An article first appearing on Agustín Manuel Martinez’s blog 1 November 2017.
Many of the readers of Agustin’s blog will have first-hand experience of the great joy of playing the piano. Those who improvise, or who play around with little musical ideas of their own, or who compose, or who play around with blues or jazz chords and scales.
They will know how deeply absorbing it can be – taking you out of your surroundings and into the intimate sound-world you are creating. How the desire to create beautiful sounds becomes a life-long passion. How minutes, then hours, can fly away.
Imagine then: a beautiful form of music which mirrors that experience, that encapsulates the essence of that creative journey, that scaffolds the improvisational process. With Indian classical raags you have an outline structure to frame your session at the piano. You have exotic scales to choose from, characterful melodic ingredients to explore and develop. Collections of atmospheric drone notes provide the scenery.
The first section (the alaap) has a free pulse, so you have all the time you need to get your fingers around the given melodic ingredients. You pull them apart and try them out in different combinations. You investigate different registers of the instrument. You become accustomed to the feeling of timelessness, with the ebb and flow utterly at your control. There will be mistakes. But not many. You can take your time – 2 minutes or 2 hours – it’s your call.
The next sections (the jhor) have a regular pulse. The left hand provides a rhythmic framework and the drone notes. It starts simple but instinctively becomes more complex as your confidence grows. For your right hand there is intricate delicacy – an ornate pre-composed melody to learn. It is there in small chunks to be played around with, and to use as the launching pad for more improvisation, then dip into again and again.
There are increasingly complex variations to try out, or ignore as suits. And the improvisation goes on – becoming more extravagant as your skills develop. There are tihais – little melodic patterns played three times – to mark the end of an improvised passage. There can be a second, faster part of the jhor section, with a new but related melody, over a new rhythmic pattern in an interesting metre. And the raag finishes with some conventional final gestures.
Indian classical musicians spend years mastering their art. My new book “How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano” is designed to give pianists a way in to this wonderfully rich world. It contains 24 raags – one for each hour of the night and day – and all the instructions you’ll need to start your journey.