The United States of America and India lie on opposite sides of the globe. When it’s noon here, it’s midnight there. It was not until commercial air travel took off in the 20th century that America properly encountered India, her culture, her music, her religious beliefs, her cuisine. America’s serious acquaintance with, and acceptance of, Indian classical music began in the late 1950s through musicians such as the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, the sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan and the tabla master, Alla Rakha.

These artists belonged to the Hindustani school of Indian classical music. Eventually, musicians from the other school, Carnatic, toured America and Europe, and musicians and audiences in the West became familiar with both musical styles. The audiences weren’t always drawn from the elite: battalions of long-haired shabbily-attired hippies swayed and rocked and gyrated to Ravi Shankar’s dazzling performance at Woodstock in 1969.

Familiarity brought out the differences between Western and Indian classical music. Indian music was monotonic, based on ragas, musical scales comprising specific notes, which the musician played, moving up (aarohana) and down (avarohana) the scale. Western music was polyphonic, based on harmony where the melody was played simultaneously with other notes that formed chords. The other main component of Indian music was the tala or measure of rhythm; the closest Western music equivalent would be the meter. In the West, there was great emphasis on the quality of tone, free from harshness or nasal and chesty sounds; in India, quality did not matter as much as accuracy of pitch and dexterity in the production of tones, especially when done rapidly without compromising on precision.

Historical Influences

The roots of Indian classical music can be traced to a treatise called Natya-Shastra by Bharata (dated between 200 BCE to 200 CE) which dealt with instrumental music, drama and dance as artistic entities that intertwined to make a whole.

The split of classical music into the Hindustani and Carnatic schools probably culminated around the 16th century CE, the divergence beginning with the Muslim conquest of India which brought along with it the influence of Persian and other Islamic music. But the Muslims never vanquished the kingdoms of southern India, so the music there evolved without such external compulsions. The Hindustani style is prevalent in Northern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and to an extent, Nepal and Afghanistan. Carnatic music extends over Southern India and the Tamil-speaking regions of Sri Lanka.

But over the years, the two schools have influenced each other – it is not as though each is barricaded from the other.

Filling a musical gap

Among the many American musicians who studied Indian classical music is Ethan Sperry, Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities, Portland State University, Oregon, and Artistic Director and Conductor, Oregon Repertory Singers. He grew up in an artistic family: his father was a tenor singer, his mother a sculptor. Though Americans invariably think of Ravi Shankar and Hindustani music when they hear the term Indian Classical Music, Sperry chose the road less taken and studied Carnatic music. “I got a grant to travel to Mumbai [Bombay] and Chennai [Madras] to study Indian music,” he said. “After some studying of Indian music theory (mostly Carnatic) and attending a lot of concerts, including many children’s concerts, which really helped me grasp how the theory was put into practice, I decided to try a purely choral arrangement of the music.”

Ethan Sperry.

But here was the snag. India has no choral tradition as its music is based on melody, not harmony. There are no ensembles, and the ones you might unearth sang in unison, not harmony. Would such a transplant between widely differing traditions be at all possible? Would it not expose the musician-innovator to accusations of turning a tradition into a travesty?

Sperry addressed that issue thus: “I learned from my father (who is also a musician) that great music is great because it captures some essential human feeling or experience and brings it to life. Our goal as musicians is to make a personal connection with that spark in the music and share it with others. You have to be willing to be vulnerable to do this.”

Sperry then elaborated on his experiments: “I got my start as an arranger singing a cappella in college. In this style we give all the instrumental parts to the voices and use the voice to try and imitate their sounds. I decided to try this same idea on an Indian raga. I chose the raga Ramkali because it strays so far from Western scales. I decided to improvise on the raga as if I were singing the piece and write down my best ideas. Then I did the same thing for the vocal parts, trying to use syllables that would make them sound like the Indian percussion and drone instruments that usually accompany a singer.”

'Ramkali', Ethan’s Sperry’s first composition transferring an Indian raga into Western choral format. This recording is from a later date, but Sperry himself is conducting.

Sperry’s willingness to take risks notwithstanding, the challenge facing him was tortuous, tricky and daunting. His adaptation of Ramkali was a male chorus piece (tenor and bass) but now he turned his attention to a complete four-part harmony adaptation. “One reason I love performing non-Western music is because I don’t find non-Western ideas in the music,” he said. “I find basic human emotions and experiences that I have, I share, and I understand.”

