Ask Wes Cecil about the upcoming Centrum “Communiversity” series presentation on the history of Indian classical music at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 9, and he’ll immediately but …
Ask Wes Cecil about the upcoming Centrum “Communiversity” series presentation on the history of Indian classical music at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 9, and he’ll immediately but sympathetically correct you by pointing out that it’s more properly concerned with Northern Indian classical music.
“There’s a different emphasis in Northern Indian classical music, from the instruments that are used to the way the music is constructed,” said Cecil, a historian who has conducted several free public lectures at Fort Worden State Park and sponsored by Peninsula College. “Northern Indian classical music is heavily influenced by Persian culture as a result of the Mongol invasion. It created a new flowering of music, unique in the world, that represents a collision of two different versions of court music.”
Unlike Western-European music, which is based on a scale of 12 notes, Cecil identified the basis of Northern Indian classical music as the human voice itself, to the point that even the string instruments used to make such music are tuned to the voice of the performer, rather than the other way around.
“Its rhythm has this madness to it,” Cecil said, his awed tone indicating his admiration. “No one else in history had that level of complexity. It’s just such a wonderful musical tradition, and after several hundred years, it’s still inspiring new fans and changing how people see the world.”
Cecil hastened to point out that, for all his knowledge and enthusiasm about the field, he’s a relative novice compared to the subject-matter experts with whom he’ll be in conversation during the upcoming Communiversity presentation.
Brangien Davis will be interviewing not only Cecil, but Hindustani vocalist, composer and world musician Srivani Jade, as well as master tabla artist and accompanist Ravi Joseph Albright, at the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater at Fort Worden State Park, with dinner provided by Alchemy Bistro and Wine Bar.
Just as Cecil hopes this Communiversity presentation might serve as its audience’s gateway into Northern Indian classical music, so too did Albright, who founded the Seattle Tabla Institute in 2009, serve as Cecil’s gateway to meeting Jade, who lives in the local area but tours exclusively in India.
“Ravi really liked this lecture I’d delivered on the subject, and he introduced me to Srivani,” Cecil said. “She’s worked with Ravi in the past, and just by hearing her, you can understand how phenomenal this music can be. With one note, she can deliver an entire symphony. Trying to book her to perform for a venue like this in India would be impossible. It would be like us booking the Rolling Stones.”
Jade’s technique of creating sympathetic resonances is an essential aspect of Northern Indian classical music, which Cecil credited with allowing the listener to “hear more notes than are actually being played.”
It’s also one of the elements of the genre that he was unprepared for when he first heard Ali Akbar Khan’s music as a student at California State University in Fresno.
“I checked out every one of his cassettes from the music library,” Cecil said. “The way I felt when I listened to his music was different from how I’d felt listening to any other type of music. It was like time was suspended.”
Indian ragas were first envisioned by Hindus as a manifestation of the divine, and the art form has two foundational elements.
The raga, based on swara — notes that include microtones — forms the fabric of a melodic structure, while the tala measures time.
According to Cecil, the raga gives an artist a palette to build the melody from sounds, while the tala provides them with a creative framework for rhythmic improvisation.
“It’s based on the early religious texts, the Vedas, from which we derive mentors and breathing techniques, including the sacred ‘ohm,’ which is supposedly the sound of the universe speaking to you,” Cecil said. “And from the Persian culture, you get the dervishes, the Sufi traditions and the love poetry. The combination of two religious cultures in one genre makes for more rhythmically varied music.”
As for its improvisational aspect, Cecil compared Northern Indian classical music performances to the experimentalism of jazz.
“It’s extemporaneous and exploratory and live,” Cecil said. “They come to the stage with nothing prepared and proceed to look for the music. It’s central to the theme of creating in the moment. They can even change their rhythm on the fly, in ways that seem impossible.”
Seating is limited and general admission, so seats cannot be reserved, but a maximum of 50 ticket holders who pay extra will be seated in a designated block and invited to extend the evening’s discussion over dinner with the event’s guests at Alchemy following the presentation.
The event has a capacity for 280 attendees and will feature a complete raga performed by an ensemble of professional musicians.
To purchase tickets by phone at 800-746-1982, call between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, or between 6 a.m. and noon on Sundays.
Tickets are also sold at the Centrum office Mondays through Fridays from noon to 4 p.m. except holidays.
For more information, call 360-385-3102, ext. 110, or visit centrum.org/tickets.