Geometry Sings the Blues in Indian-American Mathematician's Radical New Music System
- CURVED PHRASES from Indian ragas melt into languorous blues microtones. The strains of music born on the American South's slave plantations mutate into the more angular notes and layered melodies of the Western classical genre. The different sounds weave in and out of one another, creating a shifting and arresting aural landscape that feels at once both achingly familiar and dazzlingly novel.
This is the radical new music on a CD, titled Metaraga, to be released worldwide on 17 January by Origin Records, a prestigious US label. The music has grown out of a path-breaking, unifying musical framework developed by Purnaprajna Bangere, an Indian-American mathematician and violinist, using concepts from algebraic geometry, the discipline in which he specialises. Bangere also founded the Purna Loka Ensemble, which performs six of the CD's eight tracks.
"What I find appealing is that Purna's concept is highly virtuosic and is built on an incredibly vast traditional musical system, but folds in references to jazz, blues and mountain musics that slowly unfold as he moves through a piece," said John Bishop, a drummer and founder of Origin Records. "There are many points of reference, rhythmic and melodic, that our ears connect with, but it does feel like something new and significant."
This framework, which Bangere calls the 'metaraga system', combines the full range of Indian microtones and oscillations, such as meend and gamak in Hindustani music, and kampitam and sphuritam in Carnatic music, with Western-style key changes, or modulation, and polyphony, which is music containing two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody. Moreover, in the framework, blues-style melodies evocatively emerge as the best technical and aesthetic bridges between the Indian and Western genres.
In addition to its musical importance, therefore, this system has a profound cultural significance: Afro-American music that grew from pain and protest becomes the link between East and West.
Bangere evolved the system's musical principles from algebraic geometry, whose concepts form the system's invisible subterranean plumbing. Bangere has presented the mathematical ideas underpinning the system — which is a work-in-progress that he continues to expand and refine — at several prestigious venues in India and the US, such as the Asian Art Institute in San Francisco, Brown University, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute-Berkeley, Tufts University, the Chennai Mathematical Institute and the Indian Statistical Institute, Bengaluru. His ensemble has also performed the music at some of these venues.
"I was searching for a musical idiom that transcended civilisational barriers," said Bangere, a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, US, who grew up in Mysore, during the course of about a dozen face-to-face, telephone and Skype interviews over the past year. "Mathematics showed me the way. The metaraga system integrates different genres, which exist separately, but their key elements dynamically interact with each other to produce new sounds, with no sense of hierarchy."
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