Improvisational music is a sticky project. On the one hand, the freedom offered by removing the normal constrictions of music—melody and rhythm in particular—can foster new sounds and new innovations. On the other hand, in the hands of less experienced players, that same freedom can quickly degenerate into silly noodling and unlistenable sonic gibberish. Technical brilliance in some contexts becomes absurd in others, and the moment in which the audience is impressed and interested can quickly fade into disinterest and fatigue.
The Nada Brahma Music Ensemble manages to avoid all of those pitfalls, in part because there is a melodic center to its music and in part because it creates a sense of blissful, almost meditative consciousness in its audiences. It also helps that the ensemble is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in Sacramento: a four-piece group performing a version of classical Indian music on acoustic guitars and tabla (a pair of classical Indian drums).
I’ve certainly heard Indian classical music before, but what sets the Nada Brahma Music Ensemble apart is its use of guitars instead of traditional Indian instruments, like sitars, shanai or harmoniums. The tonal limitations of the guitar require some dexterous playing on the part of bandleader Matthew Grasso and steel-string-guitar soloist Leon Hu. Also, the guitar itself lends a jazz-like feel to some of the compositions, a feel that is decidedly American.
Grasso knows his music can be difficult for his audiences, and he helps assuage that difficulty by presenting introductory comments before each piece. He counts out the beats for the audience to the tabla playing of Alex Jenkins, also the drummer in rock band Daisy Spot. He then introduces the initial melodic line slowly, pointing out the intervals (skipped intervals and flattened and sharpened intervals being most noteworthy). Once the initial setup is explained, the ensemble slowly creeps into the work, starting slowly and almost ambiently before Jenkins’ tabla enters and the melodic line is established. All the while, Eric Ramussen gently plucks the chord structure in an endless, cycling drone. In many ways, he has the hardest job in the whole group.
It’s effective and interesting music, although admittedly it’s not for everyone. The pieces are long (some pushing half an hour), and the interplay of instruments doesn’t often resolve in the way that Western music does. Dissonance is left hanging, with the piece as a whole (rather than an individual measure or phrase) resolving only when the melody is reintroduced—sometimes not until the end of the piece. It takes something of an open mind and a temporary suspension of Western musical expectations, even if the acoustic guitar tones themselves are familiar.
Nonetheless, the audience at the Bo Tree Bodymind Center in Davis seemed to appreciate the Nada Braham Music Ensemble immensely, even if some of them were unconscious. The seating at the Bo Tree was mostly on the carpeted floor with pillows. After the first half-hour or so, many people were lying on their backs, eyes closed. After an hour, the man next to me snored quietly until his wife gently woke him up. This isn’t to say that the audience necessarily found the music boring, but droning, looping, longish Indian-style compositions mixed with a comfortable pillow and a warm room could make anyone drift off. (I had a folding chair but found myself wishing for the floor-pillow combination a few times myself.) Promoting unconsciousness with music might just be a good thing.