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April 19, 2007 9:25 PM   Subscribe

Introduced to Western culture by the Beatles in their single Norwegian Wood, the sitar has featured prominently in North Indian classical music for centuries. Princeton-based computer scientist Ajay Kapur updates the instrument with his ESitar, an audio and video controller that uses gesture input (PDF) and machine learning algorithms to facilitate joining the computer with Ajay in his sitar performance. Undergraduate engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania work from the other direction, building RAVI-bot, an award-winning, self-playing robotic sitar (YouTube) programmed to generate music from classical Raga scales and melodies all on its own. For those in the Philadelphia area, be sure to check out a live performance of RAVI-bot at the local Klein Art Gallery.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (32 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just to be clear, "Norwegian Wood" was a song on Rubber Soul, but was never released as a single (well, except for a special 1995 collection, but that doesn't count).
posted by cerebus19 at 9:29 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Let us praise the master of the sitar, Ravi Shankar who George Harrison described as the "Godfather of World Music."

BTW -- He's also the father of Norah Jones.
posted by ericb at 9:33 PM on April 19, 2007


"Concert for Bangladesh" with Harrison and Shankar is a great concert film.
posted by acro at 9:48 PM on April 19, 2007


Aw, damn. I have to compete against that robot at our engineering school's annual senior design competition, and I only helped advance a treatment for Parkinson's :-)
posted by supercres at 9:50 PM on April 19, 2007


Introduced to mainstream Western popular culture...
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:35 PM on April 19, 2007


a better RAVI-bot link: http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/article.php?id=1140

but still not enough info, alas.
posted by jdfalk at 10:40 PM on April 19, 2007


UbuRoivas, bad wording on my part, sorry.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:41 PM on April 19, 2007


Blazecock Pileon: That's OK. You just inadvertently stumbled upon one of my pet hates. Here you have an instrument that has been a central part of a rich & complex classical music tradition going back centuries, in a country that has had contact with the west since Roman times, if not earlier, was colonised by the British for hundreds of years up until 1947 (with French, Portuguese & Danish settlements), and yet Beatles fans act as if four rather naive & inexperienced travellers from some bog town in northern England singlehandedly discovered an instrument that everybody else had somehow completely overlooked throughout the preceding half-millennium.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:03 PM on April 19, 2007


A few years ago, when I was over at his house outside Philadelphia, Shafaatullah Khan told me that George Harrison came first to his father, Imrat Khan, to learn the sitar. His father, he said, told George (not in these exact words) that he didn't want to get involved with such foolishness as pop music, so George then went off and tried again with Ravi Shankar.

Don't know if that's true, but it is true that Shafaatullah is part of an incredible 400-year lineage of classical Indian musicians. He himself is not only a master of the sitar, but also of the tabla and surbahar, a kind of bass sitar that was developed in the early 1800s by his great-great-great grandfather Sahebdad Khan.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:12 PM on April 19, 2007


BTW -- He's also the father of Norah Jones.

I could've sworn years before the Reading Room I heard about Norah struggling to make it as a sitar player, on NPR. Did anyone else hear that show?
posted by phaedon at 11:14 PM on April 19, 2007


phaedon: It could have been about Ravi's other daughter, Anoushka. She's about 26, I think, and has been studying with her father since a very young age. However, she's not that great... I mean, she's a talented player and all, but she doesn't have that spark that her father has, and I don't think she'll ever get it. I saw Ravi in 1997, I think, and it was probably the most amazing concert I've ever attended. It was the only time I ever watched another human being transcend earthly existence. It was like he was talking to God.
posted by papakwanz at 11:22 PM on April 19, 2007


lelilo: Not knowing the guy, I'd say the story is entirely plausible. Like most of the top western classical musicians, Indian classical musicians start learning at a very young age, say four or five years old. Unlike western musicians, though, there is a very strong master-disciple relationship, which often involves the student leaving his house & taking up residence with the master. Furthermore, the music is all improvised, and the oral transmission of knowledge from master to student is therefore that much more important than in the west, where sheet music can be used to learn at least the mechanics of playing.

Given that context, I could understand why a serious Indian classical musician would turn his nose up at teaching George Harrison. It's not necessarily that pop music is bad per se, but that the student would simply be skating on the surface of the tradition, with the learning effort being little more than a token one, amounting to no more than some plucking & fingering techniques.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:34 PM on April 19, 2007


Indian classical musicians start learning at a very young age

As did Shaafatullah. There's a photo of him on this page holding the surbahar at age eight, where the thing just dwarfs him. You wonder how he could even hold it — and I remember, from those long-lost days back in the late 60s when I saw Ravi Shankar, Alla Rahka, and that whole road show, when people used to say the first year of studying the sitar you did nothing but learn how to hold it. You didn't get to play any notes until the second year.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:54 PM on April 19, 2007


That's also plausible. It reminds me of a story the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) grand master Riley Lee (born Hawaiian, now Australian; the only (?) westerner to have achieved this status) told: upon showing up in Japan & already an accomplished player, his master told him to go & stand in the icy-cold river, in the middle of winter, for some hours & play one specific single note, otherwise he would not understand the essence of the note. And so it went on for months, I think with that same note.

