“Shit, It Was All in E”: Orientalism and Indian Classical Influence in the Landscape of Improvised Expression

“We would be sitting around and at the end of an Indian album we’d go, ‘Did anyone realize they didn’t change chords?’ It would be like, ‘Shit, it was all in E. Wow, man, that is pretty far out.’ So we began to sponge up a few of these nice ideas.” – Paul McCartney, interviewed in Many Years from Now

Almost every subgenre of Western music has flirted with the borrowing and reinterpretation of Eastern music traditions. In part, the Western appetite for such experimentation arises from the structurally alien nature of Eastern musical modes of thinking from the Western outlook, and the ways they challenge presumed defaults in the grammar and soundscape of classical music. That perception of foreignness has often also resulted in copious fetishization of these differences, and in interpretations of non-Western music that remove the agency from the originators. It is, then, impossible to theorize musical appropriation without thinking about the power structures in which the agents participate – the vestiges of colonialism influence what constituted musical defaults in a broad sense, and still contribute to the ways non-Western music is viewed among Western musicians and consumers alike. As Edward Said articulates in Orientalism, “the imaginative examination of things Oriental was based more or less exclusively upon a sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged centrality an Oriental world emerged” (8). Classical music of the Indian subcontinent, roughly defined by the Hindustani and Carnatic genres, has been prolifically appropriated in the 20th century as part of experiments in art music, Indojazz, rock & roll, hip-hop, and electronic dance music. It may be useful to draw musical parameters for productive and exploitative uses of Indian classical influence in order to critically examine where our own experiment with Conduction and Carnatic music fits in.

The sociopolitical “othering” of Eastern cultures and peoples cannot be separated from the way artists have interpreted Indian music through constructs of Western music theory. Many of these artists identify norms in these traditions that do not exist in Western classical music – and vice versa – and, instead of engaging with these disparities in a meaningful way, reduce the non-Western institution to those points of divergence when using their influences. The social politics of Western colonization is primed to primitivize, condescend upon, and subsequently profit from aspects of non-Western cultures:

“…The act of borrowing from other musical cultures has been portrayed as primarily an open-minded and empathic gesture of interest in and fascination with marginalized musics. Such a perspective holds the danger of treating non-Western cultures purely as a resource for the reinvigoration of Western culture” (Born and Hesmondhalgh, 8).

Indian classical music has a bull’s-eye drawn on it for precisely this reason – its ties to Hindu spirituality and religious text have long provoked the fascination of artists seeking to find and import something foreign for foreignness’ sake, and worse, to “find themselves.” The appropriation of spirituality and the oversimplification of musical themes compounded to establish a practice of exploitative composition.

The history of borrowing Indian classical music in the 20th century is varied. Some artists displayed a very surface-level understanding of the mechanisms and glossed over the complex music theory of Hindustani and Carnatic music in order to fit the sounds into their compositions. Others made an effort to look at the traditions through their own structural lenses and translate them carefully into the Western mode of thought, while incorporating elements of Indian music beyond the tropes of drones and sitar strains. It is difficult to theorize exactly what constitutes an Orientalist appropriation of Indian classical music and what constitutes a borrowing that upholds the rigorousness of the tradition as an art form. However, it may be helpful to consider any fusion project in the following terms: agency, directionality, strength of examination, and choices of adoption. In using these metrics to evaluate the piece we did in class based on Butch Morris’ conduction project, we could make a strong argument that Ken’s April 21st conduction falls into the latter category – a piece that seriously explores the intersection of Carnatic and Western traditions with due deference to the complexities of both.

Indian music is difficult to theorize in the Western lexicon. The reasons why are varied; the Western classical vocabulary does not have perfect terms to explain things like ragas, which in Carnatic music are the different scalar modes to which pieces adhere. One could point out that these technically exists within the Western theoretical lexicon as modes – Mixolydian, Phrygian, Dorian, et cetera. However, these terms do not adequately account for the way each of the hundreds of ragas has an instantly recognizable “flavor,” a distinct aesthetic sense that can perhaps remind someone of a color, a time of day, even a personality trait; they also lack the ability to explain how these structures are sometimes technically bent and disobeyed in Carnatic music while retaining those characteristic flavors.