That outlook helped Sperry take on the daunting challenge of transplanting music between disparate traditions. Sperry has arranged Carnatic music compositions into the standard form of Western choral music: pieces to be sung by a four-part harmony choir comprising of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

“I’m seeing, well hearing actually, American choirs making a much wider variety of sounds,” he said. “I’m not referring to pieces that require expanded vocal techniques, I’m talking about choirs changing their sound to suit the piece they are performing. I think this is at the crux of great choral music-making, and I find it very inspiring. Britain has this amazing choral tradition where they all sing so cleanly and so perfectly and I think we have been trying to emulate that for a long time. In doing so we created some beautiful choirs, but I think we missed a lot of musicianship along the way. American choirs have been much more adventurous in programming, not only in championing modern music but in exploring the music of other cultures.”

In Sperry’s own exploration of Carnatic music and its adaptation to Western choirs, there necessarily had to be compromises. Although most Carnatic music is written to be sung, the structure is very different. The basic unit of a Carnatic composition, known as a kriti, has three distinct components: pallavi (meaning “sprouting”, the equivalent of the refrain of Western music) anupallavi (meaning “continuation of the sprouting”, the succeeding verse, optional) and charanam (meaning “feet”, the last and longest verse which wraps up the song, the final line of which bears the composer’s musical signature). And a Carnatic music concert (katcheri) usually has several sections: a tana varnam (somewhat like a warm-up or an etude), simple and complex kritis (usually seven-nine per concert) and a lyrical closing piece like a padam, mangalam or thillana. Moreover, a hallmark of such concerts is improvisation – the singer and the accompanist having great leeway within their musical parameters. So no two concerts are alike even when the same piece is performed, a far cry from choirs that sing using sheet music, deviations from which crook eyebrows or evoke outright censure.

So how does one take Carnatic music and arrange it for a choir?

Sperry’s approach in negotiating these obstacles is better understood by viewing the performance of a Carnatic composition and then viewing Sperry’s arrangement of the same piece for a four-part harmony choir.

The basic katcheri ensemble consists of the singer, accompanied by a drummer using a drum like the mridangam or tavil or even an earthen pot (ghatam), and supported by a background drone note (shruti) generated by a stringed instrument called the tambura or by the shruti box, a bellows-operated instrument similar to the harmonium. The drone serves as a pitch reference and is the closest the performance gets to using harmony. There may be additional instruments like a violin and a kanjira (a small tambourine).

Here is a video of a thillana (a rhythmic piece that usually is the last item in a concert) composed and sung by a leading Carnatic musician, M Balamuralikrishna.

Balamuralikrishna sings his composition, Thillana, in Dwijavanthi Ragam, at a katcheri at the Guruvayoor Temple, Kerala, India.

Two videos of Ethan Sperry’s arrangement of Balamuralikrishna’s thillana in Dwijavanthi follow. These are performed by two of America’s finest high school choirs: the Martin High School Chamber Singers, Arlington, Texas, and the Winton Wood High School Varsity Ensemble, Forest Park, Ohio (who, among other distinctions, have recorded two CDs with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and performed in the 2008 Pre-Olympic Festival in China). Because of the differing visual and audio quality of the recordings and the cinematography (for instance, close-up shots showing how the singers vocalise the notes), both video clips have something to offer to the viewer.

Ethan Sperry’s arrangement of Balamuralikrishna’s Thillana in Dwijavanthi performed by the Martin High School Chamber Singers at the Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas…
…and by the Winton Wood High School Varsity Ensemble, Ohio

Sperry has the sopranos and tenors begin with harmonic overtone singing to simulate the droning of the tambura/shruti box. The tenors start with an octave drone of C and C, with the sopranos joining in the second measure creating antiphonal sound as they drone at a fifth interval, C and G, with the C for the sopranos at the same pitch as the top C for the tenors. The basses layer a harmony atop the droning as they burst into song in the third measure, “Dhi-ra-naa Naa, Dhi-ra-naa.”

Next, Sperry introduces the “call and response” pattern, a characteristic feature of Indian music. Even in a katcheri where there is only one singer, when the singer calls, a musician responds. There are also passages where the singer is silent and one or more musicians hold court, dazzling the audience with their mastery over their chosen instrument. Sperry brings the “call and response” into play when the altos respond to the basses’ call with their own response, “Dhi-ra-naa Naa, Dhi-ra-naa, Thaa-no, Tha-na”, and by now we are well into the composition.

