Patterns and Sounds: The Uses of Raga in Rock

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Patterns and Sounds: The Uses of Raga in Rock

This article originally appeared in Issue 7 of   Crawdaddy   in December, 1966.

A major source of innovation in any art is external influences, influences derived from widespread, eclectic origins outside the art. Rock has always been eclectic—it has found sources of innovation in such diverse “bags” as jazz, the blues, folk, ragtime, commercial pap, and classical music. Now Indian music has been added to the list, with the appearance of a new bag known as “raga rock.”

The term “raga rock” first appeared in the spring of 1966, a cute term supposedly thought up by the Byrds’ Jim McGuinn to describe that group’s prodigy “Eight Miles High.” It was soon attached as a catch-all description to any rock that sounded even vaguely “Indian” or “Eastern,” which was nice, because it finally gave all this stuff a name—since what we now call “raga rock” has been around, in one form or another, for at least three years.

One of the problems raised by an eclectic influence—like Indian music—is its assimilation. The mere existence of this new and attractive possibility suggests that it ought to be introduced into the established framework. But how? One way of seeing this is to say that the practitioners of the established music “learn” how to use it. They “learn” certain “solutions” to this problem. In the case of raga rock there are two main “solutions” or modes of assimilation. 1) The assumption of “surface” aspects, the mere sound of the Indian music. 2) The assumption of certain fundamental elements of the Indian music.

For the most part, the appropriation of the “Indian” sound represents a self-conscious attempt to introduce novelty into rock. Songs like “Three King Fishers” (Donovan, summer ‘66), “Norwegian Wood” (Beatles, winter ‘65), “Love You To” (Beatles, summer ‘66) and “Paint It, Black” (Rolling Stones, spring ‘66) are all examples of the appropriation of the “Indian” sound. These songs feature the use of the sitar (all of them) and the tabla (“Three King Fishers” and “Love You To”). The sitar is a plucked instrument with between eighteen and twenty frets. The good ones also have a set of from twelve to twenty wires “known as tarab or wires of resonances tuned from C to B” (O. Gosvami, The Story of Indian Music, p. 301). These tarab run below a set of six or seven main wires which are played “with plectra made of steel wire, known as mizrab, usually put on the forefinger” (Gosvami, p. 302). The tarab are responsible for much of the sitar’s tremendous resonance, which contributes to its “novel” sound. The sitar is played in an upright position, with its base—a large hollow gourd—propped against the bare foot. The tabla are the well-known Indian drums. They are small, skin-covered hollow barrels which produce one note. “Though…primarily meant for…accompaniment, they are played also independently” (B. Joshi, Understanding Indian Music, p. 61).

The “Indian” sound is also produced through various tuning and playing procedures on more familiar instruments. This approach is exemplified by Sandy Bull’s “Memphis Tennessee” (spring ‘65) and such Yardbirds songs as “Heart Full of Soul” (fall ‘65). “Tell Me” (Rolling Stones, summer ‘64) was an early example of this sort of thing. There are several methods for producing quasi-”Indian” sounds on familiar instruments. One method, having to do with the production of the characteristic Indian drone sound (of which more later) has been developed by Sandy Bull, who with his 1963 album Fantasias became a leading innovator in the assimilation of Indian influences into a Western musical context. Nat Hentoff has described this method: “As part of the preparation for what turned out to be ‘Blend [#1]; Bull had been working for some time on methods to achieve a drone effect. He found the requisite tuning for that purpose on the banjo and adapted it to the guitar. In [‘BIend #1’]…Bull’s guitar is tuned in B. That is, the two highest strings are tuned to B, the next string is a fourth down, and the lowest string is B. The drone is achieved at times by playing the melody on one string and using the one next to it for the drone. On other occasions, the strings on either side of the one playing the melody provide the drone, and sometimes all six strings become involved in producing the drone.”

The “Indian” sound has been treated variously. Donovan’s “Three King Fishers” utilizes a guitar, a sitar, and tabla to weave an intricate but straightforward—albeit “odd-sounding”—folk-style accompaniment, which might have just as well been played on a dulcimer, or a bass, or a lute. Here the “Indian” sound has produced a tasteful variety. George Harrison’s “Love You To” seems more ambitious, since structurally it is a sort of sub-miniature conventionalized raga. But it lacks the drone, that fundamental tonic support for the raga, and finally comes off as an exotic collection of words and sounds which do not coalesce into an “organic” relationship. Sandy Bull’s “Memphis, Tennessee”—on the other hand—does have this organic quality. “Norwegian Wood” is simply a case of an exotic accompaniment. In “Paint It, Black,” the sitar is used to help integrate the song through an impression of momentum, since this instrument can rapidly build up a gliding and continuous gradation of notes. The point here is that treatment of the “Indian” sound is crucial. If used only in the interest of exoticism, it can quickly become shopworn and “ordinary” and not particularly justifiable. A guitar might, for some purposes, be better than a sitar. And if a sitar appears in an inappropriate context, if it is not treated properly, this becomes obvious. In “Paint it, Black” the sitar is quite unobtrusive. We know it’s there only because nothing else could build up a gradation of notes in quite that way. Nothing sounds particularly exotic here. In “Norwegian Wood,” however, which did sound exotic a year ago, there is a self-conscious manipulation of the sitar’s exoticism. And yet, outside of this exoticism, the sitar makes no other contribution. The instruments unique qualities are not in use. Something else might well have done better. In other words, “Norwegian Wood” now sounds “ordinary” and the sitar now seems an arbitrary choice.

