Even though my heritage is Indian, most of my early musical training was exclusively in Western classical music. It was only since 2010 that I began to learn about and explore Hindustani (North Indian) classical music, and incorporate its elements into my work. Though the combination of the unique resultant sounds of these two types of music are interesting to explore, it is the differences between the cultures and traditions from which these sounds emerge that interest me the most. My aim is not to create music that sounds “fused” as much as music that builds on the values and principles from both cultures and musical traditions, and that can function in both.
Aria was my first orchestral work that reflected my study of Hindustani music, and was also my first work to have both Hindustani and Western musicians performing together. I have used the setting of a traditional operatic aria (which is the traditional Western venue for singers to display their vocal ability accompanied by an orchestra) to create a small window into the world of Hindustani vocal music.
The work begins with contrasting aalaps (p/d): the ‘western aalap’ appears first in the form of a meterless set of textures, drawing its harmonic material from the notes of Raag Todi. The Hindustani aalap follows, with wind instruments providing counterpoint to the vocal line. This falls away to a western-style orchestral tutti based on the singer’s Todi phrases. She returns for a series of taans (fast virtuosic passages using sargam, or solfege) in Raag Yaman. In between each taan, the orchestra plays a mukhra (in this case, the first phrase of the bandish (p/d)or ‘fixed composition’, called “Sakhi Eri Aali Piya Bina”, which appears in its entirety later in the work.) The singer eventually begins to sing the antara (B section) of the bandish, followed by a western-style solo cadenza. She returns to sing the sthaayi (A section) of the same composition. As she sings in Yaman, phrases of Todi seep through in a duet between the oboe and English horn.
It is fitting that “Sakhi Eri Aali Piya Bina” is the first bandish many students of Hindustani khayal vocal music learn, and also that it is one of the few that is widely known and shared between various schools of Hindustani khayal singers. It may, in the case of this piece, be the first Hindustani bandish that Western musicians hear, and is a wonderful point of entry into the artform.
Special Performance Requirements
This piece will require a Hindustani singer (amplified). Hindustani singers who do not have previous experience with a Western orchestra should take note that, though the material is all within the Hindustani tradition and does not require reading western notation, the alignment with the orchestra will feel new and often challenging. It is recommended that the singer meet with the conductor before the first rehearsal and become comfortable following visual cues (perhaps while singing along to a recording of the piece, or a version with a rehearsal pianist) — especially practicing entering at places other than the beginning of the piece.
Singers who are dual-trained, or who have experience performing with Western ensembles should be well-equipped to handle this piece. Even if the singer has never worked as a Hindustani musician in western ensemble — for example, even if a singer has basic Western choral experience — this should be sufficient to understand the Western orchestral working process.
In instances where a Hindustani singer may need assistance with cues, using an intermediary on the stage (for rehearsals and also for performance) is recommended. The intermediary stands beside the singer and cross-cues with the conductor.
This piece was premiered by the Yale Philharmonia (Yang Jiao, conductor) and Meenakshi Shivaram-Deduluri on December 9, 2010. It has had subsequent performances by professional orchestras including Albany Symphony, and college ensembles including Smith College Orchestra.