by Gordon Korstange
"Music isn't supposed to be a social event."--Keith Jarrett
I'm under some kind of bush--lilac perhaps. Next to me is David R with his vina and David N with his mridangam. Around us there's an Indian-American wedding and a country club and, across the way, the expanse of Lake Winnepasakee, New Hampshire. We are playing South Indian classical music.
No one is listening.
I'm distracted. I keep looking at all of these white, yuppie Americans armored with their drinks. I forget the kriti (song) I'm playing. The sound of the flute barely competes with cocktail chatter. Does it matter?
No one is listening.
Finally, the only woman there in a sari comes over and actually listens.
She's South Indian. She knows something about this music, and I should be playing better. But I still can't focus. When we're done, she asks the usual questions: Where did you learn? How long have you been playing? Like most South Indians she finds it hard to believe that Americans would devote themselves to a music so foreign, so complex. Part of me still finds it strange too.
In the van afterwards on the long ride back through the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont, I'm griping about our having wasted most of a day on this affair. David N won't buy it.
"You have to be true to the music, man," he says in his hip drummer style. "When you're sitting down to play you've got to block out everything that's happening out there--ignore those suckers--pretend they don't exist--the only thing is you and the song."
I think about the 25 years I've been learning Carnatic music. I've had to become a musician without any background in western music; have constantly felt ignorant of things Indian musicians take for granted; have constantly wondered whether my music is authentic; and have spent most of my time hidden away in my practice room with a tanpora and photos of famous singer-saints on the walls alongside those of Sri Aurobindo and Mother. Does it sound a little like doing Their Yoga in the USA? Yes, a similar sense, often, of dislocation, of gap between inner and outer lives, of manifold insecurities in the face of a materialistic culture--a culture which is us. My quavering aspiration sends flute sounds floating out on Lake Winnepasakee, but who's really listening?
"You got to stand behind your horn so that when someone hears a note they know it's you." --Keith Jarrett
It was December 27, 1970, Madras, 9:30 p.m. I was in the Peace Corps and unhappy. I sat on the short wall of the dried-up tank of the Kapilesvara Temple in Mylapore. Exhaust-belching buses, barely stopping in their drivers' haste to finish the last run, roared up and away from the stop in front of me. Around the tank the flower sellers, temple trinket stalls, and vegetable market were closing down. Madras was already partly asleep in the coolness of the evening.
But not me. I had just heard a flutist named Mali (T.R. Mahalingam) and my head was filled with the sound of his flute. He played a small one, almost a piccolo, but through overblowing and what my music teacher would later call "God's gift," Mali created a liquid sound that seemed to hang longer in the air than a flute note should. His music slipped and slid hauntingly around the hall, surrounding us. At times he created a few minutes of improvised melody that made me hold my breath with its beauty and longing, that it might not stop and the entire audience might be transported into ecstasy.
Then, suddenly, he would stop. Then would be silence--or conventional combinations of scale patterns that would make us sigh with, perhaps, relief at the return to the banal? or stilled disappointment that he couldn't sustain such inspiration.
I wanted to try making a sound like Mali's, a sound that was air turned liquid, let loose to tumble like a stream. That's all it was in the beginning. Secretly, hopelessly, in a small back room of my romantic young mind, I wanted to sit up on stage too, trading notes with the violin and drummer, summoning up melodies out of nothing.
The next day I bought a five-rupee flute at Musee Musical on Mount Road. I brought it to my lips, blew, and heard the hiss of air being let out of a tire.
"The whole stream of your life, already musical, is simply waiting for you to hear it." --W.A. Mathieu
Nine months after buying that cheap flute I was teaching in Auroville, learning Carnatic music in Pondicherry, and had fallen in love with Jeanne. From those events the rest of my life has risen up out of what was a lassitude and depression. I still teach, still go to Auroville, still love, and my fingers always faintly ache for the curve of my bamboo flute.
" . . . the notion that practicing scales and exercises is a religious act somehow strikes a Westerner as odd."--Donna Wulf
At first it was something of a cultural lark: bicycling under the blistering sun to my teacher's room; waiting outside his door in the soggy afternoon heat for him to finish his nap; then playing together with him the rudimentary scale of my first raga, Harikambhoji, the one that requires all of the holes of the flute to be covered.
We always played together, even the most basic exercises. Perhaps he couldn't bear to hear my hissing. Perhaps he figured that he might as well get some practice in too. But I now believe that this was the teaching he knew--only by merging my pitiful sound with his strong resonant one, my faltering rhythms with his precise tala, would I become his true sishya (disciple).
