Posted by: Justin Hopper | October 5, 2008

Rudresh Mahanthappa interview: Raga and Bone Man

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Part 2: The Big Bangalore

When American saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa first became interested in (obsessed with?) the Carnatic music of his parents’ native southern India, it was the same as his early involvement in jazz. He read, he listened to records intently, he meticulously copied scales and pieces on his saxophone – everything, that is, short of sitting down with a masterful teacher and learning “the rules.”

But unlike jazz, Carnatic music – the complex classical ragas best known in the West from practitioners such as Ravi and Anoushka Shankar – is all about “the rules”: the complex, traditional patterns of modality that comprise the raga systems. In 2007, when Mahanthappa was awarded the prestige – and the cash – of a Guggenheim fellowship for his work on cross-pollinating contemporary avant-garde jazz and classical Indian music, it was obvious what he’d have to do.

“I was very blunt in my proposal,” says Mahanthappa. “I know how [raga] works, I can play some of this stuff, [but] I know how it works on a gut level. But I don’t know the rules – why do you do this and not that, rhythmically? What is the basis for the rules, why are they there?”

So, earlier this year, Mahanthappa traveled to India to spend two months in the cities of Bangalore and Chennai, “soaking up” the rules of raga theory. Vacation, this was not.

“I’d just sit down and we’d say, ‘we’re gonna work on this raga today. Why do you slide between these notes and never between these?’ We’d spend eight-hour days working on what’s essentially a scale of eight notes – and it’d be two or three days like that, just on one raga.”

Samdhi, the resultant music that Mahanthappa composed from these months of lessons, which he will debut at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, will by no means be a complete picture of these Carnatic-jazz experiments. “There’s a lot of information there, melodically and rhythmically, but I think conceptually, much of it will be in the piece.”

For Samdhi, Mahanthappa is expanding on experiments he’s worked on with long-time and frequent collaborator Vijay Iyer and in ensembles such as the Indian-jazz project, Miles From India. Together with Iyer, Mahanthappa has collaborated on live electronic-influenced music with the likes of DJ Spooky and underground hip-hop icon Mike Ladd. And such influences are creeping into Samdhi, Mahanthappa says – a drum machine, for example; not playing a steady rhythm, but rather programmed to randomly generate rhythms within Carnatic rules.

For Rudresh Mahanthappa, raga – like all music – isn’t just a set of rules for voice, saxophone or sitar, it’s a manner of interpreting the world we live in: a graph or chart through which the chaos of every day can be organized. (This wholistic passion is a family affair: Check out the striking series of raga-influenced abstract paintings by Mahanthappa’s wife.) Raga isn’t just music, it’s a part of the makeup of our world.

“There’s a lot of music that naturally exists in the world, and we all take it for granted,” he says. “I try to see through those lines – that terrible backing-up sound a car makes outside your Brooklyn apartment, if you speed it up, that sounds like a Carnatic rhythm.

“Then again, maybe I’m out of my mind, too.”

For more on Rudresh Mahanthappa, including sound samples, visit his Pi Recordings website.



  1. Regarding the statement: But unlike jazz, Carnatic music – the complex classical ragas best known in the West from practitioners such as Ravi and Anoushka Shankar – is all about “the rules”

    I would like to point out Ravi Shankar and his daughter are practitioners of Hindustani Music and not Carnatic Music. Both are related (some common aspects) but can be very different in both theory and application. And yes both have ragas, which are rule based. So the main import of that statement is indeed correct excepty for this technicality.

    Hindustani Music is if you will the North Indian flavor of Indian Classical Music, while Carnatic is the South Indian flavor of Classical Music (practiced mainly in the southern 4 states of India). But it would be a mistake to treat them as “mostly the same”.


  2. I really, honestly thought I’d get in trouble on that one, with my severely limited knowledge of Indian classical music.

    Thanks for the correction.

    A quick search or two has led me to this very brief definition of the difference:

    as well as this with an only slightly more musicological glance at the subject:

    Again, thanks for the comment and correction!

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