Teaching in India!

I recently taught my first class here in India.  My primary work here is to improve as a Dhrupad singer, but I’m also doing a bit of teaching.  I was SUPER nervous about the class.  I didn’t know how the Indian students would react to learning about Western classical music, but they loved it.  They even clapped at the end of the class!  The Indian students are much more reserved than my American students.  It’s nice not to be challenged on every single point, though I wouldn’t mind if they shared their thoughts a little more.  I’m not sure if that’s a general cultural difference or something specific to this population.Image

I teach the class about every other week, just for an hour or so.  Eventually we’ll look at musicians like Terry Riley, Rudresh Mahanthappa, etc, who are working with one foot in India and one foot in the West (which is also much of my work).  But to get there I need to give them an overview of Western music, including some basic theory and notation.

So the first class we looked at chant and early polyphony.  Gorgeous stuff.  Next week we’ll get into some Renaissance polyphony and start discussing harmony a bit.

It’s a little weird being the teacher when Gurujis are sitting there.  I’m in a bit of a limbo here since I’m a professional musician and expert on Western music, but still a beginner/intermediate Dhrupad singer and very much a student.  But it’s working out okay.  The other students are already asking me about the next class.  I’m excited to work with them again.  The cultural exchange is really happening now.


I enjoy practicing. I always have. Ever since I was 10 years old I’ve loved nothing more than getting behind my instruments and working things out.


Practicing is my main job here in India. I start first thing in the morning, at about 6:00 a.m. I make a cup of Indian coffee, start up the drone box, and begin singing a raga. This first practice we call “Kharaj” and it focuses on the low register. I do this for about 30 minutes. Then I usually compose at the computer for at least an hour.

Then to the gym for a workout, shower, breakfast, and then the motorcycle ride to Gurukul. Once I’m there I warm up for another 30 minutes or so, then I have a lesson with Ramakantji, then Umakantji. Each lesson is about 30 minutes.

Then I go home and play my drumming practice pad for an hour. (It’s important that I keep my Western percussion chops in shape so I can resume my performing career when I get back home.)

Then I do another 30–45 minutes of raga singing, this time on “aakaar” or “ah”, as well as palta (scalar variations). This segment is done with full voice, very strong and loud. It’s like the weight lifting of singing. I rest for a bit, then sing for about two more hours. I focus on the material I learned in the lessons. All told it’s about four to five hours of singing, an hour of composing, and an hour of drumming. I also spend time listening to Guruji’s various recordings and transcribing phrases and analyzing their performances. It’s a full day. I’m working hard and making good progress. It’s fabulous.

Amazing trip to India

I recently got back from a transformative month in India, studying Dhrupad vocal with the renowned Gundecha Brothers (Ramakant, Umakant, and Akhilesh).  I worked with Ramakantji via Skype since last June, but this was my first time at their “Gurukul” where I received daily lessons.

For those of you who know me as a percussionists/composer you may find it strange that I’m taking vocal lessons, but I’ve been singing off and on for about 10 years, mostly Hindustani style.  Dhrupad has always been my passion and finally things opened up in my life last year in such a way that I could devote more time to really improving as a singer.  I have no delusions about becoming some great Dhrupad singer, but I’m making rapid progress and I’m already starting to use my voice with my Super Marimba project, Alarm Will Sound, and other projects.  Ramakantji has been very encouraging and thinks I’ll be able to start performing in another couple years.  I’m looking forward to that and I’m hoping there will be ample performance opportunities with all the yoga centers, Hindu temples, and universities here in the NYC area.

The Gurukul is a wonderful place and I very much enjoyed getting to know all the other students.  As with any community of people there are disagreements and bickering from time to time, but in general I found the students to be exceptionally gracious and kind.  Everyone seemed to be walking on clouds most of the time, due to the experience of singing Dhrupad and studying with the master Gundecha Brothers.  It’s a very nourishing music that gives one energy and hope and the feeling of being very grounded.  I didn’t encounter any of the cynicism and negativity that so badly pollutes the classical music community in America, especially with orchestras. I can’t wait to go back there.  It really felt like home.


Lessons continue, mind expanding . . .

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.