On the flip side, Western terminology struggles to accurately delineate the constraints and limitations around what seems like an incredibly free-flowing structure. Gamaka, which in Carnatic music denotes the intentional bending of notes such that they hardly ever remain flat, may appear to the untrained ear as merely “waving the note up and down.” But to those who understand the grammatical structure of the music, to stay within a certain raga allows for certain types of gamaka and prohibits others. Furthermore, a single gamaka phrasecould be so singularly characteristic of a certain raga that even if it were technically “allowed” in another, it would be considered poor form to sing it in an exposition of the latter. In this way, the grammatical rules of a genre that is pigeonholed as “liberated” and “freely improvised” in the Western consciousness are perhaps even more rigid than those imposed on composers and performers in Western classical theory.

The importance of different structures of improvisation in Indian classical music is also often unaccounted for in Western appropriation. Improvisation is contained within a few very defined structures. In Carnatic music, the most recognizable of these structures are alapana, non-rhythmic initial exposition of a raga, neraval, progressive melodic re-interpretation of a lyrical phrase within a song, and kalpana swara, solfege-based mini-improvisations that land on the same spot in the rhythmic cycle each time. Western appropriators have historically conflated these structures into the use of non-rhythmic alapana or swara to add “flavor” to an existing Western beat or harmonic progression.

When Western musicians attempt to add Indian music to the mix, primitivization tends to occur in a few recognizable ways. The first is a fixation with the sounds of the tambura and sitar as “idealized acoustic electric guitar…often featured taking lead breaks like electric guitar” or as “soothing and hypnotic background to the melody” (Farrell 191) – wherein the instruments contribute their “exotic” timbres while playing roles that conform to Western imagination. Another is taking phrases heard elsewhere and “screen-grabbing them” or arbitrarily grafting them onto Western rhythms and chord progressions, usually for lack of understanding how the phrases were actually constructed.This ties into the tendency to stick to ragas that most unobtrusively imitate Western melodic motions (Desh, Mohanam, and Darbari Kaanada, for some examples in the Carnatic lexicon) – so as not to have to engage with the rest of the iceberg, so to speak.Third, Orientalist interpretations also take liberties in connecting Indian classical instrumental music with the white Western culture of psychedelia and with a vague and ill-informed conception of spirituality that conflates Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. All of these tropes take the place of grasping the tradition as an art and science in and of itself.

We can start to analyze the class conduction experiment through this lens by deconstructing Conduction in and of itself, and by thinking about how the format of non-themed improvisation affects the interpretation of non-Western music styles by Western-trained musicians. One could make the argument that culturally unconstrained improvisation is consciously devoid of the contrivance and theoretical oversimplification employed by Western artists to attempt to imitate Eastern music. To begin, it may be helpful to expose the roots of this oversimplification, as well as to compare and contrast the approaches of prominent artists to Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. This will shed light on where we stand as borrowers of an unfamiliar mode of thought.

Much of what we can identify as Orientalist about the exploitative variety of Indian-influenced composition is that it was based on falsely constructed premises about Indian classical music. Orientalist thought is a body of study in and of itself, made vast by the number and nature of cultural constructs made by colonial powers to represent a culture denied the agency to represent itself. Orientalism is about viewing a culture and its own offspring – art, music, religion – as ideas rather than as fully realized entities (as one would view the offspring of Western cultures). Down this path, basic concepts gleaned from a cursory study of an Eastern music tradition are so often taken solely as useful embellishments for the creation of a purposefully “primitive” sound:

“[Henry Cowell] had written long before of the potential utility of nondiatonic, microtonal scales: ‘Successful experiments, and the well-known practice of Oriental music, show that these tones are not beyond the capacity of the human ear…. Sliding tones, based on ever-changing values of pitch. Instead of steady pitches, are sometimes used in music. Such tones are very frequently used in primitive music, and often in Oriental music. …’ Cowell also suggested that the stiff, unyielding rhythms characteristic of Western music might benefit from the nuances of alien input: ‘Not only do nearly all Oriental and primitive peoples use such shades of rhythm, but also our own virtuosi, who instead of playing the notes just as written, often add subtle deviations of their own.’ The proximity of ‘primitive’ and ‘Oriental’ is telling here” (Corbett 166).

