During the year I spent in India, I began to notice a beautiful thing that would happen at concerts. When the artist would announce the raag to be sung or played that evening, immediately, and almost subconsciously, many of the cognoscenti in the audience would begin humming the characteristic phrases or ‘pakads’ of that raag quietly to themselves, intoning with the drone that was already sounding on stage. It had a magical feeling – as if that raag was present in the air, and tiny wisps of it were already starting to precipitate into the audible world in anticipation of the performance. It felt like a connection between the audience and the performer, as they prepared themselves to enjoy what was to come. Each movement of this quartet opens in exactly the same way, and it is inspired by those quiet intonations.
After the opening phrases, each movement diverges into its own distinct character. The first movement is a Fantasie inspired by the beautiful raag Bihag which layers phrases over one another to create large shapes separateed by the silence of pure drones. The second movement is a vivacious and rhythmic setting of a Malkauns taan, which to the western ear, always seems to be pulling to a dominant rather than a tonic. The third movement is in the contemplative Basant – a raag that signifies the season of spring in Hindustani music. And the fourth movement is in the complex and multi-faceted Jog, a simgle raag which seems to contain western notions of both ‘major’ and ‘minor’ within it.
In Hindustani music, the elaboration of a single raag can often take an hour. I didn’t mean for this piece to exhaust these raags, but rather provide little snapshots of particular features and characters of each raag that I find beautiful and special about each one.
Audio guides are available for mmts 2, 3 and 4 on the catalog page for Teen Murti.
This piece was commissioned by Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. It was premiered on July 27, 2013 in Santa Fe, NM by the FLUX Quartet.
“Each of the traditional ragas – or scales – were sung prior to each movement and the string quartet followed with a sort of prelude based on the tones. As the sections progressed, more complex interpretations evolved and the sound at times was reminiscent of early 20th century music. The use of the western string quartet was a brilliant stroke – traditional Indian instruments can make this music sound so exotic that it can be hard for the uninitiated to absorb. Coming through the familiar lens of violins, viola and cello however, it is clearer to westerners how subtle and sophisticated this music can be.” – Sequenza 21
“Midway through the 14-minute span of Reena Esmail’s String Quartet, the character became a vivacious dance with complicated rhythms — a South Asian take on John Adams, perhaps.” – Santa Fe New Mexican
“When Esmail sang, the inmates spontaneously joined the orchestra, clapping along, and they shot up out of their seats to cheer her encore.” – Los Angeles Times
“Esmail’s Ragamala was paired with a 2019 Pinot Noir that was honored with the same name for the occasion. The four-movement piece for string quartet connected strongly with the Indian raag (or raga) style – melodic motifs that are interwoven in an improvised way. To my novice ears, it seemed that Eguchi’s cello would lay down a foundational drone and his colleagues would riff harmonically and sometimes toss in a dollop of dissonance. There were sequences that reminded me of fireflies dancing about. The third movement, “Basant,” was soulfully meditative but with unusual sonic juxtapositions. The fourth, “Jog,” erupted into an ecstatic exchange that seesawed back and forth until it reached a point where all of the players synced up and slowed down to a restful ending.
I tried to figure out what the beat was for the final movement but gave up. In an email exchange with Callahan, she explained it:
In the last movement, Reena writes mixed meters that are constantly changing (alternating between 5/16, 10/16, 7/16, 3/16, 13/16, 9/16, 4/16, etc.). In the whole last movement, there are only a couple of spots where we have consecutive measures in the same meter.
The very last notes you hear are unmetered — she clearly indicates who plays what, and in what order (and whether or not we should overlap), but there she leaves the exact timing/pacing to the discretion of the players. She does this in many spots throughout the piece.
I can only respond, “Wow!” James Bash – Oregon Arts Watch