She is As Near to My Heart

Here’s another piece adopting words by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning songwriter and polymath. Tagore is a remarkable man about whom I know only a little more than the average Western musician or writer. His life as a writer is only a small part of his impact in South Asia, but that alone is enough to bring your attention to him. Knowing as little as I do about Bengali literature, I take it from others that he’s exquisite in that language, and that, at the beginning of the 20th Century, he accomplished the same task for his culture that the modernist poets writing in English did, bringing a fresher, more colloquial language to poetry.

Tagore wrote in many forms of literature, but when his Nobel Prize was awarded, the only work available in English was a book of his lyrics, which he had self-translated into English prose—which makes him the first songwriter to win the Nobel for Literature. Tagore’s own prose translations do not fully hide the musical nature of the works, but they often sound somewhat stilted to this English language reader. I’ve adopted his words somewhat for this piece. It’s a love song.

Now for those that come here for talk about the words used, we’re going to diverge this time and talk instead about the music.

It’s likely that Tagore also wrote music for this, but I do not know his tune. My knowledge of South Indian music is limited as well, but like many Westerners, my introduction was Ravi Shankar records that were widely available in the Sixties. Ravi Shankar had become something of a cultural fad then via his association with A Beatle!  and the sideways belief that this music was “psychedelic.” That word, a neologism of the times, was formed from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifesting,” meaning music that could produce altered states of consciousness, inferring that it was like mind-altering drugs, and that it might be a suitable aural counterpart to imbibing in same. Looking back, I find this a quaint sort of categorization, as much music—and even the mind itself—can change one’s appreciation of consciousness, perhaps not with the whipsaw impact as the psychoactive drugs of the time, but powerfully enough.

Mark me down as a man who doesn’t know when to let go of a fad. Despite my listener-only naiveté about South Asian music, three things attracted me upon hearing those recordings, or viewing the small portions appropriated to Shankar in the rock concert films of the era:

The drone. This is a complex music based not on a progression of chords, but instead where the color changed not from a new chord or key, but with timbre, melodic scale, rhythm, and expression against a static, home chord or tone. I might have grabbed this from something else eventually (John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis were also there to tell me this about the same time) but Shankar and South Asian commonplaces like tampura and harmonium drones were where I first appreciated this.

The tabla. The rhythmic structure of South Asian music is as complex as any I know, and is its most “foreign” element. The rhythmic structures have extraordinarily long cycles, difficult to “count” in a mathematical toe-tapping sense. I have a fair to poor sense of rhythm myself, but I heard these complex rhythms “melodically,” not as marks on a grid, but as a string of events with a compelling line of sound. As expressive hand drums capable of vibrato, the tabla encouraged this.

The sitar. To this day, the strum of a sitar is the go-to sound-effect clip to say “hippie.” Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable instrument with many musical features exploited by its virtuosos. To my ear, and to many guitarists who wanted to approximate the impact of the sitar, the main things were the ability to provide its reinforcement of the drone with resonating strings, and the raised frets that allowed notes that were in fact a cluster of microtones sounded in close vibrato.


Ravi Shankar with Alla Rakha Khan on tabla and Kamala Chakravaty on tampura


For “She Is as Near to My Heart”  I approximated all these things with non-South Asian instruments. The song’s harmonic home point is an arpeggiated cluster consisting mainly of D, E, G, and A notes, giving a key center that is ambiguous, but that I thought of as A minor for my purposes. In place of the tabla, I used a syncopated 4/4 that is comfortable to our rhythmic toes, but to give it that tabla sound, I used congas and a drum machine with its own electronic approximation of the tabla’s pitch bend. For the sitar element I used a MIDI interface to play a digital instrument approximation of the real thing with a guitar. And over the top, well why not, some electric guitar where I mixed blues with some more sitar-sounding licks like psychedelic guitarists liked to do in the Sixties.

Squier Fat Nashville Telecaster

Not a sitar, but…


You can hear this using the player below. We’ll return soon with more talk about words next time.