The Carnatic katcheri only uses a few instruments, but rather than attempt to use these Indian instruments for a choir or find similar Western instruments, Sperry opted for an a capella arrangement sprinkled with vocables like “dng” and “k” to imitate the sounds of the mridangam or the kanjira, in addition to the harmonic overtone singing. All the instruments that we hear, all the droning, jingling and drumming, are made by the human voice. There are constant rhythmic changes and swapping of parts.

The next consideration is: what is being sung? Earthsongs, the publisher of the sheet music of this Sperry arrangement, states: “Other syllables used in this piece such as ‘Ta-na-na’ and ‘Ta-ki-ta’ are not purely nonsense syllables like ‘doo-doo-doo.’ These syllables are taken from a rhythmic solfège language used by musicians in India called sollokattu [sic].”

Solfège (from the Italian solfeggio) is a form of solmisation, which is, attributing a distinct syllable to each note in a musical scale. The solfège language used in South India, solkattu (in Tamil, “bundles of syllables”) is a system of reciting rhythmic syllables while simultaneously counting the tala (meter) by hand, such as by the clapping of hands. The spoken component of solkattu is referred to as konnakol (which can be loosely but aptly translated as “rhythm is king” or “rhythm rules”). Konnakol is the vocal imitation of percussion sounds and patterns. Compositions in konnakol can be spoken as well as sung, as demonstrated by the video below of boys of varying ages reciting a konnakol composition written by percussionist Vikku Vinayakram. The introduction is by the British musician John McLaughlin who has repeatedly acknowledged konnakol as having played a foundational role in his personal musical journey.

The Boys on the Beach: Konnakol recital, Chennai, India

Sperry’s arrangement omitted parts of the concluding section of Balamuralikrishna’s composition. In its place, Sperry tacked on several konnakol phrases (for instance, Ta-ka-di-mi and Ta-ka-ju-na) that are not part of the original. Also, Balamuralikrishna’s composition as a whole was sung at a fairly even, almost leisurely pace. But as the boys on the beach demonstrated, konnakol can be belted out as well as chanted slowly. When Sperry added his own konnakol phrases toward the end of his arrangement, he also upped the tempo. What begins as a slow rubato (in Italian, “stolen time”) of 85, moves to a faster 100, and then rockets to a crescendo in the region of 180+ (that is, as fast as the conductor wants it or the choir can sing it) before decelerating at the very end.

All along, several things go on simultaneously: call and response, swapping parts to and fro, and continuous rhythmic changes. There is also a section where the tenors and sopranos sing while the altos and basses (like the boys on the beach) don’t sing but speak Ta-ka-di-mi, Ta-ka-ju-na in a flat voice, imitating the shruti-box/tambura drone through the sound of the spoken word rather than through humming.

Sperry, then, has brought considerable inventiveness in this choral arrangement.

Ecclesiastical Music

Thiru Pallandu is a sacred chant composed by Periya Alwar (one of the last among the lineage of the Alwar saints of Tamil Nadu) who lived around 900 AD in Sri Villiputtur, Tamil Nadu. Composed in Tamil, this chant is part of the larger Naalaayira Divya Prabhandham, a musical compilation of 4000 stanzas. A paean to Lord Vishnu, Thiru Pallandu is recited in the Vishnu temples all over southern India.

'Periya Alwar’s Thiru Pallandu. Sperry has arranged the section from 0.35 to 1.22 for a Western harmony choir.

Sacred music is also part of the Western choral tradition. And such choral singing started as plainsong, sung in unison, as Thiru Pallandu is in India today. Around 1400 CE, choirs began singing sacred music in polyphonic harmony. Sperry only uses the first pasuram (stanza) of Thiru Pallandu but prolongs his arrangement longer by multiple repetitions of the same lyrics. Interestingly, this piece by Sperry is often performed by either all-male or all-female choirs. Here is a performance by Prime Voci, the Seattle Girls Choir:

Prime Voci performs first pasuram of Thiru Pallandu, arranged by Ethan Sperry

Sperry again begins with the singers vocalising a drone, and throughout the piece mimicking musical instruments as he did in his Dwijavanthi arrangement. Sperry also includes Konnakol solfège phrases like Ta-ki-ta and Dhi-na-ka into his arrangement for rhythm and effect, a feature capable of raising eyebrows (if not hackles) in India among orthodox Hindus, who regard the sacred composition to be recited or sung in a plain way from the heart (like the plainchant of medieval Europe), and not as something resembling entertainment.

