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Myra Melford: Mystic Manifestations

By Published: August 3, 2004
MM: Yeah. I mean, I played a little bit for fun throughout high school, but I'd basically stopped and in my first year of college I had started taking classical lessons again. While I enjoyed it, it still wasn't the right thing to do and I was looking for something else. So when I saw this sign for jazz piano lessons I thought, "Well, I'll just give it a try." And I ended up loving it so much I switched my major to music.

AAJ: How did your interest in Hindustani music develop?

MM: Well, it was probably from two avenues, from two directions. While I was at Evergreen—and I spent one year at a music school in Seattle as well called the Cornish Institute of the Arts—I was really interested in different kinds of world music. I played in a Gamelan group for a while [and] studied African percussion. I was certainly interested in all kinds of music besides Western music. Then, after I moved to New York, I became involved in Yoga and meditation with a teacher in a tradition that comes out of Hinduism. It's not particularly Hinduism, but it comes from that tradition. They do a lot of chanting and playing music, so that drew me to the harmonium and Indian music. At the same time, I had already taken a world music survey course where I had been exposed to Indian music. So I was kind of interested in it from an intellectual, musical standpoint and then also just from a personal and spiritual standpoint.

AAJ: You recently went on a Fullbright Scholarship to study in Calcutta. Can you outline what that study entailed?

MM: I went to study with a really great harmonium player—a master harmonium player—who was particularly interesting to me because he works as a soloist as well as an accompanist. As you probably know, the harmonium is traditionally an accompanying instrument for vocal music. He'd really found ways to make it an interesting solo instrument in its own right, and that's really what I was interested in studying. So I went to study Raga with him—Hindustani classical music for the most part.

I mean there are techniques, ways of playing the harmonium that are specific to Indian music and he'd found ways of really exploiting—that's not the word I want—the potential of the instrument. He could get a wide variety of dynamics and the kind of embellishments...that you hear with a sitar or a vocalist. He had found ways—almost the way Monk or great blues players are able to effect that tone in between the semi-tones that you have on the piano on the harmonium. I wanted to get both his technique as well as a grounding in Raga. And I feel that I got that. On the other hand, I have to say that he turned out to be not a particularly good or nice person. So I ended up studying with him for only a few months, and then I went traveling and studied with as many different people as I could. I studied in Delhi. I met a lot of folk musicians in Rajistan, as well as other places.

AAJ: You may have been lucky that he turned out not to be what you expected.

MM: Right, exactly. Because it broadened my horizons.

AAJ: For those not familiar with Raga and Hindustani music, could you speak a little bit about the breadth of the tradition. If I understand correctly it covers a huge geographic territory at this point, including the Middle East and North Africa.

MM: You also have to remember that those musics themselves—particularly Islamic music—had a huge impact on Raga.

What I would say in a nutshell is that Raga is both a pool of notes, say a scale if you want, with a certain pattern of ascending pitches and a certain pattern of descending pitches, that becomes the material for a composition. The artistry in it is that there are many ways to put those notes together. However, there are also a lot of rules—it's not thoroughly notated like Western classical music. The way that an artist learns the music is by becoming absorbed in the Raga and understanding through repetition, for many, many years of a master player playing the music back, and then understanding how the Raga unfolds. Then there are certain characteristic phrases that will let you know that this is one Raga and not another even thought they may have a very similar pattern of notes going up and down.

AAJ: Obviously for those working within the jazz tradition there are a lot of parallels just from within what you just said.

MM: Yes.

AAJ. It sounds like your experience [with Raga] came out of a very personal involvement, but within the jazz tradition there's been an involvement with not only multi-culturalism in general, but particularly moving into Hindustani and Islamic music. Clearly I'm thinking of Coltrane, who seemed to have spawned that. I was wondering if after you made your own shift, you went back to any of that material?

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