Musical Growth

I just wish I had three lifetimes.  Or six.  Or twenty.  There is so much great music out there that I want to explore.  If I’m lucky I’ll be on this planet for another 50 years or so, but only about 40 of those will I be strong enough to practice and perform.  That’s just not enough time!

One of my dreams for over a decade has been to study North Indian Hindustani Dhrupad vocal music with the Gundecha Brothers.  Two weeks ago that dream became a reality as I started Skype lessons with Ramakant Gundecha.  Skype isn’t ideal, but it actually works pretty well.  And I am going over to India to work with him in person later this year.  He’s a fabulous teacher.  We spent all of the first lesson just working on tone quality.  In one hour my singing improved by leaps and bounds. The second lesson we continued to work on tone, but also got into tuning for Raga Yaman, as well as exploring some alap phrases.

For those readers who know my work as a composer and percussionist it might seem a bit capricious that I’m taking singing lessons, but in fact I’ve been taking voice lessons off and on for the last twelve years, both in the Western classical style and in the Hindustani style.  (And I conducted a Methodist church choir for three years when I was in graduate school at Eastman.)  It took some years for my career to get to a point of enough stability that I could afford the time and money to pursue it with more vigor, but that time has arrived.  The only way to find enough time to sing is to cut back on some of my Western percussion practicing, but that isn’t a problem.  Musicianship is musicianship, and there’s no better way to develop it than through the voice.  My technical mastery of my percussion instruments won’t desert me, and my work as a composer will be enhanced immeasurably.  Singing raga on a daily basis is also a profoundly enriching meditation that spreads to all areas of life.

At any rate, I feel very lucky to be working with Ramakantji.  The Gundecha Brothers are two of the best singers on the planet.   I’m aware that there are tens of thousands of incredible singers all over the globe, but when it comes to a complete picture of depth of feeling, tone quality, intonation, improvisation skills, knowledge of the repertoire, and imagination, the Gundecha Brothers are some of the very best.  I just wish I had another lifetime to do nothing but study voice with them.   Finally, after all these years of listening to their recordings, I’m able to start learning how they make those incredible sounds.

It’s not really work

If I had a dollar for every time someone asks me this question I’d be rich:

“How do you do it all?”

I guess I do balance a few things.  Composing, performing, teaching, raising two kids, marriage, and endurance sports.  It’s a lot, especially during heavy training weeks when I’m putting in 15+ hours swimming, biking, and running.

But the thing is that I don’t really view them as all that separate.  Endurance sports have so much in common with composing and performing contemporary classical music that whether I’m on the bike or behind the marimba or at the computer it’s all kind of the same head space.  Some of those connections are obvious, such as the discipline and organization involved with preparing for a big concert (or race), but what’s more interesting is the feeling one gets when one is pushing through walls and working on the frontiers of human existence.  In short, endurance sports and contemporary music are about managing suffering.  It’s quite Buddhist in a way.  I’ll write more about that later as that’s a longer discussion.

Secondly, though, I don’t really view any of this as “work.”  For most people work is drudgery.  It’s something one does just to make money.  Work is something to get over with so that one can go have margaritas with friends on a Friday night.

But for me, having margaritas with friends on a Friday night is something to get over with so that I can get back to doing what I love most: composing, practicing, performing, and teaching creative music.  And then going for a six-hour mountain bike ride!  After all that I like to play with my kids and talk with my amazing wife.  I’m not a misanthrope.  I love people (and enjoy the occasional drink with friends), but still my main commitment in life is first to my family, second to creative music, and third to endurance sports.

In the end, it’s really not that much to balance.  I don’t watch TV.  I don’t socialize much except as it intersects with my career.  I watch a movie every few weeks and read when I can.  But mostly I stay focused on what I love to do.  And if I love to do it then it isn’t work.  And besides all that, I’m just grateful that I’m employed in such a way that I can indulge my passions.  After traveling around the world a bit and seeing how hard it is for most people, I don’t take my opportunities for granted.