However, in the evolving choral tradition, musical and verbal embellishments are deemed as adding to the splendour of the piece much as a colourful stained glass window lights up an otherwise drab church. Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie (from La Messe de Nostre Dame) and Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei are good examples.

It is not just Hindu sacred music that interests Sperry. He has also adapted AR Rahman’s music arrangement for the Urdu devotional Zikr as a cantus (the mediaeval form of choral singing, usually in polyphonic style, and in the highest range of voice). Zikr (or Dhikr) refers to a technique from the Sufi tradition of Islam which goes back at least 700 years, and emphasises that short phrases or prayers (taken from the Quran or the Hadith) repeatedly recited either aloud or mentally, ushering one closer to the divine. The word “Hu” in Sufism is gender-free; God is not labelled as “he” or “she.” Some lines:

“Zikr aman hai, zikr hai fatah, zikr shifa hai, zikr hai dawa.”

Zikr is peace; zikr is victory; zikr is healing; zikr is the cure

“Haq laillaha illallah.”

There is no other truth save God.

“Hu Allah Hu Allah Hu.”

Just God – or – There is no reality other than God/

AR Rahman’s Zikr, sung by the Paramadina Choir from Jakarta, Indonesia.

Sperry is a friend of Rahman, who was born a Hindu with the birth name Dileep Kumar but later converted to Islam, taking the new name Allah Rakha (AR) Rahman. Sperry has commented that despite having composed music for thousands of songs, “…Zikr is his only statement of [his] faith in music.” That said, this Sufi practice of repetition is remarkably similar to the concept of japa yoga in Hinduism (or, for that matter, using the rosary in prayer in Catholicism).

“I am most proud of Zikr,” Sperry said. “The media gives a lot of airtime to a relatively small group of Muslims who are terrorists, and almost no attention to the millions of Muslims (138 million in India alone) who are not. I hope this song will help some people understand that there’s much more to Islam than Al Qaeda.”

However, the most common form of popular music in India is film music – songs from the movies – and Sperry has not shied away from adapting this form for choirs.

Popular music in choral format

While the Natya Shastra intertwines drama, music and dance, contemporary Indian movies, though poles apart from the ancient Sanskrit treatise, do the same. Most Indian movies are musicals with a dance number or two tossed in amid high drama, very often melodrama.

The Indian diaspora and Indophiles around the world who follow Indian film music know AR Rahman well but most Americans discovered him after he won two Academy Awards (Best Score, Best Song) for Slumdog Millionaire. Sperry is a frequent collaborator with Rahman, and is a consultant for Rahman’s music college in Chennai, the KM College of Music and Technology.

Sperry has arranged some popular Rahman songs for choirs. Of these, the favourite (Google and YouTube indicate that choirs all over America go for it) is Balleilakka from the 2007 Tamil movie Sivaji: The Boss. Balleilakka may not be quite Rahman’s best but he set its humdrum lyrics to a fast beat and a catchy tune, which Sperry capitalised on. One of its finest choral renditions is by yet another high school choir, the Cuda Chorus of the Coral Reef Senior High School, Miami, Florida.

'Balleilakka' from the movie 'Sivaji the Boss.' Sperry has arranged the portion from 0.00 to 1.48 for a four-part harmony choir.

Their back story to this performance is remarkable. John Rose, the school’s choral director, was a music teacher at schools for 40 years (the last 15 at this school). Rose was adored by his students, who were devastated when he was diagnosed with an incurable neurological disorder, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a debilitating motor neuron illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This progressively limited the function of his arms, a conductor’s tool of the trade, and also affected his throat.

His students opened doors for him as he approached, warmed his food for lunch, turned his music pages. But most of all, they sang for him with heart and soul. “Even with his condition, he doesn’t stop, never stops,” a student said. “We understand him, his emotions and his slight facial gestures show us what we need to do.” And Rose said, “These kids have sensitized themselves to me more. They are caring. Not that they weren’t caring before but when things happen it bonds people. I thought my conducting style was one of my strengths, how I moved my hands. Now, I gesture. As long as I feel I have something to give they can benefit from, then I think I’ll still be here.”

