the blog of musician Dinuk Wijeratne

Pulling an all-nighter

nuit blanche2

This Saturday, I face a new challenge of stamina: it is the citywide Toronto Nuit Blanche of 2014, and I am the curator for the Canadian Music Centre‘s all-night event. As such, I have to be on hand and collaborative with all of the wonderful artists I have chosen to participate in this 7pm to 7am performance-fest!

The event line-up: TorQ Percussion Ensemble w/Dinuk Wijeratne; Ernie Tollar, saxophones/bansuri; Parmela Attariwala, violin; Deb Sinha, percussion; Dinuk Wijeratne, piano; Laura Silberberg, DJ; Suba Sankaran, voice; Ed Hanley, tabla; Jordan O’Connor, double bass; Germaine Liu, percussion.

We are listed as a pick-of-the-week here. If you happen to be in Toronto this weekend, please drop by the CMC….and keep wandering around the city into the wee small hours. Toronto has a lot to offer!

nuit blanche

What would Mozart Do? A new video from Jacob Collier

Today, a friend of mine from Boston sent me the new Jacob Collier YouTube video. Within two days of its release it has been viewed 68,000 times. After watching it twice – and once I’d recovered from the shock – I was immediately compelled to check out almost everything the internet has on young Jacob, including articles and interviews in which he demystifies his process without an ounce of pretension. He is open, he is honest, he is earnest, he is a phenomenon. He is 19 years old:

If this boy isn’t Mozart incarnate, then surely he is the embodiment of what a young, multi-talented genius could do in the year 2014: first possessing a staggeringly complex understanding of harmony, rhythm and counterpoint; then unleashing it on the world with a complete understanding of everyday technology and social media. Not surprisingly, he has already been praised by such luminaries as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones and Pat Metheny. He speaks with eloquence, intensity and wisdom about building his harmonies from the ground up, the happiness of his family life, and about finding one’s passion in life. I don’t even know how many instruments this killer keyboardist can play, but you bet it was super-savvy marketing for EHX to post Jacob’s experiments with their most state-of-the-art looper yet:

Jacob is rocking the world from the comfort of his own home studio, and we can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next!


I have been very hard at work these days on a new piece for the terrific Afiara String Quartet, who have commissioned a new work with the one proviso that the music be ‘Pop-inspired’. My immediate inclination was to fashion something brand new from pre-existing material – from my electro-acoustic piece Tsimo!, whose connection to the medium of the string quartet is its use of two quotes from Schubert’s Death & the Maiden Quartet.

Since I began composing this new music however, it has been conceptually challenging (read: agonizing) to find the right balance between what is Pop-inspired and what is not. At the outset, I knew I wanted to keep my original Tsimo! melody, as well as the Schubert material, but what is the relationship between the two in this new context? How do you tie them together so that the music does not sound like a string quartet ‘jam session’? After realizing that what was emerging was something distinctly ‘rhapsodic’ in nature, I came across some very apropos advice in a completely unexpected context. After a fairly directionless day of composing, hopping from clip to clip on YouTube, I ended up revisiting the Barenboim Masterclass on Beethoven. The session begins with Daniel Barenboim coaching no less an artist than Lang Lang and, fortuitously for me, the Barenboim’s very first words actually pertained to my creative problems that day:

“The more a piece of music has many different characters, and many different colours and attributes, the more it’s important to think of it strategically; to know that because of this, that, and the other, I’m going here. In the tempo, in the dynamic, in the phrasing, in the articulation. So that you never find yourself in a situation where suddenly you don’t have to manipulate the music, but you should also not be manipulated BY the music.

– Daniel Barenboim to Lang Lang, BBC Masterclass on Beethoven, 2005

I have highlighted the last sentence because I think it is incredibly profound (as is most of what Barenboim says). I should mention that the whole masterclass is worth watching, so I have posted the video below. Barenboim was referring to Lang Lang’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata,  but his comments struck a chord with me insofar as writing a rhapsodic piece was concerned. While they of course offer no direct solutions, they have helped me identify potential pitfalls. I don’t want to be forced to manipulate the music in any way; I would rather it develop organically. I don’t want to feel manipulated into making certain compositional choices either, and I certainly don’t want the listener to feel manipulated. Ok, back to work!



A brand new website :)

While lengthy blog posts involve a lot of research, rumination, and self-imposed pressure (nevertheless all personally rewarding), I sometimes wonder whether it would be a good exercise in concision to report my creative goings-on in five words or less. So here goes: my new website is up!

I ♥ Percussion

fredericton nick halley

I love percussion almost as much as I love some of the incredible percussionists I am privileged enough to perform with. Nick Halley is one of them – a dear friend and colleague with whom I can chat about music and life, and about all the fascinating and inevitable ways in which those two things intersect. Nick has an incredibly diverse skill-set: he is a highly creative ‘world’ percussionist, a wonderfully sensitive drummer (his versatility allows him to work with singers as diverse as James Taylor and classical soprano Suzie LeBlanc), and is also a choral director (he founded and now runs two thriving choirs on Canada’s East Coast). As a result, our musical discussions range from ‘all things percussion’ to ‘why Bach wrote the best counterpoint’. In this short clip – a teaser-trailer for a full-length video of a complete piece currently ‘in the works’ – Nick and I rehearse the coda of my Solea di Diomira before a concert:

The music combines Flamenco elements (you can probably hear that in some of the chord progressions) with the structural use of a North-Indian Classical Tabla form: the chakradhar (trans. ‘wheel/circle’, explained in more detail in my tihai blog post here).

I ♥ P

Percussion instruments (a family which includes the piano) make me think of the notion of ‘verticality’. These instruments need to be struck. Much to my regret, their sound dies instantaneously. Immediately, I am left with the realization that, as performer or composer, it takes thought and effort to transcend ‘verticality’ in order to produce ‘linearity’. Utilizing concept and phrasing, one aims to create a sense of line – a musical narrative.


top – Scarlett Kelly
bottom – “Kodo, Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble.” Kodo, Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble. Web. 01 May 2014.


‘TIHAI’ & the Psychology of Threes

Macbeth witches

‘Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d’ – Shakespeare: Macbeth (4.1.1548)

From the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Hollywood’s obsession with trilogies, the number ‘three’ seems to bring about a sense of satisfaction and balance in creativity through the ages. Do ‘patterns of three’ resonate with our thinking in some unique way, offering clues as to how our minds perceive and enjoy structure in art?