The Beatles come to mind most easily; George Harrison’s sitar strains on “Norwegian Wood”and “Within You Without You”evoke the conceptual inklings behind the group’s use of Indian classical accents. Though Harrison sought technical instruction from Pandit Ravi Shankar, a fact that might point us toward a more generous reading of the project, the Beatles’ rationale behind the instrument’s use was very much based in white American, New Age conceptualizations of India and Indian culture. This involved linking Hindustani music with psychedelic visions, otherworldliness, ambient sound, and the heavy LSD use that characterized that period in the group’s timeline.

Other well-known artists, such as trumpeter Jon Hassell, followed similar primitivistic paths in other genres:

“Exotic new-age primitivist funk fusion: Hassell performs a little addition—the music on Possible Musics and Dream Theory in Malaya is, figuratively, the simple sum of First and Third World musics. And while it is unquestionably seductive music, at least from a Western perspective, it relies on a familiar Orientalist form of seduction, preferring the slinky, superficial, exotic, ethereal artifacts of various non-Western musics over their deeper structural implications and different, clunkier, less overdeterminedly otherworldly-sounding aspects.” (Corbett 176)

On another side of the spectrum, John Coltrane spent great time and effort taking apart the structural differences inherent in Indian classical music and incorporating them in less patently obvious ways into jazz. His experiments with modal jazz constituted concrete ways of exploring the divergence between vertical and horizontal directions of improvisational development:

“Some of Coltrane’s pieces, like ‘India,’ were direct musical and spiritual references, but the real link between Coltrane’s approach to improvisation and Indian classical music is that both are modal: using specific modes or scales as the basis for the music, rather than chord changes” (Lavezzoli 10).

Let us return to the question of placing our conduction experiment on this continuum. Butch Morris’s Testament introduces the conflict in that conduction is supposed to bend and in some cases remove the boxes of entrenched anticipation of what should come next, which taken in its most rigorous form completely transcends cultural binaries of West and East. At the same time, that is not a realistic way of predicting the results of such an experiment. “What comes next” in different personal frames of mind is absolutely tied to cultural priming, which may have been what fascinated Morris so much about the resulting sound when musicians from different backgrounds were incorporated in the project – “Can instrumentalists define themselves purely by what they play without provoking cultural considerations perhaps marginal to their playing, but which can also enrich the experience of listening?” (Morris 21). In a way, what we did attempted to push that boundary by willfully not theorizing the differences between Carnatic and Western traditions before we started playing.

We can assert that the lack of concrete conceptualization of the art form was a positive aspect of the project, because a consciously Orientalist conceptual backdrop was arguably behind every example of the primitivism discussed earlier. Furthermore, any attempt to “crash course” Indian classical music culture in the limited time frame of a class like ours would have taken the musicians to a similarly limited vantage point, and perhaps an “educated oversimplification.” To be sure, it still is impossible to “come in blind” when our upbringing in a Western power structure under Western jazz and pop has already allowed generalized notions of what Indian music sounds like to enter our minds. But any imitative aspect of the ensemble working with my melodies arguably helped the musicians process and challenge their own existing assumptions about Indian classical music, as well as attempt to break down the walls between cultural tradition without first engaging in explicit Eurocentric analysis of what those walls are made of.

Engaging now with the parameters discussed earlier with which to judge Eastern-influenced music, I argue that the aforementioned characteristics of Conduction steered the musicians in Ken’s piece to a place of strong examination, as opposed to haphazard appropriation. Specific points in the development of the piece seemed to indicate that we avoided the trappings of decorative orientalism, and what I call “screen-grabbing.”

The choice to arbitrarily transplant Indian classical motifs, commonly a phrase strummed on a Sitar or a “haunting” vocal melody, reflects the power dynamic of agency between Indian classical originators and their unacquainted Western translators; in Corbett’s words, “Within Orientalism the Oriental object can never represent itself, but is essentialized and represented as a combined projection of Western desires and anxieties and a reassertion of Western control” (168). That choice also reflects an unwillingness to reckon with non-Western melodic progressions as tangible patterns of notes, as one would with a piece of sheet music. It is far easier simply to graft an exotic strumming pattern onto a Western chord progression for what it adds to the soundscape.

What we did was decidedly different; vocalists and instrumentalists alike participated actively in the imitation and development of a bracketed section of my improvised vocal melody (Audio sample 1).

