by Parmela Attariwala ¦ March 9 2017
The trajectory of my listening behaviour has always been eclectic and dependent upon: the type of music to which I had access (particularly while growing up); and whether I was being ornery (an ongoing trait); whether I was trying to learn something; or whether I needed a soundscape to inspire, temper or reflect my emotional state. My method of listening to music has been equal parts gluttonous (repeat play ad nauseam) or incidental (don’t even know what I’m hearing).
As a child, my parents strictly circumscribed my sound world, restricting my listening to orchestra concerts (live Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra performances and televised Boston Pops concerts), my father’s vinyl collection (heavy on Beethoven, Russian romantics, Strauss waltzes, and Sikh devotional music); and later, concerts by touring Hindustani musicians. My mother claims that she put me into Suzuki classes because “it was the thing to do” with three-year-olds. One of my earliest memories, though, was watching the Boston Pops with my parents and then promptly walking up to the television, pointing at the violin section and saying, “I want one” (most likely uttered in Punjabi, as I didn’t speak English until I was five).
My parents also liked to entertain. Their hybrid mix of Indian and non-Indian friends—for whom Mom made Indian and Indian-inspired food (or Western food with a soupçon of Eastern spice)—was always accompanied by similarly hybrid music, in the form of Ravi Shankar’s concertos for sitar and orchestra (with the London Symphony Orchestra under André Previn) and his East Meets West albums (with collaborators Yehudi Menuhin and Jean-Pierre Rampal). Unlike the Western orchestral LPs that my brother and I would often play and dance to night after night (we played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture every evening for at least three months and wouldn’t eat dinner until the cannons had sounded), the Indian-Western fusions punctuated our lives with enough regularity that their musical details and socio-cultural implications firmly implanted themselves in my psyche.
As I began winning Kiwanis festival scholarships and my peers became the other kids in the orchestra (most of whom came from musical families and knew a lot more about music than I did), I spent the riches of my early teenage years acquiring LPs and cassettes of violin and orchestral music. I also developed a deep affinity for Brahms and Prokofiev: Brahms because I had written a paper about him in grade five and decided that his unrequited love for Clara Schumann was worthy of my empathy; and Prokofiev because none of my friends were interested in him (so, of course, I played everything he wrote for violin). But I never played the Brahms violin concerto: it was a little too close to my heart. I had a recording of Szeryng playing the concerto that I took on a trip to India when I was sixteen. I got very sick on that trip, and played the Brahms over and over on my Sony Walkman while lying ill in bed. Though I believed the concerto was a symbolic representation of how my life would play itself out, it was the “extra” track on the B side that became the singular piece of music I turned to—and still do—for solace when I felt battered from grief, sadness or exhaustion: the Poco Allegretto from Brahms’ Third Symphony in F major. In truth, the Poco Allegretto is the only work from the Western art music canon on my iTunes playlist.
There’s one more thing about Brahms. Years later, when I was studying in Switzerland, a friend invited me on an early morning drive from Bern to Luzern to buy cheese. Not being a morning person, I got in the car and promptly fell asleep. When I woke up an hour later, I saw in front of us a brooding lake, darkened by the dual reflecting layers of gloomy green from the trees on the mountains and fast moving gray clouds above, layers that themselves appeared to be dueling in a battle for rhythmic supremacy. “It looks like Brahms!” I exclaimed. My friend replied, “We’re in Thun. This is where Brahms spent his summers composing.” Move over Clara, Brahms and I’ve got a thing goin’ on.
The musicians I have encountered, either socially or in collaboration, have had a profound influence on my listening habits; and often, my interest in a person’s musicking has developed after such meetings. In Switzerland, I became friends with a group of Swiss jazzers who were interested in Cuban jazz, free jazz and third-stream composition, and through them, I became acquainted with Arturo Sandoval, Tito Puentes, and Christoph Baumann. Years later, after I married a third-stream composer (and wanted to understand his soundworld better), I took jazz arranging lessons for a couple of years. During that time I subsisted on a steady diet of Mercury compilation albums, Sinatra, Ellington, and Ella. It was somewhere during this time that I began to understand that there was more to quality of sound than creating the big round Sarah Vaughn-esque type of sound (that North American string players, in particular, aim for in their playing and qualify as “good”).
That same (now ex) husband helped get me a gig touring with Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill revival band. Suffice it to say, I began gorging on Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Wolfgang Puschnig, Linda and Sonny Sharrock, Paul Bley, Linda Ronstadt, and a host of others to whose music (and style of music-making) I had previously been completely naïve before playing with them. The tour with Carla happened to be my introduction to the non-Western classical world of free improvisation. I have since been heavily involved in Toronto’s “improv” scene, but I find that what I often remember (and feel) the most about improv gigs is the energy in the room—the energy between the players, and between the players and the audience. Recordings capture bits of schmutz in the playing—the intonation discrepancies, flubbed sounds and sometimes weak structure—that are completely irrelevant when listening live, but are magnified (especially to a hyper-critical violinist ear) in recording. That being said, one of the most profound listeners and detailed sound creators I have ever encountered is Tomasz Krakowiak. He’s a waif of a man; I sometimes think he subsists on sound and cigarettes alone.
Carla Bley & Steve Swallow – Very Simple Song
After spending two years in Switzerland—and tiring of the incessant racism and sexism—I decided to move to London, where I could easily blend in with the South Asian diasporic community. Not having a clue as to what ethnomusicology was, I enrolled at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and in an effort to understand why there seemed to be so little support for Western art music amongst the South Asian community, I majored in Hindustani music. My supervisor was a classical purist. There was no Ravi Shankar on our listening list: we spent hours listening to dhrupad, the ancient Vedic musical form, in which the alap (the melodic “introduction” to a rāga) can go on for an hour or longer. Suffice to say, I spent hundreds of hours listening to the Dāgar brothers and the Gundecha brothers sing dhrupad; and then while writing my thesis, I spent as many hours listening to contemporary musical accompaniments to medieval devotional poetry of North India.
Dagar Brothers – Dhrupad Dhamar
In my first year living in London, I also attended at least two Western classical concerts a week. I heard some extraordinary performances (including by Mitsuko Uchida, who happened to live just a few blocks away, and when it was warm enough, she opened her windows while practicing). But I also heard too many mediocre and disappointing performances (no names); and like a reformed junkie, London was the first breaking point in my affair with Western classical music.
In London, I also consciously became aware of how South Asian musicians—of both Indian and Western training—were creating hybrid musics; and doing so at complex levels of collaboration and craftsmanship. In retrospect, I realize I had been collecting Indian “fusion” music for many years: Shakti, John McLaughlin, Jean-Luc Ponty. But the way of creating music I saw in London (particularly that drawing upon Western classical attributes), no doubt planted the seed for the way I have gone about collaborating across genres: with the goal of having the inherent virtuosity of one musical tradition not be compromised or overwhelmed by the other tradition.
Thanks to my accidental path to ethnomusicology, I’ve become hyper-aware of how musicians use musical traditions to reflect and fashion their sense of identity. Moreover, being one of a very small handful of Canadians of South Asian extraction trained in Western classical music, I tend to be drawn to the works of musicians who find musically creative ways to meld multiple identities that sit uneasily in their geo-socio-political surroundings. One such musician is Australian Ria Soemardjo, whose music is infused with Indonesian nuances, and whose song “Adrift” I discovered while on holiday in Australia ten years ago.
I must admit that my politics has also influenced the way I have placed the CDs on my shelves. My collection is organized by size of forces and instrument types. So, all “chamber-style” groups are together: whether Brahms piano quartets, jazz combos or small fusion ensembles (like L. Subramaniam’s Global Fusion, one of my favourites of innovative fusion). Sitar, violin and guitar works occupy the same shelf; and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan albums sit next to Maryem Tollar’s Book of Life (which to me is the quintessence of a new and uniquely Canadian style of songwriting. Her song, Ya Habibi brings tears to my eyes every time).
Maryem Tollar – Secrets
At the other end of the “vocal” shelf is Jeff Buckley, who I can’t not mention. For me, Buckley’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is the definitive one. Buckley’s attention to subtle details—like tightening the interval over the words “the minor fall”, brightening his sound on “the major lift”, and displaying exquisite breath control on the final two “hallelujahs”—add a layer of emotion that comes with intelligent artistry. It speaks to the three things that are most important to me when I listen to music: artistic intelligence, virtuosic control, and emotional sincerity.
As hungry as I’m getting to sit at the piano and tinker at writing some music now, I can’t leave this reflective rambling without mentioning the space musical sound takes up in my brain. I realized, while trying to write my Ph.D. thesis that the words were constantly being overwhelmed—and my attention distracted—by the music in my head. The remedy I found was to have music playing in the background. But not any old music. It had to be something to which I would not be distracted: no words, no chamber or solo music with a violin or viola, no repertoire with which I was familiar and that might attract my critical faculties. It had to be just engaging enough without being distracting. Eventually, I discovered Contemporary Classical streaming radio and David Byrne’s Radio Byrne. The former has since gone defunct; but now, when I need to write papers and lectures I tune into Counterstream. It does the same trick on my inner ear that Contemporary Classical did a few years ago, and that Bloomington Indiana’s heavy metal radio station did when I was an undergraduate trying to write term papers (a tactic that also served to shock my dorm-mates, who thought I was one of those serious music nerds). Sure, I’ll take some AC/DC with my Kronos. Cheers!