One very potent and conceptually intriguing example of how a ‘pattern of three’ can create artistic impact is the TIHAI (pronounced ‘thee-hi’), a rhythmic device that is ubiquitous in the rich tradition of North Indian (Hindustani) Classical music. Examples of tihais can vary from the very simple and innocuous to the incredibly long and complex, but what they all share is an ability to set up tension and provide catharsis upon resolution. A tihai that is both satisfying and exciting will reveal an elegant construction combining aesthetics and mathematics in good measure, perhaps akin to the ethos of Bach’s counterpoint – music at the intersection of art and science. The anatomy, psychology, and raison d’être of the tihai, as a key ingredient in Hindustani music, share much with ‘patterns of three’ in various other contexts, cultural and artistic. All are keys to how our minds enjoy the interplay of expectation and fulfillment, repetition and variation.


‘The cyclic form is a fundamental concept in Indian rhythm. The cadential philosophy of composition is very different from the cyclic. Where the cyclic form is characterized by a sense of balance and flow, the cadence is characterized by tension and imbalance. Such tension and imbalance naturally seeks a resolution.’David R. Courtney: Advanced Theory of Tabla (2000)

In Hindustani music, a tihai is a tripartite rhythmic cadence designed to end on a structurally important beat of the prevailing time cycle or tal (pronounced ‘thaal’). Literally translated as ‘three times’, a tihai is comprised of three phrases, almost always identical in length. It is the last beat of the final phrase that will fall, in the majority of cases, on sam (pronounced ‘sum’) which, as the first beat of the time cycle, is the most structurally important. A tihai may also be designed to end instead on a beat that is not sam, provided that context determines this beat to be structurally important in some other, significant way. An example of this would be the first beat of a composed melody known as the gat (instrumental contexts, e.g. featuring a sitar) or bandish (vocal contexts).

ANATOMY – two ways to deconstruct tihais

To begin with, below is an example of a tihai in perhaps its most basic form, pared down to bare essentials. Please click to enlarge any example on this page. A quick word about notation: Indian time cycles aside for one moment, I have chosen Western notation in order to make these examples accessible to Western musicians, and readers familiar with this system. Unsurprisingly, these are in 4/4: the ‘C major of time signatures'(!). However, I also use the syllables of text known as ‘bols’ (literally ‘words’), that come from the extensive drum language of tabla. The vocalization of these bols ‘are done in resemblance to the sounds produced from the drums’ (Chatterjee, 2006). I find that tabla bols allow for an expressivity that fuses the rhythmic with the lyrical – and all within a linguistic context. I hope that my style of notation, combining aspects of both East and West, will present the examples as effectively as possible. I recommend reciting the bols out loud while tapping or clapping the quarter note pulse:

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 3.47.20 PM

Ex.1: tha dha – tha dha – tha DHA

This tihai begins on the second 8th pulse of the first bar, and ends on the most obvious structurally important beat, which is the downbeat of the next bar. The tripartite construction is evident; the brackets indicate that the motif ‘x’ occurs thrice, separated by the rest ‘y’ twice. The motif ‘x’, then, may be understood as the durational quantity that is one phrase, or palla, of the tihai, while ‘y’ is the durational quantity of silence, or the ‘gap’ that separates the three phrases from each other. However, consider the following alternative to labelling the tihai components:

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 3.47.51 PM


There are two important differences between examples 1 and 2:  firstly, the last pulse of what was ‘x’ is now part of ‘y’. Consequently, it is perhaps easier for us now to think not in terms of the alternation of phrases and gaps, or sounds and silences, but simply in terms of ‘x’s and ‘y’s, where both quantities may be composed of whatsoever. The second important difference between the examples is that the final ‘dha’ has NOT been included or considered as part of the whole tihai. This might be confusing right now, but as tihais (and their calculations thereof) typically become much more elaborate than our user-friendly specimen above, the exclusion of the final pulse makes for much cleaner calculations! Suresh Talwakar, one of today’s great tabla masters, uses this method for his tihai calculations (Hanley, interview 2013).


To create more interesting variations on the very basic tihai of example 1, without interfering with its proportions, you could simply increase the density of the content of ‘x’. For instance, with two pulses instead of one:

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Ex.3: thake dha – thake dha – thake DHA

Doubling that density again could give you:

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Ex.4: thirikite dha – thirikite dha – thirikite DHA

A very basic tihai soon develops a virtuosic appeal in this manner. Acknowledging that density is a parameter that may be manipulated for such effect, you can then turn to the proportional relationship of ‘x’ and ‘y’. By varying ‘y’ while keeping ‘x’ constant, you could create:

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 5.42.14 PM

Ex.5: thirikite dha thirikite dha thirikite DHA

By varying ‘x’ while keeping ‘y’ constant, you could create the example below. I am using accents and slurs to indicate some aesthetic features of phrasing and articulation:

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 6.34.55 PM

Ex.6: thi ri ki te dha – thi ri ki te dha -thi ri ki te DHA

This last variation is longer in duration and ‘takes up more space’ within our 4/4 context, requiring two bars (plus one pulse) to complete itself. Using the 1/8th note pulse as the unit of measurement, two bars of 4/4 contain 16 pulses in total. This would be an appropriate segue to thinking now in terms of Indian tala, since the most popular taal in Hindustani music is tintaal (pronounced ‘THEEN-thaal’), a time cycle of 16 beats. The tihai of ex.6 fits neatly between the downbeats of the first bar and the third bar, or correspondingly from sam to sam of one cycle of tintaal.


The length of a whole tihai may be expressed as 3x + 2y. For ex.6, the values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ would be 4 and 2 respectively. The calculations for ex.6 would then be as follows:

3x + 2y = 12 + 4 = 16

The length of the tihai in ex.6, therefore, is 16 units, or one time cycle long.


‘Informed audiences frequently offer audible appreciation for an ingenious tihai as the melody and rhythm players ‘cadence’ together. It is not unlike the feeling experienced when a trapeze artist makes a ‘catch’ after an elaborate ‘fly’. In fact, musicians can execute the counterpart of a triple somersault […] by inserting a tihai at the appropriate moment. The tihai, then, brings the previous extemporized passage[s] to a satisfying – and often surprising – climax.’Thom Lipiczky (1985)

The interactions and audible appreciation of an informed audience during a concert of North Indian Classical music are on joyous display at the 7’30” mark in the following clip, at which point Suresh Talwakar presents, in recitation, an extended and very elaborate form of tihai known as a ‘chakradhar’:


At 7’42” we see that a gentleman in the front row is ‘keeping taal’ with his right hand, which means that he is conscious of the time cycle (tintaal, in this case) as well as how it interacts with the recited composition. At 8’10” (a moment I personally never get tired of delighting in) we see the audience smile, cheer and applaud upon the cathartic resolution of what was a very long and virtuosically executed tihai.


