What we play can’t be written down with standard musical notation.
Our sounds are not even close to being official notes, for that their frequencies are all wrong. Yet when we’re on they flow and blend like the never clashing outrageous colors of Varanasi.
Nor can our music be counted any more than Professor Daniel could count the broken voice and growling sarangi of the street singer who made everyone cry.
That’s fine with us, we have no reason to write our stuff down, no interest in playing anything more than once, we’re glad it’s a whole new adventure each time we put out our instruments.
But our music hasn’t always been this loose goose.
Back in the early 90’s Mitsuko was busy singing ragas. Burnt out after years of classical piano, she was happily experimenting with microtones and sliding between notes. That like Western melodies her Indian songs were based on chromatic scales didn’t bother her, she accepted hours of practice as the only way to make progress, for her that’s what being serious about music meant.
Catching a ride on her energy I was teaching myself to sing in tune, matching my voice to scales I played on our harmonium.
While of course we kept our guitar well tuned, did our best to hit steady regular rhythms on our drums.
We’d just started to make the instruments which broke us away from this comfortable way of doing music.
We had no idea they’d take us so deep into the haunting world beyond the official notes.
It All Started With Our Shokis
Burning and carving our first shoki was where it all began.
Born as an attempt to make ourselves a shakuhachi from Indian bamboo, we spaced its finger holes in accord with a ratio that promised to give correct traditional tuning.
Whether this worked, if our flute actually ended up tuned like a shakuhachi, soon became irrelevant. The expats who’d played theirs for us knew only a few minutes from the same demonstration piece, “Sound of the Distant Deer”, that wasn’t nearly enough to keep us interested.
But we never went on to make shokis with a different Western or Indian scale. To our ears their big weird intervals sounded fine just the way they were.
While our hands were comfortable with the classic Japanese arrangement of holes, one underneath for the thumb, four widely spaced on top.
More than that, we positively loved their roars, shrieks, wails, purrs, whispers. How their extra wide finger holes let us twist notes, fiddle with their texture, dance among the overtones. How we could pour emotion into them, how sometimes they almost seemed to talk.
So though we made our new flutes in many sizes, continued to tweak the shape of their mouthpieces and holes, we never changed the basic design. Why mess with what wasn’t broken?
Wild, open to madness, intoxicating, already they were perfect for life in not quite on this planet Varanasi.
The ancient city, a door to the other world, a tirtha, was a place to go beyond the mind, to reach for the invisible, to shed preconceptions.
And that’s precisely what our shokis demanded. We couldn’t set out to play a pattern and expect to succeed, only digging deep, breathing through our heels, turning off thought, letting go, could coax their sounds into coherent pleasing shapes.
The first of our instruments which insisted we work with what they wanted to sing, it mattered not at all they weren’t much good for the official notes.
What counted was their sound was magic.
Failing to Tune Our Kalimbas
Building our first thumb pianos we didn’t worry much about tuning.
We simply pulled the longest key out until it got too floppy, accepted that as the lowest note. The highest came from the shortest pushed in until it lost its ring. The others went in between so they sounded cool played left right left right by our thumbs.
Once we decided to go for chromatic tuning, things got more complicated.
Held in place by spring pressure not screws, adjusting the pitch of our kalimba keys was easy.
What turned out difficult was hearing and then making decisions about that pitch.
Cold hammered from high carbon steel rod, their tips varied in thickness, width, shape, and taper. Unlike tuning forks or kalimba keys cut from factory sheet steel, our keys didn’t sing clean well behaved notes, their sounds differed in many ways other than frequency.
Between two of them the fundamental harmonic could go up while others went down, some sang sounds so furry they didn’t even feel like single notes.
So when our first “chromatic” thumb piano ended up merely somewhat convincing, we were disappointed but not big surprised.
Nor did it much bother us the chromatic keyboard kalimba we built next was equally useless for standard tunes. Played with the fingers of both hands it was none the less an exciting big step, a whole new instrument much more powerful than any thumb piano.
While years later by the time we failed to “correctly” tune our “quartertone” kalimbas, we’d gotten downright philosophical.
After wasting a few days nudging keys in and out, sweating to tune every other one to a chromatic scale, then struggling to put the rest halfway in between, we gave up.
If they weren’t actually quartertone keyboards, if we’d just given ourselves fascinating instruments with 2 octave ranges divided into 48 roughly equal tiny intervals, that was more than good enough.
After all we’d already learned “proper tuning” wasn’t necessary for our shokis, whatever their notes were, they were fine flutes.
