Reflections On Melody: Listening To Shivkumar Sharma (Again)

The music of Shivkumar Sharma has an enduring appeal for me. Sharma is a master santoor player who combines the best of percussion playing and melody-making. Performing to the accompaniment of a tabla drummer, Sharma weaves line after line of dulcimer melodies within the rhythmic cycles outlined by the tabla. It’s groovy and endlessly tuneful.

Here he is performing:

As I listened to his music recently I reflected on how we often think about melody in terms of “tunes” or “themes” that are somehow distinct, catchy, and memorable. The melody of a song is supposed to be a singular thing. For example, something like The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”

or the zippedy up and down opening of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”:

or the less exaltedly tuneful hook to last year’s pop hit “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith which, by the way, is eerily similar to Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” (Petty was rewarded writing credit for what he called a “musical accident.”)

The point is, melodies are ideally these valuable things that are instantly recognizable, cherished, and in our era, copyrighted and protected.

But back to Sharma. When I listen to his playing I think about melodies differently. I’m reminded of how endless they can be.

Maybe that weaving-cloth metaphor I opened with isn’t apt after all, because melodies in Indian classical music have a liquidity and fluidity and fungibility about them. Whether sung by a vocalist, plucked by a sitar player, or hammered by a santoor player like Sharma, melodies in this music just endlessly flow along their ornamented paths through time. As I listen to Sharma I get the sense that the melodies he improvises coud be poured into one another, mixed and heated, changed into different states.

Thinking about melody this way–as an improvised practice that moves from moment to moment to shape the unfolding music–helps me reign in the notion of melody being a composed, exalted thing. Speaking of which, are we really well served by this idea anymore? Maybe not. Maybe this ear-blinds us the potentially vast expanses of melody’s landscapes.

You can read more about Sharma in an older blog post of mine.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article by Alex Ross on the music and career of Bjork, and the idea of musical genre.

“Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material.”

2. An interview in The Quietus with fiddle and recorder player Laura Cannell about improvisation and the mixing of folk and medieval musics.

“Whenever you do music you’re always trying to tap into something a little bit magical, something difficult to contain or describe. That’s what makes you love it: the thing that you can’t explain that happens in your head when listening or playing. So yeah, not on purpose, but I just want to do something that I think sounds brilliant, that I really love. Again, I don’t want to say “anti-classical”, but I think it is anti-classical because (in that tradition) you can get very restricted, it becomes very much about the performance and the notes and what shoes you’re wearing. Being the right sort of performer. And I hate that, I feel like I’ve had a reaction against it; I want the music to move me.”

3. A piece about ragas (scales) in North Indian classical music. Basant Bahar is a compound raga, associated with springtime and interpreted in different ways by leading performers of various gharanas (schools) in the videos below.

Reflections On Richard McGuire’s “Here”


“I had this motto that I was going to make the big things small and the small things big.”
– Richard McGuire (quoted in The New Yorker, November 17, 2014).

Richard McGuire’s Here is a graphic novel that presents a poetic mediation on place and time. The book focuses on a single room in a house from the perspectives of different past, present, and future time periods. The room is a living room, and we see it as it looks and is inhabited circa 1959, 1983, 2015, 1774, and also on other dates, hundreds or thousands of years further back or forward. As the time periods change, we see fashions, decor, and social conventions shift. But we also see how similar humans are over time. The specifics of the place may change, but an underlying energy of the people in it persists.


One of McGuire’s visual narrative techniques–besides inserting the date on the corner of every page–is to divide the page into smaller windows of alternate time frames. In this way, we see the room as it looks in 1971, but at the same time see a corner of it as it is in say, 1791. This allows McGuire to show how different times and places interpenetrate one another, acting as mutual portals for sharing meaning and resonance across the ages.


