The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Hindustani Vocal Ensemble
Performance - March 6, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
Since I try to monitor all the choral activity in the Sacramento region — at least for community and college-based choruses — I have long been curious about the Hindustani Vocal Ensemble at UC Davis. After personal scheduling problems over the past couple of years, I was finally able to attend this performance.
Click here to open the program in a new window.
The first thing I realized was that, though billed as a performance of the Hindustani Vocal Ensemble, this was essentially a recital by a class showing what they had learned in the previous 8 weeks of their course. It made me wonder whether the Hindustani Vocal Ensemble is a continuing musical group in which participants build on skills acquired in previous classes. UC Davis has a dozen vocal and instrumental ensembles, each represented by a course. But the Early Music Ensemble and University Chorus are auditioned, and they allow repetition of the “course” and even welcome non-matriculated singers. It didn’t appear to me that this offering of the Hindustani Vocal Ensemble involved a continuing group of singers. That seemed to be confirmed by the description in the Music Department’s website: “Learn the basics of Hindustani music theory through group singing. Students learn five ragas per term through scale practice, short compositions and improvisation.”
Let me pause and comment on the venue for this performance: the recital hall at the Ann E. Pitzer Center. The Center, which opened only last September, includes Music Department classrooms, offices and practice rooms, but the 400-seat recital hall is a dazzling, mini-Mondavi Center, and I’m really looking forward to attending future performance there. On this occasion the audience in the large recital hall only amounted to a couple dozen people, partly because of a Music Department meeting being held at the same time.
As I waited for the performance to begin, I noticed several large oriental rugs spread on the stage, and numerous microphones and stage monitors. Soon after the 5 p.m. start time, the performers entered and sat cross-legged on the rugs, 6 women in 2 rows at stage left and 2 men at stage right. The director, Rita Sahai, sat in the center with a harmonium (or peti or baja) next to her. The percussionist, Dan Kennedy, sat to her right with a tabla (pair of drums) in front of him.
Sahai has an international reputation for Hindustani music (see her bio in the accompanying program). She greeted the audience and briefly explained the performance, complimenting her students for having learned their music in such a short time. The performance itself lasted 50 minutes and consisted of 4 raga (a little Internet research convinced me that the plural of the term lacks an "s"). “Raga” is form of classical Indian music, and here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it: “Each raga is an array of melodic structures with musical motifs, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to ‘color the mind’ and affect the emotions of the audience. A raga consists of at least five notes, and each raga provides the musician with a musical framework. The specific notes within a raga can be reordered and improvised by the musician, but a specific raga is either ascending or descending. Each raga has an emotional significance and symbolic associations, such as with season, time and mood…. Hundreds of raga are recognized in the classical Indian tradition, of which about 30 are common.”
Sahai introduced each raga, though even with the amplification of a microphone, I couldn’t make out her words. I can’t really characterize each raga I heard — this musical form is so new to me. I’m sure the language was Hindi, so I had no idea of the meaning of the text. But of course I could distinguish differences in the dominant vocal pattern and mood of each piece. To a novice like myself, each raga was lulling, almost hypnotic, with an abundance of repetition. The rhythm was distinct in each one, and I found myself involuntarily tapping my foot to the rhythm. A couple in front of me were much more familiar with what they were hearing: the man frequently tapped out the rhythm on his knees, and I could see the woman mouthing the words. Clearly, I was witnessing a mainstay of Indian culture.
Another aspect of this performance was the sound produced by the harmonium. Sahai selected what I presume were varying combinations of keys, but the effect to my ear was a consistent drone, and she continued hand-pumping the harmonium for the full 50 minutes of the performance — while also singing. Occasionally, Sahai acted as a lead singer, but more often than not, she sang along with the students, never noticeably directing other than to start and end the raga. At one point I thought I could distinguish multiple parts, but after a while I gave up trying to perceive vocal parts behind the cluster chords of the harmonium. What was more noticeable was a call-and-response between the women and men.
As for vocal technique, it seemed like there was no singing from the diaphragm. The women generally made a good unison sound, but it became quite thin in the upper ranges. By contrast, the runs or melismas required a skill, as they seemed to be very much at the heart of this musical form. The students were very intent throughout, focusing on the sheets of paper in front of them as they sang. I found myself wondering what kind of notation was being used, but I never got close to one of the sheets. I can say that there must have been a lot of “da capo” (or the equivalent) because the whole 50-minute performance was on very few sheets of paper.
For me, this was all an interesting cultural experience, broadening my experience of vocal music. On June 1 at noon, the Hindustani Vocal Ensemble will give another performance at this same venue as part of the Shinkoskey Noon Concert Series. This series of free concerts takes place on nearly every Thursday as a showcase for UC Davis-connected musicians. Since it will be a more formal, better publicized event, I plan to be there to see whether it will be another “recital” or a performance by a larger ensemble. Odds are that, from what I experienced today, I’ll have a greater appreciation of what I’ll hear then.