The sense of release is due to several factors which work in conjunction, a fact which takes us further into what it is specifically about tihais that empower them to elicit such reactions. Firstly (and as observed by Dr. Chintamani Rath in his excellent article of 1989: ‘The Grammar of the Tihai’), the structure of a tihai is such that it comprises sequential components. The very fact that the sequence of phrases is three-fold is one that has long sparked my interest in the tihai, on a psychological level. It is worth considering why, before going any further by delving into the aesthetics and technicalities of how tihai pallas interact within their context. Why is the sequence not two-fold or four-fold? The answer, I believe, is something that burrows deep into the human consciousness.

‘Omne trium perfectum’ (all things that come in three are perfect) anonymous latin proverb

We perceive time in terms of past, present, and future; perceiving the events of our lives as having a beginning, a middle and an end, or perhaps as ‘being’, ‘becoming’, and eventually ‘disappearing’. In the physical world, we perceive the three-dimensional geometry of objects and space in terms of length, width and height (or depth). We triangulate our positions according to latitude, longitude and altitude (or depth). In literature, from the Hindu Trimurthi and the Buddhist Triple Gem to the Christian Trinity, religious texts the world over abound with symbols grouped in threes. There is much in art through the ages too: from the theatre’s three-act structures of setup, confrontation, and resolution; to musical sonata forms that breakdown into expositions, developments, and recapitulations. We have already met the three witches of ‘the Scottish play’. For those familiar with the canon of Western Classical music, perhaps the example that comes immediately to mind as the ultimate semiotic celebration of ‘all things three’ is Mozart’s operatic masterpiece The Magic Flute, imbued as it is with the solemn symbology of freemasonry. Opening with ‘three knocks at the temple door’ in the form of three weighty and majestic chords in the key of E-flat major (a three-flat key signature), we go on to discover that there are actually three temples, and that the opera’s cast includes three ladies, three priests, three boys and three slaves. Characters in many fairytales stupidly squander two wishes before using their third wish wisely, and there are seemingly no end of jokes that begin predictably with the formula: “An X, a Y, and a Z walk into a bar”.

I do not believe, however, that we appreciate these ‘patterns of three’ in music and art simply because we have been conditioned over time by culture or by the civilizations of antiquity. I believe that there is a linguistic process at work here, and therefore an indication of how a three-fold occurrence is satisfying in a temporal sense. It brings to mind the following observation:

‘A single occurrence is of no significance.  A repetition is noticeable, but might easily be the result of coincidence. A third occurrence of the same nature gives the event the impress of law.’ – Vincent Foster Hopper (1938)

While this could be a plausible explanation for why the mind finds a three-fold occurrence (in a temporal context such as poetry, music, theatre, cinema etc.) so satisfying, it assumes that the notion of any kind of ‘law at work’ may not be evident to us upon hearing the second occurrence. Certainly, in the case of many examples of tihais (even those with the simplicity of ex.6) our minds have already perceived a pattern after being exposed to part two of a tripartite sequence. A neuroscientific investigation of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that any comedic writer worth his/her salt will argue for the effectiveness of: saying something, saying it again, and then toying with their audience’s expectations. Twice is usually enough to establish a pattern, while thrice is the minimum that allows for a successful denouement, be it expected or surprising. David Huron, in his book ‘Sweet Anticipation’, categorizes this particular type of surprise as ‘dynamic surprise’ (the term itself could be misunderstood, but his definition is very targeted) – “when the work [or content] itself will set up some work [content]-specific expectation that is then violated.” My interest in the notion of ‘why tihai?’ has led me to analyze some other examples of the ‘psychology of three’, in other artistic contexts.


I find that once the ear and mind have become attuned to the sound and psychology of a tihai, ‘patterns of three’ in other contexts seem to reveal themselves more readily.

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Ex.7 – Schubert: Symphony no.9, mvt.1

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1657910/schubert%20excerpt%20tihai.mp3]

This threefold passage from the first movement of Schubert’s 9th Symphony D.944 (nicknamed the ‘Great’) is timely in that its cadential quality is put to good use in bringing the exposition to a close. By prolonging a cadential 6/4 progression for twelve bars in three sets of four-bar phrases, the purpose of this passage is to prolong a resolution to the key of G major, which achieves full stability in bar 13, despite the occasional hints in bars 5 and 9. The ear is immediately drawn to the contour of the melody as its basic shape is established in the first phrase (bars 1-4) and then varied twice to create the second and third phrases (b.5-8 and 9-12). The voice leading is smooth and step-wise in the first phrase, but in the second embellished with a small leap (the E in b.6, which acts as an appoggiatura to the D). The third phrase then surprises by beginning with several leaps (b.9-10). The high G in b.10, which creates an exciting ‘spike’ in the contour, is particularly satisfying in that is the tonic pitch. Consequently the whole passage experiences a final surge of energy as it alters the melodic contour beyond linear expectations. One might say ‘exponential’ instead. Place the ‘shapes’ of each phrase side by side and the psychology of this particular sequence perhaps easier to see:

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 2.07.35 PM


The sense of delayed gratification is managed with skill and subtlety through manipulation of melodic and harmonic parameters alone (it is significant that there is virtually no change in orchestration throughout). The bassline of b.1-4 is also varied twice, discretely becoming increasingly active in b.5 and then in b.9-10 for an arpeggiated run of quarter notes. There is significance however in the composer’s dynamic indications: fortissimo having been established in b.1, he uses hairpins to indicate a ‘swell’, emphasizing the melodic/harmonic variations of the second phrase, but only for the third phrase indicates a fortississimo. Clearly there is psychology behind such choices, and this is what sparks my interest in the detail of this material. This passage is, of course, not a tihai, but I hope that I have elucidated how the psychology of its tripartite construction is undeniably clear both in concept and communication.


Schubertian sequences aside, tihais create tension and release for reasons beyond their ‘psychology of three’. Consider the following example for a phrase, from which we could construct a tihai:

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We could then decide on the following for proportions of x and y:

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 10.48.57 PM


The calculations would be as follows, taking the 16th note as our basic unit of pulse:

x = 8, y = 2

3x + 2y = 24 + 4 = 28

The length of the whole tihai therefore would be 28 units of 16th notes long, or 7 quarter notes long if we were to group the pulses in fours. In Western notation this would be:

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 11.07.47 PM


In the context of Hindustani music, this could correspond to rupaktaal or a time cycle of 7 beats.

What the notation reveals is the periodicity of the slurred phrases, or the grouping of the 16th note pulses, against that of the time cycle. The numbers underneath indicate the time cycle in quarter note pulses. But the phrases by themselves suggest a different periodicity altogether:

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 11.10.42 PM


Put the two together, and tension is created by the ensuing cross-rhythms: in this case the time signatures of 7/4 and 5/8 acting against each other.

