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Finding resonant spaces between Indian classical music and the Western choral tradition

Though I come from an Indian family, I often joke that I wouldn’t exist if my parents had actually lived there. I’m the only child of a Catholic mother from Goa and a Muslim father from Gujarat—both of whom decided to immigrate to America, and met one another in Orlando, Florida in the early 1970s.

I grew up in Los Angeles, speaking English to my parents and Gujarati to my grandparents—the latter in a thick American accent, and riddled with all kinds of grammatical errors. My grandparents found it hilarious and, much to my regret, they never corrected me. But when I look back at my childhood, I see that I was just starting down the path that has defined the music I write: I was trying to find places between my cultural identities that felt resonant to me.

TāReKiṬa is one of those resonant places. While Western classical music has had a choral tradition that goes back hundreds of years, there is no such tradition of ensemble singing in Indian classical music. The ingenuity in Indian music stems from solo improvisation, so the tradition never evolved to support ensemble singing, or the harmony and counterpoint that is so typical of notated music. And yet, now that our cultures are colliding in so many ways, so too is our music.

The sounds of TāReKiṬa are onomatopoeic syllables, similar to a scat in jazz. They are often used in Indian classical vocal forms called “taranas” or “tillanas”, where the syllables (which originate from the sounds made by Indian instruments) are mapped onto pitches, resulting in a scintillating display of vocal virtuosity.

Even though the syllables don’t carry inherent meaning, embodying them allows for deep engagement with the language and its unique, musical features. In Indian languages, consonants often place the tongue closer to the front of the mouth, which creates a more percussive sound. Even a single attempt to pronounce the syllables of TāReKiṬa with an American accent will make amply clear why these rhythmic vocal forms never emerged with the same prominence in Western music: our languages simply aren’t designed to support them—the way we pronounce consonants in the West often means that they get lost along the way.

One of the first things we learn about in Western classical music are the two opposing pitch frameworks: major and minor. In our minds, they are black or white, happy or sad, either/or—but not both. And yet, in Indian music, there are certain pitch frameworks, or raags, that contain what Western musicians hear as both major and minor. One such raag is Jog, the raag used in TāReKiṬa, which contains the major and minor 3rd. I love how easily Jog swings between these two poles, reminding us that even unabashed joy contains a bit of melancholy—that emotions that seem so different are often interconnected.

TāReKiṬa emerged over time from a beautiful relationship with Urban Voices Project, a choir of unhoused people living in Skid Row, in Downtown Los Angeles. It was entirely by accident that we stumbled upon their deep resonance with Indian rhythm. I wrote this piece as a gift so we could explore that point of resonance together.

You can imagine my surprise that this work, which was only ever intended for one group of people, has captured the imagination of choirs around the world. In recognition of their integral part in the creation of TāReKiṬa, a portion of the proceeds each year will go back to support Urban Voices Project, and the beauty they bring into the world through music every day.

The initial version of the piece was in three layers, with no specified voice types, and with no need for written music. It was designed to be flexible and easily learned, even on the spot, without the need to read notation. The foundation was a slow layer that set the pace, the middle layer had quick intricate rhythmic syllables, and the top layer was the solo melody, which was often sung by me, improvised over the texture of the group. The piece could go on indefinitely as singers were able to float between layers, with eyes closed immersed in meditation, like the melodic version of a drum circle. The new version for SATB choir, by contrast, is a quicker, more energized version of the initial piece—a short, invigorating leap into the vibrant world of Indian rhythm.

Like all resonating spaces, my work comes into being only when it brushes against the creative spirit of others. That mutual space, that dialogue between people, cultures and communities, is the place from which new sounds emerge.

Featured image: excerpt from TāReKiṬa, published by Oxford University Press

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