Our music is uncanny slow.
Not way too fast like most everything else.
Sure, for football games, parades, political rallies, boogies, speed may be what’s needed.
But why is the slow end of the music spectrum almost empty, why is there precious little truly right for a quiet talk with friends, chilling out alone, sliding smoothly into evening?
What’s wrong with music where silences stretch for seconds? Why are slow passages always padded with a sprinkling of unnecessary notes?
We don’t get it.
Like we don’t buy a thousand channels is a real plus, strings of blinking LEDs are easier to read than old fashioned turn signals, that chai tastes better with a dozen different spices.
Years living rough in India, decades broke in the States, weaned us from that sort of nonsense, stripped down our taste, taught us to turn less into more.
We’ve seen our music shines more brilliantly when we play fewer notes.
It gives our slow little brains time to explore faint paths, intriguing possibilities, to feel for different flavors of elegance.
Time to find the zone, the sweet spot, the state when playing becomes easy and everything automatically sounds good.
They can’t do that at high speed.
Then our frantic fingers skid off kalimba keys, get clumsy with strings, no longer listening, stuck in boring repetition, we become two more jerky automatons in yet another musical version of Chaplin’s Modern Times. Ugh.
Still even fast has its place, sometimes a flurry of quick notes helps flush unwelcome speed from our systems, can serve as punctuation, usher in a new mood, be a bridge to what comes next.
We love slow music, generally prefer a raga’s contemplative introduction to the fireworks after entry of the drum, Coltrane’s spacey solo meditations to his avalanches of sound.
That’s why we play slowly.
And why we’re so happy playing slowly we also play better, that dialing down the speed our sound grows more powerful, more nuanced.
The situation is similar with low pitched music.
We tend to prefer it.
Though Billy and Kishori do go awesome high, it’s when their eyes soften, their voices curl smoky warm around the lows, that doors open to the unseen world.
Even more intoxicating is casting the same magic spell ourselves, getting loose and chilled enough to paint soundscapes with a palette heavy on finely modulated mood altering lows. That’s why we like to do it.
Still as with fast, for years there were also good practical reasons to avoid the highs.
On shokis we lacked the skill to hit them without strain, you could hear it, they weren’t beautiful or musical. But right from the start we loved our flutes’ skull shaking room filling lows.
While with Dotara and Bass Bowus, though our bowed low notes were small we found ways to turn them into music. Going higher everything sounded beginner violinist whiny, or worse yet morphed into uncontrollable squeaks.
On Boxus and Boardus Quartus we had no problem playing their clean brilliant highs, but often they didn’t quite go with the slow lows we had to stick to on our flutes and strings. Whereas their stoney lows went beautifully with our other instruments, and we were fascinated how they sank into our bodies, stopped our running thoughts.
Superstitious primitives, we took this as the Gods herding us where we were supposed to go. “Stay slow, stay low, play what suits you” what else could they mean?
And like happened when we gave up on playing standard notes with our instruments, once we listened, accepted we should do only what we could do well, things got easier. Playing almost no highs and very little fast, our music still prospered.
That essential healing done, in 2020 our music came roaring back, sure, totally different, rich with the highs we previously had to avoid.
Now we love and depend on our newly sweet squeaks, on the strange peaceful falsetto vocables that popped up out of nowhere. When we’re floundering, have lost the thread, often they show us where to again find magic.
Like the I Ching says, “times change and with them their demands”.
… And Varied
It’s hard to say what holds our music together tonally. Not in any key, our notes are wild, fit no system. Yet they go with each other, blend, form themselves into sweet sounding unities.
The organization of our music in time is also difficult to understand. Patterns repeat, but never exactly.
At our best we sound like birds singing, whales talking, trees rustling in the wind, tinkling brooks, pounding waves. We have the same obvious, satisfying, internal consistency.
Varied, always changing, not regular enough to count, our music has more groove than rhythm, groove powerful enough to slow the pulse, groove we dance as much as play.
A dance that doesn’t follow the music, that comes with it, helps it into existence. The shape, the weight, of our limbs, how we’re sitting in relation to our instruments, all set limits to, prompt motions that translate into patterns of sound.
A dance without drums.
We don’t need them. After helping each other do everything for more than 30 years, we’re in practice listening to each other, playing music we’re automatically together.
Our madalas, tablas, pakhawaj, are lovely, but decades ago we put them away, they tempted us to go too fast, made our music mechanical. Left, right, left, right, thump, thump, thump, no matter how we prettied it up, our patterns started feeling a little brain damaged, authoritarian.
Of course what we play is not simply dance turned into sound. For better or worse we’re highly educated. Mitsuko’s a trained classical pianist, I grew up with a Steinway baby grand in the living room. Our heads were stuffed full with conventional music.
Still as we’ve gone deeper, more and more of this conditioning has evaporated.
We’ve learned to do magic we have to empty our minds, allow space for strange musical structures to develop.
Structures we can’t begin to describe or explain.
Lots of the best stuff is like that. Can anyone say exactly how they move each leg hiking a steep trail? Can anyone do it the same way twice? Does it matter?
Yet one thing we know for sure, our neoprimitive approach works, has lead to what you hear playing on this page.
Music not built by cleverly developing and expanding a limited number of themes.
That unfolds through time in continually varying sound shapes connected by inner meaning, that holds together like successful free verse.
That start to finish is rich with new forms, patterns, musical ideas.