Program Notes

Teen Murti

By Reena Esmail

Most Indians will immediately recognize Teen Murti as the name of the New Delhi residence of the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The residence, which now serves as an incredible cultural resource (library, museum, and planetarium) is named for the sculpture that stands in front of it. ‘Teen Murti’ means three statues, figures, or representations in Hindi. Though not directly based on the sculptures, this work shares their title as it is centered around three large musical ‘figures’ that are adjoined by short interludes – similar to the idea behind Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It lays out three tableauxs: each is rooted in a specific raag and its Hindustani melodic tradition, and those melodies are interwoven using a more Western technique.

At the many concerts of Hindustani musicians I attended while I was in India, I noticed a curious thing that would happen before each performance. The artist would announce the raag to be sung or played that evening, and immediately, many of the cognoscenti in the audience would begin humming the characteristic phrases or ‘pakads’ of that raag quietly to themselves, intoning with the drone that was already sounding on stage. It had a magical feeling – as if that raag was present in the air, and tiny wisps of it were already starting to precipitate into the audible world in anticipation of the performance. I wanted to open this piece in that way, and continue to return to that idea in the interludes.

While I never made it to Teen Murti during the time I lived in Delhi, coincidentally, the first time one of my compositions was premiered in the city was at a concert at Teen Murti, barely a few months after I had returned to the US.

For those familiar with the Hindustani tradition: I hope you will hear in the interludes the strains of Bihag and Bhairav pakads, and in the three murti Malkauns, Bhairav and Jog respectively.

Malkauns, being a madhyam-based raag, is something that sits very differently in the western ear, which continues to percieve S as P (of what would then be a P based raag). I wanted to play with this expectation through the evocation of Malkauns taans that constantly return to this unexpected S from increasingly greater distance and over greater lengths of time.

Basant is one of my favorite raags because it is a beautiful example of the difference of musical aesthetic between Hindustani and Western idioms. When westerners think of the season of spring, this is the classic example that comes to mind. Of course Basant could not be more different in color and mood, and I think hearing both these conceptions of the season of spring allow us to see how multifaceted our aesthetic associations can be.

Jog has been both a source of constant fascination and challenge for me. The use of both shudh and komal G allows for effortless transition between what westerners refer to as the major and minor modes. But both these modes are equally present in Jog, and its complexity allows for such a broad range of expression.

Program notes by © Reena Esmail 2024