Artists and critics necessarily have very different attitudes toward aesthetic values. An artist must have very narrow standards of what is artistically good and bad, with zero tolerance for anything that doesn’t measure up to those standards. These standards define who you are as an artist. Without them, you have nothing to say, no reason to place paint here rather than there, or play one note as opposed to another.d58c8985681a45d792cf34b1304cc7a2-4

This is why there is some justification for the hissy fits that arise from that much abused character trait called “artistic temperament.” Tube amps are better than solid state, and that chord progression needs to be played four times instead of eight. If the other people in the band can’t see that, they are just WRONG, even if you can’t give a reason why (and you usually can’t). Such attitudes make artists hard to live with, but without some aggressive defense of your own standards, it’s impossible to rise above mediocrity. None of this justifies other behaviors associated with artistic temperament, such as drug abuse, promiscuity etc., but that’s a subject for another article.

Critics, in contrast, must have standards which are both high and flexible. There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than a critic who judges a work of art by what s/he thinks the artist ought to have done. If a critic has an idea for a work of art that is different from the artist’s, the critic ought to create that work herself, not criticize the artist for refusing to perform the critic’s fantasies. However, when the style is a combination of several traditions, it is very hard to be sure what the artist is trying to do, or whether s/he has succeeded. Furthermore, this standard is even harder to follow when one is both an artist and a critic, especially if the artist being reviewed has made choices that are importantly different from the choices made by the artist writing the review.

I play Hindustani music on a new instrument I call a touchstyle fretboard, which is somewhat better known under brand names such as Chapman Stick® and Warr Guitar®. It is played by tapping the strings on an electric guitar-like fretboard, instead of plucking them. Matthew Grasso plays an instrument he calls a raga guitar, which is adapted for Indian music from the nylon string western classical guitar. Both of us have been adapting new string instruments to the Hindustani tradition, but we have each made importantly different choices.

When I first listened to Grasso’s CD, I reacted to it like an artist, instead of a good critic. How could he even consider playing Indian music on nylon strings? They’re essentially impossible to bend. This means no microtonalsruti, which are as essential to Indian music as spices are to Indian food. I had spent hours choosing the gauges and alloys of my metal strings, had vehement arguments on this topic with my luthier, Mark Warr, and practiced diligently to make sure I bent those strings in ways that wouldn’t wound each raga. How could Grasso just walk away from this challenge?

I was bothered even more by his decision to create almost all new ragas for his first Indian CD, and to play in the most unusual talas he could find. Why create new ragas when no one has yet interpreted the hundreds of traditional ones on his brand new instrument? And didn’t he realize that the real rhythmic challenge in Hindustani music is to follow the 4/4 of tintal through a cascade of fives, sevens, and nines, which arrives triumphantly on the first beat of the cycle? The complicated tals he had chosen, such as 4 + ½, or 6 + 3 + ½, forced the tabla player to do little more than mark the beat, and made it difficult for Grasso to do significant cross-rhythms against the beat.

Thus spake my artistic conscience, until my critical conscience came to the rescue. Once I stopped comparing his decisions to mine, I was gradually able to appreciate his music on its own terms. Grasso has a deep mastery of a variety of styles I have studied only briefly. He has decided to combine his formidable skills in these areas with Hindustani music, artfully incorporating baroque sequences, flamenco trills, and classical pedal-points. Although he estimates his playing is “95 percent improvised,” it unfolds naturally as a raga should, giving a sense of organic and meaningful composition.d58c8985681a45d792cf34b1304cc7a2-5

Grasso has also successfully dealt with the unique intonations of Indian music, despite his relatively sparse use of sruti. After 10 years of playing Hindustani music in the western tempered tuning system, he commissioned luthier Scott Richter to build him an instrument that could both play in Indian intonation and have a greater range and resonance. Richter added an irregular fretting system that made it possible to play each note more purely in tune. He also added 12 steel sympathetic strings, two nylon chikare strings tuned to the drone, and a seventh playing string to expand the lower register. Even with a total of 25 strings, this “raga guitar” was not a rich enough sound to fulfill Grasso’s vision. His complete ensemble includes not only himself and a tabla player, but also a “drone guitar” player, whose instrument is tuned to the drone notes ordinarily played by the tanpura player, and who strums to provide an additional marking of the rhythmic cycle.

This music reminds me of those European classical compositions designed to evoke other cultures, such as Bartok’s orchestrations of Hungarian folk music, or Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic interpretations of jazz. Many other people would probably disagree, and hear this music as essentially Indian ragas, but that depends on what you mean by the word “essential.” Regardless, this is music unified by a clear and effectively realized vision.

Matthew Grasso’s album, The Five Deadly Talas, is available from

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.


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