Written by Ashwin Segkar
It’s the year 2120. The sky is prickly with dust and it’s a frigid 48 degrees in Brisbane. In a jam room, Karen, Tom, Bevan and Shanti are working on their fourth album. The label said this one has to be more mainstream or they’re cut. Steeped in Aussie music, Karen knows what to do.
With her soft, service-economy hands she thumbs a string on her detuned guitar. An effects pedal catches the tone and waltzes it around the room as a drone sound. Of course. Ancient metal bands like ACDC and Hanson started songs with a statement chord that captures the conscious mind and makes you want to move. A drone captures the subconscious mind and gets it to spill. Their hypnotic drone tone is inspired by the didgeridoo in indigenous music, and the tanpura from India, where artists suspected that without the deeper part of yourself on board, you can’t travel anywhere interesting. Musos call it backdropping and it’s done with modern electric tones pulled from street culture. A police siren or drain water.
Bevan arrives with a melody on what sounds like a rich-man’s kazoo. He doesn’t hit notes straight and then leave them behind, who does that to a friend? That might have been fine for Bach and Mozart, but it’s 2120 and we meet and farewell our notes like a cousin. Think of of turning up at a party as the note in a song. Just as dinner guests get an array of handshakes, smiles and biriyani-to-go on either side of arriving, “gamaka” beautifies notes with elegant pitch bends and other embellishments on either side of the actual note. In fact, those embellishments are almost as important as the note itself. The South Asian technique was introduced into the Australian music scene by Pauline Hanson’s great grandson, Mustafa in 2060. Mustafa and his mates created a system of 32 ways to swoop in and out of a note, inspired by the graceful movements of a magpie bashing a cyclist.
Tom sets the rhythm. A cycle of 126 beats loops against a counter rhythm of 68 beats. The tension builds as the rhythms split apart and is released as they come together every 8568 beats. Like earth and Halley’s comet. This kind of drumming sounded clunky when it first arrived and was junked to a few avant-garde bars. But in 2028, a PhD student and his AI chatbot girlfriend worked out a way for numbers to weave in and out of each other in a way that pleases rather than troubles the ear.
And Shanti, the only English member of the group, starts to sing. She locks into the rhythm and kazoo melody and helps create the Rasa, or mood of the piece. In the world of classical Sanskrit music and art, this meant putting the audience through one of the eight emotions held to be at the heart of human life: fear, jealousy, mirth, disgust, anger, curiosity, heroism and wonder. But these are just the moods of carbon life at a particular place and point in time. Since we merged our brains with silica chips we discovered new emotions including the sensation of being a toaster. And this came out in our music as Shanti expertly modulates her voice, lyrics, facial expression, the lighting of the room and more to move an audience through these target feelings.
By 2020, Asian musical ideas had already been part of the skin of western music. Like a henna tattoo. As the Beatles or Panjabi MC did, it was easy to print a Hare Krishna chant or a few sitar twangs onto the muscled chest of a western song, whose bones are made of Beethoven and sinews of Little Richard and Elvis. But letting Asian ideas into its structure, its bones? That took until much later in the 21st century when a critical mass of Asian migrants had moved to Australia and ventured into the arts with a renewed confidence in their own classics. In bars and music schools they experimented and Australianised these methods with their peers until they’d sunk deep.
Is this a real future? Who knows what turns culture and history will really take before spitting out the music of next century. But it would be something to fly new creative paths of our own, separate from the musical orbits of the US and UK. And with Asian roots, reworked with Australian innovation, artistry and technology we’ll find some of those routes. Right now, we have a few artists on the edge of the map seeing some of the potential.
Astrid Jorgensen created and runs the wildly popular Pub Choir, which sees strangers gather in a pub to learn and sing multi-part harmony versions of hit songs. She recently discovered Carnatic music,
the classical style of South India and the technique of konnakol, which allows performers to create music that is rhythmically complex, yet musical.
“I first came across konnakol when watching a choir performance of a piece called ‘Misra Chappu’ which is a very beautiful and complex vocal performance based around a 7 beat percussive cycle, written by the Australian composer, Lisa Young. I thought it was absolutely mesmerising to watch and to hear. I also was fascinated at how rhythmically complicated the music seemed in comparison to western choral music, but also how simply it all seemed to fit together. That’s what drew me to research what ‘misra chappu’ meant, which led me down a rabbit hole of learning more about Carnatic music.”