Another important aesthetic feature concerning tension and resolution is particular to tihais of this type, in which the middle phrase is ‘placed’ differently with respect to the pulse of the time cycle, or to the overriding perceived pulse. Refer back to ex.11, and this will become apparent as you tap the quarter-note pulse while reciting the tihai. The first palla begins on beat 1 of the cycle, the second palla halfway in between beats 3 and 4, and the third palla begins on beat 6. In even simpler terms, the first tihai phrase sits ON the beat, the second lies OFF the beat, and the final phrase sits back ON the beat. This type of ON-OFF-ON construction is very desirable in tihais. When we experience the second phrase of such a tihai, we are having to process the repetition of material we have immediate memory of (from the first phrase), only now with the considerable tension created by its displacement against a steady pulse, or point of reference. An incredibly memorable quote of Suresh Talwakar‘s that has remained with me, thanks to tabla player Ed Hanley, is that ‘tabla music is reference music’. His simply stated but profound insight is this: without the element of a fixed point of reference (the time cycle, in this case), there would be a whole dimension of aesthetic appreciation missing. We only feel ‘displaced’ after first having an awareness of where and how we felt comfortable!


A chakradhar (trans. ‘wheel’/‘circle’) is an example of a more elaborate, extended and exciting form of tihai. While a chakradhar may adopt a cadential function, its appeal as a much ‘grander’ form of tihai will allows it stand alone as a compositional entity, typically in the context of a tabla solo recital (a tabla soloist will most likely present a variety of chakradhars to precede only the virtuosic climax and conclusion of such a recital). The ‘grandeur’ is perhaps evident, for one, in that each of the chakradhar’s three parts itself contains a tihai. But this is not to say that each part is merely a tihai (although it can be, in some simpler examples which are less aesthetic and therefore rare). It is also likely that a chakradhar would be recited to the audience before being played, in order for its complexity to be best understood, and for maximum dramatic impact. One of my favourite examples is from the undisputed tabla master Zakir Hussain’s legendary Ahmedabad recital of 1992:

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1657910/zakir%20chak%20example.mp3]

When discussing what is essentially a tihai nested within another tihai, our terminology may become somewhat confusing at times! I prefer to first analyze one ‘part’ of the chakradhar, which I have transcribed below:

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Deciding on the lengths of ‘x’ and ‘y’:

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‘x’ is very long in this case! ‘y’, on the other hand, is only one 8th note in duration. Consequently, part 2 of this chakradhar follows immediately and with no silence in between, ‘hot on the heels’ of part 1, hence the apt categorization as ‘bedam’ tihai (‘without breath’, or ‘breathless’). You can in fact hear Zakir Hussain announcing ‘bedam’ to the audience before launching into his recitation.

In analyzing a chakradhar, I think of each part as having a ‘head’ and a ‘tail’ (perhaps a propos if you enjoy the metaphor of a tihai as a small creature that escapes into the wild, only to return later as a beast of a chakradhar that has grown to epic proportions!). I have added some slurs below to indicate possible phrasing and expression. The ‘tail’ is, in fact, a smaller embedded tihai:

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 1.06.35 PM


The structure of the whole chakradhar may then be expressed in a manner which will hopefully make clear the 3 ‘nested’ tihais within the larger tripartite composition; in essence:

[ HEAD, TAIL (tihai palla 1, palla 2, palla 3) ]
HEAD, TAIL (palla 1, palla 2, palla 3) ]
HEAD, TAIL (palla 1, palla 2, palla 3) ]

A full transcription follows below. On the top stave is an approximate transcription of the ‘nagma’ or ‘lehra’, the cyclic melody which outlines the tintaal (16 beat) time cycle. In the audio clip, it is performed on sarangi by the late Sultan Khan, one of the finest exponents of his instrument. I have used arrows and highlights to indicate the beginnings of each part of the chakradhar:

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 6.09.57 PM


I mentioned tihais of this ON-OFF-ON variety before. What makes this particular bedam chakradhar so challenging to perform is the fact that part 2 sits ‘off the beat’, that is, the middle part of the entire composition is displaced from the quarter note pulse by the unit of an 8th note. And as each part is very long, it accounts for the huge tension that is generated, for both performer and listener. Virtuosity not being in question, the middle part is by far the hardest to execute without ‘slipping off’ by accident!

Given this displacement of an 8th note, it would be logical, then, to take the 8th note pulse as our basic unit of calculation. The structure works mathematically as follows:

x = 42, y = 1

3x + 2y = 126 + 2 = 128

The chakradhar is therefore 128 units (of 8th notes) long, and confirms (when you divide 128 by 8) that it would be 16 bars long when notated in a time signature of 4/4.

Incidentally, note that at this tempo there is very little difference between the phrases ‘dheredhere kitethake thakite’ and ‘dhinna kitethake thakite’. One of the features that makes this particular chakradhar interesting is the fact that the phrase which immediately precedes the first palla of the tihai is almost indistinguishable from the palla itself. No doubt, this was designed to create a beautiful ambiguity.


I have sat in rehearsals with some of the great tabla players of the world, watching them silently work out elaborate tihais in their minds and on their fingers. Whenever I asked them to explain their workings, there would be no end to their verbosity. After all, as a composed (or improvised) creative device that is culture-specific, the tihai is very sophisticated. It is an indispensable element in Indian Classical music. ‘Patterns of three’ abound in the music of Brahms but, his predilection for hemiolas notwithstanding, Indian tihais are unique in the way they strive to balance mathematics and aesthetics, regardless of their size or complexity. In this sense, I find that they can possess their own particular ‘magic’.

In studying tihais over the years, even designing my own, I have certainly become more acutely aware of the plethora of ternary structures in various other forms of creativity. These structures are certainly not in short supply in the art and culture of ages; we have already discussed the ‘psychology of three’. For me, the personal relevance of tihais has been the chance to enjoy a greater understanding of the phenomenological effects of other three-fold patterns, in all manner of creative work: for instance, ‘why exactly is the last phrase of that climax in the Schubert symphony so effective?’; ‘why does that last line of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech rouse us so? (“Free at last, free at last, great God a-mighty, we are free at last!”); ‘what makes the banana gag in Buster Keaton’s short film The High Sign (1921) funny?’ (he replaces a cop’s gun with a banana, the cop draws the banana on a bad guy but, when its peel is tossed on the ground, Buster fails to slip on it?! Surely, not what we were expecting)*.

