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Melharmony  

 

Ravikiran's most significant contribution to world music is Melharmony, a new approach to compositions and aesthetics that he initiated in the year 2000 at the Millennium Festival in UK. The impact of this has been reflected in melharmonic concerts, collaborations, academic papers and recognition such as the Mayor of the city of Middleton, (WI, USA) declaring the 3rd Saturday of every November as Melharmony Day. Melharmony aims to create a synergy between melodic concepts not common in the West (in terms of form and structure and ornamentation) and harmonic dimensions that are almost totally absent in the East, as can be seen in this concert rendition.

Ravikiran's Melharmonic creations include original compositions and arrangements for full-scale symphonies, smaller classical/jazz ensembles as well as Caprices for soloists. He has also introduced Melharmony in USA School Districts through compositions for their orchestras.

Definition & Scope

Melharmony can be defined as “harmony and vertical layers of music with an emphasis on the rules and principles of highly evolved melodic systems” (such as the raga system of Indian music). Thus, in Melharmonic compositions, the very approach to harmony is distinctive from conventional approaches to harmony employed in Western systems, because not only the main melody but each counterpoint and chord also has to conform to melodic rules including scale, sequence and hierarchy of notes, ornamentation and integrity of a given mode (raga).

While challenging, this also offers enormous scope to explore unchartered territories in the world of harmony. In short, Melharmony is a sophisticated and organised approach with comprehensible, context-specific rules that can be understood rationally and applied consistently to any well-defined melodic system of music.

Collaborations

Ravikiran's collaborators include artistes of orchestras such as BBC Philharmonic, Cleveland Opera, Sacramento Youth Symphony, blues/jazz/world exponents Taj Mahal, Larry Coryell, George Brooks, Roland van Campenhout and composers such as Prof Robert Morris. His ensemble ta ki Ta Trio with 4-time Grammy winner Glen Velez and Lori Cotler has won much acclaim.

The fundamental aims of Melharmony are:

(a) To showcase the similarities between Western and Indian classical music to audiences of both spheres, which in turn can lead them to enjoy and appreciate the contrasts and differences even more.

(b) To bring a rich feel of harmony and texture into fundamentally melodic systems such as Indian music but without compromising on their essential features.

(c) To highlight sophisticated, varied and subtle melodic concepts and principles of highly developed melodic systems to audiences essentially used to harmony through well structured compositions and arrangements.

(d) To project intricate melo-rhythmic patterns in an exciting manner.

Recent news - North American Melharmonic Orchestra - NAMO

This historic, yet futuristic ensemble of young artistes trained in Indian & Western Classical, Jazz & Pop to perfect, project & protect Melharmonic creations was formed around Oct 2012. After training and rehearsing for a few months, NAMO is set to premier its first show, 'Tyagaraja the Traveller' in the Cleveland Tyagaraja Festival at Waetjen Auditorium, CSU at 8 am on Sunday 31 March, 2013. For updates and further information, please visit the Facebook Page.

Melharmony in US School Districts

Melharmony was introduced at the grass-root school levels for the first time in USA by the Middleton School District near Madison, Wisconsin in March as part of the Global Initiative Grant. While the High School String Orchestra showcased an original composition of his, Not i in March, the Middle Schoolers are slated to present Bay of Bengal (a melharmonic arrangement of a traditional composition of Karur Brothers in the Indian raga Bangala) in May 2013. Ravikiran aims to create such Melharmonic opportunities for students in several other school districts across USA.

Academic acceptance

The Society for Music Theory Conference, Boston, USA: On Nov 12, 2005, distinguished composer Prof Robert Morris (Eastman School of Music, NY) presented a significant paper titled: 'Ravikiran's concept of Melharmony: an inquiry into Harmony in South Indian Ragas.' Ravikiran has presented papers in conferences such as India and the World (Amsterdam) and Indian Musicological Conference (Mumbai).

Compositions & Arrangements

Ravikiran's Melharmonic compositions are flavoured with exciting and often original rhythmic patterns. He has introduced modes/scales novel to the West but based on Indian ragas like Hamsadhwani, Nattai, Dhavalambari and Janaranjani. He has also created melharmonic arrangements based on works of traditional Indian composers such as Tyagaraja (1767-1847), Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi (1700-65) and Muttuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835). For school levels, Ravikiran has created melharmonic interpretations of short pieces (geetams/krtis) arranged for piano, strings and/or winds. His compositions have influenced composers such as Polivios Issariotis.