I have heard similar kinds of stories from the Indian tradition. Basically, it's not something that some rich & famous mop-haired near-adolescent is all that likely to put up with, or probably even respect.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:01 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great post; informative comments. Thanks!
posted by dreamsign at 12:50 AM on April 20, 2007


Nice post, but in the best pedantic traditions of Mefi, I think that See my Friend by The Kinks, released in August 1965, is probably the first use of the sitar in western pop music, as Rubber Soul was recorded and released in late 1965. Though both Beatles and Kinks were possibly exposed to the possibility of using the sitar through the playing of Davy Graham, one of the great musical innovators of the early sixties.

Though, as Martin Carthy says at the beginning of the clip, everyone was nicking from everyone, Davy was fundamentally important. You just have to listen to Led Zep, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and a million others to hear his influence.

(the above clip of Davy playing, As She Moved Through the Fair, is great)
posted by johnny novak at 12:57 AM on April 20, 2007


An electronic sitar? Why?
posted by davy at 1:09 AM on April 20, 2007


Metafilter: Not Something That Some Rich & Famous Mop-Haired Near-Adolescent Is All That Likely To Put Up With
posted by Emardhi at 1:12 AM on April 20, 2007


The Beatles were the Madonna of their time.

Wait... What?
posted by psmealey at 4:00 AM on April 20, 2007


Wow, I love that RAVI-bot, I think it sounds great. It doesn't really sound especially like a sitar, which is fine. It just sounds like what it is. It's got a rather unique sound all its own, really.

Nice post, Blazecock.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:09 AM on April 20, 2007


Awesome post. Hurray for more musical robots!
posted by zamboni at 7:48 AM on April 20, 2007


Cornershop (yes, the people who did "Brimful of Asha") has a great cover version of Norwegian Wood in Hindi.
posted by mike3k at 8:19 AM on April 20, 2007


I've always been impressed by Indian music.
posted by Relay at 9:37 AM on April 20, 2007


Speaking of "naive & inexperienced travellers from some bog town in northern England" (well, more like north London) and the sitar, whatever happened to Kula Shaker?
posted by blucevalo at 12:02 PM on April 20, 2007


That robotic sitar link must have been the inspiration for the line
"My chops are great, my tone is shit"

Seriously, I have heard cigar-box guitars that sound orders of magnitude better.
posted by oats at 5:12 PM on April 20, 2007


mike3k writes "Cornershop (yes, the people who did 'Brimful of Asha') has a great cover version of Norwegian Wood in Hindi."

Punjabi, isn't it?
posted by mr_roboto at 5:28 PM on April 20, 2007


There's not enough detail on the Esitar, but the idea of gesture extraction is fur oot (possibly first seen in crude form in player piano scrolls)(but I wouldn't bet on it)

@johny novak
Thanks for confirming my immediate suspicion the Beatles were not the first to record pop with sitar. The Kinks, of course. And snatcherly the sitar almost synchronously appeared in the Byrds' "Eight Miles High", recorded in December 1965.

For completists,

"Ali Akbar Khan's album Music of India - Morning and Evening Ragas (1955) ... was the first Indian classical recording to appear in the West, and the first recording of ragas on an LP" according to this site
posted by Twang at 5:54 PM on April 20, 2007


Seriously, I have heard cigar-box guitars that sound orders of magnitude better.

What, are you kidding me? That RAVI-bot sounds fucken GREAT!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:54 PM on April 20, 2007


And snatcherly the sitar almost synchronously appeared in the Byrds' "Eight Miles High", recorded in December 1965.

Really? It must be way buried in the mix, then, cuz I've never heard a sitar in that. Very India-inspired guitar solo, but an actual sitar in that song? Hmmm...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:57 PM on April 20, 2007


Very India-inspired guitar solo, but an actual sitar in that song?

Yeah -- I concur.

"McGuinn's twelve string guitar playing — especially the famed introductory solo — was heavily inspired by [John] Coltrane's saxophone on "India" from his Live at the Village Vanguard album of 1961 McGuinn is very guarded of the effort that went into his approximation of Coltrane's technique to guitar. Chris Hillman's bass line drives the song, while the rhythm guitar work by Crosby and fast drumming of Michael Clarke add dramatic turbulence."*

"Eight Miles High" -- YouTube video.
posted by ericb at 6:27 PM on April 20, 2007


Phew! Good thing, flapjax, I put that almost synchronously in there ... well, let's just agree that the Shankar/Coltrane influences embody the spirit of sitar then??
posted by Twang at 6:28 PM on April 20, 2007


well, let's just agree

Sounds good ta me!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:15 AM on April 21, 2007


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