Maiden with a Lamp

When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.

This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact:  Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:

“Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,”  a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.

Gitanjali title page 1912

The title page of the original English edition


Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka.  His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.

tagore with Gandhi

“Let me lay it on you Mohandas: it means ‘Great Soul.”  Also, there’s this girl in Detroit who I’m going to call the Queen of Soul.”

Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  of the power of songs:

“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”

This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,”  I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.

Song. These are songs.

Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.

All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.

So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now.  With the last post here, “Light,”  I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
If you wonder about the floating light ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,”  it may be this one.

To hear me perform my vaguely C&W version of “Maiden with a Lamp,” use the player below.



What is lost when poetry is translated? Robert Frost thought it outright: “Poetry  is what is lost in translation.” Those who’ve read my notes here on the Parlando project know that I hold that poetry is words that want to sing. Those sound effects of the flowing sound of words, the call and response of rhyme, the beats of the dancing syllables—all that music can hardly be asked to make it past the visa-check at the translation station on languages’ borders.

In recent posts here I translated two poems from classical Chinese. As a non-Chinese speaker, I could not even hope to convey what musical effects the originals had.  To better see this as English speakers, let us look the other direction, and think about what Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” (featured in our last post) would lose if we were to translate it to classical Chinese.

Would Dickinson’s poetic music carry over? In English we have the movement of the common meter/ballad meter in her poem, a beat that is ingrained in those who sing common Christian hymns or know secular songs using this meter in the folk and popular music fields.  Since this is a common form in our culture, we are primed to move to this meter, and rich associations may arise from other times we have felt the same beat. All that is most likely lost in translation.

There’s a pun in the first line. The sun “rose” and is pink. Puns won’t likely make it across the border.

Dickinson rhymed her poem. Translators sometimes choose to create rhyming poems in their destination language, but adding this degree of difficulty to the task may cause other defects in translation as the rhyme is sought.

English sometimes has an advantage when one translates to and from it, because it is the language of a much-invaded island, which was then taken up by a polyglot country across the ocean. English as we know it today is full of words with Latin and Germanic origin, echoes of French, Spanish, German, and even more. Occasionally, puns or even rhymes can be saved when the foreign language has these connections. And metric rules for accents and syllables can be somewhat portable across the European range.

But what if we were to translate from English to classical Chinese? I’ll take an audacious shot at Dickinson’s first verse. The English gloss from the ideograms resulting might go like this:

Tell Sun Rise
Ribbon Sequence
Towers Wet Purple-Quartz
Squirrel Messengers
Hills Unpinned Hats
Birdsong Started
Soft Talk Inside
Sun Recognized

Well, there’s something still there isn’t there, even if we as English speakers see the losses. What remains is Dickinson’s attention to an ordinary event with extraordinary details. And there’s some musical structure remaining: parallelism, theme and variation that doesn’t rely on beats or syllables that can still peak through.

Today’s episode is an English translation from the original Bengali by its own author, Rabindranath Tagore. Despite having attended school in England, despite familiarity with English as a resident of a then colonial province of the British Empire, despite some rumored editorial assistance from renowned English language poet William Butler Yeats, and despite Tagore’s well-attested to genius, “Light”  was published in English in 1912 as a prose translation.


Some amateur violin player (left) meets up with Rabindranath Tagore (right)

Paradoxically this may be due to the original’s musicality. I’ll have more to say on Tagore next time, but for now just know that Tagore was a composer and songwriter, and that his songs are widely known and appreciated by millions of Bengali speakers.
So, to try to restore some of the impact originally present in this piece, I composed and played a rather dense musical accompaniment for Tagore’s translated words. I did this in ignorance of if Tagore had his own melody for this poem in Bengali. Besides animation and illumination of his English prose, I aimed to combine some of my appreciation his native region’s music and Western electric guitar based music. To hear Rabindranath Tagore’s “Light”  with my music and performance, use the player below.