John Cage’s 18 microtonal rāgas are found in Solo for voice 58 from Song books (1970).
To perform them, the dhrupad and experimental music specialist Amelia Cuni decided to apply experimental procedures to dhrupad vocalism and to elaborate her Indian music background in a new music context. She also wanted to explore an influential contemporary composer’s take on rāgas and step back from her personal involvement with the tradition and observe it from another perspective.
In collaboration with the Berliner Festspiele and several other contemporary music venues, Cuni’s interpretation of Solo for voice 58 was premiered in Berlin in 2006 and has been performed since then at several European and U.S. festivals.
This according to Cuni’s “Chance generated ragas in Solo for voice 58: A dhrupad singer performs John Cage” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society XLI [2011–12] pp. 127–54).
Above, the tabla notation for the performance; below, a studio recording of Cuni’s realization. More about the work and Cuni’s version is here; a full live performance can be viewed here (the performance starts at 10:00).
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by rāga performances, and he wanted a demonstration.
After a specially prepared vegetarian dinner, Thakur began with hindolam, which depicts valor. “When I was soaring in the high notes of the rāga,” he later recalled, “Mussolini suddenly said ‘Stop!’ I opened my eyes and found that he was sweating heavily. His face was pink and his eyes looked like burning coals. A few minutes later his visage gained normalcy and he said ‘A good experiment.’”
After Thakur brought him to tears with rāga chayanat, which is meant to depict pathos, Mussolini said, after taking some time to recover, “Very valuable and enlightening demonstration about the power of Indian music.”
Il Duce then returned the favor: Producing his violin, he treated Thakur to works by Paganini and Mozart. Again, both agreed on the music’s power to evoke emotion.
“I could not sleep at all the entire night,” the vocalist recalled, “wondering whether the meeting had really taken place; I thought it was a part of a dream.” The next day, two letters from Mussolini arrived—one thanking him and one appointing him as director of a newly formed university department to study the effect of music on the mind (an appointment that he was unable to accept).
This according to “Omkarnath Thakur & Benito Mussolini” by B.K.V. Sastry (Sruti 163 [April 1998] pp. 19–21).
Although the exact date of this meeting is not recorded, we know that it took place in May 1933—80 years ago this month! Below, Thakur performs rāga bhairavi.
Related article: Rāgs and recipes
In “Why Hindustani musicians are good cooks: Analogies between music and food in North India” (Asian music XXV/1–2 (1993–94), pp. 69–80), Adrian McNeil notes that culinary topics are frequent—sometimes even favorite—subjects of conversation among Hindustani musicians, and that a notable number of top Indian musicians are also expert cooks. He attributes this phenomenon to the similarities between the cognitive and sensory aspects of the two activities, and proposes a “culinary perspective” on rāg.
Offering a basic “culinary recipe” alongside a basic “melodic recipe”, McNeil similarly juxtaposes, in a two-page spread, a photographic “depiction of potato with ginger and puris” with a rāgamālā “depiction of rāg sārant”. Further positing a “melodic conception of food”, he recounts examples of Indian musicians using culinary analogies to illustrate musical matters, and cites a use of the phrase biryāni chicken khā (eat chicken biryāni) to convey a rhythmic pattern to a hungry mrdangam player.