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The many sounds of global music

As a musician, Subramaniam has been immersed in Indian classical music and has travelled to many countries with his violin and music and conducted several crossover orchestral performances.
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 20:31 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 20:31 IST

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Human beings are hardwired to create and listen to music. Each age textures its sonic landscape with prevailing musical aesthetics. Musicologists and practitioners, either through oral traditions or written scoresheets, have painstakingly chronicled such musical works; which is how they have endured and created a legacy for successive generations to build upon.

Renowned musician and composer L Subramaniam has written a compelling treatise, Raga Harmony: Harmonic Structures and Tonalities in Indian Classical Music — a rich addition to this legacy. The book is composed on the plinth of ‘raga‘ and ‘harmony’, two significant foundational aspects of Indian and Western Classical music.

As a musician, Subramaniam has been immersed in Indian classical music and has travelled to many countries with his violin and music and conducted several crossover orchestral performances. The genesis of this book lies in his deep abiding interest in developing a system that could integrate the melodic ideas of Indian classical music with the harmonic structure of Western classical music.

The seeds for the premise of the work on ‘Raga and Harmony’ were planted as early as the mid-eighties. Subramaniam had performed at the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, accompanied by an orchestra, his composition, ‘Fantasy on Vedic Chants’ (when the two nations’ Presidents met). Prof Jivany Mikhailov from the Moscow Conservatory asked him to write a thesis on the conception of the composition. Thus began the journey of academic study and practice resulting in the authorship of this book.

The narrative of the book is arrayed in five neat chapters. The premise unfolds with a gentle context-setting and an overview. He commences his storyline by tracing the distinctive ancestries of Western and Indian classical music. The intent is to give an understanding of the terms ‘raga’ and ‘harmony’ in the context of Indian and Western classical music and to demystify some complex and abstract concepts.

He first details a comprehensive account of how Western classical music evolved. The early church music, the philosophy of music, notations, scales, how musical arrangements moved from monophony to polyphony and harmony, to the music of the different eras from Renaissance to Baroque, to Classical, to Romantic and the Modern period: The pages pack in a millennia of tradition and knowledge.

The author says, “Indian classical music is one of the most complex systems of music in the world with a highly developed melodic and rhythmic structure”. Music history aficionados would appreciate how the author goes on to lay out timelines and textures of the history and development of Indian classical music, from the Vedic times to the medieval period to the two streams of Hindustani and Carnatic music, the epics, the compositional forms, the swara, the raga and its elaboration.

All this history is woven with storytelling, which allows for an easy embrace of reading and assimilation. The heartbeat of the book though is cradled in the description of the author’s innovation — the creation of 36 raga scale patterns.

Subramaniam says: “I had wished to develop a system that was different from the traditional Western concept of harmony. My system is based on the melodic concept of the ragas to create combinations that would rise to harmonies that are rich in tonalities and pleasing to the ear. So, using the notes of the ‘Melakarta’ or parent scales of the Indian music, it is possible to create harmonic tonalities which can fit into the Western harmony system”. As a practical example, he details two ‘Melakarta’ ragas, ‘Charukesi’ and ‘Shanmukhapriya’, for their raga-based harmonic patterns.

As a composer and collaborator with world orchestra groups, Subramaniam observed that there was a keen desire from practitioners of Western classical to include Indian music influences in their pieces. This they did by either selecting a scale or a rhythmic cycle which meant their compositions did not combine the whole concept of Indian music. In his Paris concerto, he applies his innovation that showcases the infinite combinatorial possibilities with a tonal arrangement that seamlessly combines ‘raga’ and ‘harmony’.

The compositional architecture of the book ranges from simple explanations to complex orchestral scoresheets. There is something for everyone, from the well-versed to the simply curious.

In a world pockmarked with war and divisive forces, creative endeavours such as this book, which aim to share and bring together cross-cultural perspectives, are much needed.

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Published 01 June 2024, 20:31 IST

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