Notes by Diana Woolner on
Your Voice Wanders In My Heart
This is a piece about the simultaneous experience of grief and celebration. In February of 2018, my only brother, Brian Hill, took his own life. I was actually in the St. Matthew’s church parking lot—having just sung a particularly joyous service with the Sultans of Strings folk band—when my mother called me and told me. Missy Morain, the church’s Director of Children and Youth, noticed me wandering aimlessly with my sunglasses on, and suggested I use the private bathroom in the priest’s sacristy. That’s when I broke down. Missy and Associate Rector Christine Purcell were there for me while I sobbed and tried to make sense of what had just occurred. When I think of that day, I remember oscillating between overwhelming peaks of emotion, and a dream-like state in which none of it seemed real.
In November of 2018, I found out I was pregnant. My husband and I had been trying since September, so it happened rather quickly—not at all what we expected. In the air was my continued grief at the loss of my brother, and yet we were so excited for this new person, this creation of life. I had started this commission at that point and thought, what better way to work through these complicated feelings? (I’ve always been better at emoting through music anyways.)
St. Matthew’s Music Guild, with the support of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, asked me to explore the intersection of music from a non-Western country and a musical style of the West. I ended up choosing Hindustani music, or North Indian classical music. On the one hand, I wanted something that was very unfamiliar to me, so that I could (selfishly, perhaps) have an intellectually stimulating and fresh compositional experience. On the other hand, I found that the singing style in India reminded me of the singing style in Turkey, where I had lived for three years as a child; very flowing, highly ornamented, and free. I was attracted to that sound. Lastly, there are many cyclical implications in Hindustani music (rhythmic, melodic, and structural) that I found supported the cycle of birth and death.
It’s important to note that I have not created pure Indian music, nor am I attempting to, as I do not have the breadth of experience that is required to execute it. I have taken inspiration from it, and I’ve implemented it for what makes sense for my background and experience, for this community, for the musicians who are performing it, and within the music system I’m using it for.
The piece begins with large peaks of emotion in the strings contrasted with numbness and contemplation from the woodwinds, the two emotions I wavered between on the day of my brother’s death. Eventually the calmer contemplative state takes over as the shock of the event subsides. The sung text consists of short poems from Rabindranath Tagore’s book Stray Birds, carefully sorted in order to support the narrative. We begin with “the music of the sunset”, which leads to the “ineffable dark” of night. No sooner does night arrive, that it kisses day and declares “I am death, your mother. I am to give you fresh birth.” I see this darkness as my grief, and yet I know there is hope, that the light of day will be born again. At the same time, I take the opportunity of “fresh birth” to also mean conception – something new has been born at this moment in the piece. As the poems reflect the heart’s struggle to comprehend death, the music around it grows from almost complete immobility to great rhythmic momentum, color, and energy—like tiny cells becoming a fully formed human. This also mimics the structure of a Hindustani piece, which tends to start with a slow invocation of free rhythm, then an introduction of rhythm, and eventually gains energy as it increases in speed and complexity.
I would like to walk you through some of the Hindustani elements that influenced this piece.
A Raga can be described as follows: “somewhere in between a scale and a song, though closer to a scale than to a song. It leaves you plenty of room for creativity while also being quite easily recognizable (with practice).” Kishan Patel, a highly skilled Hindustani musician from Pennsylvania, explains that “every note has a directionality (verna) associated with it; it either goes up, or it either goes down, or it does both.” One can hear quite clearly an ominous change of tone when the raga I chose to explore, Marwa, begins. A raga can start on any note—in this piece, it starts on D and consists of the notes D-Eflat-F#-G#-B-C#. A hexatonic raga (consisting of six notes, instead of the usual 7 for a Western scale), I found it both beautiful and particularly foreign to the Western ear (although it almost has a blues-like quality). Raga Marwa is also unique in that when explored melodically, it avoids emphasizing the tonic (the D), and has no perfect fifth (what would be A), which allows for an ungrounded, anxious quality even to the Indian ear. Raga Marwa has many emotional associations tied to it; a “deep and emotional dive”, having associations of “dark moods of foreboding and anxiety”. In other instances, it it associated with acts of heroism, as well as “compassion or resignation in the face of some inner struggle”.
