TWILIGHT STRINGS. Kala Ramnath, violin with Yogesh Samsi, tabla. Available from www.RagaRanga.com
YASHILA. Kala Ramnath with Abhijit Bannerjee and Somnath Roy, Percussion, and arrangements by Derek Roberts.
Available from www.senseworldmusic.com
Kala Ramnath has recently made two albums—one purely classical and the other labeled a fusion album. And yet I’m not sure I could tell which album was fusion if it were playing in the background while I was having dinner. Is it really meaningful to distinguish between classical and fusion music in this case, or in any other case for that matter? Is the distinction between fusion and classical music of interest only to academics and critics? Is it a socially constructed concept made precise only by arbitrary gerrymandering? I don’t think so, even though it’s often fun to ridicule our failed efforts to precisely draw the line. Still, I think it’s important for us to draw the line between fusion and traditional music—and then cross it whenever it’s artistically necessary.

Because the fusion artist accepts that rules are there in part to be broken, people often think that the basic maxim for fusion is “anything goes.” This is true, strictly speaking, but that doesn’t mean that every path leads somewhere worth going. If you throw everything into pots, some pots will explode, some will melt, and some will stink to high heaven. A gamelon, a sarod, an udungu, and a tuba have no business playing together just because they can. This is why the best fusion musicians have become more careful about selecting ingredients, and now strive to build everything around some sort of cultural center.

Ramnath’s Hindustani violin technique is as purely Indian as the guitar is purely American. (The violin was invented in Europe, of course, but the guitar originally came to America from Spain, about the time that the violin came to India.) Her fellow musicians in the fusion group Yashila are also Indian, both musically and ethnically. But they do not merely fill the traditional percussionist slots of either Hindustani or Karnatik music. Abhijit Bannerjee plays tabla, but he also plays the pakhawaj, the traditional drum of classical Dhrupad, in some very un-Dhrupad contexts. Somnath Roy plays ghatam, morsing, kanjira, and most of the other percussion instruments of traditional Karnatik music. But his first training was in Hindustani flute, and he frequently plays both Hindustani and Karnatik patterns on everything from Arabic dunbek to South American clave.

The percussion is carefully selected to enhance the mood of each of the compositions, which have evocative names like the “tone poems” of European classical music. Ironically, the poetic names separate this album from Indian classical music, which relies only on the traditional vocabulary of “the nine rasas” to label the musical emotions. However, the rasas of karuna (sorrow) and shringara (love and beauty) are eloquently expressed in the song “Sadness Can be Beautiful,” as are adbhuta (wonder) and veera (courage) in “Thunder in my Heart.” The latter piece acquires its thunderous quality from the unorthodox pairing of a booming pakhawaj with the clattering rolls of a folk frame drum called the duff. “Drive East,” the title song of the album, creates a kind of bass counterpoint with the lowest sound of tabla and ghatam, and trades on affinities between Bhairavi thaat and the Phrygian mode, which is the basis of Spanish gypsy music. And yet this project refrains from what most fusion projects add to Indian music.

Ramnath’s violin is the only melody line heard throughout the album; there is no harmony, or even the two interacting melodies of the recently acceptable classical form jugalbandi.

Twilight Strings is an Indian classical album of the purest sort, but it is not without surprises.

Most noticeable is the excellent fidelity of the recording. There was a time when economic and technical factors made superb performances and bad sound quality the rule for domestic Indian recordings. Swarlata Studio in Mumbai demonstrates that those days are long past. This recording beautifully captures the rich pure tone of Ramnath’s violin as she devotes over 50 minutes to exploring all the nuances of raga Puriya Danashri. This is not a raga with noticeable connections to folk or popular music. Its main themes are built around a whole tone scale pitched a half step below the main notes of Sa and Pa. There is constant tension and release as this whole tone scale, which has no recognizable home base, resolves into and then departs from the tonic and dominant. The slow ektal which opens the Raga deliberately explores its every nuance, revealing a depth of possibilities that make any attempt to “fuse” new elements into this tradition seem like overkill.

And yet it would be a mistake to think of Ramnath’s classical performances as examples of a single Hindustani gharana. She was born in Madras, and her grandfather, A. Narayana Iyer, trained her uncle, T.N. Krishnan, in Karnatik violin, and sent her aunt. Rajam, to train in Hindustani violin. Ramnath has been exposed to both traditions since she was two, and her playing clearly reflects her experience. Karnatik violin is heavily influenced by vocal ornaments, which is one reason why her aunt and guru taught Ramnath to play Bandishes, i.e. actual songs with lyrics that are ordinarily sung by Hindustani khayal vocalists. Her other Hindustani influences have been mainly vocal, especially her decades of study with Pandit Jasraj. His influence is especially evident in the fast low gamak that ornaments the climax of this raga. Does the combination of vocal and instrumental, Hindustani and Karnatik, count as classical rather than fusion? If so, where do you draw the line? G.K. Chesterton once said that art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere. Ramnath has clearly found a place to draw the line that works for her. But that doesn’t mean that another equally talented artist couldn’t legitimately draw that line somewhere else.

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.