Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

2: A Rag is not a scale

Baluji Shrivastav has been a regular and highly valued member of the Grand Union Orchestra since 1986, when he joined the company for A Book of Numbers, commissioned by and performed at the Commonwealth Institute in London. (An early version of this piece actually appeared in this show – see also item 1 in this blog.)

Baluji is a multi-instrumentalist – principally a sitar virtuoso, but also an accomplished dilruba and surbahar player and more than competent on tabla and naal – expert particularly in the North Indian classical tradition, and a composer as well as brilliant improviser. He has an uncanny instinct also for what appeals to my musical imagination, and over the years has offered me valuable advice in developing Indian-based material; at the same time – with Yousuf Ali Khan – he has provided myself and all Grand Union musicians with an insight into the technical workings of Indian music.

Rag Marva is one of the more ‘extreme’ classical North Indian Ragas, but one of the most beautiful and fruitful for more general musical exploration. This is an example of how I find Indian music so inspirational, but remember this is a very personal approach.

Start with a conventional major scale (my composition is in fact in C major anyway):

…then raise the 4th degree of the scale (this is a common feature in much Indian music, and lies behind Rag Yaman for instance):

…now drop the 2nd degree by a semitone:

Two notes are now omitted, the 7th and most significantly the 5th to create a kind of pentatonic scale:

…but to add some character, include the 7th as the scale descends:

The flavour is enhanced further if we start from under the ‘tonic’ (or ‘Sa’) and also finish on this note (the 6th degree of the scale):

…and add an extra turn-around note at the top (at this point, for reasons that will appear, I have ‘respelled’ the scale, substituting C# for Db):

You now have an approximation to the bare bones of the classic Rag Marva.

The tanpura drone for this raga is unusual (h). It omits the 5th, much more commonly used for most ragas (i):

…emphasising instead the notes that give the Rag Marva its melodic character; the tension between the drone C and the melodic anchor note A (and the clash with C#/Db) is crucial.

In my composition, I resolve this tension at times by making A rather than C the harmonic centre, which creates a bluesy feeling, and this can be heard in the recorded track. I’ve used a certain amount of compositional licence here, freely using the 5th of the scale (G) so that I can contrast the chords of A and C more clearly (and an occasional D in the bass), but the harmony, like the riffs, is entirely derived from the scale or raga.

Here are some of the riffs that also derive from the scale:

However, in the fast section the root returns to C, and Paul Jayasinha’s trumpet improvisation towards the end is based on this tonal centre and entirely on the notes of the Rag. (The tanpura drone (h) appears in this section as a brass backing figure).

I shall return to other examples of how the techniques and spirit of Indian music are woven into my compositions – not just ragas, but taals (time-cycles) and structural features like tihais (thrice-repeated phrases that litter improvisation in all Indian music!). I’m not sure why Baluji steered me towards Rag Marva on this occasion, but I do remember why he suggested Ektal (a 12-beat time-cycle) to go with it, and how it might be used. However, that is a story for another time – although there is a clue in the riffs illustrated above…


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This entry was posted on July 28, 2011 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , .
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