Whether or not the design of tihais prescribes to some sort of Hegelian triad of ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’, there is more to a satisfying tihai than just its sequential aspect. The tihai goes beyond the sequential, exploring its three-fold musico-linguistic nature in relation to a point of reference – they are context-specific in that they depend upon the ‘time cycle’, taal, to be perceived and appreciated in all respects. However you choose to perceive the taal – be it a ‘grid’ or rhythmic ‘matrix’ – a tihai in this context can create tension and release by using displacement, or by suggesting its own periodicity. Our minds thrive on the reference points, so as to savour the effects of whatever works in opposition. Once the existing status quo has been established, a tihai or any other ‘pattern of three’ has the power to surprise us.



Samir Chatterjee – A Study of Tabla (Chhandayan 2006)

Neil Sorrell & Ram Narayan – Indian Music in Performance (Manchester University Press 1980)

Martin Clayton – Time in Indian Music: Rhythm, Metre, and Form in North Indian Rāg Performance (Oxford University Press 2000)

Robert S. Gottlieb – The Major Traditions of North Indian Tabla Drumming (Musikverlag Emil Katzbilcher 1977)

David R. Courtney – Advanced Theory of Tabla, Volume 2 (Sur Sangeet Services 2000)

Personal interview with Ed Hanley, a Toronto-based tabla player, 2013

*Personal interview with Binnie Brennan, Nova Scotia-based author of Like Any Other Monday (Gaspereau Press 2014), a fictional portrait of Buster Keaton

Vincent Foster Hopper – Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought & Expression (Columbia University Press 1938)

Annemarie Schimmel – The Mystery of Numbers (Oxford University Press 1994)

Thom Lipiczky – Tihai Formulas and the Fusion of “Composition” and “Improvisation” in North Indian Music (The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 2, pp. 157-171, Oxford University Press 1985)

Dr. Chintamani Rath – A Grammar of the Tihai (Ragaculture website 1989)

David Huron – Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (MIT Press 2006)


Remembering Abbado


“Playing under Claudio Abbado was like seeing a master taming a wild force. It’s like when a magician tames a tiger: you don’t understand how, but you know it’s happening. – Stanley Dodds, Berlin Philharmonic musician & board member 
(the Economist, 2014)


CLAUDIO ABBADO  – my favourite conductor, and one of my favourite musicians – has died at the age of 80. Only last June, I wrote in tribute as he entered his ninth decade with several highly anticipated performances ahead of him. But now, shortly after hearing the news of his passing, I’m sitting in an airport lounge, struggling to find words to express the feeling of losing one of my earliest musical heroes. For me, Abbado’s art represents a rare balance of mind and heart – his conducting was informed by scrupulous scholarship, yet had the ability to change water into fire at a moment’s notice, igniting the concert experience when it really counted. His distinctive ‘sound’ was characterized by a leanness and lucidity (and often a lightness) that is very much to my taste but admittedly not to everyone’s. I also learned whatever I could from stories of his style of leadership, to which I would compare to the ‘democratic’ directorial style of Robert Altman. Of Altman Tommy Lee Jones once observed: “He was very good at letting actors think that they had more control than they actually did.” One might have said the same for Abbado, who brought the interactive ideology of chamber-music into the orchestral rehearsal room; a style of rehearsing in which the pervasive, underlying message was one of: “listen, listen to each other”, as opposed to a more front-led “just follow me, and it will all be ok”. Dodds also explains: “Over the years I became accustomed to a feeling of great freedom whilst playing with him, music seeming to develop naturally under his guidance. Off the podium Claudio came across as shy, gentle, softly spoken, a little mysterious and quite enigmatic. In performance, he became a conduit between the forces assembled on stage and the emotional narrative that resides in the music, completely transparent and without an interfering ego. [He was a] genuinely modest human being, but when it came to music he showed his incredibly strong will. He knew exactly what he wanted, and there was no arguing with that.” (the Strad, 2014)

Opinions of conductors are often sharply divided, especially amongst musicians. We all think we know exactly how Bach should sound, or Beethoven or Debussy should be interpreted, but the arguments seem rather futile when one considers that all great Maestri must have reached such rarified status for possessing at least something special to offer. This is my modest, personal reminiscence of Abbado’s inspiration. My views are subjective for sure, but I hope to encourage the reader, or the many young musicians I work with today, to look more closely at the recorded legacy of a truly great artist – someone who was certainly one of the greatest champions of young talent, having founded several elite European training orchestras: the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Orchestra Mozart. We have much to learn from musicians and educators like Claudio Abbado.

I encountered Abbado’s work from a distance, and rarely first-hand. Growing up in Dubai in the ’80s and ’90s, I didn’t have access to live music-making of the kind that people enjoy here in the West. To compensate, I would satisfy my voracious musical appetite by spending all of my pocket money on CDs and monthly issues of BBC Music magazine. And so it was that my first introduction to the music of Mahler was in the form of a recording: an excerpt from the Scherzo of the Resurrection Symphony. Albeit brief, it was long enough to blow me sideways, as the saying goes. I rushed out to the CD shop, eager to purchase my first full-length Mahler recording. With no recommendations at hand, I suspect I chose this particular album purely for its sun-yellow label (the Deutsche Grammophon logo) and for the intriguing photo of an introspective man, deeply engrossed in some musical manuscript:


Listening to the recording, it goes without saying that I had the typical awestruck reaction to Mahler’s 5th Symphony of any classical music aficionado….but there was something else present in my experience. Despite being a young teen, ignorant of this music, I still sensed something powerful behind Mahler’s personality, behind the sounds of the expert musicians playing his music: I felt aware of a powerfully unifying, interpretive force that was pushing and pulling the music in the most subtle, natural way. Realizing that this must be the ‘silent’ personality of the conductor, I immediately cemented my reactions to the name ‘Claudio Abbado’. The link had been made and I was a fan from that day on, without really knowing it.

I went on to study music exclusively, at the Royal Northern College of Music in the UK, and it was a wonderful environment in which my friends and I would talk endlessly about music. Abbado’s name came up often, and I learned a lot (first-hand) about the regard that many great European musicians had for him. I was starting a little Jazz library of my own too, but Abbado was the most represented artist in my ever-expanding collection of classical albums.

Unusually, it was in the United States that I was to attend an Abbado performance for the first (and only) time. The circumstances were quite precious: immediately after the 9/11 attacks, visiting artists were cancelling their US dates in droves, for reasons of safety and heightened security. The Berlin Philharmonic tour of October 2001 was definitely hanging in the balance, slated to open Carnegie Hall’s 111th season. New York City was desperate for some high-octane music-making, and so the orchestra and Abbado came. In what proved to be an historic gesture, they inscribed this message in all the NY concert programs:

”We have come to America at a time of great anguish and sorrow. We come as a reaffirmation of our common humanity, which is so deeply expressed in the music of these concerts. John F. Kennedy once said at a critical moment in Berlin’s history, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ At this terrible moment, we are the ones who say with you, ‘We are all New Yorkers.’

