Indian melodies, Indian ornaments
Posted on 21 May 2010
Ornaments are one of the many things that fascinate me about music from outside the Western tradition. Indeed, outside of early music circles, the use of ornaments in classical music is largely limited to grace notes, trills and perhaps the occasional mordent. If you write anything more 'advanced' than that in a new piece there is a good chance it will get overlooked, or played wrong - indeed even mordents often get a 'do you mean..' response from players.
Compare that to say the Indian tradition where there is literally the concept that you never play a note 'as is', the pitch is always on the move, pretty much every note has some kind of embellishment. And any Indian musician will know (and have a name for) each of the myriad types of ornament, and be aware of the subtlest of differences, the speed of vibrato, how that speed accelerates, the type of staccato the embellishment ends with etc etc.
I don't have any desire to imitate Indian music, but I do long to find ways to expand the expressive capabilites of my music by accessing some of these ways of playing. I find them a far richer and more interesting area to explore than, say, quarter tones, or developing some new tuning system. So many of them are tantalisingly beautiful, not that difficult once you get the hang of things, and offer so much to add to our 'straight' way of playing in the Classical world.
One resource I have found quite useful in this regard is called Indian Melodies for Violin by Candida Connolly, published by Schott
It goes through some of the standard ornaments, and crucially, includes a CD so you can listen in and get a sense of them in practice.
I think my use of 'folk' ornaments has been gradually expanding over the years as I find ways to notate and use them that Western players can deal with. One of the problems of course is that our instruments are different and often designed specifically to play the 'pure' note itself, and not the subtle shades in between. Take the flute for example, an Indian Bansuri flute:
there are no keys, allowing the fingers to roll on and off the hole to bend the pitch. That's just not possible on a keyed Western flute. But you can bend the pitch with the mouth, so some of the effect may be possible.
I'm currently writing a piece commissioned by the San Diego-based Art of Elan series, for flute, violin and harp. Although it's only a small aspect of the piece, I'm hoping to integrate some of the more Indian-style ornaments for the first time. I've arranged to get together with the fantastic flautist Alex Housego who, having spent some of his childhood in India, is familiar with and plays both Indian bansuri flute and the traditional Western flute. My plan is to write the ornaments I want to, check them over with Alex, and then get him to record them on a Western flute so I can give the San Diego players a better idea of what I'm after. It's an experiment, but hopefully should yield some really interesting results.
Here is a video of the resulting piece, The Eye of Night performed by the Myriad Trio in San Diego