I began looking at the form and structure of Classical Indian music as the basis of my composition and discovered a number of aspects that were appealing. Even though the subject was very complicated and traditionally based deep in its cultural roots, I gathered certain pieces of information from which I intended to compose a three minute work.
The concept of the Alap is the exposition of a musical idea without rhythm; the Swar are the notes of a scale, with the ascending notes of the Arohana and the descending notes of the Avarohana using specific twists and turns called Vakra. Then there is the modal structure of the That’s, six of the ten most well known That’s correlate to the six Gregorian Modes of the West; then there are others, more typical of Indian Music, such as the Bhairav, Todi, and Marwa.
Experiment with Astrology
I wanted to have a thematic element by which to construct the final piece that would incorporate some of the earlier experiments. For this I turned to astrology, astronomy and the music of the spheres. By examining the work of Kepler, Cousto and Holst I came across a basis for my theme.
Planets revolve around the sun in an elliptical orbit, taking a certain amount of time in which to complete their transit. This gives an insight into the frequency of the planets as periodic phenomena, as both period and frequency are related reciprocally.
frequency = 1 / period.
Once the frequency is determined for a planet, it can be brought into an audible range by doubling the frequency and thus raising the tone by an octave each time.
For example; Venus takes 0.6152 years to orbit, which has a frequency of 442.46 Hz when raised to the thirty third octave. This equates to the tone of A, remarkably close to the standard concert A of 440 Hz.
Once all the tones for the planets have been factored, the notes range from octave -8 to octave 40 if laid out in relation to each other. These can also be re-factored to arrive within a single octave. To summarise these findings, the frequency for each planet is as follows:
Sun : B
Mercury : C#
Venus : A
Earth : C#
Mars : D
Jupiter : F#
Saturn : D
Uranus : G#
Neptune : G#
Pluto : C#
This offers two structures to work with. The first is a melodic set of pitches and the second is the possibility of a scale. Only six tones are represented, which means that with the addition of another note a scale can be created. Surprisingly, this Planetary Scale can be matched to three possible standard musical scales.
The most obvious addition is the inclusion of the tone for the Platonic Year, the precession of the earth’s axis, which is a gyroscopic motion of the vernal equinox that indicates the passing of ages. By including the F into the pitches for the planets we arrive at the musical scale of F# Harmonic Minor.
Scale One : F# Harmonic Minor
[ F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, F, (F#) ]
By shifting the F down to an E the scale changes to the associated Major scale of A. I see this scale as the connection between East and West. The A Major is a very Western Scale in my opinion, but could equally be seen as the Aolian Mode of the Gregorian Scales and also as the Asawari That of Indian Classical music.
Scale Two : A Major / Aolian / Asawari That
[ A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, (A) ]
The final scale comes from using the D# as the missing note, which matches up to the ‘Marwa That’ of North Indian Classical music. The Thats are essentially modes and have no implied pitch. This combination of notes places the Marwa with a tonic of D. Marwa has a note combination that is not really found within Western Music and creates a very particular sound.
Scale Three : Marwa That
[ D, Eb, F#, G#, A, B, C#, (D) ]
The piece is divided into three, one-minute sections. The first will be in the key of F# Harmonic Minor, the second will be in the key of A Major or Asawari That and the last will be in the mode of the Marwa That. For each section a set of chords were created, following the tones of the planets in order from the Sun to Pluto and then in retrograde from Pluto back to the Sun, giving twenty bars of chords. The added note used to create the scale was used as a passing chord where appropriate.
The same sequence was used for the accompanying melody. With each bar being divided into quavers and the planetary sequence played every other note, the sequence covers two and a half bars; which is then repeated in reverse to cover a full five bars. This melody is repeated itself four times throughout the chord progression, with the redundant notes that aren’t part of the pattern being adjusted in order to maintain the overall key and remain in harmony.
Within the first section the chords are laid out along with a corresponding sine tone for the planet’s frequency, as it moves through the sequence. These sine tones reflect the accurate tone of the planet and are ever so slightly out of tune. This section represents the Alap and exposes the chord structure.
Within the second section the chords are repeated in the new key along with a quartet sample and the melody. With the exposition of the melody the rhythm is created with a plucked string synthesizer and balanced with a serene quartet sound.
The final section changes into the Marwa That and instead of repeating the chord sequence, an adjusted sample of a singer is used. Repeating the Swar for each planetary tone over a long, background drone.
In Indian Classical music the scale is known as the Saptak with seven notes, the Swar is the name of those notes and is related to the western Do, Re, Mi names.
Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, (Sa)
The characteristic movements or embellishments that define the Indian sound are folded into the ascending and descending scale, so a recording was used to keep the specifics of the flavours. The recording was of a singer moving through the scale of the Marwa That, this was based on a tonic of C which had to be pitch shifted up a tone. Then each note was separated and reordered into the planetary sequence. The voice was accompanied with pitch shifted echoes to remain closer to the background drone.
The strongest aspect of the piece as I see it, lies in the modulation from F# Harmonic Minor to Marwa That; crossing over with A Major expressed as a quartet and its counterpart, the Asawari That, being represented by the plucked string. Another aspect that was very successful was in finding the hidden scales inherent in the planetary tones, this allowed me to bridge the gap between East and West and to explore the differences between them via the addition or subtraction of a single note. I wanted the work to sound like a journey through space, or a slow dissolution of the universe and to ring with an Eastern tone.