Distinctive approach

Broadly speaking, Melharmonic principles can be used to help guide the use of harmony and voice leading in any system of modal music. However, in an Indian context, Melharmony suggests that "voice leading should be derived from the melodic and sequential structure of the raga". The concept dictates that a composition based on a well-defined scale such as the raga not only features chords and harmonies drawn only from notes permitted in the raga, but also highlights the sequence, structure and typical ornamentation that bestow the raga its unique individuality and identity. In this manner it is distinct from simple diatonic harmony that takes care of only the scale but not the other aspects associated with a raga.

The reality

Though the above may seem easy enough, a Melharmonic approach to creating music is seldom a reality in world music, for two reasons:

· Systems dependant only on melody scarcely venture out to the territories of chords

· Systems such as Western Classical and Jazz that predominantly use chords follow different sets of aesthetics that do not require composers to exclusively use notes native to a specific scale.

Precisely because the approaches to melody-centric and harmony-based systems are quite distinct, many aspects do not resolve themselves to a listener from the 'other side of the fence'. Thus, for someone who listens to Western classical or jazz with an 'Indian ear', certain chord combinations may appear to use notes 'foreign' to a given raga. Similarly, for one attuned to harmonic systems, a purely melodic system may not sound wholesome.

A significant fact

In any system, while most combinations of notes can be skillfully "made to work" when rendered successively, only certain combinations would be palatable when rendered simultaneously . This gives an enormous scope to melody-centric systems such as Indian music when it comes to exploring combinations or sequences of notes. However, this also makes melharmony all the more challenging – since one attempts to create harmony using the melodic rules of the ragas.

The next logical questions would be, "So what are the ways in which one can compose melharmonically? What are the melodic rules that one needs follow? What are the aspects of music that one needs to get familiar with and attain competence?" The answers are very simple and quite easy to practice if one were to engage in quality interaction with master musicians and composers of the melodic systems even for a few days or weeks.

The practice

In order to practice melharmony (in the context of ragas), one needs to approach a raga with an eye to its melodic structure’s harmonic potential. Indian music theory provides schemes for classifying ragas that help identify their similarities and differences. An awareness of these melodic rules are essential for composing quality works using Melharmony.

Each raga’s identity is based on at least five criteria:

(1) Scale: Notes used in the raga that enable a Carnatic raga to be classified under one or more of a possible 72 parent ragas.)

(2) Sequence - specific to both ascending and descending scale patterns. This is a very fundamental aspect of a raga that composers must be well aware of, since even a minute change in the sequence can mean a different raga.

(3) Hierarchy of the notes of the raga: Each raga has certain dominant notes, notes with development potential as also certain 'touch me not' notes in which phrases cannot begin and/or end.

(4) Typical ornamentation: Again, each raga has well defined rules of what notes can be rendered plain or with movement or micro-tonal variation depending on the context. In the South Indian tradition of Carnatic system, oscillation of a note is a major ornamentation that is in fact the lifeline of some ragas. Composers seeking to use Carnatic ragas will find it most rewarding to acquaint themselves with some of these principles.

(5) Key phrases: Since Melharmony aims to bring out the beauty of the raga, one must be aware of the ways in which a raga can be made to come alive in the course of a composition. The classical approach to ragas in India have been focussed on revealing the raga from the very first phrase and not approach it with the mindset of a mystery writer. Even an awareness of 10-12 key phrases of a raga will go a long way in enabling a composer to feel the pulse of the raga and create quality compositions in those.

Over the last few decades, several composers from other cultures have attempted 'raga-based' compositions (using both North Indian and Carnatic ragas). They have made commendable efforts to learn and try out new scales from India. But without familiarity with the other four aspects listed above , their compositions are at best diatonic harmonies and only bring out about 20% of the raga. In fact, without an emphasis on the right sequence of notes, the music can very easily cross borders and go into the territory of another raga. This does not matter, if the attempt is specified as only a 'raga-influenced' work and not as a 'raga-based' creation.

The significance

It is against this background that Ravikiran's melharmony is revolutionary. Several of his melharmonic pieces have multiple arrangements that can be performed by small jazz bands and classical ensembles as well as by full-sized symphony orchestras. More significantly, Ravikiran hopes to create a new set of aesthetics and rules of desirable chords with respect to each individual mode raga that will enable any composer in any part of the world to create melharmonically.