Revelling in the moment

Guest post by John Pitts, composer, teacher, and author of the book How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano

As a pianist, I’ve always loved the actual sound of the piano. It is a very personal instrument. I’m not knocking the usefulness of an electric keyboard, but for me nothing beats the responsiveness and the intimate resonance of a real piano, with the unstruck strings reverberating in sympathy with the played keys. Intimate, because the physical sound is at its most absorbing up close and personal.

Andrew Eales has kindly invited me to chart the journey that lead to my book of Indian raags (ragas/rags) for piano. In contemplating this, two related thoughts strike me:

  • first, that enjoying the piano’s sound itself (before and above the emotional journey of a piece) has been a common thread throughout my musical life, both as pianist and composer.
  • and second, that the slow exploration and enjoyment of sound is an intrinsic part of Indian classical raags.

This ‘revelling in the moment’ has been a big part of the appeal of Indian music for me: it resonates with what I’ve always done at a piano – doodled, improvised, composed.

It is music which organically grows – from slow, peaceful and pulseless, focussed on a small group of notes, with space to enjoy each note and gesture, gradually developing to fast and furious, rhythmically thrilling, filled with energy and joy.

The typical structure of a raag is a wonderfully crystallized miniature of the whole creative process – starting with slow, spacious improvisation, playing around with tiny ideas, gradually unveiling and exploring each small characteristic of an exotic collection of notes and motifs. This is followed by the main body of the raag – a kind of loose ritornello, based on a pre-selected melody (that may include a number of variations on the theme) interspersed with episodes of ever-more-exciting improvisation.

My Introduction

I was introduced to Hindustani music (North Indian classical raags) in 1994 during a post-A-levels gap year with the Project Trust in Pakistan. In a rural farming village some distance from our town, we had the great pleasure of several late night music sessions with local musicians and a highly skilled singer of classical raags.

There were no distractions. Miles from anywhere, late night, rural farm setting, 18-years old and nothing to get to the next day, nothing to read, just hours of live music to experience. It felt timeless, as if we had all the time in the world.

And the alaaps (the first section of the raags) matched that feeling – no fixed pulse, very slow, gradually exploring small patterns of notes in an exotic scale, with plenty of space between each musical gesture. And the sound of the singer’s voice was like nothing I’d ever heard. Just melody and drone initially – and tabla when a pulse was introduced – it gradually unfolded from extraordinarily simple and slow to ever-increasing complexity and virtuosity.

Pianistic Roots

As a reasonably good teenage pianist, I had always found improvising and composing immediately rewarding. My sight-reading on the other hand… well, let’s say that the early stages of learning new pieces was often quite tough.

Music I found great affinity with included several pieces of delicious, delicate, lush, impressionist Debussy. I think this was because his rich textures and scrumptious harmonies felt (to me then) more important moment by moment than the overall shape of the piece. You could imagine Debussy composing phrase by phrase – finding a couple of lush 9th/11th chords, mucking around with them, moving them up and down in parallel motion, just enjoying the sound, and not (at that stage at least) worrying about classical harmonic progressions or chord relationships. Debussy’s music is of course much more than just this – but certainly it is at least – collections of beautiful moments.

Another composer of influence for me in my late teens was Messiaen, again, in retrospect, because absorption in the beauty of the moment transcended the shape of the whole. And in Messiaen’s case a sense of timelessness was sometimes entirely intentional. For example, in some of the slower parts of Quartet for the End of Time his ‘modes of limited transposition’ completely avoid classical chord relationships and conventional cadences. It results in collections of beautifully rich harmonies and melodies which feel timeless, truly ecstatic.

I was occasionally criticised for playing the piano too loudly; a reasonable criticism, as it comes across as thoroughly unmusical. But, years later when listening to one of my own teenage students whacking his way through something, I recognised it as him relishing being immersed in that immediate sound and trying to extract as much of it as possible from the instrument (albeit at the expense of the shape of the music).

How refreshing it was for me aged 20 to discover Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro (which I managed) and Piano Sonata (ultimately beyond me) – pieces which not only struck a chord, but pounded and hammered and thumped it (if played properly!).

How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano

Back in Pakistan, there had been just the one piano in town, in the home of a wonderful Irish gentleman who had lived in Pakistan since WW2. I spent several days mending and making it playable, and many happy hours over the year playing and composing on it – even when large overnight temperature changes entirely threw out the tuning again.

One piece composed on it clearly showed the influence of the raags from those late night sessions – Fantasia 4 “Wind Chimes” (recording) . The opening section started life as a slow pulseless improvisation that I recorded and subsequently notated, and the rest of the piece grew organically from there.

Several compositions of mine over the past 20+ years have reflected various aspects of raags, but the idea for my book of 24 raags developed from two particular things – a through-composed and virtuosic piano duet of mine called Raag Gezellig (2011) (recording), and a version of Rag Desh (including some improvisation) that I adapted for piano for some of my GCSE students in 2013.

It occurred to me that there are many pianists out there who would enjoy engaging with this fascinating world, and who would love experiencing it in a practical way by actually playing it.

But it required a composer’s input to make that possible on the piano – to reimagine Indian music on a very western instrument. Hence my book How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano.

I hope it will encourage pianists to spend many happy hours wallowing in many moments of beautiful sound.

Further Information

The website includes YouTube links and freely downloadable selection of pages from the book, plus of course, a ‘Buy now’ button.

Some review links:

Another blog post by John Pitts:

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.