As you can imagine, the atmosphere at these events was electrifying. I attended the rehearsals. I fell in love with the playing of the Berlin Phil. I was already an ardent Abbado fan, but until this time I only enjoyed his work through his recordings. From the student seating of Carnegie Hall, seconds away from watching and hearing him conduct in real-time, I quietly challenged him in my mind to live up to the high standard I had come to expect from his many recordings. He surpassed them absolutely – I was hooked from the first downbeat to the very last chords of a searing performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony that drove the audience into a wild frenzy. The conducting, to my mind at least, was the most elegant, sophisticated, balletic upper-body display of gesture I’d ever seen; the visual coefficient of an orchestral sonority of transparency and translucency. It was, after all, the Abbado sound.



One of history’s most recorded conductors, Abbado’s staggeringly large discography extends into the hundreds (I’m not kidding), including complete traversals of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Mahler. Understandably, it’s difficult to know where to start, so here are simply some of my personal favourites:

MOZART – Piano Concertos 17 & 21 w/Pires & the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. This could be the disc I take away to my desert island. Despite the wonderful instrumental playing here, I was always drawn to how Mozart, my favourite composer, sounded in the hands of my favourite conductor. In a word: sublime. Abbado’s Mozart changed drastically over the years leading up to this recording, however. I always respected the fact that he never rested on his laurels.


MOZART – The Marriage of Figaro, w/Bartoli et al & the Vienna Philharmonic. While his Don Giovanni may not have hit the mark, this is more supreme Mozart from Abbado, and a recording I suspect not many people know about. Bartoli too, is unforgettable.


MOZART & STRAUSS – Arias w/Schäfer, Pires & the BPO. A sumptuously performed and well-chosen assortment of arias. ‘Morgen’ is particularly exquisite.


MAHLER – Symphony no. 5 w/the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Abbado and his super-band in a live performance of Mahler 5 that is superbly well-paced. The famous Adagietto is a staggering display of his skill and vocabulary of gesture. This DVD is a dream for conducting enthusiasts in that its menu offers a multi-angle ‘conductor camera’ feature, as do the DVDs of the BPO Beethoven cycle in Rome.



BRAHMS – the complete Hungarian Dances w/the Vienna Philharmonic. Not only does this have a killer cover photo, these are killer renditions of these fabulous miniatures.


BERG – Altenburg Lieder, Lyric Suite, Lulu Suite w/Banse & the BPO. This particular recording may not be in the catalogue anymore, but you can find most of the tracks in new compilations, and used copies here. Intellect balances emotion perfectly in these meticulously detailed and nuanced interpretations.


SCHUBERT – Symphonies 5 & 6. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe are ideal collaborators in this symphony cycle. Here are two of the most buoyant and sparkling interpretations in the set.




‘How Claudio Abbado bridged old and new’ 

Sonic Assembly! – a creative opportunity for youth


Dinuk Wijeratne, Diomira, and Debut Atlantic invite all imaginative and innovative youth from the Maritime provinces of Canada to participate in an exciting musical composition opportunity entitled Sonic Assembly! As a participant, you will have the special opportunity to flex your creative muscles in assembling an original work for Diomira to perform live in concert during their February 2014 Debut Atlantic tour. One lucky person from each community hosting a concert will have their creation premiered by Diomira in concert.

Diomira (from left) - Joseph Petric, Dinuk Wijeratne, Nick Halley

Diomira (from left) – Joseph Petric, Dinuk Wijeratne, Nick Halley

to tell a dynamic story through music to a live audience, in the form of a 3-minute piece, created using your imagination and existing musical material provided by Diomira.

SUBMISSIONS: Online submissions will be open December 10th, 2013 – January 17th, 2014. To submit, please visit sonicassembly.debutatlantic.ca

CONTACT: Please direct any questions to info@debutatlantic.ca

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: No compositional experience is required! We are encouraging you to think about music performance as storytelling. What is music doing when it best communicates its purpose? We are not looking for original music, but we are interested in the ‘soundworld’ you have in mind. We will help you realize this in musical terms. An interior decorator, for example, may not build a chair from scratch, but in selecting and placing a particular piece of furniture in a space makes a bold and potentially transformative personal statement.

The stories which will inspire the participants’ musical storyboards have been selected by Dinuk, who turned to one of his favourite books: Invisible Cities by the legendary Italian writer Italo Calvino. Calvino’s imagined cities do not function by any of the earthly laws that govern our own cities. Incidentally, the first ‘city’ (‘Diomira’) inspired Dinuk to write Solea Di Diomira, after which the trio was named. He hopes that other Calvino stories will inspire you in turn.

RESOURCES: You will be working with the three creative, skilled, and inspiring musicians that make up Diomira. The trio includes a pianist, percussionist, and accordionist, all of whom will help you realize the original sound-world you wish to create from the instructions and storyboard you provide. It is important to keep in mind that the percussion will take on rhythmic atmosphere of your story; while the accordion and/or piano will take on the melodic and harmonic atmosphere.

To listen to Diomira:

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PROCEDURE & GUIDELINES for CREATION: Guidelines should be followed closely to ensure each Sonic Assembly entry is suitable. Students interested in participating in Sonic Assembly should contact Debut Atlantic for more information.

1. Choose one story or ‘city’ from the three provided.

2. Choose between two and four motifs from Dinuk’s selection of musical motifs. These encompass a wide range of moods, but notice how they take on different meanings if they are played slower or faster, lower or higher? A melody on the accordion will sound differently when played on the piano. Exactly when and how you wish to use the motifs is entirely up to you!

3. Create a ‘musical storyboard’ in the form of a written description (1 page maximum). Be sure to mention your choice of city and motifs. Feel free to use adjectives, moods, metaphors, or any descriptive words to convey what you imagine your ‘sound-world’ to be. Feel free to create your own diagram or representation. Be sure to give Dinuk and Diomira a clear idea of the structure or narrative arc of your story.

NB: Your storyboard should be very simple for the musicians to read. It should provide them with a clear idea of how musical events unfold in time, so include instructions as to when exactly you want them to play within the 3-minute time-frame (eg, specific cues for improvisation). They will only have 15 minutes before a given performance to rehearse your creation!

4. Using improvisation guided by the storyboard you provide, Diomira will attempt to realize the story that you have imagined and assembled.

5. Please use only the instruments and resources provided by Diomira

6. Have fun!

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1. ERSILIA (Trading Cities 4)

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.