Jorgensen is hopeful that this and other elements can seep into the Australian way of making music.
“I personally feel like Asian music offers an extension of what the West hears and knows. There is so much more than the 12 note chromatic scale that I was taught when learning Western music theory. I can currently see a subtle resurgence of jazz and soul in popular music in Australia and around the world. I like to hope that the next step will be an inclusion of Asian musical influence in popular music.”
Scientific studies into pop music have reinforced some of the disdain carried by those who say it was ‘better before’. It might not have been better, but it was different. A team from the Spanish Research Council used artificial intelligence to analyse half a million pop songs from 1955 – 2010. They found they have steadily become melodically simpler, use fewer chord changes and are louder. With obvious exceptions, this is becoming an era of simple, repetitive hooks and driving beats. Just as the sweet, symmetrical melodies of Mozart gave rise to the fiery and unpredictable tunes of Beethoven, we’re changing.
The journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and The Arts analysed pop songs from 1980 to 2007 and found a measurable increase in the use of the word ‘I’, reflecting our growing individualism. Our songs have moved from being social and aimed at the conscious and often political mind to being personal and aimed at the sub-conscious mind and the body lost in dance. And we’ve made the shift by tweaking the musical vehicle we’re currently driving in. Use fewer lyrics. Turn up that 4/4 beat. Cut down on chords. Sing about yourself. Don’t sing at all. But what about re-fitting the vehicle with some new parts? Maybe we could drive further into this place we’re aiming at.
Anthony Garcia from Sounds Across Oceans is a Brisbane based guitarist whose musical career has revolved around collaborating with musicians from different cultures, including Japanese, Tibetan, Indian, Indonesian, Thai and Nepalese, and has been more exposed than most to what some of those new parts could be.
“I am always captivated by distinct and diverse soundscapes, melodies and rhythms from all cultures. In this sense, the thing about Asian music I love the most is that the scales, rhythms, tones, the stories and overall aesthetic parameters of the myriad genres and styles are an unlimited resource for my own creative explorations.”
“In addition to the obvious difference: instruments, materials, scales, melodies, harmony and rhythm, there is more emphasis on developing rhythmic complexity than harmonic complexity.”
Australian born tabla player, Shen Flindell, has mined those rhythmical ideas for over 25 years.
“The language of tabla, the way of counting a cycle while vocalising cross-rhythms, the very thorough range of possibilities in terms of numbers of beats in a cycle and ways of dividing the beat are all very useful.”
“One particular technical aspect of Indian classical music which is unique is the tihai, where a phrase is played 3 times to finish at a pre-determined point. I really enjoy exploring all the possible mathematical ways this can be done in various taals.”
“It would be great to see a top level artist emerging in Australia and being recognised in India and around the world. There are already several Australian-born artists reaching quite a high level. I also look forward to the new music these emerging artists produce in collaboration with artists from all the other great traditions we have in multicultural Australia.”
Singer Menaka Thomas has focused more on the vocal and melodic potential of Carnatic music, blending it with other musical styles.
“As my voice and ear has been trained in Indian classical, the embellishment of the notes come naturally in every song I compose.”
“Many musicians from other world music backgrounds have often commented on the complexity of the vocal technique and even how the “meandering” of the voice will pick up on tones of notes that cannot be found on a keyboard or piano.”
“We see a lot more blending of musical genres, even in the contemporary music scene, compared to 10 or 20 years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if contemporary artists start to explore at least the basic ornamentation of notes that characterises Indian music.”
Garcia notes that Asian music styles have retained a certain flexibility due to their varied job descriptions.
“In some genres the purpose might primarily be to create music for meditation or the temple, to teach blind people or ex-Samurai, to preserve cultural heritage, to support other artforms.”
“This happens in the West but the modern era in the West is dominated by the imperative to entertain. This is a global phenomenon but there are traditions, those mentioned above where the focus is more transcendental. The transcendent was never part of my music education here in Australia.”
To go transcendental in the West often means dance music. Raves. Pills. Simple hooks and repetitive lyrics.
Many modern Westerners might not yet love classical Japanese, Indian or Indonesian music. But the techniques they’re founded on could be re-purposed on our stages, in our way to suit the people we’re becoming.
It’s not a task for a decade, it’s a task for many.
But to ignore the potential is like a drug company wandering past the Amazon.