Kuldeep and I had the privilege of listening to Warren Senders performing in his Indian classical music avatar on the 21st of March.
Warren, from Boston, Massachusetts, is a long-time student and exponent of the Khayal style in Hindustani music. What may be generally unknown to many of his more recent aficionados is that he happens to possess formidable experience and a vast knowledge base in Western music – both jazz and classical – and is equally well-informed about traditional music from around the world. He is also a highly accomplished upright bass player, for that matter.
I had taken a few lessons from Warren back in 1994, at a time when much of my musicianship was already in place, but there was little sonic exposure to be had otherwise, and the vital elements of a definitive style were not easily discernable in my playing then. Warren was in Pune on one of his periodic long residencies with his wife Vijaya Sundaram. Their prime objective was to continue learning Khayal vocal interpretation from Pandit Devasthali, and not necessarily to put up with nosy questions about jazz from me (and from my friend Ashish Manchanda, the drummer and music producer, who had a band with me at the time). However, Warren was gracious enough to find the time to teach and generally allowed his brains to be picked by us.
In the few months during which I met Warren, about once a week, my concept of timekeeping was irrevocably altered.
Warren put us through some intense exercises, facilitated with extensive vocalisation, that rapidly evolved beyond mere accent-shifting syncopation into genuine polymetric delivery. I mean – play five with one hand and four with another in the same overall bar timing – that sort of thing. Other lessons included deconstructing those so-called odd time signatures (5/4, 7/4 and so on) into module groups of 1-2 and 1-2-3 (I still remember how he exclaimed that 9/4 was a pretty boring time signature – and proceeded to sing Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring in a way that drove home his point). These assignments called for active participation and a great deal of homework.
And then there were the mainstream theory lessons. I was asked to pull apart the Jerome Kern standard All the Things You are into its component parts and play it coherently on one guitar: the melody line along with the chordal transitions. Just when I thought I’d nailed it (and Warren had seemed quite pleased) he asked me to play it again – this time with the melody articulated below the chords.
Needless to say, I didn’t exactly nail it then. Not in real time.
We listened to quite a lot of music together, critically. Warren played me Philip Glass for the first time – and then commented that while that sort of motif-upward-constructed-thingie (I still cringe from calling it “minimalist music”) could result in some interesting emergent musical textures, it might have been far more engrossing if someone could have actually improvised over the emergence.
Towards the end of these sessions, we would sit with Vijaya and rehearse some of her songs. A unique and immensely expressive musician, Vijaya plays a harmonically very free fingerpicked guitar, and sings across a multiplicity of transitions with casual ease. Her songs are highly memorable and brilliantly structured – I still remember most of the chord changes and melodic parts, despite not having heard them during the years since. I can’t recall, precisely, her lyrics, but their ambience was strongly intertwined with the music in a way that left a permanent sonic impression. And Warren would join in with his electric upright bass, an instrument which I used to peer at, then, with puzzled curiosity (and which inspired me to acquire one for myself, eventually).
In ensuing years, I lost touch with Warren and Vijaya, and reconnected only a few years ago via Facebook. But that bland Zuckerbergian fad yields, at best, a pallid substitute for direct contact, for which a happy opportunity arose on 21 March.
I spoke with Warren on the phone that morning. He has been a strong advocate of climate change awareness for some time now, and I wanted to know more about the ethos behind his position. And his position is well-researched, and deeply frightening. You’d expect that of Warren: passion, rigorousness and interpretative clarity.
Speaking of interpretative clarity, on the same evening, he held Kuldeep and I completely transfixed with his Khayal performance for nearly two hours. I had never heard him sing in this genre before, and I didn’t know what to expect. My own working knowledge of Indian classical music is scanty, at best.
The overwhelming impression I formed, during the performance, is that Warren constructs his performances with a level of structural totality that composers of Western classical music (let alone real-time jazz improvisers) would be proud to possess. The nearest metaphorical example, for me, is the late Frank Zappa, whose guitar solos (to roughly paraphrase something I read a long time ago) unraveled like a “well-considered murder mystery”.
While Warren improvised with exuberance and flair, riffing against his excellent accompanists on the tabla and the harmonium, I could hear some nuances in his performance which could only have been achieved by a genuinely multi-traditional musician.
