The Freelance Mentalists.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
  Malkauns Via Jazz--An Investigation
(the real Continental Op's latest dispatch)

For decades, Don Cherry's "Malkauns" was a favorite track of mine before I learned that the title is taken from a well-known and widely performed Indian raga; and therefore the entire piece is essentially a performance of the raga just the way any other track called "Raga Malkauns" by an Indian classical musician is.  But now that I know this, I don't like the piece any less.

samples here:
and here:
You're on your own as to locating and downloading an mp3 that has the whole thing.

So today I went over to the fabulous multimedia lending library to try to locate versions of the raga as done by Indian musicians -- ideally, to try to find one that sounds like what might have inspired Don Cherry and Charlie Haden so that I could hear the connection, how they got from A to B and came up with what they did.

As you can see at this link to the library's online catalogue, they have many recordings of the raga, but most of them are in the archive/storage and weren't available out in the bins:

I did however find 4 recordings of Raga Malkauns on the premises (one of them included in the apparently encyclopedic "The Raga Guide:  A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas", a book accompanied by 4 CDs).  To my Occidental ear, none of the versions seem to bear any relation to each other or to the Don Cherry track -- except of course that they happen to use the same scale.

There's one exception however:  the version by Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and his brother Zia Fariduddin Dagar, which lasts SIXTY-NINE MINUTES and is available on YouTube!

If you listen to this all the way through, by the time you get to the end you can hypothesize that the drone that one of them often uses in the lowest register might have provided the original impetus for what Charlie Haden does on the bass on the Don Cherry version.  And also by the end, the notes of the scale are ingrained enough in your brain that you also have a sense of how Don Cherry came up with the trumpet part.  For instance, if you play the notes of the scale in your brain, and imagine them played on trumpet, you can produce an inferior but similar version of Don Cherry's improvising.

btw, my discovering Z.M. Dagar is something of a revelation -- this is seriously trippy stuff.  When he's playing both with his brother and with other people, he's not accompanied by any percussion, and each of his CDs includes a performance of only one raga.  70 minutes' worth of the same raga, the same drone.  And therefore, often the first 40 minutes (the opening "Alap" section) is little more than drone with ornamentation, and then finally he introduces a pulse (in the concluding Jor and Jhala sections) -- except that the pulse is conveyed only via string instruments (the vina and accompanying tamburas). 

I'm sorry to say this, but once you hear Z.M. Dagar's stuff, you hear how avant-garde minimalist guys like Phill Niblock and Glenn Branca have a long way to go, and Jim O'Rourke and Loren Mazzacane Connors should just pack it in altogether.  On the other hand, the stuff that John Fahey was doing at the end of his career really is as good as Z.M. Dagar (e.g. check out the samples of the first four tracks of this:

If I understand the Indian musical system correctly, a raga is a scale (not necessarily the same notes ascending as those descending), the musician improvises on the scale, and then the resulting "piece" is simply given the title of the raga.  So that in the end, any pieces called "Raga Yaman" might not sound any more similar to each other than, among Western composers, any two pieces called "String Quartet in C major" do.

But still, this seems very strange to me when I read liner notes of Indian music CDs and then attempt a cultural transposition and come up with examples like these:

1.  "Beethoven's 5th Symphony is surely the most compelling and insistent performance of C minor in recorded musical history."

2.  "John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' stands as what is likely the most moving rendition of the Dorian mode, especially in D."

3.  "Charlie Parker's compositions 'Constellation' and 'Anthropology' belong to the harmonic system known as 'Rhythm Changes', whose pieces are traditionally performed in the milieu of urban clubs late at night, between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m."----john w.


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