2. OLINDA (Hidden Cities 1)

In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no bigger than the head of a pin which, if you look at it slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the antennas, the skylights, the gardens, the pools, the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not remain there: a year later you will find it the size of half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses its way toward the outside.

Olinda is certainly not the only city that grows in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring. But in other cities there remains, in the center, the old narrow girdle of the walls from which the withered spires rise, the towers, the tiled roofs, the domes, while the new quarters sprawl around them like a loosened belt. Not Olinda: the old walls expand bearing the old quarters with them, enlarged but maintaining their proportions an a broader horizon at the edges of the city; they surround the slightly newer quarters, which also grew up on the margins and became thinner to make room for still more recent ones pressing from inside; and so, on and on, to the heart of the city, a totally new Olinda which, in its reduced dimensions retains the features and the flow of lymph of the first Olinda and of all the Olindas that have blossomed one from the other; and within this innermost circle there are always blossoming – though it is hard to discern them – the next Olinda and those that will grow after it.

olinda sketch

3. THEKLA (Cities & The Sky 3) 

Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwlks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask “Why is Thekla’s construction taking such a long time?” the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long bruses up and down, as they answer “So that it’s destruction cannot begin.” And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, “Not only the city.”

If, dissatisfied with the answers, someone puts his eye to a crack in a fence, he sees cranes pulling up other cranes, scaffoldings that embrace other scaffoldings, beams that prop up other beams. “What meaning does your construction have?” he asks. “What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?”

“We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now,” they answer.

Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. “There is the blueprint,” they say.

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…for your STORYBOARD (click to enlarge):

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Good luck!

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© DINUK WIJERATNE & DEBUT ATLANTIC 2013 – Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

‘Velvet Fire’ – the Legacy of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


“Then came the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel….his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable. His every enunciation went straight into me. I knew not one word of Urdu, and somehow it still hooked me into the story that he weaved with his wordless voice. Nusrat’s upper register painting a melody that made my heart long to fly. I felt a rush of adrenaline in my chest, like I was on the edge of a cliff, wondering when I would jump and how well the ocean would catch me: two questions that would never be answered until I experienced the first leap.Jeff Buckley1

In a powerful scene from Martin Scorsese’s (controversial) 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, we see Jesus carrying his cross for the first time. He is surrounded by people but we know that he is alone in both his suffering and his devotion – two qualities film composer Peter Gabriel sought to capture in a voice that he could place in the music underscoring the scene. Over an almost-static sonic landscape in the form of a drone and some synthesizer harmonies, we hear a lone male voice that begins in its low register and gradually thrusts itself upwards, not entirely effortlessly, but nevertheless with a quiet confidence. Soon, it is soaring. The musical metaphor is right there: something that was once desolate in an unforgiving environment has flown away to a more peaceful place.

Gabriel considered many singers world-wide who would somehow express ‘the spiritual agony of Christ in a scream’2, yet still do so in a formalistic way, in the best sense of the word. He passed on many singers before deciding on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose improvisatory approach was rooted deeply in a classical tradition. Over Gabriel’s backing track, Nusrat ad-libs within the context of the Indian Classical raga Darbari.

It is ironic but perhaps a wonderful testament to the universality of art that Christ’s agony and passion are represented here by an Islamic voice. But we simply hear the quality of the voice itself (no doubt what communicates beyond language and culture): its huskiness, its nuanced and volatile expression soaked in life experience, always betraying the herculean effort it takes to get somewhere worth getting to. If you are not familiar with Nusrat’s unique combination of technique, musicality and personality, scroll to 36’30” on the following clip, just one example of many:

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-97) was born into a Pakistani family whose distinguished vocal lineage stretched back no less than six centuries. They were Qawwals, professional musicians and exponents of Qawwali, a recognized South-Asian musical genre which serves as an essential vehicle for followers of the region’s Sufi Islam to express their religious and spiritual devotion. Through Qawwali music, Sufis seek to connect with God; to attain and sustain a state of religious ecstasy (ḥāl)3. Nusrat (or Khan-Sahib, to use the respectful suffix) is remembered as the most famous Qawwal to have lived. He was also the most recognizable of Qawwals, his immortalized in 125 albums, the largest recorded output by a Qawwali artist according to the Guiness book of World Records 20014But Khan-sahib’s legacy extends beyond the domain of Qawwali.



I am continually fascinated by the complex interplay of tradition and innovation. The great pioneers who take art forward do so nevertheless while standing on the shoulders of their heroes, and their heroes before them. While I discovered Nusrat as a late teen through recordings, it wasn’t until I became a professional musician myself that I started ruminating seriously on how he and my other artistic heroes straddle the tradition-innovation line.

Nusrat was certainly steeped in Qawwali tradition – one might even say ‘well before he was even born’ – if you consider his family’s musical history. But there is more to him that made him unique. Nusrat’s artistry had breadth too, in that he had also achieved a complete mastery of the Hindustani (North Indian) classical ragas, as well as ‘light classical’ South Asian vocal forms such as thumri, khayal, ghazal, and geet2. The raga tradition, unlike the similarly rigourous performance tradition of Western Classical music, has never relegated improvisation as a key element. According to Peter Gabriel, who coincidentally went on to play a significant role in Nusrat’s career in the capacity of founder of Real World Records and the WOMAD festival: “….there was amazing improvising, to me of the standard of Hendrix. He [Nusrat] could take a theme and just it explode it outwards….make it much more than it was originally.”4

One such Real World release was MUSTT MUSTT, the ‘seminal 1990 fusion’ album (the Austin Chronicle, 2001). While Nusrat’s first release on the Real World label was the purely traditional 1988 album SHAHEN-SHAH (literally ‘king of kings’), in 1990 he took a surprising turn. MUSTT MUSTT, produced by Canadian Michael Brook, is indeed a true ‘fusion’ album, featuring musicians and instruments from different continents. Below is the title track, one of the album’s catchiest. Surely the last thing fans of Nusrat’s traditional output must have expected, after the brief reggae-ish intro, were age-old Qawwali lyrics set to Nusrat’s music:

Dum mustt Qallandar mustt mustt (Each breath is bliss for the one who is in love), Mera vird hai dum dum Ali Ali (My whole being is infused with the love of Ali)5

The ‘hook’ is the opening refrain, a chant that is memorable at the outset. With what sounds like a verse and chorus established (from a Western perspective), we hear a few phrases of alaap at 1’06”. The chant has now receded into the background, serving almost as a rhythmic drone in the absence of a traditional drone. Beginning at 1’40”, and for the middle portion of this song, we hear a virtuosic display of Nusrat’s improv in sargam (vocal syllables as text), punctuated occasionally by the ‘mustt mustt’ refrain. Leaving lyrics aside in this manner, it is essentially the same as an instrumental solo, with a tight arc and well-placed climaxes, lyrical phrases juxtaposed mercurially with flashes of complex sax-like lines. The solo certainly bears scrutiny for student improvisors who might wish to transcribe it. My favourite moments are at 2’00”, when he briefly hints at a triple meter with an elaborate sequential passage (executed with some real bravura!), and at 3’03” when the climax of his rhythmically intricate build-up is simply a descending phrase that, at long last, ‘locks in’ with the groove of the band. It is one of those spontaneous moments that seems so inevitable in hindsight.

