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Marriage of melody and harmony: on Dr. Robert Morris

Dr. Robert Morris.

Dr. Robert Morris.   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

The result is Melharmony, which brought Dr. Robert Morris and N. Ravikiran together in 2003

Neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Dr. Daniel Levitin, in his book, ‘This is your brain on music,’ explains individual preference for music in terms of what he calls a musical schema. This schema is a framework that your brain forms based on the music you hear most often. So, if you have heard, say, Western classical music, your brain has a schema for that music. That is why you like music you are familiar with, because it fits in with the schema in your brain. If a person has heard different genres of music, the brain forms different schema for each of them. Levitin says that, while the brain likes music it is familiar with, it likes something complex and unexpected within the framework. So, one can see where Melharmony’s appeal lies, if one looks at it from the perspective of neuroscience. It gives the listener the unexpected, together with the expected, because Melharmony is the marriage of melodic and harmonic music.

But what is Melharmony? Simply put, it is the creation of harmony based on the rules of a melodic system of music. It was conceptualised by Ravikiran way back in 2000. Dr. Robert Morris, Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, has collaborated with Ravikiran since 2003 and has developed the field of melharmony significantly from the Western standpoint.

Morris has been a regular at the Chennai music season for the past 20 years. “My interest in non-Western music came about because of my grandfather Emmanuel Morris and my piano teacher’s wife ,” says Morris, who studied piano with William Krevit from 1951 to 1961. One day, Morris improvised something on the piano, and Krevit’s wife told him it reminded her of Indian music. She also lent him some 78rpm records and also a book on North Indian music. Morris promptly fell in love with Indian music.

Was he initially sceptical about the appeal of Melharmony to different audiences? “Not really, but I had heard some fusion between jazz and Indian musicians, and it wasn’t satisfying since both the Indian and the Western musics were simplified and distorted in the collaboration.”

How does Melharmony fit in with different genres of Western music — classical, pop etc.? Given the improvisations in jazz, would Melharmony work best with jazz?

It is hard to say, since different forms of Western music have different rules for composition and improvisation. If you think of improvisation as ‘free,’ this has little to do with either jazz or Indian music, which have demanding rules and forms to fulfil in the real time of playing music. It is exactly the differences between these different rule sets that can make fusion improvisation problematic.

Have you attempted to incorporate gamakas in Melharmony? For instance, Todi?

This is the elephant in the room. Carnatic ornaments, especially oscillations, characteristically confuse western listeners. I have been thinking about how to harmonise oscillations. Regarding Todi, yes, it is one of the most ornamented ragas and would be very difficult to harmonise it. Ragas without complex ornamentation seem well suited to harmonic treatment. A long-range project would be to write up the harmonic lakshanas of well-known ragas, so that musicians would be able to harmonise them effectively.

Would Melharmony work with other melodic systems of music, like Chinese or Turkish music, for example?

Melharmony could work with other forms of music that have pitch structures that are within the 12-notes per octave tuning found in many musical cultures. However, Turkish music uses a great deal of microtones, which are often resolved into 24 quarter-tones. These smaller intervals cannot be harmonised in the music, which is based on tetrachords divided in many different ways. The same is true for various forms of Arabic and Indonesian music. Of course, one could invent new forms of harmony for these types of music. But it would not be anything like harmony as we understand it. On the other hand, a new type of harmony might be a musical breakthrough.”

What are the aspects of Melharmony that are of interest to the academician? How would a study of melharmony add to music theory?

Music theory is what I do. How mathematical reasoning complements the intuitions of musicians interests me and many other scholars. Such rational reasoning had been accomplished by theorists in India and the West for many centuries.

How are successful experiments like Melharmony useful for students of ethnomusicology?

Ethnomusicology is actually a branch of anthropology, and a topic for study is acculturation. Besides the technical aspects of Melharmony, the ethnomusicologist would also be interested in how musical interactions like Melharmony change musical cultures as they accommodate one another.”

What are some areas of research in Melharmony? Is anyone in the United States working towards a Ph.D. in the subject?

To my knowledge, I believe I am the first Western theorist working seriously on Melharmony. But I think it won’t be long before Ph.D. dissertations are written on because both Westerners and Indians seem excited by the possibilities inherent in Melharmony.

Can you tell us about your orchestral composition – Varnam?

Varnam, written in 1972, marks my first serious attempt to bridge two or more musical cultures in one unified composition. The title denotes a genre of Carnatic pieces that is akin to the Western etude (in the artistic sense). Varnams are composed in a traditional melodic mode (raga) and rhythmic cycle (tala). My use of the varnam is integrated with Western music by the use of canonic textures and Western instruments. Yet most of the compositional details are derived from Indian models. The piece is a set of five canons (or rounds). The function of the canons is to ‘translate’ (or ‘amplify’) the melodic signatures of the Indian modes into a more Western format. The successive intervals in the mode are overlapped into a ‘harmonic’ texture.

When Morris attended the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru in 2000, he was quizzed by an old lady, who thought his interest was that of a dilettante. Morris recalls the incident with a chuckle. The lady asked him to identify the ragas being sung. Morris got the ragas right one after another, much to her disbelief. She thought she had him cornered, when he said ‘Vara Narada’ was in raga Vijayashri. She said it was in Varali. But Morris stood his ground, pointing to the absence of daivatam. Not convinced, the lady consulted a book and found Morris was right! But that didn’t keep her from continuing to test him! At the end of the day, she said solemnly to Morris, “In your previous birth, you must have been a Carnatic musician. But you must have done something terrible. That is why you were born in an inauspicious country, far from India.”

Digital compositions

In addition to concert music, Morris has written electronic/computer and improvisational music, and pieces to be played out of doors. He has published 10 papers on Indian Music. In 2012, he gave the Keynote Address, “Into the Raga” at the Second International Conference on Analytical Approaches to World Music, held in Canada.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 3:47:46 PM |

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