Indeed, practicing music in India is a form of yoga, whether it be an exercise or a complex kalpana svara (improvisation) pattern. In my first music book he inscribed "Sree Manakkula Vinayagar Sahayam," homage to Ganapati, the remover of obstacles (the Sri Manakkula Vinayagar temple is next to the Ashram). The book and the flute were to be revered like murtis, objects capable of embodying divinity.
I soon became "obsessed." If Sri Aurobindo's yogic practice was tailored to each individual, then practicing scales, struggling through the first gitams (songs), learning to master the art of gamakas (partially covering the holes of the flute to produce grace notes) was my yoga. Unlike meditation, I never nodded off during the sitting. The flute would be my instructor in pranayama (breath control), the search for the true note my quest for oneness, and Carnatic music became my "field" of yoga.
Like the the Sri Manakkula Vinayagar temple and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, my study of Carnatic music coexisted side by side with my life in Auroville without overt connection between them. I wasn't sure whether I was in Auroville in order to study the flute or whether learning the music kept me in Auroville, but I probably couldn't have done one without the other.
My teacher wrote all my exercises and songs, using the Tamil alphabet, in a small notebook. Lucky for me that he could. I was totally dependent on reading the notes, even though I couldn't read Western notation. What I could and needed to do, since I had no tape recorder, was to remember the melodies and gamakas. I had an ear, even though I couldn't trust it enough to forego notation like an Indian learner would.
The cycle ride back in Auroville, after a lesson, after idlis and coffee, was easier than the one in. The songs wouldn't leave my head. I had taken up the bamboo flute with the vague idea that, having learned the basics of fingering, I would use it to play Western tunes. Now I found myself deep in a system of raga, tala, and sadhana that wouldn't let me go. When I sat cross-legged on the mat near the wadai (gully) south of Aspiration, I could almost forget my awkward American self and become lost in the force of concentration necessary to master even a simple gitam with the correct embellishments. Even today, when the practice is good, I will suddenly realize that I have been staring at the pine trees outside my window for 20 minutes and have not seen them.
"If the first sound is wrong, sometimes the whole concert can't be saved."--Keith Jarrett
One year after I began learning the flute, I was in Madras at my teacher's uncle's house for a recital. I was supposed to play with my teacher, but he had been detained in Pondy. I was frantic. When the time came, I sat there next to my teacher's father who was accompanying me on violin.
Accompanying? I hissed and missed my way through the song like a lame runner.
Somehow I finished. Afterwards everyone was kind. South Indians are always very kind to westerners who take a sincere, beginner's interest in their culture. Once that interest becomes serious, however, they haul out the standards. I was mortified. I didn't play again in public for 12 years.
In between I listened. And listened. And listened. All India Radio was on constantly in our Auroville huts. And I didn't stop practicing. Through a succession of teachers I finally came to a sense of the raga (the life that must be breathed into the scales). Then I bought a metronome and started on tala. Patterns. Patterns of fives and sevens and threes within a underlying beat of four--or six, or seven. So this was what they meant by wading into the ocean of Carnatic music.
I persisted. I found a good teacher, T. Viswanathan, and some other Americans. We wanted the real thing--none of that fake fusion stuff where the tala falls apart and the improvisation just goes on and on into virtuosity for its own sake. I kept thinking of Flute Mali and his ecstatic improvisation whose only virtuosity was in his inventive, melodic imagination, not in speed contests. He was famous as much for not playing as for playing. I like to think that he was waiting for those melodies to emerge glistening out of a pool of silence and that he wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than pure beauty. I prefer to ignore the fact that he was usually drunk when he performed.
So we play only South Indian music--which means that we don't play much and when we do it tends to be relatively brief (the average Carnatic music concert lasts at least two and a half hours) and for audiences that are appreciative but unaware of nuances in the music and its cultural context.
It is tempting to try and make it easier for them. Last summer we began working out a version of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." We have yet to play it in concert.
"If I don't hear the silence, nothing will happen."--Keith Jarrett
After 25 years I am still a beginner in South Indian music. My knowledge of rhythmic patterns is rudimentary, my ragas lack subtlety, and I'm not really part of the Hindu tradition which gave birth to it. But two weeks after that Lake Winnepasakee wedding we gave a real concert and, for the first time, I found myself relaxing enough to "enjoy" the music, to play it the way I really feel, not the way I "think" it should be played.
Perhaps it is finally becoming "my" music in the sense that I can listen past the notes and patterns, past the critical voices questioning my sounds, past the "foreign" culture in which I must play--that I can let go of some of these things and hear and feel the silence behind it all, ignoring the audience for awhile, waiting for an inner listener to nod imperceptibly and give grace to the notes.
Gordon Korstange lives in Saxtons River, Vermont. He is managing editor of the Fall 1995 Collaboration.
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Last modified on Nov. 13, 1995