MUSTT MUSTT went on to be remixed by Massive Attack, the British experimental dance music group, who were seminal in the trip-hop movement. The remix was a major seller in Pakistan and India, becoming a UK club hit and the first Urdu song to reach the charts in the UK6. It even proved so popular that it was transformed into a Coca-Cola commercial for Indian audiences with Nusrat’s blessing. According to Nitin Sawhney: “It’s astonishing how a Qawwali singer from Faisalabad, whose music has been around for centuries, can work so well with a modern band from Bristol. It truly epitomizes the universality of music.”4

And so it was that after decades of performing traditional Qawwali for traditional audiences, Nusrat’s work was now reaching new audiences both in the West and back at home. More opportunities for collaboration arose, and so did his exposure in a variety of arenas: MAGIC TOUCH (1991, w/British-Indian producer Bally Sagoo); DEAD MAN WALKING (1995, two songs in collaboration with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the Hollywood film directed by Tim Robbins); BANDIT QUEEN (soundtrack for 1996 film directed by Shekhar Kapur); NIGHT SONG (1996, w/Michael Brook); to name a few. At the time of Khan-sahib’s untimely death at the age of 49, he was involved in a project that would reveal the significance and scope of his influence on a whole host of well-known younger-generation contemporary British-Asian artists: for STAR RISE (1997), again produced by Brook, Real World commissioned the leading lights of the UK’s so-called ‘Asian Underground’ movement to remix and reshape Nusrat’s back catalogue: Nitin Sawhney, Aki Nawaz, Black Star Liner, Asian Dub Foundation, the Dhol Foundation, Talvin Singh, among others.

As Rehan Hyder observes in ‘Brimful of Asia‘: “many of the young Asian performers who have emerged during the 1990s have cited the singer as a source of inspiration. Through their interpretation of Nusrat’s work, [they] highlight the importance of both continuity and change in the expression of diasporic identity. Each band included written tributes to the great Qawwali maestro, praising his role in inspiring their own contemporary musical styles which have, in turn, been used to radically interpret a selection of [Nusrat’s] work on the album.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, indie rock idol Jeff Buckley referred to Nusrat as ‘my Elvis, I listen to him every day’. And consequently, and perhaps ironically, Nusrat’s collaborations were raising awareness for traditional Qawwali back home in Pakistan. In allowing his renditions of Qawwali material to be placed in such unfamiliar contexts, there were those who, according to Michael Brook, saw MUSTT MUSTT as ‘defiling a sacred and traditional music’.6 I often wondered what the purists thought of his other (more questionable) collaborations. More importantly, I wondered what Khan-sahib himself thought. It wasn’t until I began my research for this particular blog post that I came across comments that are very revealing about his views (personally instructive for me I might add) on the progressive-conservative divide:

“Our young generation which was brought up abroad is totally ignorant of our culture. They listen to Western music, adopt Western fashions. With my ‘awaaz’ (voice) I wanted to appeal to them – in our own language in their form…”Frontline

“I cherish the tradition of classical music more than my life. I consider its protection and preservation as my spiritual duty. As an experiment, I do not mind the use of Western musical instruments. But it will [be a] great injustice to introduce any change in the Classical music. I use Western musical instruments because I believe that you can dress-up a pretty child in any clothes [and] it will still [be] pretty. But the more important thing is that the child should not get injured while putting on those clothes.” – in an interview to Italian journalist Enzo Gentile2

What I find personally instructive and inspiring is the notion that Nusrat endorsed any collaboration in which the essence of the traditional material was preserved. Like a flower in a foreign garden, our perception of the purity of a single entity is changed, perhaps even enhanced, provided that it continues to bloom untouched in a different environment to what it is used to. Nusrat’s renditions of Qawwali were able to do so regardless of their immediate contexts.  – © DINUK WIJERATNE, 2013

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



1. Buckley, Jeff – CD liner notes to ‘Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party: the Supreme Collection’ (Caroline 1997)

2. Ahmed Aqeel Ruby (trans. Malik) – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: A Living Legend (Words of Wisdom 1992)

4. BBC Radio – Guru of Peace: An Introduction to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

5. Ahluwahlia, Khiran – artist’s website

6. Brook, Michael – Official Website as of Oct 2013

Qureshi, Regula – Sufi Music of India & Pakistan (Oxford University Press 2006)

Potter, John (ed.) – The Cambridge Companion to Singing (Cambridge University Press 2000)

Hyder, Rehan – Brimful of Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the UK Music Scene (Ashgate 2004)

Brooks, Daphne – Jeff Buckley’s Grace (Continuum Books 2005)

Lynch, David – CD review (Austin Chronicle July 27th 2001)

Tarte, Bob – DVD review (Miami New Times, Feb 19th 2004)

Baruah, Amit; Padmanabhan, R – The Stilled Voice, Frontline (The Hindu vol.14/no.18 Sept 6-19, 1997)

Happy 80th Birthday Claudio!


Claudio Abbado, “the most widely respected living conductor” [The New York Times], is 80 years old today. I can’t believe time has flown so fast! While his impeccable posture on the podium may have given way to a slight stoop of old age in recent years, Abbado still leads with the same authority, creating the same magic. He has, without question, been my favourite conductor – and by extension one of my favourite musicians – ever since I discovered his recordings as a mid-teen. I’d like to make a wish today that he will live forever, and keep inspiring us with unforgettable performances :)

A great conductor is a conduit – a vessel through which the music, in all its essence, passes….all the while infused with his/her unique human personality. Here is a clip of Abbado back in 2005, conducting his own crème de la crème Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s most complex of symphonies: no.7, a work that he truly made his own unlike no other. Using a face and body that reflect both strength and frailty where necessary; a rhythmically precise right hand in perfect harmony with an immaculately phrasing left; I marvel at how he is able to maintain a grip on multiple musical lines, driving an orchestra into a frenzy that teeters dangerously on the edge without ever spiralling into vulgarity. As is always the case with conductors of greatness, one may observe their alchemy but for it be granted no explanation whatsoever!