MAY ROBERTSON - Reflections from South Asian Music
This morning I was sitting on the floor with a tabla player from Kolkata as he explained the principle of the time cycle, after we’d been playing with an estampie. ‘Beat 1 is really important… it’s God.’ Both form and content of the music express the centre of self, universe and God in sound. The notion of cycles and ‘the still point’ in music should sound familiar to the baroque musician (look at the interesting rendering of the word ‘Ciaccona’ in the facsimile of the D minor Partita). But if this talk of circles and God terrifies, anyone who has looked into the European eighteenth-century treatises might at least notice a parallel with baroque and classical style: the first beat of the bar gets acknowledged in some way, or not to do so is a conscious decision, and temporal structures are delineated.
But what was I doing on that floor? How did this encounter between traditions happen in the first place? After completing my conservatoire studies this year, I’d gained a lot of knowledge of HIP but things weren’t quite sitting right in terms of my own comfort and happiness when playing. The child who, as a music festival adjudicator commented, seemed more happy and free and convincing bopping around with Glenn Miller in the family music section than behaving properly and playing her Serious Violin Piece according to The Exact Notation in the Advanced Violin Class hadn’t really gone away; she’d just got a bit taller and discovered baroque ground basses and medieval music. Discovering HIP was a liberating step for me (critical thinking with respect to the score! The possibility of improvising stuff that isn’t written down! More of an impression of dynamic communication and co-creation between colleagues! Not fastening the instrument to your head and shoulders like the world will collapse if you dare move your chin!). But I realised that even that world on its own – no matter how great it is spending hours creating magical sounds with the help just of gut strings and a Bach facsimile, working out how to interpret seventeenth-century sonatas (that look as though a group of primary schoolchildren had stamped them down onto the page) into works of dazzling emotional fantasy, getting nudged by astonishingly good continuo players, being incredibly turned on and made to cry at the same time by Lully and Rameau, or exploring ornaments by Corelli (maybe) or Ortiz – even with all those gifts, I wasn’t going to find my full musical free self completely in the baroque world that wonderful pioneers have established over my parents’ lifetime. I partly knew this because I was a different person in my work with groups such as Joglaresa, which allowed the old Glenn-Miller-bopping child to come out to play and reassured her that her particular musical gifts were valid whilst letting her experiment to a high level with medieval, folk and Mediterranean music. Moreover, once you put early music in the conservatoire, it will start to behave like the musical establishment. It might fire up some souls to their full potential, but it didn’t quite expand mine completely.
In an amazing stroke of synchronicity, as soon as I left conservatoire I began collaborating with the wonderful South Asian arts organisation Kadam Pulse and started exploring different ways of doing what I’d been doing all this time. I toured my hallowed solo Bach with a dancer trained in the kathak vocabulary, and improvised in historical styles (those ground basses; Dowland; Playford dances) for a production called ‘The Rose and the Bulbul’ about two characters from East and West who discover each other’s heritage. As part of that project, I accompanied wonderful South Asian singers, meeting them somewhere in the middle, and affirmed that I was allowed to use my gut strings, my preferred mode of expression, as a vehicle for another kind of playing from the heart, blending influences from different colleagues and places, as well as for rigorous historically-inspired performance. I think that day may have been the first on which a baroque violin was heard improvising to Sufi qawwali songs, but it wasn’t the last. The lesson I learned was something that Thich Nhat Hanh explains in quite another context, that of religious dialogues: be grounded in your own tradition, and then reach out to others. I am certain that I would not be creating such interesting collaborative work now if I did not have my grounding in HIP.
My flirtation with South Asian culture could now only go in one direction: sitting down on the floor and realising that nestling the scroll of the violin in the hollow of one’s foot is the perfect answer to the problem of chin-off playing. Diving into Indian music in order to accompany the Odissi Ensemble taught me many things that are currently reflecting back onto my ‘straight’ baroque violin playing. A basic example: rhythmic tightness deserves serious thought. As we were discussing when I began, the metrical foundation of Indian music is the repeating time cycle, which might be simple or complex. One of the pleasures of watching a musical recital is catching what the time cycle is, how many beats there are and how they are grouped, keeping the beat through difficult subdivisions, and hearing how the recurring first beat is emphasised. Watching tabla players land back on beat 1 after astonishing rhythmical pyrotechnics culminating in a tihai, sometimes very complex, is thrilling. Yet a voice or melody instrument can give the impression of utter soaring freedom above a perfectly precise rhythmic foundation. This juxtaposition influenced me profoundly. I remember reading somewhere about an idea that late Romantic music got it into its head that precision in time was for ‘primitive’ (read old-fashioned or non-Western classical) music, and that real music ought to luxuriate in rubato. This means that we modern musicians have to work quite hard to embrace the concept of the tactus that certainly governed much of the music of the seventeenth century. Freedom of musical expression within an agreed constant of steady time… there is something that my adored Western seventeenth-century music and South Asian music agree on. It’s made me question the way I play and the temporal freedom I take for granted (why?) and it means that I play with a metronome a lot more often, to see how expressive I can be whilst staying in time. (For more on tactus, look at George Houle’s book on metre and Andrew Lawrence-King’s excellent blog).
There are so many things to discuss: how engaging with a tradition that wasn’t notated for most of its history has enriched my thinking on the subject of notation and ‘the score’; the fact that this much reduced emphasis on notation doesn’t take away the existence of known compositions and favourite songs, which a performer must navigate even when the tradition of improvisation allows for more variation; and very practically, the way in which an alap and opening flourishes can begin whilst instruments are still being tuned, which reminds me of Praetorius’s idea of how a concert should start. Perhaps most fundamental of all: in this tradition, dance and music are still considered in an everyday way to be part of the same impulse, as hearing a dancer expertly reciting the bols that also correspond to percussion strokes can tell you, yet we so often have to figure this out retrospectively through any number of baroque dance workshops. All of these things are useful discussion points for HIP musicians.
And a more spiritual point: discovering qawwali this year, with all those songs about being drunk on God, suddenly made me discover something in my solo Bach and play it with more life. So there I am, devotedly honing my baroque self, enriched by my continuing encounter with South Asian musics. I realise that beginning a dialogue with different styles seems fairly natural for a HIP musician. I am not a native of either 1720 Paris or 1610 Mantua, but I strive to play music of many times and places convincingly. So expanding my stylistic exploration into other traditions which are, after all, also current in London in 2016, follows. Embracing these different ways of working has unlocked new depths of my self and my musicality. And in these difficult political times, dialogue, and the rhetorical power that music has of demonstrating unity, need to be cherished.
May is a UK-based violinist creating and collaborating with artists in a wide range of styles. Her roots are in the early music world, performing with various baroque orchestras and with the medieval band Joglaresa. After an English degree at Cambridge University she studied modern violin at Trinity Laban and baroque violin at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague.