Sushil Subramanian – Weblog

Essays on engineering, music, culture and their curious intersections – by Sushil Subramanian

In the Indies: Music and a Historical Narrative

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(I presented a modified version of this lecture-recital to a group of fellow amateur pianists in Long Beach, California, United States, in February 2014. The video links are integral to the programme and it is suggested that they be watched in sequence while reading the lecture.)

I would like to present to you a different kind of performance today; not classical music, but a lecture followed by a few short traditional pieces.

While studying towards my PhD. in the United States for the past five years, I’ve devoted a significant portion of my spare time into music, particularly of the piano, and reading books on history and culture. Given my interests, and having stayed in a foreign country half way across the globe for nearly a fifth of my life, naturally, I was fascinated to know more about the history and culture of this land.

Three years ago, I chanced upon a book in a Mumbai airport store, The Loss of El Dorado by V.S. Naipaul. V.S. Naipaul, as some of you may know, is the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Literature. He was born and grew up in Trinidad, the grandson of servants to the British of East Indian origin during the time of the great colonies. Naipaul wrote several books on the history and culture of the Caribbean, and The Loss of El Dorado represents one of his finest works in this regard.

A paragraph in the foreword caught my attention:

“It was hard to feel any wonder at the fact that, more than four hundred years after Columbus, there were Indians in a part of the world he had called the Indies; and that the people he had called Indians had vanished. They had left no monuments; they were not missed.”

It was hard to feel any wonder … they were not missed. But why should there be wonder, contemplation and melancholic nostalgia of the past? In Bihari Trinidad, Naipaul was of, and observed, the first Indians of the new world in an India they had imagined. The land was not reluctant. There was no destruction and regeneration; it was not as if there was a past to be missed, but rather no such thing as a past. It is after all, a new world, and a new world was born there everyday.

As I proceeded to read The Loss of El Dorado, I was offered several philosophical viewpoints by the book. But Naipaul’s quote of the foreword, continued to strongly resonate. There was a certain deep fascination to the fact that when Columbus landed in Haiti and proclaimed it to be his India, he created a chain of events that would eventually bring Indians, including me, to the land of the Indies. Most surprisingly, and in some ways amusingly, living half way across the globe, the European notion, 500 years ago, that any land found in the Western quest of the Spanish was India, provides solace to the mind, substituting home sickness with home coming.

Are we strangers? Is this fascination just a consequence of cartographic limitations and anthropological errors of the European conquistadors? Rationally, it is easy to dismiss it so, but when we have a choice, we can transform it into the more human sensations of brotherhood. I would like to honour this feeling of cultural oneness today, through the vehicle of music, particularly the music of the Indians. And what better way to do it, but using the piano!

Pre-Columbian music had been adapted to European instruments ever since the Old and the New Worlds met. A famous example is Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (New World Symphony) of Antonin Dvořák, which he wrote on his visit to the plains. On December 15th, 1893, he writes in the New York Herald,

“I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour; the third movement scherzo was suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance.” [cite: Wikipedia]

In the same year, he said in a newspaper interview,

“I found that the music of the Negroes and of the Indians was practically identical”, and that “the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland.” [cite: Wikipedia]

He also noted,

“I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” [cite: Wikipedia]

For the most part, Dvořák’s predictions have come true. Since the birth of the popular era, the musical world has witnessed and cherished ragtime, rockabilly, rock and roll, jazz, blues, country, hip hop, mariachi, tango, salsa, samba, reggae; an endless list of musical genres that have their deepest roots in the West African and Aboriginal traditions of America.

Today, I have prepared to play a set of tunes, written by a little known musicologist, Gail Smith, whose book Native American Songs for Piano Solo I found and bought on Amazon. I have chosen three short pieces, originally written for the drum, the human voice and the flute, representing the three main instruments of the Indians.

The first piece, representing the drum is the Cherokee Deer Hunting Song:

The next piece is a Cheyenne lullaby:

And the final piece is a flute call by the Winnebago:

To end, let me quote from T.S. Elliot’s Little Gidding:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

The fascinating beings that we are, we are often obliged to look back at history, and relive it differently in the future.




Written by sushilsub

August 21, 2014 at 10:53 pm

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