extraordinary young people.  The future of creative music bright indeed.