Now it made sense for our kalimbas to be filling out that insight, to be making us also question the conventional explanation of why some sounds go together and others don’t.
With our impressionistic tuning it was unlikely any Quartus notes were separated by the intervals standard theory claims necessary for harmony, yet played at the same time they often blended into what felt like chords.
Could the musicologists be wrong, were they mistaking their map for the territory?
More Blessing Than Curse
Our Instruments came first, then they shaped development of our music.
It didn’t happen the other way round, we didn’t create them because we wanted to play strange non notes.
It’s just those were the only type of sounds they would sing.
We had to learn to use them, our shokis, kalimba keyboards, Dotara and Bass Bowus gave us no other choice.
Still it’s been more blessing than curse.
Searching for music that’s different other musicians have thought hard, invented novel theories, struggled to free their minds and fingers from old habits. When we played our instruments, what came out was automatically new.
The next step though, turning their strange sounds into beauty, that took decades.
“Beauty”, such a slippery little word. Angry hip types have even condemned it as a euphemism for lame, conventional, lacking balls.
Well we don’t buy that.
Nasty rap, recorded industrial noise, painful angsty avant guard screeches, boring repetitive minimalist patterns, if in the name of “edge” some want to create that type of music, god bless them, but it’s not our trip.
We can also do without commercial pap like what one hears waiting for customer service on the phone, preteen love songs, overblown melodramatic symphonies and operas.
What we’ve sought in our music is the more magic beauty of tiny plants, quiet forests, raging oceans, distant snow mountains, cold piercing wind, sunsets, flashes of insight, the moon, the first morning cup of chai.
And having gone beyond official notes we’ve had to find it with no help from all the clever tricks of music theory. We can’t repeat, reverse, expand, turn upside down, change keys, move lines to different instruments…
Instead we’ve learned to listen carefully for when we’re clunky, noisy, boring, for when it’s time to explore a different pattern, for sweetness, magic, mysterious power, for when the force is with us.
Instead for guidance we’ve looked to old fashioned general aesthetic principles; symmetry, balance, consistency, proportion, grace…
Instead we’ve grown our music by living it richly, built and played our instruments, recorded and edited their sounds, created this huge website to better understand what we’d done.
So it’s been slow, no doubt studying with a succession of ever more advanced teachers would have been quicker.
Still they could have shown us only what they’d been taught, lead us only to where others had gone before.
And in the process, repetitive practice would have dug such deep grooves in our brains that playing anything new became impossible.
We too have grooves, but we don’t work to dig them deeper.
When something unexpected happens we don’t freak out, don’t play the section over and over until we get it right.
We welcome the irregularity, listen to it carefully, try to appreciate it, to find a way of using it in our music.
Learning to Love the Squeaks
Bowed an inch from the bridge, Dotara strings squeak, if we move the bow further away the squeak’s different.
When the string’s open, the squeak’s not the same as if we push it down, and like with standard notes played on standard instruments, where we push the string down makes a difference. But since they’re weirdly behaved squeaks, the connection between what we do where and what comes out is more mysterious.
As it is when we bow slow instead of fast, at an angle instead of straight across, gently or with force…
The sound changes in ways we still can’t predict.
This used to be a problem, we saw the squeaks as noises, things to avoid, signs of doing something wrong.
Now we love them, they’re essential to our new music.
We play with their textures, tease them into pleasing patterns, fit them to our voices.
While after a bit of squeaking, when we move the bow away from the bridge, drop down to lower pitched sounds more like standard notes, these sounds too have become richer, more confident, more interestingly varied.
Without thought our hands, fingers, shoulders, arms, backs, make fine adjustments, musical ideas present themselves, bloom, work themselves through.
Often it feels like we’re in control, but we’re pretty certain we’re not, for sure we can’t explain clearly what we’re doing.
Surfing waves of music, swimming through possibilities, riding energy that’s coming from elsewhere…
Nice words, still what exactly do they mean?
Better to simply say we’ve done music without official notes so long it’s gotten easier.
The Lost World
We like it out there in the uncharted wilderness, it suits us.
Herded into it by our failure to tune our instruments, we went for it.
Dissatisfied with the music we’d grown up with, unhappy Indian music too had lost its magic, we were ready for something different.
Now we seem to have snuck past those uptight angels with their fiery swords, to have found our way back into the Garden, back to Peach Source Country.
To the huge fascinating world beyond the official notes, back to winding paths not straight superhighways, tiny hamlets not giant cities, skies clean and dark enough to see a million stars.
So quiet we can always hear the birds.