The treatment of the “Indian” sound can determine much of the music’s appeal. It can also determine the music’s very structure. If the “Indian” usage is non-arbitrary, it is possible to uniquely organize the composition around some technique borrowed from, or suggested by, “Indian” music. There is, for example, an “organic” method for the development of a sense of the dramatic—often employed by such groups as the Byrds, the Blues Project, and the Yardbirds—which is an adaptation of the Indian emphasis on the continuity between notes as opposed to the Western emphasis on their differential. “Western musicians…concentrate on the centre of each note of a scale…Eastern musicians concentrate on the gradation of pitch between the centre of each note. Where the Western musician strides from note to note, his Eastern brothers glide between” (Gosvami, p. 244). Indian musicians can build up vast continuous masses of notes. They can create musical wave effects. This is possible because of the makeup of the Indian scale (with its smaller differences between notes) and the qualities of this instrumentation. Without the Indian scale and instrumentation, this sort of thing can only be imitated. That is, sounds which have a similar effect can be made. This imitation can be quite useful. It makes possible the extremely rapid accumulation of masses of cleanly articulated sounds, which can have a unique dramatic application. Since the sound does not become muddy or confused, its impact is not lost or dissipated. And, in addition, this type of sound is easily integrated into the composition.

The Byrds, Blues Project, and Yardbirds have all used this “imitative” technique for dramatic purposes: for example, “Hey Joe” and “I See You” (Byrds, summer ‘66), “Lost Woman,” and “Over Under Sideways Down” (Yardbirds, summer’66), “I’m a Man” and “Heart Full of Soul” (Yardbirds, fall ‘65), “Shake Me, Wake Me” (Blues Project, fall ‘66). In “I’m a Man” (short version) this treatment of the “Indian” sound is constituative of an organically dramatic composition. The drama is not an arbitrary thing. Not a matter of “significant” pauses or breaks in momentum. Nor is it found in the words. It is rather a question of acceleration, of the unfolding development of the momentum. Here “I’m a Man” is realized as an alternation between Keith Relf’s voice and the band—with the uneasy suggestion of accumulated notes constantly lurking below the surface. Finally, the restraints disappear and the whole thing bursts forth in an explosion of notes.

This effect can be produced in several ways. One is, of course, through the use of Indian scales and instrumentation. And it can be “imitated” with certain machines. The Byrds use a combination of electric guitar and reverberation filters. The Blues Project uses a small electric keyboard instrument called the turban.

The second solution to the problem of assimilation of Indian influences lies in the adoption of a certain fundamental presupposition about the nature of music and its relationship to an audience.

In practice, this solution has, specifically, to do with the adoption of a style of composition and performance in which musical texture and pattern become paramount. The Indian musical form raga is characterized by an extremely complex (according to our standards) textured instrumental/vocal pattern. Texture is defined as the organization of the instrumental and/or vocal lines at any given moment, and the pattern, which is exemplified (or indicated) at that given moment by the texture, is defined as the “overall texture,” the line completely woven, according to certain rules. Although this pattern is revealed only at the end, it is implicated in every instant of the raga: it is organic. This organic quality is a consequence of the raga formation, which assures, through its rules, the interrelationship of every element: “In simple words, raga is a melody type based on a modal scale. We have already seen that in an
[Indian] octave, there are seven main notes which can be divided into two tetrachords, i.e., from the basic note to the fourth note and from the fifth to the upper tonic. In a raga formation, the following main rules are observed:

“1) At least five main notes must be employed.

“2) The shadja [the first note in the scale: it is fixed with no flat and sharp variations] is indispensable…So also two notes, at least, from each tetrachord must be utilized.

“3) It must not exclude both madhyama [the sixth] and panchama [the eighth] notes.

