The other day I was browsing through Spotify’s seemingly endless genre categories (a subject for a future blog post), marveling at how the company’s algorithms manage to carve music into so many micro-genres. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not just about rock, hip hop, EDM, and classical anymore: through Spotify’s eyes, there’s a musical niche for everyone, no matter how idiosyncratic you think your tastes might be. Scrolling through some classical music playlists (wondering why and how Rachmaninoff and Max Richter came together) I noticed a playlist called “Indian Classical Music For Studying.” And in case you’re wondering if this list has been carefully calibrated for studying, I would say probably not—it’s just a collection of some of the world’s finest Indian classical musicians including Ali Akbar Khan, Imrat Khan, Ravi Shankar, and others. The playing is so expressive and interesting I don’t know how anyone could study with this music on—unless of course you’re studying melodic improvisation, in which case this playlist is an encyclopedia. (Side note: Why isn’t Indian music required transcription material for western musicians? High school stage bands could be arranging these improvisations instead of playing “Birdland.”)
I decided to give the playlist a chance and started listening to Ustad Sultan Khan playing rag Shuddh Kalyan. Khan (1940-2011) was a prominent sarangi player and vocalist. The sarangi, one of many stringed instruments used in North Indian classical music (the most well-known of which is the sitar), is short-necked lute with many strings that produces a hollow, echoing sound. When a musician imitates vocal sounds on the sarangi using little shakes (gamaks) and sliding movements (meends) on the strings, it can sound eerily like singing. It’s for this reason that I like listening to this kind of music because it’s a change from my regular diet of sharp attack, short-decay percussive stuff. Khan plays the Kalyan raga, which is a set of pitches that sound somewhat like the western major scale, though not at all exactly. Khan explores the raga through a thirteen-minute alap, which is the slow and unmetered opening section of an improvisation that introduces the raga over a drone backdrop. I find alaps the most interesting parts of Indian classical music performances because they build so much tension and intrigue before the tabla drums enter and things get more regimented (i.e. a meter is introduced) and therefore predictable (i.e. phrases end in unison on beat one of the meter, etc.).
All of this is digression from my main point: as I listened to Khan’s spaciously expressive alap I thought about the disjuncture between the vastness of Spotify’s algorithmically-organized content and smallness or specificity of how musicians actually create and listeners actually listen. Listening to Khan (several times now), I marveled at how many tiny details he incorporated into every beautiful phrase. One could spend hours on these ten minutes, finding lessons on phrasing, form, and affect. One could conceivably ignore all of Spotify’s other offerings and spend a year studying “Indian Classical Music for Studying.” I won’t do that, but one lesson from this encounter is that sometimes it’s worth thinking about what the music itself offers. What meaningful sense impression or insight can you extract from its sounds? Does the music leave memory traces? Does it contain moments that resonate with you? Having all the music choices in the world is wonderful, but one can also excavate endless interest within a single performance.