COMPOSER 1945–2013

Opus 104

RAGA! (1995)

for Band

Duration: 11 min.

Premiere: 1995; University of Michigan Band; H. R. Reynolds

Performance materials available from the publisher.

To define raga as the Indian equivalent of a mode or scale barely scratches the surface. Traditionally, each raga takes with it not only a set of pitches, but allowable connections among them—virtually personalized roles for each pitch—as well as appropriate moods, and times of day. While the notes of a Western mode may move from one to another according to the composer’s whim, the notes of a raga constitute an “ur”-melody, from which any number of fantastic improvised lines may be woven, albeit within great constraint.

The typical ensemble for this music is a trinity consisting of a melody instrument (such as a sitar), a percussion instrument (such as the pair of hand drums called the tabla), and a ubiquitous drone (traditionally provided by the tanpura, a highly resonant string instrument designed for that purpose). In most performances, the first portion is in a free, elastic rhythm, while the second portion is rhythmically tighter and more vigorous. The drummer participates in the second half only.

The idea of transferring this style to the full Western symphonic band occurred to me as early as the late 1960s–the time when Indian music enjoyed a meteoric rise in listener attention. I was, of course, attracted to the coloristic possibilities and the power of the wind ensemble, and also felt such a piece would constitute a high unusual experience for student players. But I was equally well aware of the hazards. Would the players and audience tolerate the sparsity of harmonic progression? Since asking large components of a band to improvise concurrently would invite harsh clashes, could the melodic fantasy of genuine Indian music be approached in a thoroughly notated work? Another choice to make concerned the actual choice of a particular raga: Should I invent my own or use an existing example?

After due consideration, I decided to use Rag Jog (pronounced to rhyme with “vogue”). Note, as occurs in many ragas, that the descending and ascending forms differ somewhat. In the descent, there is a a “zig-zag” or wrinkle of A-Bb-Ab, which gives additional character to the major-minor aspect of the scale.

I have followed the usual two-part slow-fast design, using very little percussion in the first half. In the second half, I have assigned some of the rhythmic parts to the brass, but have taken advantage of the drumming capabilities in the band, placing two pairs of timpani at the sides and a set of timbales in the rear center of the stage.

In some raga performances we hear rhythmic imitation games between melody and drums, or between two drummers. I have composed two such examples, the first between timbales and the winds, and the second between the timpanists. I have also tried to follow the tradition of generally building intensity within each of the two portions as they move on.

Purists will righteously ask what liberties I have taken. I have occasionally interrupted the drone, and have also allowed it to migrate among many registers and colors. This is partially to relieve the listener, but also to prevent certain instrumental parts from degenerating into monotones. I have tried to keep these breaks very short in the hope that the general beacon-like character of the drone would not really be challenged. As it is, one must confess that certain low-range instruments are occupied with only one or two pitches for long stretches. I have occasionally used brief harmonic progressions. These are always very short, principally serving to emphasize or re-establish the drone rather than undermine it.

I have used a few pitches not found in Rag Jog. These occur in quick turns, slides, and so forth, and indeed can be found in genuine performances, too. The greatest deviation from tradition is the usage of countermelody. This is rare because when two melodic parts improvise there is little control of the harmony. I have availed myself of this composed opportunity to add some complexity and linear interest for audience and players alike, and have tried to keep the textures to a density of two melody voices while restricting any sense of Western harmonic progress to other portions of the work. The sections with countermelody can be found in both the andante and the allegro.

Students of ethnomusicology often ask how much similarity exists between two versions of the same raga. Although many traditional melodic choices are passed on painstakingly from guru to disciple, it is normal for two performances to contain no recognizable common tunes, although there may be a clearly perceptible “cousins” relationship between performances. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)