What us composers are talking about

My good friend and mentor Stuart Saunders Smith and I coorespond via letters.  Letters!  He recently pointed out that I have been incorporating more vernacular elements into my music.  This was not a calculated choice, though—certainly not a calculated choice regarding money or fame or something like that.  If I wanted money I’d work on WallStreet.  If I wanted fame I’d try to act in Hollywood.  No, what I really love is experimental music.  Or avant garde or whatever term we choose to use.  Perhaps “personal” is the best term.  I like music that is unique and personal and struggles to make sense of the individual in the larger world, especially the modern one, which I find fascinating, inspiring, noisy, disturbing, and exhausting by turns.

But “personal” can come in a lot of shapes and sizes and in a lot of different genres I think.  When I was in school I remember feeling that my composition and theory professors were pushing a very subtle but real attitude that only music that is written down and ostensibly “complex” was worth anything.  While I could sort of agree with them intellectually my gut told me otherwise.  Sure, Webern’s music is inspiring and gorgeous, but so is John Coltrane, and so is Sharda Sahai, and so is Aphex Twin or Autechre or Meshuggah.  Over the years I’ve realized that I have an omnivorous appetite for music of all kinds and shapes and sizes. And I’ve become more comfortable pointing out the emperor with no clothes. Just because something has the sheen of seriousness and complexity (i.e., complex notation, on a classical concert series) does not make it so.  Some of the music I hear at new music concerts has depth and complexity, but much of it is simple-minded and only has the appearance of complexity.

Of course I can’t comment on my own work in this regard.  Many people love it, but I’m sure there are just as many who think it is terrible.  But that’s true for every living composer and most of the dead ones too!  I do know that when I compose I don’t make charts or graphs and I don’t think much about the structure of the piece.  I stopped reading music journals like Perspectives of New Music for that reason.  Those articles were polluting my mind, making me think I needed to have some sort of hidden  architecture so that down the road some poor Ph.D. student would write a dissertation about how marvelously complex my music is and I would then be handed the keys to the pantheon of Western classical music.  I could almost envision the bust of my head in the hallway at the Eastman School of Music!  How noble and sagacious I would look!  A pillar of Western culture!  I respect the intellectual rigor that goes into those articles and on the resulting “mind play” can certainly be enjoyable, but in terms of my creative process I found them destructive.

When I’m composing well I’m assimilating and processing in an organic fashion the world around me, and the “canon” I’ve built for myself in my ipod.  In my canon you won’t find Brahms because his music just doesn’t speak to me.  But you will find Evan Parker.  Tons of it.  You’ll also find Bach and Victoria and Machaut and Xenakis and Metallica and Aesop Rock and Stuart Saunders Smith and all sorts of other stuff.  (I suppose I am truly a product of the internet age . . .)  Sometimes that means I write 4-4 beats and sometimes the writing is more “classical.”  I don’t worry about it too much.  The only time I get worried is if I start making a chart or a graph.  There’s a big difference between a piece of music and a piece of music theory.  I hope I’m creating the former.

At any rate, this does bespeak of a type of apolitical attitude that pervades my generation.  The good thing about this is that the walls are truly down now.  No uptown, no downtown, just music making.  The vigorous dialectics of the past—which seemed to me mostly had to do with egos and competition of resources—have been mostly subdued. However, the problem is that it can be difficult to discern whether the omnivorous appetites of composers of my generation are genuine or a result of laziness.  Are we really assimilating all that’s going on and creating a true “maximalist” style?  (Sorry, Charles Wuorinen, I couldn’t resist, but it really does apply to us more than you.) Or are we just slapdashing things together?  Copying and pasting our way through each composition?  A little of this and a little of that and a whole lot of nothing?  Are we hiding our lack of technique and thorough training behind a façade of eclecticism?

I don’t know.  But again I don’t worry about it too much.  I’m not a historian or a politician and political music has never had much traction with me.  I’m interested in sound.  And if I can put together a few moments of genuine, personal, wonder-inducing sound—even if just once in my whole life—then I will rest easy that I’ve made a valuable contribution tohumanity.  The only way I see it possible for me to do that is to get up each morning and write music.  Get it played.  Get it recorded.  Then move on to the next piece.

Lots of new stuff coming out . . .