At the piece’s climax, the harmonies charge quite starkly to explore Raga Kedar, which not only has a “major” or brighter feel, but is circuitous—its melodic shape winds up and down as it reaches its peak, with a similarly winding shape on the way down. I felt its playfulness lent itself well to represent the energy of a new life (my baby), as well as a hopeful ending towards healing. In this piece, I have set its first note on B, which gives it a B Major feel, with the occasional emergence of E# (a raised 4th). Raga Kedar is said to “create a mood of peacefulness”, and is associated with playfulness and with love.
Ragas are also connected to different times of day and seasons. This is called “time theory” in English, or samay in Hindi, and it is implied that ragas are most beautiful when performed during their samay. This is not necessarily a requirement, and is based on tradition; but I found time theory rather interesting, as I strongly believe that within each culture, different aspects of music have their own unspoken emotional leanings. Since the concert is at 8pm, around when sunset would be, I wanted to choose ragas that were associated with that time of day. Raga Marwa is to be performed at the 4th Prahar of the Day, which is the late afternoon hours leading up to the sunset. Raga Kedar is to be performed in the 1st Prahar of the night, between late evening and midnight. Just like the concert heads into the night, so too do the ragas, with the text’s support as “the prelude of the night is commenced in the music of the sunset”.
Tala (rhythm) is another important aspect of Hindustani music that I explore. The tabla is an incredible percussion instrument commonly played in Hindustani performances, and consists of two small kettle drums—played with the hands—that can produce a myriad of sounds. I chose to use traditionally Western percussion instruments to imitate the bol (sounds) and phrasing of the tabla. The percussionists play 3 different talas—a specific pattern of sounds within a particular number of beats that is then cycled through repeatedly. As the piece grows in energy, Tala Jhaptaal (10 beats) is introduced, which transforms to a more bouncy Tala Ektaal (12 beats), and finally at the introduction of Raga Kedar, Tala Keherwa takes over (8 beats, but at a much faster speed).
Alankar (ornamentation) is one of the most distinctive aspects of Hindustani music. What makes a Hindustani musician so skilled, along with extensive knowledge and experience with the numerous ragas and talas, is their ability to ornament or embellish melody. The two ornaments I use throughout this piece are kana-swara (grace note), and meend (slide, or gliss). The slide in particular allows the melody to have a flowing nature, and to explore microtones, or the space between the notes. Because ornamenting is one of the more complex skills of the Hindustani tradition, I chose these two ornaments because I thought our instrumentalists and singers would have experienced them, which would be most effective within our limited rehearsal time. It is incredible to hear and see how well experienced Hindustani musicians can perform intricate, complex, and subtle ornamentation—this is, from my perspective, the music’s most impressive feature, especially at fast speeds.
There are two forms of Hindustani song used in this piece: 1) improvisation (transcribed in this circumstance, since none of our singers have the breadth of Hindustani singing experience to execute it), and 2) a Bandish, or fixed composition. A bandish is a great educational tool for students who are learning the different ragas, as it can feature each raga’s most defining features. I worked extensively with Kishan Patel, an experienced Hindustani musician from Pennsylvania, to achieve what an improvisation on Raga Marwa would sound like. At this moment, the audience feels a lack of movement from the ensemble, who are droning (playing a single note for a long period of time) on D. Over this drone, the women sing the text “Find your beauty, my heart, from the world’s movement” via a meandering melody, peppered with subtle embellishments of slides and grace notes. After the percussion introduces the first very slow tala, the bandish begins with “Your voice, my friend, wanders in my heart”. In order for the singers to indicate to the percussionists that the tala should change, a phrase is repeated three times—in this instead “wanders in my heart”—this is called a tihai, and is a rhythmic cadence which in a Hindustani performance, would signal to the table player that the section is about to change, and to change to the next tala.
As I approach my due date in July, I continue to grieve and know I will probably always grieve, but I have also found great solace in Tagore’s beautiful and wise poetry, as well as in the process of composing music. I know this piece is helping me to heal, but also have learned that I have the right to celebrate new life. I had a lot of love for my brother, but I still have plenty left over for my baby.
I would like to thank Hindustani musician Saili Oak, and in particular Kishan Patel for taking the time to answer my questions and discuss the Hindustani music tradition with me. I would also like to thank Tom Neenan and St. Matthew’s Music Guild for giving me this incredible opportunity, Dwayne Milburn for his guidance and leadership, as well as the Los Angeles County Arts Commission for their support.