A lot of this consisted of the making (and subsequent comprehension) of violations of Carnatic grammar. When my melody was explicitly juxtaposed with an attempt to recreate it, it was easier to visualize structural differences in the grammar and movement between notes. This was both a learning experience for everyone involved and a musically noteworthy contrast between two different ways of playing the same progression. The raga within which I was improvising is called Maand; it has its roots in folk, is not considered a “pure” Carnatic mode, and deviates heavily from any written attempt to pin down its scale. Nonetheless, it, too, has grammatical allowances and prohibitions. There are several points in the recording where musicians imitated phrases and deviated from the gamaka allowed in Maand, which characterizes what anyone unfamiliar with the raga (let alone Carnatic music) would have done. Here is an example: Maand technically makes use of two versions of the subdominant and two versions of the submediant in the diatonic scale (Audio sample 2).

The ensemble gravitated towards the more commonly occurring one of each. But the fact that these gamakas were attempts to recreate a discrete pattern of notes heard from my original rendition is telling of the dynamic between idea and representation in our class, versus in the history of Orientalist appropriation.

Another piece of evidence for strong examination is the use of the drone for its intended purpose (à la Coltrane). This contrasts with “decorative orientalism” in that it begins and sets the tone for the key and horizontal nature of the entire piece (Audio sample 3), as opposed to serving as an “ethereal/otherworldly” ambient backdrop for an otherwise structurally intact vertical piece (sometimes in a completely different key).

The drone was unambiguously the basis for the tonal nature of our piece, and was prominent throughout the conduction – not as an eerie hum underneath, but as a legitimate landmark or reference point for the vocalists. A colorful synthesis of improvisational approaches emerged when the drone began to signify a meeting point at which the instrumentalists formed incidental harmonies with the tonic and dominant (Audio sample 4).

The choice to adopt modal improvisational techniques is another strong feature of the piece’s ability to transcend primitivist oversimplification. Intuitively, even instruments with the capability of harmonic and multi-layered expression chose to tailor their improvisations to the structure of the original alapana – either by imitating the raga explicitly or by attempting to stay closely in tune with the “feeling” and character of the melodic exposition (Audio sample 5).

This may have been unconscious, or due to the difficulty in finding a chord to hang onto when the scales I was singing were so alien to Western modal terminology, but the fact that the musicians followed those intuitions indicates keen mutual listening and a willingness to engage with the parameters set by the alapana. Perhaps the lack of prior cultural contextualization in Morris’ Conduction project allowed us more broadly and incisively to deconstruct explicit musical points of divergence between Carnatic and Western genres.

We have already discussed the problem of agency in a historical and cultural sense, but it may make sense in the context of our analysis to apply the question to the conduction group dynamic. In scrutinizing an artist who has used non-Western musical influence, the most obvious question that comes to mind is, “Did the person study under or play alongside musicians of applicable authority?” That itself is a difficult call to make – an edge case might be British-born guitarist John McLaughlin, who, “taking the name Mahavishnu given by his guru…formed his electric jazz-rock ensemble the Mahavishnu Orchestra…followed by Shakti in 1975, an acoustic ensemble featuring McLaughlin…with three Indian musicians: Zakir Hussain on table, and Karnatic musicians L. Shankar on violin and R. Raghavan on mridangam” (Lavezzoli 10). While his adoption of a Hindu spiritual moniker both for himself and the ensemble he created evokes instinctive discomfort, the fact that McLaughlin surrounded himself with prominent and authoritative classical instrumentalists reveals some level of deference for the tradition. Must an artist have studied the music to explore it in legitimate ways? One could argue that neither does experience under a classical guru guarantee that an artist’s approach to borrowing non-Western music traditions is one of apt understanding (I think of Harrison and Ravi Shankar here), nor does a lack of experience with the genre guarantee a primitivist perspective. Indeed, in many cases, artists used their listening “credentials” or their limited time spent studying under the tutelage of a guru to justify their own interpretations of the music as grounded in “expertise”: “The move to disentangle ‘authentic’ ethnic music from its hybridized new-music forms can be seen as a reassertion of the peculiar Western power to define (and preserve) ‘pure’ expressions of cultural ethnicity as opposed to their ‘tainted’ counterparts. Better, it seems, to describe the underlying epistemic framework which provides a context for American and European classical music’s overwhelming turn to the music of ‘other’ cultures” (Corbett 163).

