Did you ever study Indian classical music in high school? Even if you did, were you able to play and record it with your teacher?
Alex Wand, a music teacher at Fusion Pasadena was able to explore and collaborate this musical genre with his student Sukhleen Marwah for their Recording Arts class. After recording two songs, Alex interviewed Sukhleen and they had a casual conversation about Indian classical music, and their unique collaboration.
Whether you prefer to listen or read the interview, we have both options for you! You’ll also find both musical pieces they discuss embedded below. Enjoy!
Transcript: (We wanted to keep the transcription as close to the interview audio as possible…please excuse any grammatical errors!)
Alex: Okay, we’re here with Sukhleen Marwah, and I’m Alex Wand. And, Sukhleen can you talk a little bit about our collaboration this semester?
Sukhleen: Well, I know that we never really wrote anything down as far as the music goes. We never really made out a plan of like which thal we were going to use, which raga we were going to use. I think we just kinda sat down with each other and discussed how we were feeling that day and just kinda went with that feeling. And I feel like the more we played together the more we meshed together and kind of understood when we could change and transition without really saying anything.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, we started kind of intuiting each other’s changes.
Sukhleen: Yeah totally. Definitely.
Alex: For those of you who don’t know what a thal is and a raga, so these are the terms in Indian classical music. Raga refers to a particular melody or scale that is associated with a set of phrases that performers improvise around. So most of Hindustani music, north Indian classical music, is improvised within this parameter of a raga. So I play sitar, so that was my parameter, using a certain scale. Sukhleen, do you want to talk about what a thal is?
Sukhleen: Sure. So thals are, there’s like a 16-beat thals, there’s 7-beat thals, there are 10-beat thals. It’s just kind of a set of how many notes you’re going to play in one cycle, if that makes sense, and a different time signature for each one.
Alex: Okay cool. Yeah so those are the two main elements of music in Indian classical. You may notice that harmony isn’t really there, there’s just a drone that I play. But, because there is a limitation in the sense that it’s mostly melody and rhythm, that kind of allows the rhythm to be really nuanced, and the melody too. Do you agree?
Sukhleen: I do, and even though the melody is “limited,” or the thal is limited to certain notes and a certain number of beats in each cycle, I feel like you can still do so much with it.
Alex: There’s kind of a freedom within that limitation.
Sukhleen: There’s a lot of freedom within that limitation, even though it’s, you know, limited.
Alex: So we just uploaded two of many improvisations that we recorded in this class. By the process of recording we kind of learned about how to work in the studio, how to record, and how to polish the music once it’s recorded. So we did a few things like reverb and compression.
Sukhleen: We did a lot of fades.
Alex: We did some fading at the end. And we used baffles.
Sukhleen: Yeah we didn’t use a real baffle because they’re so expensive to buy. But we took a stool, like a little chair, and then we put pieces of foam on each side of it so our instruments, so the frequencies wouldn’t bleed into each other and so that wouldn’t bleed into the mics. So the one mic would only catch my tabla and then the other mic would only catch Alex’s sitar because without the baffle my tabla was bleeding into his mic, and then it was way too loud and we couldn’t really fix it. And you know, with the equalizer.
Alex: Exactly. So that allowed us, as Sukhleen mentioned, to isolate the instruments so that we could, say we wanted to, you know, add extra reverb to the sitar, we would be able to do that. We have more freedom in the mix. Great, so, our two pieces, the first one we called “Desert Pulse.” And why did we come up with that name?
Sukhleen: I don’t know. It was very very suspenseful, and it never got extremely fast, but I feel like it transitioned into a good medium-fast beat, and it just made us both think of the desert and something, you know, hiding in the desert, or some secret crime. Or now like the pharaoh is dead and now you’re burying him in his pyramid and you’re doing the whole mummification process and putting on the gold mask and doing all the stuff that they did. I thought that was pretty cool.
Alex: Yeah absolutely. I like the idea of “Pulse” being kind of a reference to your tabla rhythm, but also a reference to life in the desert. It’s kind of an incredible thing that things can live in the desert, right? So I liked that combination.
Alex: Okay cool so let’s see, the next one is “River of Pearl”.
Sukhleen: Well you came up with that one.
Alex: I came up with this, but the reason why I suggested “river” was because before this improvisation we had an exchange about, you know, what should this improv be about. And then what did you say?
Sukhleen: I said, “Well, flowy seems kind of cool, if we just kind of did a flowy, slow, relaxed kind of improv.”
Alex: So that was the word that was running through our head as we performed “River of Pearl”.
Alex: Yeah I think that about wraps it up, Sukhleen do you have any other comments for posterity?
Sukhleen: You’re a really cool teacher.
Alex: Well you’re a really cool student, so.
Sukhleen: No yeah that was really fun. I’ve never jammed with anyone else on any other instrument as far as the tabla goes, I’ve just kind of done it by myself and not really included any instruments other than that. But I don’t know a lot of people that play, you know, either the sitar or the rebab, you know anyone that plays another Indian classical instrument. Or anyone that even plays guitar, I feel like doing some weird jazz time signatures with tabla would be pretty cool eventually, sometime, down the road.
Alex: Absolutely, okay well I look forward to any future collaborations we have.
Sukhleen: Yeah, me too, awesome.
Alex: Alright, over and out!