Rose and the choir then took on an ambitious project: entering Balleilakka in Florida’s highly competitive Merrick Festival. Tamil was a language as foreign as foreign could be to all of them, and the pace of the song was faster than a horse’s gallop. View the original lyrics below to glimpse what was to their eyes quite a daunting piece, some verses and choruses repeated, maybe more than once:

பல்லே லக்கா (Balleilakka)

Female Chorus

சூரியனோ…. சந்திரனோ……. யாரிவனோ…

சட்டுன்னு சொல்லு……

சேரப்பாண்டி சூரனும் இவனோ……..

சொல்லு சொல்லு…….. சட்டென சொல்லு……

Is he the sun? The moon?

Who is he? Tell me, dear, – right now!

Is he a Chera or Chola warrior?

Tell, tell me – right now!

பாரடி பாரடி பாரடி இவனோ

பாய்கிற சிறுத்தையின் காலடி இவனோ

கூறடி கூறடி யாரடி இவனோ

கெட்டதைப் பட்டென சுட்டிடும் சிவனோ….

Look, dear! Look, dear! Who is he?

He who pounces like a lithe panther;

Tell me, tell me, who is he?

Perchance Lord Shiva, who shoots down the evildoers?

Male Chorus

பல்லே லக்கா பல்லே லக்கா சேலத்துக்கா மதுரைக்கா…..

மெட்ராசுக்கா… திருச்சிக்கா…. திருத்தணிக்கா…

ஏ…..பல்லே லக்கா பல்லே லக்கா…..

ஒட்டு மொத்த மக்களுக்கா…..

அண்ணன் வந்தா தமிழ்நாடு அமெரிக்கா!

A good route! A good route!

To Salem? or to Madurai?

To Madras or toTiruchi? Or perhaps to Tiruthani!

Eh, ’tis a good route indeed

For all of us, the people,

‘Cause when our elder brother is here, Tamilnadu turns into America!


காவிரி ஆறும் கை குத்தல் அரிசியும் மறந்து போகுமா?

தாவணிப் பெண்களும் தூதுவிடும் கண்களும் தொலைந்து போகுமா?

நம்ம களத்து மேடு…….கம்மாக் கரை கரிசக் காடு…

செம்மண் அள்ளித் தெளிக்கும் ரோடு.

Who can forget the Kaveri River or the rice (from the fields) threshed by hand?

Can the young damsels in half-sarees with such expressive eyes ever be forgotten?

This barren land which is only used to thresh paddy

Ringed by dense forests,

And the red soil of our earth.

Full Choir

ஏ…….சடுகுடு சடுகுடு சடுகுடு சடுகுடு

சடுகுடு சடுகுடு சடுகுடு சடுகுடு

Run, run, run, run!
Run, run, run, run!

(A reference to a game popularly known as Sadugudu [or kabbadi])

சடுகுடு சடுகுடு ஆடிய மரத்தடி…………

படுப்படுப்படுவென போர்த்திய புல்வெளி…………..

தொடத் தொடத் தொடத் தொட உடைகிற பனித்துளி…..

சுடச் சுடச் சுட கிடைக்கிற இட்லி

தட தட தடவென அதிர்கிற ரயிலடி…….

கட கட கடவென கடக்கிற காவிரி

விறு விறு விறுயெவன மடிக்கிற வெற்றிலை

முறுமுறுவென முறுக்கிய மீசைகள்

மனதில் இருக்குது மெய் மெய் மெய் மெய் மெய்

மெய் மெய் மெய் மெய் மெய் மெய்………….மெய்!

The trees under which we played Sadugudu (Kabbadi)

These grasslands, lulled to sleep by the enveloping greenery…

Dewdrops which splintered at the lightest touch…

Steaming hot idlis that were served…

The trains, thundering down the tracks…

The gurgling waters of the swift Kaveri river…

The folded betel leaves…

Moustaches, with their curled, upturned tips…

All of these make for such fond memories

Verily, verily, verily, verily, verily…..verily!

(சூரியனோ சந்திரனோ…)

(Is he the sun?….)

