Friday, September 11, 2009

In search of Alanis Morissette's elusive India: the background

In an earlier posting on personal tape and CD song compilations, I referred to a wonderful song by Alanis Morissette which, as my wife, Shubha Sankaran, observed, had a number of rather startling musical elements not typically found in western pop music, but very characteristic of Indian music. But before addressing that particular song in detail, a bit of a retrospective is appropriate.

Almost certainly the earliest significant use of Indian musical elements by a major western popular music group was in the Beatles' song, Norwegian Wood, from the ground-breaking 1965 Rubber Soul album, featuring George Harrison performing on the sitar, the best known of India's classical stringed instruments. But aside from the sitar's distinctive sound, Norwegian Wood is a fairly conventional song in terms of melody, harmony, and content, though of course rich with the Beatles' typical mischievousness and wit.

At this time the group's initial fascination was with the sitar as a new instrumental phenomenon, creating an aural effect so unique that it is now included on many synthesizers and even elementary electronic keyboards as a "voice" that may be selected from among the various options on the instrument.

Harrison went on to pursue the study of the sitar with Ravi Shankar--as a result of which Indian classical music was suddently catapulted into the mainstream spotlight, with the result that Shankar himself became a superstar in the popular musical world by virtue of the visibility brought through his association with the Beatles--though of course he was comparatively well known in classical and jazz music circles in the west as a prominent international performer well before this.

A number of subsequent Beatles songs made further use of Indian instrumentation, as did such collaborations as the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh (with Shankar on sitar, the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, and the late Ustad Alla Rakha on tabla), and the 1974 tour of "Shankar, Family and Friends", organized by George Harrison, and resulting in a milestone recording on Harrison's own Dark Horse label. (The very full roster of musicians, both Indian and western, some prominent, is listed on a fascinating Website in German,

The instrumental explorations in "Norwegian Wood" precipitated countless subsequent efforts by a whole range of pop and rock artists, such as the Rolling Stones' use of the sitar in "Paint It Black." Wikipedia has a a detailed entry on the subject, "Sitar in Popular Music."

Similarly, the use of the tabla has become so fundamental a part of western percussion practice that it is ubiquitous, routinely heard in film and television soundtracks, as well as in commercials for items ranging from cosmetics to home appliances.

But beyond the exotic sounds of Indian instruments themselves, western composers, led by the pioneering Henry Cowell (1897 - 1965) had begun exploring the modal and melodic characteristics of Indian music much earlier. Cowell's efforts in founding the New Music Society in New York of the in 1925, and the journal New Music in 1927, were incalculably influential in exposing his colleagues, as well as audiences--often amidst much consternation on the part of the latter at hearing alien sounds and effects--to musical ideas from around the world. Composers such as Alan Hovhaness (1911 - 2000) and Lou Harrison (1917-2003) became major "orientalists" in their use of modal music and the rich range of scales possible beyond the western major and minor configurations, with widespread popularity continuing today.

Even such jazz figures as John Coltrane (1926 - 1967) and Miles Davis (1926 - 1991) were famously influenced by modal music in their own improvisatory explorations.

Thus it is no surprise that with the surge in popularity of the sitar, the creative impulses of pop and rock musicians as well led toward modal music and improvisation. By modal music, we mean music that is primarily melodic, and does not involve the chord and harmonic changes fundamental to so much of later western classical music; modal music can often involve the use of a drone, as in Scottish bagpipe music, or some five-string banjo of the Southern U.S., with the higher fifth string supplying a constant reference point on the upper tonic of the scale.

Numerous examples of modality may be found in the popular music of the period. George Harrison's song "Love You To" from the 1966 album Revolver begins with a somewhat out-of-tune sitar introduction that is entirely modal, and though there are a few alternate chords, the overall effect is decidedly modal, with a somewhat rattled crescendo on sitar fading out at the end. But probably the most distinctive expression of quasi-modality is the Doors' anthemic "The End"; although that megahit (like the previous example) does include a few chord changes, the song still has a pervasive improvisatory modal effect in its extended renditions of some ten minutes, including some raga-like improvisation (sometimes noodling, sometimes soaring) on the guitar over the fundamental bass tonic. (Again, see YouTube for various performances of this landmark song.)

Wikipedia has an good basic entry on "Raga rock", and Frederick W. Harrison (no relation to George) has written an excellent article on the Website, "West meets East, or how the sitar came to be heard in western pop music."

But the Indian sound wasn't all that fascinated the Beatles. They went on to travel to India in 1967 to spend time with the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had developed a system of "transcendental meditation" that attained quite a degree of prominence in the cultural and social explorations into "the other" that characterized much of the ethos of the counterculture in the 1960's. A number of other practitioners of both jazz and popular music (as well as movie stars) made pilgrimages to India in search of spiritual enlightenment.

* * * * * * *

At this point, patient reader, you are almost certainly asking: What happened to Alanis???

Well, first, I would urge that you try to find Morissette's song, entitled, as it turns out, "Uninvited", somewhere on the Web. There is an official pared down (without the elaborate string orchestration) video performance of the song on AOL, and numerous YouTube versions of her acoustic rendition of the song on the series MTV Unplugged, as well as her performance at the 1999 Grammy Awards, in which she received the "Best Rock Song" and "Best Female Rock Vocal Performance" awards for the song, in addition to a nomination for "Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media".

And at this point I would ask YOU to characterize the performance, and identify what you find unusual in the presentation. Please feel free to comment below.

Then, I'll share my own progressing observations in the next post.

Thanks, as they say, for staying with this quest.

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