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.
Not a sitar, but…
You can hear this using the player below. We’ll return soon with more talk about words next time.