A publication of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts

Application of Indian Music to Western Instruments

by Ashwin Batish

Electronic Revolution: Is it live or what?

It is beautiful to see that in the West there is such a lot of interest brewing for such ancient instrument like the sitar and the tabla. More and more you can see imitators trying to reproduce the nuances of the sitar through synthesis or sampling technology. But alas all these attempts are falling by the wayside. The only silver lining in this whole experiment is that through the guise of electronic synthetic experimentations there are some nice new and exotic textures that are heard in modern pop music. Even newagers have attempted to come close to the "Indian" sound by trying to play the "Sitar" on their synths. Don't get me wrong, I am myself a big fan of synths and electronic music but, you have to draw a line where there is an issue of trueness of timbre. You can feel very happy that you've sampled the sound of the sitar and are now able to reproduce it on your synthesizer but it is only a fraction of the whole so don't come to me tommorrow and exclaim "Ashwin, how do you like this sitar track I put in !" I will not call it a sitar for one. I would recommend you credit such a texture to electronic imitation. There is no harm in calling it that. I would for one appreciate this frankness.

The reason I'm being so hard nosed about this is that until you've heard the sitar being played and you realise how the sound is reproduced; how your fingers work in harmony; and the quality of ornamentations capable on the sitar; only then can you appreciate what's missing from the synth imitations.

The other thing I get a lot is when someone, in attempting to play a sitar patch or really any other instrument like a sax or guitar, will play these twangy and ultra vibrato-ish pulls that they think sound like Indian music..... It sounds horible. I am sorry that's what you think we are playing. But we are not! Listen carefully and you will see that the trills and ornaments are very specific. There is a scale we are working within and the ornate pulls (we call these meends) have to be right on the notes to be effective. If you try to imitate these on other instruments you have to do them right and not just try to "wing it." Such display especially in front of an Indian musician will not only be taken in disgust but your musical credibility will be compromised. There is a definite pattern to the ornamentations. So listen to the fast graces and practice them well before trying to perfom them on any instrument.

I have noticed this behavior more in a musician that thinks he/she has made it in music and frequently their excuse for not "getting it" is that "one has to be born" into the music in order to really "hear it." I am sorry... that I don't agree with. My feeling is that it is all a matter of study and patience.

Now I don't want anyone getting discouraged with these statements. But I am only tring to react to what I'm seeing as a trend and trying to correct it before it becomes a tradition. So practice your chops well. If all else seems confusing, corner an Indian musician and ask them to throw some light on anything you don't understand. I am sure most of them will be happy to help.

Problem Child

Let's tackle some of the problems in playing Indian music on a Western Instrument. Just remember these important issues and when you become aware of the problems inherent then you can learn to workaround them.