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Alternative Culture Magazine

January 14, 2007

Nothing New Under the Sun:

A Musical Mystery Tour

Warning: If you’re not already, as I am, intrigued by musical scales, you might find the following hazardous to your brain.

Last day before leaving Varkala; I had my final Indian bamboo flute lesson today with my teacher (and flute-maker), T. S. Venugopal. I learned a few new scales (ragas) . . . each one seductively unfamiliar, yet hauntingly familiar, in some deeper resonance within me. I’ve learned about a half-dozen Indian pentatonic scales and variations, following the initial exercises I was given with the full major scale used in Western music. The only other 7-note scale I was given, I quickly identified as my favorite of all the Western scales I’d played on pennywhistle back home--the so-called “Spanish Phrygian” scale with its distinctive Arabic twist. Its Indian name is the Mayamalava raga.

The other correspondence my ear picked up was that between the Mohanama and the Major Pentatonic scale. Especially noticeable was the blues feel when Venugopal inserted an extra semitone. The difference was that the standard Western Blues scale is the Minor Pentatonic--using the same scale fingering but resolving one note lower (the root being the fifth note or mode of the major scale instead of the first).

Luckily I brought with me on the trip a chart I had compiled previously, with all the most common (36 in all) Western scales, modes, jazz variations, etc. The chart was already arranged to classify at a glance where any new pattern might fall on the chart (or not). My first tries at comparing the new scales I was learning left me gaping, “These scales are complete off the charts of Western music!” But I kept at my quest for comparison, adopting a different strategy.

I realized I could plot out, on a twelve-wide grid I brought with me for notating 12/8 African drum rhythms, all of the ragas I’ve learned alongside all of the Western pentatonic scales I knew . . . and a few Japanese “In Sen” scales for good measure. Those were no accident, as already the main In Sen scale was my favorite pentatonic scale, fitting as it does within the seven-note Spanish Phrygian. With only twelve possible places for a scale of five or at most eight notes to fit, chances are there would be some close matches between the ragas and Western scales; but so far the only ones apparent were the ones I mentioned above.

In the meantime I left the project aside and paid a visit to friends at a restaurant beyond the end of the cliff strip in Varkala. They had invited me to come watch a DVD detailing the man’s experiences with what he called “the real Da Vinci Code.” I was intrigued, especially since I was in the middle of reading another novel of the same type, The Eight, by Katherine Neville. Many of the plot elements were similar, involving historical conspiracies for world power, secret codes, and tricks with anagrams and numerology to “crack the code.” It so happened that, along with the extraordinary personal experiences detailed in the DVD, the bulk of the presentation there (and with its narrator afterwards over tea) concerned divinatory and synchronistic messages formed from a set of letters, anagram style--sort of Ouija board meets Scrabble, to use an irreverent analogy. That whole subject is really of rather “overwhelming significance” (to borrow a phrase from another earthshaking documentary), but I will depart from it just now as I continue fiddling before the fire . . .

The point of this digression is to note how learning about the ANA code of Ross Kelly’s DVD and books inspired me unconsciously, I think, to delve into the next level of figuring out where these strangely haunting ragas might fit, if at all, within the pantheon of Western musical tradition, whether classical or jazz-oriented. The structure of the two musics is essentially the same; and the human ear presumably has some time-tested preferences of taste, so the possibilities are not really endless, though they appear so at first glance.

After today’s lesson in which I received three or four new variations, I went for a swim to clear my head, but while drying out on the sand, I kept wrestling with my memory of how exactly the new scales went. Referring to my notes made during the lesson, some in the teacher’s writing, I realized that there was some obvious inconsistency going on between what he wrote, what I wrote, and what I thought I remembered. I decided to give credence to all three possibilities, and to compare and research further.

When I reached an impasse using my grid system, I took another cue from drum rhythm notation. The grid is set up to display similarities in finger positions, but the scales can begin in any of the twelve note-boxes across the page. What I needed was to line up the roots of all the scales to establish and compare the patterns of notes and intervals from start to finish, using a simple binary notation: (x) for note, (-) for rest. Thus the Major scale, for instance, happens to share the same pattern as the African 12/8 “short bell”:
x - x - x x - x - x - x

The Spanish Phrygian scale looks like this:
x x - - x x - x x - x -

Once I had converted all the scales to these familiar-style rhythm patterns, I realized there were a limited number of x - - - sequences, and slightly more x - - sequences. In fact, I remembered, in my original chart I had already “reduced” each Western scale to its spatial formula, using the terms I adapted from Jamie Abersold’s jazz study guides: W for whole note or tone (x - ), H for half note or single semitone (x), -3 for the interval to the next flatted whole tone ( x - - ), and +3 for the interval to the next sharped whole tone (x - - -). These four symbols covered all the possibilities in the patterns I was studying, so I converted the new Indian scales for easier cross-reference; I had already classified the Western scales using these codes.

The first category were Phrygian and Diminished types of scale all beginning with (x x - ): H W, H -3, and H +3.

The second category were Dorian and Minor type scales, almost all beginning (x - x x - x - ): W H W W.

The third category included the Major and Dominant scales usually beginning (x - x - x): W W H W and W W W H.

The last category contained the opening sequence (x - -): -3. It included just five scales.

Once I converted the new scales, it was a simpler hunt to find similarities. But I was astonished--and a tad disappointed, despite all my dogged efforts--at how neatly they all fell into place under the Western musical regime.

The Abhogi raga (WHW+3-3) is a pentatonic scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 6) of the Melodic Minor.
The Hamsadhwani raga (WW-3+3H) is a pentatonic scale (1, 2, 3, 5, 7) of the Lydian mode.
The Madhyamavathi raga (W-3W-3W) is the so-called -7 (or fifth mode) of the Major Pentatonic.
The Suddha Dhanyasi raga (+3WH+3H) is a pentatonic scale of the sixth mode of the Harmonic Minor.

I was brought to my final dilemma: the raga known as Revathi. I had three possible versions to work with, depending on what I trusted from memory and notation. It turns out that each of these three versions has a legitimate place in the existing canon:

Revathi 1 (my notation) (H+3W-3W) is the same as the basic In Sen scale.
Revathi 2 (Venugopal’s notation) (-3WW-3W) is the Minor Pentatonic, also Mohanama in fifth mode.
Revathi 3 (my other notation) (H+3WH+3) is the fifth mode of the Harmonic Minor.

[Postscript: Later research reveals that what I called Revathi 2 is actually Suddha Dhanyasi; what I called Suddha Dhanyasi is actually a raga scale under various names - Ponni, Ramani, Amrithavarshini, Chitrasindhu, or Ayodhya; and Revathi 3 is actually Bhogasaveri.]

Moral number 1: No progress without struggle.

Moral number 2: There is nothing new under the sun.

Moral number 3: Now I have no more excuse to procrastinate from actually practicing the damned--er, divine--scales.

Yoga sountracks - Music for yoga practice

Learn to improvise on flute, pennywhistle or other melodic instruments using handy scale charts

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