Well, I am nothing if not prolific.  PAYTON PETER ELLIOTT was released today, a recording of improvisations by myself, Peter Evans, and Elliott Sharp, playing as a trio.  It will be up on all major online retailers soon.  Equilibrium records also just released my first two acoustic solo marimba recordings, including Payton MacDonald: the solo marimba commissions, vol. 1, and Payton MacDonald: solo marimba improvisations, vol. 1.

I’m not sure how many people will actually buy this music, but hopefully a few.  I believe in it, anyway.  Some pictures of the covers:

Working with JACK Quartet

I’m out at University of Iowa this week working with JACK quartet.  I’ve known most of them since school and it’s really a pleasure to finally be making music with them.  There’s really nothing they can’t do.  Their technical and expressive prowess is both humbling and inspiring.  They’re also an easy and fun hang.

We’re premiering a new piece I wrote for them plus me called Tongues in Trees.  The title is from a Shakespeare quote about the glory and inspiration of nature.  Alan Sener is a dance professor here at the university and he as choreographed a dance for the work.  It’s about 17 minutes long and in two movements.  The first is pretty mechanized in nature and I play a lot of IDM type stuff on drumset.  The second movement is quite lyrical and fluid and I play marimba.

I’m still hobbling around a lot.  See THIS.  But getting better.  Anyway, it’s going to be a great week.

Music and Art Criticism

Like everyone else in my field I use the good quotes when they come in and I ignore the bad ones. The good ones look nice on my website and it feels good to be keeping up with the Jones, but as time goes on it’s harder and harder for me to believe that music criticism is worth much. That goes for art, dance, and film too. (In this post I’ll use “art criticism” as a general term that encompasses music, art, dance, film, poetry, etc.)

This isn’t sour grapes. Like I’ve said, I’ve enjoyed a lot of good reviews from major news outlets. But since I’ve been on both ends of the critical spectrum my skepticism is informed. I used to write music criticism for American Record Guide. I poured over a dozen or so CDs a month and published a column titled “The Newest Music.” It was a good gig. I earned a few bucks and got an excellent survey of the field. I also honed my ability to discuss esoteric music with a lay audience. But after three years I threw in the towel. So many of the discs I was getting were from friends and colleagues that it became a conflict of interest. I couldn’t reasonably write anything objective.

Supposedly art criticism serves as an objective filter so that the public can make better decisions about where and how to spend their time and money. But most of the critics have their favorite styles and tend to stick with them, thus precluding any objective survey of what’s really going on in our incredibly diverse artistic world. Furthermore, many critics are friends with the artists they’re writing about. No matter how objective they may try to be, there’s no doubt that the line between criticism and PR becomes blurry at times.

Aside from those issues, the biggest problem I’ve found is that art criticism is often polemical and simple in a way that doesn’t reflect the complexity of an individual’s output. For example, here’s a passage from a recent New Yorker regarding the Royal Danish Ballet’s reception in recent years:

. . . . Partly, this was because the critics were then facing the full onslaught of Europe’s so-called ‘contemporary ballet’: rage, despair, panties. Such ballet, in the hands of Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko, Maurice Bejart, Roland Petit, and others, stressed excitation above all: great whirlings and twirlings and pitchings of self and others onto the floor.

I’m not an expert on modern ballet, which is why this passage struck me. It’s not the content, but the form. Or, more precisely, it’s the lack of content. How is it that four accomplished choreographers’ life works can be summed up in one sentence as “great whirlings and twirlings and pitchings of self and others onto the floor?”

It’s no different in the musical world. For example, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon are often lumped together. That’s not entirely unfair as they’ve worked as a trio for over twenty years to build the Bang on a Can empire with the music marathon, record label, summer festival, etc, but in fact they write profoundly different music. Sure, there are some basic sonic similarities in Michael and Julia’s music, but when you get to the details that count they’re really entirely different composers. And David’s work is different in all respects.

I’ll also admit that I did the same thing when I wrote for ARG. “Isms” are convenient. Modernism, minimalism, post minimalism, whathaveyouism make writing criticism a snap. Lump, knead, write, and you’re all set. The writing part is the fun part. I suspect many art critics are frustrated poets who have found an outlet. They love to write and they love what they write. However, it’s doubtful whether any of that verbiage has anything to do with the complexity and nuance of art.