First, there was always an overarching plot behind his renditions, even in his 45-minute take on the Raag Kanada variant with which he commenced his recital. No, I don’t mean a cold and deliberate pre-structure, or a trite attempt to “compose” a delivery in advance. He caught the moment with ease – the ambience, the sound, his feelings at that point in time, his complete command of his own vocal ability, his knowledge of Hindustani music across gharanas, his personal multi-tiered musical journey, the immediacy and presence of both his accompanists, the weather, the darkening evening, and, above all, the audience arrayed before him – and proceeded to deliver the perfect murder mystery. In my casual listenings of Hindustani musicians, I’ve never heard anyone do this quite so authoritatively. For that matter, there are only a few jazz improvisers who have been able to do this well at all, to my satisfaction at least – Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Chick Corea come to mind. But only very few of their works actually last 45 minutes. Coltrane allegedly did that with My Favourite Things on occasion, but that is a remarkable exception.
Of course, Western classical music achieves this very well indeed. I enjoy Aaron Copland, Leo Brouwer, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky for the murder mystery interwoven in their oeuvre. But Stravinsky didn’t have to compose and perform Le Sacre du Printemps in real time. As for murder mysteries, Dame Agatha Christie, Dorothy Leigh Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, presumably, committed their masterworks to paper at a comfortable, crackling fireside instead of having to recite them aloud and live, with no preconception, to a contemporary audience.
Then, there were the linear and textural constructs. Warren appears to arpeggiate a raag in a way that no Indian musician normally does, even while staying within the compass of aroha and avaroaha (ascent and descent) and not compromise any of the traditional rules regarding exposition, either. But there were also playful melodic asides, sneaky vignettes of polymetric fit-into-the-bandish-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth phrasing and general textural mischief-making that came from somewhere else, certainly. All of it, the traditional and the eclectic, melded into the quintessential murder mystery. Or well, a celebration of Holi, in this case.
I spoke with Warren for a few snatched moments after his concert, and found him as gracious and enthusiastic as ever. There was no time then to actually share our over two decades of individual musical journeys, though I could clearly see he would have equally welcomed the opportunity to do so. I hope we can find that opportunity in the not-too-distant future. I didn’t have the time to tell him how, germinating in those long-ago lessons and conversations, timekeeping has become completely intuitive for me, that I hear all music today with an equal degree of receptivity, that the infectious delight with which he shared ideas then is now an ingrained part of my own best musical intentions.
Reflecting back on Warren, trying to connect the early lessons as well as his performance last week, a few hindsight considerations do stand out – which I would like to share with all of us who play the classical guitar. And I request your hearing even if the direct relevance isn’t immediately apparent:
First – as dedicated Western classical musicians – do we always pay enough attention to the sonic consequences of what we seek to do rather than be caught up in physical details? I mean, we file our nails as though it is a cult initiation ritual, we argue about precise fingerings, rest strokes and free strokes, string brands, editions of published music and so on. But do we try hard to hear what we are actually playing? Warren sang through some cheap dynamic microphone, didn’t call for more than a cursory, sacrilegiously momentary, soundcheck, and instead calmly proceeded to inundate himself, his accompanists and his delighted audience with his own very personal joy of actually making music. I’m not saying that we should all default to cheap plywood-top guitars and ersatz technique overnight. But maybe, just maybe, there is a more efficient and musically direct route through the cobwebs.
Secondly, do we consciously try to paraphrase the notion of interpretation as something a lot more spontaneous than a mere dry and tradition-locked score reading? I was playing the Toccata from Sergio Assad’s Sandy’s Portrait this morning, and it occurred to me that it certainly can’t be delivered unless I genuinely hear the music. Sure, I can’t improvise over it if I play by the rules, but can I not actually be the composer personified while I interpret the composition? There’s so much joy in there!
Speaking for myself, as an amateur musician based in India, with dabblings in jazz and Western classical music, I think there are huge learnings for those who take some time out to listen to Indian music in its many manifestations. I know that even my bystander listening has had a huge influence on my melodic approaches in jazz improvisation. I still hope to learn more from a more global aggregation of traditions, from what really ought to be called “world music”, but that is a lifetime journey.
And, meanwhile, I look forward to more murder mysteries.