“4) It should not use both flat and sharp varieties of the same note consecutively.” (Joshi, p. 21)

This is the schematic pattern. It assures raga’s patterned unity. Aurally, the most apparent sponsor of this unity is the drone: “Music is generally rendered with the help of some instrument supplying the drone—the basis or fundamental note…In instrumental music the drone is supplied generally by the instrument itself…The idea of a note itself presupposes some relation of it to the basic note. The tonic thus determines all other notes. The importance of the instrument which constantly supplies this note would be, therefore, very evident. It is this basic note on which you have to build your musical structure. It is this basic note which enables you to fix all the intervals of the other notes by means of comparison and contrast” (Joshi, p. 37). This drone is a constant fundamental musical support. Normally, it seems an unobtrusive background buzz-sound. But its absence would immediately deprive the texture of its density and weight. The drone is also a sort of fount of new material, out of which is woven the raga and its improvisations.

There can be no merely passive appreciation of all this. An act of concentration is required. The listener must make an effort to follow out the pattern’s development. And precisely because all this requires concentration, there is a very odd consequence for the listener. The patterns are so complex, the variational and improvisatory permutations at once so necessary and so freely developed, that an intense concentration is required. And as a result, the listener becomes caught up in the music. Everything is reduced to the listener’s contemplative relationship with that one thing: the developing pattern. The pattern can become a sort of universe. A compact universe—since you can encompass all of it—but also expansive. It is at once a thing you are able to completely encompass in your thought and the only thing there is, that is, that which encompasses everything. And that activity of listening, then, becomes an activity of recreation. The listener’s active concentration on the raga means that he is weaving the moment’s texture anew in his head. To follow that pattern’s development is to recreate it.

Several rock musicians have tried to assimilate this fundamental presupposition of raga—to assimilate, that is, the re-creatively provocative pattern as the prime consideration. Given a loose framework of taken-for-granted rock devices—including electric instrumentation, beat and tempo accentuation, and even certain melodies—they emphasize the organically developed pattern. As with the “surface” question of sound, they are mostly operating within an imitational framework. The schema of the raga formation is not employed. Nor is the Indian scale or the actual drone technique. This music need not even sound “Indian,” although, at times, it does. What has been isolated as essential out of Indian music is the primacy of the organic pattern. In practice, this means the drone has been introduced. As with Indian music, the drone becomes the fount of raw material for the composition. All variations seem to rise to the surface, as if they were always there in the drone. Furthermore, there is a melodic pattern—limited and controlled by the drone’s potentialities—which is characterized by a cyclical development. The melody flows, changes, is improvised upon—constantly resolving itself back to an always implicit, not always explicit, source melody. The melodic development is a case of cyclical variation and reiteration. It is not progressive. There is no final resolution, only continually given ones.

Included among this type of rock are “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Eight Miles High,”
The Rolling Stones’ “Going Home” (summer ‘66) and Donovan’s “The Trip” (summer ‘66). In “Memphis, Tennessee,” Sandy Bull establishes the drone through the combination of his Fender bass and Billy Higgins’s drum. The melody is both fragmented and given all at once. We can, that is, always recognize its germ, which implies a lot. It is developed on Fender bass, electric guitar, lead guitar (all played by Sandy Bull through multi-tracking) and Billy Higgins’s drums. There is an “extended” melodic development, in which incomplete—but highly suggestive—instances of the melody evolve from the drone. It is really the bass that first completely suggests “Memphis”—but rhythmically rather than melodically. The point here is that for a very long time only bits of “Memphis” show up. Then, suddenly, there is a point at which the melody is “assumed” to be complete. There is a certain decisive accumulation of fragments, of bits and pieces. With the constant support of the drone, a first resolution simultaneously will be achieved, is being achieved, and has been achieved. The electric guitar, then, takes up a variation of the complete melody (as we knew it from Chuck Berry). And one cycle is completed. “Memphis, Tennessee” is characterized by the almost constantly fragmented state of its melody. The pattern is, then, constantly before us—but in fragments. And it is often made recognizable only by the decisive impact of the rhythm.

“Eight Miles High” has a more schematically formal arrangement. For the sake of analysis, it can be divided into five sections: 1) Here the drone is established by the bass guitar. The constituative theme is introduced. There is a closely textured blend of drone and theme, a melody limited by an emphasized rhythm and the drone. A lead guitar variation on the theme sharply rises out of the texture. Next, the harmonious (2) “Eight miles high and when you touch down…” The voices are like an instrument—they don’t seem apart from the instrumental blend. There is a set of percussion variations and the first vocal ends. The drone (3) is re-established in its pre-eminence, and the lead guitar brings its variations back up to the surface. 4) The vocal resumes, again, within the instrumental texture. Its end brings the restoration of the pre-eminent drone. 5) The lead guitar takes up, once more, the original theme. A “coda” follows and “Eight Miles High” is finished.

