Guess what, Interwebs? Alfred Publishing selected three of my submissions for their 2011 String Orchestra catalog! (I'm sure this news will be met with great elation by the approximately zero people who read this blog.) Never the less, I'm excited about it and I feel compelled to describe each forthcoming piece. I want to give them their own space, so each one will get its own blog post, starting with Maharaja:
The MENC has dictated in its National Standards that young musicians should be exposed to music of international origin, in order to foster an understanding of foreign cultures through their art. This has not been difficult, because folksong arrangements from Japan, Latin America, Australia, and all over Europe are readily available and quite popular. The exception: India. There are no "Indian" songs available to string orchestras. Traditional Indian music defies simplification and arrangement because it:
1. is a mostly improvisational musical genre.
2. doesn't really have "melodies" in the Western sense
3. utilizes sounds that are nearly impossible to replicate with Western instruments.
It's a challenge, to say the least, but one I was up for. I decided that the key was not to approach Indian music from a "classical" perspective with all its confusing ragas and improvised noodlings, but instead, to approach it from a pop music perspective. The "Bollywood" style uses Western tonality, forms, and instrumentation but with a distinctive South-Asian flair and often the addition of tabla drums and sitars. It's a fascinating blend of Indian and Western pop styles. And that would be my starting point.
When writing my new, forthcoming piece, Maharaja, I started as I always do: with meticulous research. I listened to countless songs and watched videos on YouTube to get an understanding of Bollywood style - its conventions, typical rhythms, melodic style, forms, and use of instrumentation. The piece is based it on the "Asian" scale with flat third and sixth degrees and sharp fourth degrees. I made sure to use idiomatic flourishes and syncopations, octave interjections in the violins, and even approximated the sound of tabla drums with slurred pizzicato in the 'cellos and basses. Bollywood music is typically very rhythmic and, in lieu of using a drum kit, I opted for finger snaps.
Honestly, I submitted Maharaja with little hope of it being selected for publication but, once again, the selection committee surprised me. I'm very glad they did, not only because I poured a lot of time and love into its creation, but because Indian music has a close plase in my heart. As a small child my family lived in Sri Lanka, just off the coast of India and my parents lived in India before that. The two countries have somewhat similar cultures and musical traditions. I grew up surrounded by wicker, brass, Sri Lankan and Indian artifacts, and stories of the Para Hara. My childhood nickname was that of a bell-shaped Buddhist shrine. Long story short: I've always had an affinity for South Asian culture and I'm thrilled that I can share that interest with orchestra students of the world.