La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

LA MONTE YOUNG: Until this most recent raga singing that I have been doing, I would say that The Well-Tuned Piano is my most evolved work. The Theatre of Eternal Music Big Band has the same potential, but I need the chance to work with it over time to make it grow into that kind of experience. The way I work is that I’m constantly building the piece, changing it and developing it. We’ve sung this raga in public before, and we’ve been working on it for years. It’s the raga that I wrote about in the notes that Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan had Pandit Pran Nath practice as his only raga for eight years. Any one raga, especially the deep ones, have enough material for it to take a lifetime to really do justice to them, to really bring out their inner meaning. The Well-Tuned Piano is a work that sums up a large area of my musical knowledge. Not everything.

FRANK J. OTERI: There were things that I was hearing in that raga the other night that I’d never heard in a raga performance before in my life. It was amazing. I told you about hearing those three-part harmonies and hearing chordal movement in this music that’s never presented as harmonic music. There have been times where people have tried to do this, but it comes across as sounding like a crossover, not as part of the tradition. This sounded like it was coming straight from the tradition.

LA MONTE YOUNG: I consider this very traditional. You see, in raga you’re first expected to master the tradition. Then, and only then, you’re expected to contribute something. The form of raga that is being sung today by Indian musicians is called Khyal. Khyal means imagination. It was kind of a revolt against Dhrupad. Dhrupad means four parts. Dhrupad over time became very classicized. Great, of course, and full of feeling and everything, but it became very classicized. For some it became a little bit stuck. So Khyal developed, it was a very romantic movement. In Khyal, improvisation is everything. The form—what is the form, you know. There is definitely form there, but it’s an alap, then a slow development, followed by a fast composition. Within that you improvise. You have you’re talas. Beyond that, it’s pure creativity. These three-part harmonies are growing out of traditional precedence. When we sang with Pandit Pran Nath he would sometime have us sing and sustain the tonic or the dominant, and rarely another note. From that I began to realize that if I did it with great consideration for the true nature of the raga, that it would be possible to have these harmonies. Indian classical music is probably the beginning of Western classical music. All of the ornaments of Western classical music are already found in Indian classical music. All of the modes of Western classical music are already found in Indian classical music. The form, A-B, and elements of the form are very similar to the simpler musical forms of Western classical music. Even the beginnings of harmony are in Indian classical music. What is a melody over a drone? It’s two-part harmony. If you have a tonic and a dominant, the 5th, you have three-part harmony. O.K., the simplest kind, but nonetheless, it is harmony. In each raga, some tones are allowed to be sustained, and some are not. Some notes get special ornaments. A raga is more than just a mode for a scale. It is a mode, but within that mode there are specific melodic patterns, specific notes which are considered possible for a cadence or to begin a phrase. Two or three ragas may share the same modal scale, but they are completely different based on their melodic patterns, which notes are the predominant and which notes are the supporting notes, which ornaments are considered correct for that raga, and which microtonal srutis are appropriate for that particular raga. A raga is a set of musical information that is not only a modal scale, but also a number of other elements as well. In the Kirana style they especially prided themselves on the knowledge of raga and on feeling. They felt that feeling was the main thing. This feeling came out of the proper attention to the pitches. In Indian classical music if you take all of the gharanas (those are families, or styles of music) and put them on a line with pitch at one end and rhythm at the other, the Kirana gharana would be at the extreme pitch end. Within the Kirana gharana, Pandit Pran Nath and his teacher Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan were at the extreme pitch end. So this end was very related to the directions of music that I had become interested in. It’s really amazing how Pandit Pran Nath became my guru and we had this interrelationship that brought together these two worlds of East and West. These notes that are sustained are really correct notes in the raga that can be sustained. I brought my approach to long sustained tones and my understanding of composition to raga. I have tried to create something that I feel is true to the tradition, which really comes out of the tradition. In the same way that The Well-Tuned Piano brings together many, many, many musical traditions, I feel that my approach to raga is also bringing together everything that I understand about music and everything that was given to me. I feel that raga may have had more sustenance at one time, but whether it did or whether it didn’t somehow it was given to me to present sustained tones. These sustained tones are a model for the music of the spheres. These sustained tones give something to music that either was lost or was never there before, but now that it’s here it’s making a contribution that allows an evolution that would not have been possible without it.