In contrast to “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Eight Miles High,” “Going Home” seems to be extraordinarily simple. It is almost completely devoid of obvious variation and ornamentation. The band (drums, bass, electric guitar, harmonica) seems to be one instrument, totally subdued, playing below Jagger’s voice, with no instrumental virtuosity. In this situation Jagger’s voice—which is treated instrumentally, rather than as a source of verbally cognitive information—becomes the most significant instrument. But this should not be overemphasized. Jagger’s voice is pre-eminent only in this context, only in that it is the prime instrument for the unfolding of the pattern. “Going Home” is primarily pattern. Whereas “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Eight Miles High” were textured patterns with all the distractions (from the pattern itself) offered by complex instrumental textures, embellishment, ornamentation, and organic virtuosity—whereas they were in that sense complex, “Going Home” is, by comparison, one-dimensional. “Going Home” starts with the electric guitar announcing the melody, the maracas, and Jagger’s voice. This is closely followed by the harp and the bass. Next, the band begins its constant, cyclical, subdued recapitulation—over and over. It simultaneously assumes the roles of support for the vocal and source of the drone. This is a function of the highly unusual non-virtuoso treatment. Here, virtuoso freak-out would only get in the way of the pattern. So there is no freak-out. There is a subdued melodic metamorphosis, but only in order to spin out the pattern. For example, there is not much melodic innovation until near the end, at which point Jagger sings ‘Sha-la…’ and Richards brings about a minor innovation through the accumulation (by repetition) of a very simple snatch of the melody. As with “Memphis, Tennessee,” there is more rhythmic than melodic variation. But this never becomes dramatic, serving only to bring some limited movement, without straining the limits of a very strictly defined melodic pattern. While “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Eight Miles High” are both highly ornamented and expressive patterns, “Going Home” is both non-virtuoso and non-expressive. It is quite abstract. There is so little in the way of verbalized cognition (i.e., expressive words) and so little instrumental and/or vocal expression, that the pattern becomes all. This is not a bad imitation of the highly expressive but verbally impoverished blues. It is rather a deliberately circumscribed, self-limited attempt at the creation of a relatively pure pattern.

Donovan’s “The Trip” is the most verbally expressive of these four compositions. It is a fusion of words and music, wherein the expressive qualities of each are mutually enhanced. “The Trip” begins with a simple—almost naive—guitar theme. This is followed by the sinister entry of the bass and drums. A few more ominous variations by the guitar and then in comes the voice: Donovan begins his singspiel. In contrast to Donovan’s voice, the band now seems to have a drone function. Usually, this is borne by all the instruments, but whenever Donovan calls out his resolving invocation “What goes on—?,” the lead guitar rises out of the drone to engage in its own disturbing work. Before and after these invocations, there is only the ongoing stream of singspiel and drone. During the invocation, instrumentally and vocally, everything is resolved into a comparative super-clarity. There is a cyclical alternation of this resolving invocation and the ongoing instrumental and vocal stream. Cumulatively, the whole thing is an expression of strange. Again and again, the voice and instruments rise to that extraordinary clarity peak above the stream, but only to ask “What goes on—?” To resolve, that is, without ever explaining.

This assimilation of a fundamental presupposition of Indian music brings rock to the point where it provokes the re-creative contemplation of itself. And this clears the way for the use of rock sound, organized into patterns, as a means of focusing consciousness and, through that, creating a state of mind. These patterns call attention to themselves (that is, focus attention) and because of this they can become influentially expressive, they can create a state of mind. If these patterns are not expressive of anything but their abstract formality, if they have no expressive content—then they call forth no “expressive” responses. They stimulate only an abstract, pattern-oriented, re-creative contemplation. This is the case with, for example, “Going Home.” And it seems to render it a particularly difficult piece of music. Since it is non-expressive it does not suggest even a fleeting mood. It has no emotional or cognitive content. It is abstract form. If, on the other hand, these patterns are expressive, if they bear an expressive content, they can call forth states of mind corresponding to this content. They can “say” things in new ways. Being provocative of states of mind, they can constitute an extraordinarily direct means of communication. This becomes crucial for situations in which words are seen as inadequate, since words are only approximations or limiting symbols for situations, mental states, and sensations that cannot be fully contained within the verbal framework. In this regard, “Eight Miles High” can be contrasted to Dylan’s own version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Actually, both are songs with relatively similar intentions. This is obvious even if we avoid the controversies over their “meaning.” Just contrast “Eight miles high and when you touch down…” with Dylan’s “Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship…” These words have something similar to “say”; they are essentially descriptions of mental states. They do not, however, generate re-creations of such states. Words tell you only “what it’s like.” But the rock of which “Eight Miles High” is an example, as a fusion of expressive sound and related words, is, therefore, a matter both of words and re-creatively provocative sound patterns. Which means that if a pattern is expressive of a state of mind, feeling eight miles high, for instance, then its re-creation within someone’s head can bring an experience of that state of mind.

Simply stated, with these patterns rock has learned to speak without words…in ways that words never could.