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How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano by John
Published 2016 258pp ISBN 9781326786625 Intensely Pleasant Music
It’s not every day that I come across a book quite this specialised but I’ve enjoyed John Pitts’ compositions on disc and was curious to see how he would set about the task of encouraging the reader to explore North Indian sitar music on their Western pianos. The short answer is very entertainingly and encouragingly.
In this large size paperback, copiously illustrated with music examples, Pitts outlines the key ingredients of the raag (it literally means ‘colour’), India’s semi-improvised music, and how it can be transformed for use on solo or two pianos or indeed piano duet. There’s an enlightening and disarming introduction in which the whys and wherefores are honestly addressed – sample rhetorical question: ‘So, how can Indian music be played on a piano?’ – before the structural niceties of the raag genre are approached.
Pitts includes 24 raags, newly composed, though like a master chef encouraging his novice bakers, he also includes a pick ‘n’ mix section to allow ingredient mixing by fusing raag elements or indeed taking the plunge and composing one’s own. After the introduction, Pitts presents his first raag interspersing instruction, explication and suggestion so as to get the reader au fait with the salient features of the raag – it’s very complex and ornate – after which he devotes fully 46 pages to explaining elements such as drone effects, improvised melodies, decoration, the use of the interlude, and the whole nature of the raag’s structure. Only a thorough study of the instructions will reveal the detail and the profuse help offered to the player and the help is presented with clarity. All the hundreds of musical examples are clear and clean and the interspersed advice on performance equally so: no scrunched or bunched text or music here.
The novice will also receive a non-didactic crash course in terminology and in the music’s pitches and its context, as each raag is associated with a particular mood and this also extends to the time of the day when particular raags are played. There’s a fascinating ‘time frame’ table showing which is the best time to play the 24 rags.
So really this is a cornucopia of raag-related information for the intrepid traveller into the world of raag-piano. The text is broken up by photographs, some rather grainy given the print, that range from a picture of the author himself in a deprecatingly entitled picture called ‘How not to hold a sitar’ to a ruddy goose. You don’t get that in biographies of Mahler.
If you have any interest in this esoteric arena, in improvising from a Classical or jazz background, or even from an ill-defined background, and want to face the challenge of encompassing twenty scales, I can’t imagine a better primer than this.