Saturday, September 03, 2016

In music there is no East and West

That exotic and rare instrument is a chitravina. The venerable fretted vina is rare enough, but its fretless cousin the chitravina is only played today by a handful of musicians around the world. In the photo the chitravinist is Vishwanath Sankaran; his guru (teacher) is Ganesh Sudarshan who has loaned him the 120 year old instrument. The header image is taken from a video of his performance of contemporary Carnatic music in Cambridge last Sunday, which also featured Ranjan Vasudevan on electric guitar and Prasanna Sankaran on mridangam. Watch the video via this link and do stay with it through the flaky start.

Playing the chitravina involves sliding blocks of different materials - they can be seen under the instrument - along the strings. This sequeing between pitches without the constraints of frets produces sounds remarkably similar to electronically generated tones. The instrument of master musician and Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan was the vina, albeit the fretted version. It is surely no coincidence that leading exponents of electronic sounds including Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jonathan Harvey were influenced by Hazrat Inayat Khan's teachings on the centrality of vibrations. They were among the visionaries who understood that in music there is no East and West, just sound. Here is an extract in praise of the vina and extolling the therapeutic power of music from Hazrat Inayat Khan's authoritative book The Mysticism of Sound and Music:

In India there are vina players who do not need to play a symphony in order to have influence, in order to produce a phenomenon. They only have to take the vina in their hands and strike one note. As soon as they strike one note it goes through and through. In striking one or two notes they have tuned the audience. It works on all the nerves; it is like playing the lute that is in every heart. Their instrument becomes only a source, the response to which is found in the heart of every person, friend and foe alike. Let the most antagonistic person come before a real vina player, and he cannot keep his antagonism. As soon as the notes have touched him, he cannot prevent the vibrations which are created in him, he cannot help turning into a friend. In India, therefore, such players are often called vina magicians, instead of musicians. Their music is magic.
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