Hindustani Ragas on Touchstyle Fretboard
For over thirty years, Teed Rockwell has been playing many forms of world music on the touchstyle fretboard—a guitar-like instrument which is played by tapping the strings with the fingertips, making it possible to play a separate part with each hand. Rockwell performed in concerts and recordings with traditional musicians from many different cultures, including South America, Africa, China, and Ireland. But his greatest musical love has long been the Hindustani ragas of Northern India.
Rockwell originally studied Hindustani ragas to find material for the fusion music he composed with harpist Diana Stork in the world music trio Geist. He performed this music at manywell known concert halls, including Grace Cathedral, Great American Music Hall, the Yerba Buena center, and the Herbst Theater. Geist toured Europe, receiving international airplay and sales for their CD More Light. They were featured on the Polygram compilation album Harpestry, which reached the top ten on a Billboard chart, and has so far sold over 150,000 copies.
But as time went by, Rockwell became more drawn to Hindustani music in its purest form. He took hundreds of classes with great Indian musicians, including Salamat Ali Khan, Habib Khan, K. Sridar, Laxmi Tewari, and especially the great sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He became the music critic for India Currents magazine and wrote over a hundred articles on the many different styles of Indian Music. He interviewed great Indian musicians, including Pandit Jasraj, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussein, G.S. Sachdev, and Anoushka Shankar, from whom he received advice on how to improve his own playing. Finally he admitted to himself that he did not want to borrow bits and pieces of this music to create fusion—he wanted to play pure Hindustani Ragas.
After years of practice and performance, Rockwell has now developed a style which adapts the deep and profound nuances of the Hindustani tradition to this brand new instrument. His playing reveals that, like the double neck violin of L. Shankar and the slide guitar of Mohan Bhatt and Debashish Bhattacharya, the touchstyle fretboard is capable of both preserving and extending one of the world’s richest and most expressive musical genres. In fact, many Indians have said that hearing ragas played on Rockwell’s touchstyle fretboard gave them a greater appreciation of their own traditional music. “For me, ragas are the most complete music of all”, says Rockwell, “They have the intellectual subtlety of quantum physics, the spiritual profundity of the Vedas, and the heartfelt emotion of a lover’s cry. So much of our art and music separates these elements. A great performance of a raga brings all of them together in a single moment.”
In addition to performing concerts and other engagements with traditional drone and tabla accompaniment, Rockwell also gives lectures and workshops on the melodies and rhythms of Indian music. His years of writing for India Currents, his experience as a public speaker, and his detailed knowledge of both Indian and American music, make him especially eloquent at explaining this music to western audiences.
Rockwell was one of the first people to play the Chapman Stick®, the most widely known touchstyle fretboard. Today he plays a customized Warr Raptor®, which evolved through five different kinds of tuning and stringing before it reached its current form.
Playing Ragas Touchstyle
by Teed Rockwell
Recording Artist for Elefunt Records.
In Indian Classical music, progress is not only permissible but essential, even though it has to be carefully monitored to insure that the spirit of the tradition is preserved. Vilayat Khan once said “Too much tradition makes for dead wood. But I don’t want so much progress as to lose my identity.” Khan is considered to be more of a traditionalist than his fellow sitarist Ravi Shankar, but he radically redesigned the sitar to enable it to play the sustained notes of Indian vocal music. New instruments are constantly being adapted to Indian classical music, including Prasanna’s Electric Guitar, L. Shankar’s double necked Violin, Kadri Gopalnath’s Saxophone, U. Srinivas’ mandolin, Abhijit Pohankar’s electric piano, and the slide guitars of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Debashish Bhattacharya. I’ve often thought of their struggle to balance tradition and progress as I’ve transplanted traditional Hindustani music to my touchstyle fretboard.
When I was playing fusion music, I often combined ragas with harmonies and chord progressions. I discovered, however, that this constrains the structure for improvisation, and thus makes the music less profound and complex than the single melody of traditional ragas. Consequently, on this album there are no harmonies, as the concept is understood in the West—no sixths, thirds, major sevenths etc. So how can I take advantage of the two handed capabilities of my instrument? That’s a question I’ll be asking for the rest of my life, but here are a few answers I’ve come up with so far.
Octaves: Two notes played an octave apart have exactly the same overtones. If you set a synthesizer or an organ so that an octave plays on every note, eventually you hear it as only one note. Because my left hand and right hand strings have very different tone colors, I can create three very different kinds of octaves: 1) treble string (which sound like Jazz Guitarist Wes Montgomery) 2) Bass string (which sound rather like the bass octaves of a ragtime piano) 3) Two handed, which enable me to play different tone colors on the same note in each hand simultaneously (bending in one hand, sliding with the other/ muting in one hand, trills in the other etc.) I can also do this with unisons.
Variations on the Drone: Sitars and sarods have strings which are tuned to play only the drone notes (usually tonic and fifth). These strings are played in complex rhythmic alternation with the melody strings, especially during the fast chikare section that ends a raga performance. On a touch style instrument, it is possible to create a rich almost orchestral sound by playing drone and melody simultaneously. It is also possible to play cross rhythmic variations by doubling the drone notes on several strings with both hands.
Jugalbandi: In the late 1950s, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan created a new form in which two melody instruments perform together. This doesn’t sound very surprising to westerners, but jugalbandi should not be seen as one step towards forming an orchestra. It is a completely different perspective: Two soloists in interactive conversation, not fused together in a single ensemble. On a touchstyle fretboard, it is possible for one musician to play jugalbandi with himself. Both hands talk to each other, improvising melodies and then repeating them with variations in the other hand.
These are some of the techniques I am adding to the complex melodic and rhythmic rules that define ragas and talas. After years of trying to transplant this tradition to a fusion style, I have now decided it belongs exactly where I found it. It is impossible to feel fully satisfied when you stand in the shadow of a genius like Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib. But I hope this music has an integrity that makes listening to it worthwhile.