Here gets you thinking about how things happen and are uttered repeatedly but in different forms over time. Here’s another example from the book that juxtaposes the deep past with the more recent century:


Naturally then, the book’s structure had me thinking about its musical resonances. One of McGuire’s techniques for shaping the book’s text (sporadic and brief as it is) is to show how bits of dialogue (“So what did you say?” “Did you hear that?”) echo and call and respond with one another through different eras. These utterances suggest how specific sounds can remain the same over time, yet have different local meanings.

This is common in music: a riff or a phrase or a composed gesture or a rhythm can travel through time and space, moving from the past to the present, from somewhere there (West Africa, say) to somewhere here (the United States, say)—like a meme. Or sometimes people say very similar musical things in vastly different contexts. And then there is the idea of musical quotation, and the fact of digital sampling. In fact, the musical world as we can experience it today thanks to so many musics streaming at our fingertips is deeply interpenetrated. Like those little windows in McGuire’s Here, we hear musical pasts in our present, and also endless lateral connections–from the East, West, and all points in between. So I guess what I’m saying is that this thought-provoking graphic novel had me thinking about a musical history (in the form of a graphic novel?) that would trace just a few small golden nuggets of sound along their travels to show how deeply music–itself an evanescent kind of space and place–connects us all.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article by David Pogue about Neil Young’s PonoPlayer.

“The results surprised even me. Whether wearing earbuds or expensive headphones, my test subjects usually thought that the iPhone playback sounded better than the Pono Player.”

2. An article about Mickey Guyton and black women in country music.

“The song is lyrically substantive in an era of eye-roll-inducing “sweet little somethin’” trivialities. It is instrumentally rich in an age of drum machines and handclaps. And it’s unapologetically retro at a time when country’s men are chasing every EDM and hip-hop trend to the point of desperation. Factor in the passion and conviction with which Guyton delivers the song’s climactic bridge, and there you have a recipe for a soon-to-be smash hit that will resonate with country fans of all kinds. Guyton may just leave country music better than she found it.”

3. An article about Ferran Adria’s creativity foundation.

“You don’t have to be passionate to be creative; you can just be professional about innovation.”

4. An article about Iggy Azalea and the white appropriation of hip hop.

“Rap music will always be rooted in the immutable allure of black masculine cool, but it’s no longer an exclusive expression of black urbanity. (…) As for her delivery, it’s a needling imitation of a black Southern voice, with syllables that twang in the wrong direction and vowels that curve into sour shapes. It’s pantomime devoid of personality. An empty white echo.”

On Soloing A Part: Listening To Eddie Van Halen’s Electric Guitar

Thanks to a recent post by Open Culture, I recently listened to the electric guitar part to Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Panama.” Just to be clear, it’s a recording not of the song with the full band of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Just Eddie Van Halen’s guitar in complete isolation, up close and personal.

It’s a virtuosic performance. The groove is relentless and forward-moving, the timbre is weighty with its wonderful distortion, there are nice bits of harmonic work, a brief solo (in this case, a solo within a solo), and a surprising amount of dynamic contrast. The other thing I noticed is how efficient “Panama” is as a pop-metal concoction. It says its thing, sets off some fireworks, and then it’s over.

When I was a kid I must have heard this song hundreds of times as ambient sound. Whether it was on the radio or on TV, this music, this celebration of bombast just seemed to be omnipresent for a time. I wasn’t even a fan of the band, but that didn’t stop the music from finding me. And so as I recently listened to this guitar-only version, I was surprised at how many little details–the quality of the distortion, those harmonics–I was already familiar with, as if they were traces that had been lodged deep in my memory of half-listening to the song all those years ago.

If you are interested in learning more about Van Halen’s cultural and historical moment, a super fine account is John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reaktion Books, 2012). A very fine cultural history of the electric guitar is Steve Waksman’s Instruments Of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard U. Press, 2001) And a probing discussion of the connection between the disorted, overdriven sound of heavy metal and the construction of power can be found in Robert Walser’s classic study, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness In Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan U. Press, 1993).

Notes On Aphex Twin’s “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2”