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.

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