Scattered Thoughts for Week 2

I returned from Kolkata a little over a week ago. There's far too much for me to mention to do justice to the sights and sounds of the city, but I will say that seeing live North Indian classical music for the first time was among the most memorable experiences of my trip. The winter is prime festival season, as I learned, which means day-long performances that sometimes stretch through the night into the early hours of the morning. For those who complain about certain classical works or  improvised solos being excessively lengthy or
Hour 6/10 at a classical music festival
even self-indulgent, I'd advise against attending these festivals; many of the sets that I saw were an hour or longer in length, and might feature uninterrupted music for over half an hour at a time. 

I first realized that expectations for the audience at these performances differed from those in the US when I arrived late to the first night of a festival: the music began at 2, but I didn't end up making it to the venue until 7 p.m. By then, the ticketing agency had left, which made it slightly more difficult for me to claim my ticket, and the doorman was utterly perplexed that I'd shown up so late: "The performance is almost over for tonight!" he said. But as it turned out, the music continued for another full three hours after I'd arrived. Needless to say, the ticket was well worth the price of admission even if I did miss the first five hours.

Additionally, I learned very quickly that saxophones are very hard to come by in Kolkata—
Photo by Kalpan Mitra
particularly if you're interested in renting one, which is virtually impossible. Air India's instrument travel policies state in no uncertain terms that no instruments can be checked in the overhead compartments, and I'm generally disinclined to check my horn, particularly if I'm traveling somewhere outside of the US. My friends at Jadavpur University were incredibly helpful, though, and pulled on as many strings as they had available to try to find some way for me to get ahold of a saxophone. I may write more about the rather 
longwinded and circuitous path I took to find a saxophone in Kolkata down the road, but suffice to say that I was able to rent a soprano on my very last full day in the city. The English Department graciously hosted me for a solo saxophone recital where I premiered a couple of tunes I'd written to remember my time in Kolkata, and I think it went alright, considering I hadn't touched a saxophone in three weeks.

The semester's started up again for the last time for me at Harvard, and I'm looking forward to spending more time on composing and playing original music. I'll be taking a course on electroacoustic composition, which will hopefully open my ears up a bit, and I've also enrolled in Vijay Iyer's new course: "Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio," which met for the first time on Tuesday and promises to be full of challenging but refreshing ideas about improvisation and creative collaboration. I'll be continually updating the "Upcoming" page this semester, but there are already a number of dates set, including a performance with the Dudley House Jazz Band featuring Vijay Iyer as a guest artist in April, as well as performances with Great on Paper, which is the new vehicle for my and my bandmates' original compositions. 

* * * * *

Two quick, apparently unrelated thoughts that I've wanted to share from the past week:

1. In My Life in My Words, a collection of autobiographical writings by India's national poet, Rabindranath Tagore (edited by Uma Das Gupta), Tagore mentions that early on in his English language education, he was forced to learn some basics of the language through study of an epic poem (it might have been Paradise Lost, but I don't remember off the top of my head). About this experience, he writes:
To employ an epic to teach language is like using a sword to shave with—sad for the sword, bad for the chin.
I immediately thought of my own experience of learning how to play music by studying classical piano works, and how much of that music entered one ear and exited straight out of the other because I hadn't yet understood the emotionally communicative power of music, having not grown up with much music around the house aside from what was playing on TV. It might seem obvious, but it's probably worth thinking about how Tagore's clever analogy might be relevant to music education: why not learn folk music and other more accessible and arguably practical (in the social sense—dance, celebration, etc.) music first before studying works whose language operates with more abstract aesthetic criteria? This isn't to say that folk music is necessarily less complex or "sophisticated" than other musics, but instead that these forms of music that are more directly embedded in our lives and require less abstract aesthetic knowledge to feel and appreciate would be more appropriate for teaching the nuts and bolts of music-making to students. Just a thought.

2. A friend of mine bravely performed solo piano for Vijay's class on Tuesday after no one else volunteered to play for the purpose of a masterclass-style critique. After he played, Vijay commented on the tactile quality of my friend's performance—the feeling of hearing the sound of hands striking keys. There was an offhand comment made about a possible explanation for an aesthetic reaction to this sonic quality that is related to human empathy: the sound of hands striking keys draws attention to the human origin of the sounds, to the literally handmade quality of sound being produced. 

In a similar vein, this brought to my mind a possible, partial explanation for the popularity of the sound of breath and the passing of air for many contemporary saxophonists, e.g., Dayna Stephens, Mark Turner, Walter Smith III, etc. The airy sound of the effort involved in saxophone sound production helps to humanize the tone; instead of erasing or understating the human element of the music so as to produce the illusion of effortlessness, this breathiness draws attention to the human apparatus coupled with the instrument. This is all armchair speculation, but I thought I'd scrawl it down somewhere for future reference.