Perhaps the answers to these questions hinge both on the intention behind the adoption and on the agent of transmission. Who played the original melodies and motifs? Who constructed the base phrases and structures intended to originate from the tradition being borrowed from? Did that agent have a say in how that motif was used, whether and how it was altered, and where it was placed?

And where did our experiment in conduction class fit into these ideas? First of all, the spark for the ideas and motifs that developed throughout the piece was a vocal alapana formed on the spot, tailored to the progression of the piece, and created by an individual (me) who was both present and participating for the entire duration of the experiment. The direction of the piece began with the drone, for the key, and then with my alapana (Audio sample 6).

As discussed before, the melodies in the vocal section were roused from an exposition of Maand, a classical raga that has not historically been a sonic trope in the American borrowing of Indian classical music. Taking into account the nature of conduction, putting aside briefly the infinite variables involved in the decisions made by the musicians, everyone was working based on immediate impressions of what they had heard. I might add that the suggestion to work on an Indian classical theme likely provoked the inclination in all performers to consciously avoid regurgitating stereotypes of Indian musical soundscapes that were not explicitly part of what I contributed, in efforts to avoid that primitivistically ethereal and/or ”spiritual” sound. As a performing artist trained in the field, I was a primary agent of transmission. Though I quite obviously lack the authority and experience of someone like L. Shankar, the setup in many ways mirrors those of musical experiments from the 20th century that I feel are legitimate explorations – those where classical musicians were part of the orchestra, not just distant tape recordings spliced and interwoven into a framework of ultimate Western agency.

The agency question draws our conversation back to its origin in political power dynamics and their relevance to the discussion of experimentation versus appropriation. Broadening this dialogue means moving away from the simplistic binary suggested by traditional modes of postcolonial thought – “This means avoiding the racist conception of colonizers as civilizing agents and the colonized as beneficiaries; but equally, it also avoids any anticolonialist reversal of these categories, which would homogenize the colonizing practice and conceive of the colonized as victims” (Born and Hesmondhalgh 5). To be sure, the same question applies when we consider opposite circumstances to the ones being discussed now – the relationship between Western and Indian classical genres is undeniably shaped by cross-fertilization. This is apparent when we think of the 19th century assimilation of the violin as mainstream Carnatic instrumentation, but also notably when we think about what modern Bollywood draws from pop (and more recently, hip-hop). That current Bollywood soundtracks can often be placed as anachronistic on the timeline of the US pop mainstream reveals this inherent disconnect between agents in the development of a nonnative musical style. But in studying Orientalism and the comparison between these directionalities, we see that the issue carries indisputable political weight on the opposite side. While Indian producers are given persistent access to accurate representations of what Western pop looks like, audiences in the US form their conception of Indian music styles from non-Indian agents, commonly white Americanswho have seized vague concepts for use in other genres: “Due to the enormous popularity of the Beatles and their music it was inevitable that their Indian fusions became mistaken by the fans as being the ‘real’ thing, i.e. Indian classical music. Ravi Shankar was brought to the forefront of the pop music world and feted as a superstar, although he had already been giving concerts in the West since the fifties” (Farrell 198). The discontinuity in communication reveals the problematic truth as to who gets to transmit ideas about Eastern music.

In the end, asking who should decide what constitutes Orientalism in musical appropriation is nearly as demanding as asking point-blank whether a piece of music reflects Orientalist modes of thought. Neither I, nor anyone else – with or without background in non-Western music traditions – can claim to adjudicate a matter defined by such minute gradations of musical and political subjectivity. But when an experiment like the one we conducted in class takes place, the best we can do is process it through frank self-reflection – and the knowledge that not even free improvisation is exempt from the cultural constructs that dictate what music can and should be.

Works Cited

Born, Georgina, and David Hesmondhalgh. Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music. Berkeley: U of California, 2000. Print.

Farrell, Gerry. “Reflecting Surfaces: The Use of Elements from Indian Music in Popular Music and Jazz.” Popular Music 7.02 (1988): 191-198. Web.

Lavezzoli, Peter. The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi. New York: Continuum, 2006.

Morris, Lawrence Butch. Testament: A Conduction Collection. New York: New World Records, 1995. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

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