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.

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