பல்லே லக்கா பல்லே லக்கா சேலத்துக்கா

மதுரைக்கா….. மெட்ராசுக்கா… திருச்சிக்கா…. திருத்தணிக்கா…

ஏ…..பல்லே லக்கா பல்லே லக்கா……………

ஒட்டு மொத்த மக்களுக்கா………….

அண்ணன் வந்தா தமிழ்நாடு அமெரிக்கா!

(A good route….)

It is the devilish tongue-twister that it seems at first sight. Howard Cohen, writing in The Miami Herald described the way the students banded and bonded under their teacher using the phrase “Mr. Rose’s Opus,” invoking the title of the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus (which is about how a music teacher’s former students team up to perform his hitherto neglected composition).

Mr. Rose’s Opus: John Rose conducts the Cuda Chorus, performing A.R Rahman’s ‘Balleilakka’ at Florida’s Merrick Festival, 2011

The Cuda Chorus did their teacher proud, not only stunning the audience into pin-drop silence but going on to win the festival’s prestigious Grand Prize.

Sperry has also arranged Bollywood songs for choirs. Here is his arrangement of The Wedding Qawwali from the play Bombay Dreams which had successful runs in London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. This is yet another Rahman composition and, like Zikr, the qawwali also comes from the Sufi musical tradition. The qawwali is more aptly described as Sufi popular music (as opposed to Sufi devotional music).

In the video below, Sperry’s arrangement is performed by Cantus, a Minnesota-based nine-member male vocal ensemble (bass, baritone, tenor). Sperry has also arranged this song for an all-female (soprano, alto) ensemble.

“Wedding Qawwali” from “Bombay Dreams” performed by Cantus as part of the Carnegie Hall Neighbourhood Concert Series

Sperry’s arrangement uses two lead vocalists and traditional western instrumentation like guitars. The percussion is on a tambourine and two djembes or similar drums. For those who may want to follow along while watching the video, here are the Punjabi lyrics and an English translation:

Sona sona mera sona,

Sona sona maahi sona.

O mera rang de lalaariya ha, rang de lalaariya ha,
Rang de dupataa, mera rang de lalaariya ha,
O mera rang de lalaariya ha, rang de lalaariya ha,
Rang de duptaa, mera rang de lalaariya ha,

O mere haaton pe laga de rang mehndi lalaariya,
Rang de duptaa, mera rang de lalaariya,

Ni sa re sa sa sa, Ni sa re sa sa sa
Ni sa re pa ma pa ma re ma re sa re sa
Ni sa re sa sa sa, Ni sa re sa sa sa
Ni sa re pa ma pa ma re ma re sa re sa

Sa sa ni dha sa ni dha pa ma ga re sa
Sa sa ni dha sa ni dha pa ma ga re sa
Sa sa ni dha sa ni dha pa ma ga re sa

Mil gaya, mujhe mil gaya
Rhemto kharan khil gaya.

Sab rang dil shagun banaeeya,
Sajno de geet sajaeeya

Paraji pera liya.


My darling is like gold.

Colour me red.
Colour my veil in red
And apply scarlet henna to my palms.

I have found
That all my prayers are blooming in colour.

Let’s all embrace and follow the rituals.
Let’s all sing songs for my beloved

As our scarves flow beneath our feet.

As with all music, the experience comes as much from the interpretation as it does from the composition. Cantus has stuck closely to the piece as arranged by Sperry. But Chor Leoni (The Singing Lions), the all-male choir based in Vancouver, Canada, has a very different interpretation. With foot stomping, hand clapping, and swaying and turning their bodies like whirling dervishes, Chor Leoni transforms the lively wedding song into a rousing wedding dance.

Chor Leoni Men’s Choir (Vancouver, Canada) offers its interpretation of Sperry’s arrangement of A.R.Rahman’s “Wedding Qawwali”

Placing Ethan Sperry within the musical spectrum

Contemporary fusion music (music that purposefully combines two or more genres) started out as a synthesis of jazz and funk or rock and became fashionable after the 1970s. Now we have global fusion music where genres from the music traditions of different countries are blended with each other. Indian music has been used by many artists in creating such blends. Examples include L Subramaniam (who trained in both Carnatic music and Western classical music); the collaborations between Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass; Shakti, a band which combined Hindustani or Carnatic music with jazz and blues, led by John McLaughlin (who introduced the video of the boys on the beach); and Ana Rita Simonka who blends Hindustani and Sufi music with Brazilian rhythms such as Bossa Nova.

