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One of the first things newcomers commonly hear about Indian music is that it ‘uses microtones’. A common misconception is that microtonally distinguished notes occur in succession; in fact, Indian music uses scales composed of degrees rather like the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale, but most of these pitches can be rendered slightly flatter or sharper in some circumstances, and types of inflection or ornamentation frequently modify or ‘bend’ notes in ways characteristic to particular compositional structures.

It is natural, therefore, that instruments allowing flexibility of intonation tend to be favoured – those where the player’s fingers can pull or press a string once plucked or bowed, or wind instruments whose holes can be partly covered, or the breath itself can by used to vary the pitch and intensity of the note. Above all, though, it is the human voice which is given prime importance in Indian musical thought and theory.

Keyboard instruments, with their necessarily fixed pitches, have been less readily accepted: the hand-pumped (and sometimes foot-pumped) harmonium was once shunned by All India Radio and is still hardly heard in the classical music of south India. Yet, once it was accepted, it became an indispensable part of North India’s ‘Hindustani’ music, and is now more commonly heard accompanying classical concerts than the more traditional sārangī (a vertically held bowed fiddle). Perhaps partly because of the success of the harmonium, other keyboard instruments have started to figure in the Hindustani music scene.

John Pitts is an award-winning composer who has lived in Pakistan and loves Hindustani instrumental music; he writes with the enthusiasm and practical expertise of a convinced performer. His book introduces 24 rāgas through sample unmeasured (ālāp) and metrical (gat) compositions. The style of writing is chatty and informal, and the exposition of the basics of Hindustani musical grammar is not entirely clear nor in line with more standard practice or teaching methods.

That said, there is much to praise in this book. Pitts meticulously and imaginatively sets out in staff notation numerous effective and convincing musical ideas in his range of Hindustani rāgas. Despite its shortcomings in musical theory, I strongly recommend the book to pianists with an eye and an ear to the east.

JONATHAN KATZ Read the full review on Agora Classica


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