The rhythms and melodic modes of Indian music provided a key inspiration for French composer Olivier Messiaen. In a smart bit of programming, the Nashville Symphony chose to pair their reading of the Turangalîla Symphony Oct. 22 and 23 with a performance by tabla master Sandip Burman, who will set the stage for the Messiaen and lay out some of its roots.
Burman is based in the U.S. but was trained classically in Calcutta, and his musical activities run from traditional Indian music to crossover experiments with jazz players and compositions for Western ensembles. In this concert, he will stick to classical Indian music. Burman plays the tabla, the tuned hand drum found in many Indian ensembles, and also the more unusual tabla tarang, in which a large number of the drums are arrayed in front of the player to move the drummer from accompanist to the lead melodic role.
Classical Indian music involves improvisation upon both a melodic form (the raga) and a rhythmic pattern (the tala). Burman will focus on each portion separately by splitting his performance between the traditional tabla, focusing on the tala, and the tabla tarang, where he will turn to an improvisation on the raga.
This will be a rare chance to hear the tabla tarang, which can produce a surprising variety of tone color. At times, it sounds like a plucked instrument (after all, some material is hit and set in motion in both cases), but it can also sound like a wind instrument since air gets pushed around and out of the drums. While the tabla doesn't achieve quite the poignancy of a sitar bending and gliding between notes, virtuosos cultivate techniques to convey much of that expressiveness, like pressing and sliding the palm across the drum head. As much as the visible (or not) hand speed, this virtuosity shows in the number of things the player must do simultaneously or in quick succession, including mixing different techniques for striking the drum that provide much of the tone color. Those effects only will be amplified as Burman races up and down the tabla tarang.
In addition to using similar technical means for constructing music, Messiaen's compositions share with Indian music a strong devotional purpose. The similarities, however, go even deeper: Burman uses language strikingly similar to Messiaen when discussing the nature of his music. Color was everything to the French composer, and he devoted his work to expressing God's love. Burman explains that each raga is designed to color the mind of receptive listeners in a specific way that imparts a sentiment of love and joy and takes them to a higher state of mind. A state of bedazzlement in the face of the divine, perhaps.
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