Not everybody is enamoured with fusion music, though. Each musical tradition has its diehard purists, who fiercely resist anything that smacks of change. They forget their current tradition did not spring forth pure and clear overnight and often had surprising or obscure origins that they would be hard put to accept.

But let us consider this: Indian classical music split into Hindustani and Carnatic branches which, despite their different evolution, also influenced each other down the centuries – they even share some ragas and principles of improvisation. And while the conquest of India engineered the split, other events down the years brought their own changes.

To cite an example, a great classic of Tamil literature, the Silappadikaram (CE 300), describes songs of that era and names musical notes that were considered pure Tamil but have since been rendered archaic with the passage of time, the evolution of language, and the winds of history. One of the doyens of Carnatic music, Thyagaraja (CE 1767-1847), lived in Thanjavur right in the center of the Tamil heartland but composed in Sanskrit and Telugu. For Thanjavur had been conquered, not by the Muslims but by Hindu monarchs from neighbouring kingdoms with different languages such as Telugu (which, like Tamil, had Dravidian roots), and Marathi (derived from Sanskrit).

There were no private concerts during those days where people paid money to attend a performance from the receipts of which musicians were remunerated. Artists flourished under royal patronage and so composers such as Thyagaraja had to respect the king’s preferences, not that every king dictated the choice of language. In fact, the Bhonsle dynasty’s Serfoji II (King of Thanjavur, CE 1798-1832) emphasised the widening of one’s horizons. This scholar-king could quote Shakespeare, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, and Fourcroy with the same ease with which he quoted Indian intellectuals, and he popularised European music in his court even while he patronised Carnatic music. But whether or not Thyagaraja was under any kind of royal pressure, his choice of language has in no way diminished his compositions; au contraire, they are masterpieces of Carnatic music.

Therefore, the “purity” of a musical tradition is quite ephemeral, and Sperry’s efforts to innovate with Carnatic music call for more appreciation than umbrage.

Likewise, the Western choral music tradition has also undergone major shifts. In the Middle Ages, it was largely monophonic plainsong (plainchant; cantus planus). Polyphony was intended only for soloists with musical accompanists. It was only during the 15th century that polyphony was introduced into sacred choral compositions. Madrigals and chansons were probably not intended for choral singing those days but choirs sing them without a second thought today. It was during the Renaissance that polyphonic choral music became established, distributing voice parts over the full vocal range (soprano to bass) in a balanced way; this fundamental structure has persisted till today. Choir music was inevitably religious during this period.

Instruments to accompany choirs gained popularity in the Baroque period, and choirs also began increasingly singing secular pieces. Choirs could, for instance, now be part of opera. Also, emphasis varied by country: Italians stressed the solo parts of a harmonic piece, Germans the choral part. In the Classical era, symphonies included sections with choral parts, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which contains what is arguably the world’s most recognized choral composition, Ode an die Freude (in English, Ode to Joy.)


In the last two centuries, choral music has also moved to the concert stage. Vaughan Williams arranged English and Scottish folk songs for the choir, as did Mykola Leontovich with Ukranian folk songs. Osvaldo Golijov fused Bach-style passion forms with Latin American street music (St. Mark’s Passion is an example). Chen Yi’s Chinese Myths Cantata are retellings of three Chinese myths through a choral arrangement accompanied by traditional Chinese experiments.

So from the Middle Ages to contemporary times, choral music has changed shape, style, and form many times over. Its embrace of Carnatic music is one more step in its evolution. As L Subramaniam puts it, “Music is a vast ocean and no one can claim to know it all. The more you know, the more you realise how little you know. It is an eternal quest.” By introducing different forms of Indian music (Carnatic, sacred, and film) into the Western choral tradition, Ethan Sperry has earned his spot in the annals of music’s eternal quest.

Vishwas R. Gaitonde spent his formative years in India, has lived in Britain, and now resides in the United States. His writings have been published in all those countries, and elsewhere. His literary distinctions include the Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers Conference and a writing residency at The Anderson Center (United States); a Summer Literary Seminars fellowship (Canada); and the Hawthornden Fellowship (Scotland). One of his published short stories was cited as a Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories of 2016.

This article first appeared on Serenade, India’s first western classical music portal.