Irish-Indian rhythmic collaborations


            In the previous chapter I explored the performances of the tour as a microcosm for issues of hybridity and inter-cultural exchange through the particular frames of Irish traditional and North Indian Classical music.  What became apparent in the tour analysis was that the success of the collaborations depended more on the individual musicians’ ability to adapt, and to a degree the presence of my mongrelity, rather than specific Irish-Indian musical or cultural connection.  It was my ability to translate and see what could be brought from the other side, to inhabit the space between the traditions, as well as the other musicians’ professional experiences of inter-cultural ‘jamming’, which allowed musically for the performances to have some kind of coherence.  I also identified that the affective world, or the world of feeling, acted as a kind of somatic intermediary in both our collaborations and within my own practice. 

More technically speaking, through the process of the tour, I began to clarify that rhythm was the main obstacle in attempting to produce an integrated Irish-Indian musical performance.  While the tour provided a wealth of information, especially in the socio-cultural domain of the collaborative process, there was not enough scope for detailed musical comparison, especially in regards to exploring rhythmic divergences. To allow for a more detailed musicological analysis, focussing on rhythm, after the tour I devised two small scale performances to be performed in the Irish World Academy in the University of Limerick.  These performances while using the same melodic material were contrasted with two different kinds of rhythmic accompaniment, North Indian tabla and the Irish bodhran.[1]    These performances allowed me the opportunity to compare the two differing accompaniment styles with the same melody.  It also allowed a more specific analysis of my own melodic improvisations and personalised approach to Irish and Indian melodies.  Again, this was done to contrast the experience of the India tour where all the collaborations were relative fresh and tentative.  Furthermore, the ensemble nature of the tour limited my own musical input and I was curious to see what could be achieved if I was given free scope to experiment and improvise without the constraints of other melodic instruments.            

This chapter has two main purposes which provide the rationale and method for the transcription and analysis which follows.  These are firstly, attempting to understand Irish and Indian concepts of rhythm through musical performance.  Secondly, using this predominantly rhythmic analysis, this chapter aims to also shed further light on my own practice which I have characterized through the metaphor of the mongrel.  Arising from an initial musicological analysis, I will explore how the musical sympathies of this project overall are very much idiosyncratic to my own practice and may represent an ‘on the ground’ account of the complexities of mongrelity.  By examining the processes of my own cross-cultural musical reasoning and adaptation, through a combination of musicological and autoethnographic method, it is hoped that a clearer impression of my mongrel practice may be achieved.


A note about the percussionists

Tommy Hayes is an All-Ireland champion on the bodhran and has performed and recorded with most of the great names in traditional music and beyond. He is a founding member of traditional group, Stockton’s Wing and Puck Fair, a composer for film and theatre and also a well-recognised music therapist.  I have played with Tommy for a number of years in a project entitled AnTara.  The basic structure of the performance with Tommy was not agreed beforehand.  We did not have a set list as we prefer to play whichever tune or set of tunes feels appropriate in the moment.  However, we do have a standard repertoire and performance arc which we draw upon.  This performance arc is something akin to the Indian classical arc of             starting slow and building up intensity over a  lengthy period of time. 

It is also misleading to suggest that my performance with Tommy is true representation of Irish traditional music and standard accompaniment.   Moreover, while Tommy is regarded as an exceptional bodhran player and has performed with most of the greats of the Irish tradition, he is not necessarily considered the most ‘traditional’ player.  Tommy has always been very open to playing with different musicians and in various musical styles, experimenting dancers, jazz and various ‘world musics’.  His eclectic choice of instrumentation, ranging from bowls, gongs, spoons, bones, gourd shakers, Jews harp, darabuka, slit drum and bodhran, exceeds the usual conservative etiquette of Irish traditional accompaniment in Irish music.  Furthermore, Tommy’s style of accompaniment is often heavily syncopated ‘playing around the beat’ as he describes it himself and he enjoys improvising beyond simple repetitive iteration of the basic rhythm.  The performance with Tommy took place at the Irish World Academy in the Tower Theatre as part of the lunchtime concert series.  It was a free event and open to the public and also coincided with an academic conference.[2]  A question and answer session was held directly after the concert and some of these discussions are reflected in the following analysis. 

Debojyoti Sanyal is from Kolkata, West Bengal and has studied tabla since infancy from his father Amelendu Sanyal and from esteemed virtuoso Pandit Shankar Ghosh.  Debojyoti is a well-respected and sought after accompanist for Indian Classical music. He also has a variety of experience performing with African and Arabic musicians in the South of France where he is based part-time and also is a regular visitor to Ireland.  I have known Debojyoti for over ten years and we have played many times together.  However, this performance was only our second time performing Irish traditional material and we were both a little tentative about making it work.  Unlike with Tommy, we had a strict set list and Debojyoti was very clear on what rhythms he would play.  We also had arranged several tihais (a rhythmic device which is repeated three times) to finish pieces and we utilised a tanpura machine for the drone.  So, despite the musical material being predominantly Irish, the aesthetic of the performance was arguably more Hindustani.

 The performance with Debojyoti again took place also in the Tower Theatre but in the evening at 6pm in the Tower Theatre.  The set-up for this performance was much more relaxed and as it was an evening concert, the atmosphere was also quite different to the lunchtime space. There were also subtle extra-musical differences.  In my performance with Tommy, we sat on chairs, while with Debojyoti with both sat on a rug on the floor as would be traditional for Indian Classical music.  We both had small icons of a Hindu God in front of us when we played, and I consciously remember touching the rug for a blessing before I sat down to tune.  These are of some of the extra-musical factors which come into play in this performance and likewise I believe impacted on our musical decisions and orientation.




Rhythm, culture and musical tradition

In these performances I was attempting to highlight, that the basic rhythmic structures of Irish-Indian music are in fact very different.  These differences in the conception and implementation of rhythm define melodic and improvisational approaches.  It is understandable than, that rather than focussing on the melodic and tonal aspects of Irish-Indian sympathies, there first needs to be an understanding of their rhythmic foundations.  Indeed, as Hijleh argues, “[t]he idea of rhythm is most foundational to music” (2012, p. 17).   Rhythm may be understood as “the first and most elemental of analytical categories (2012, p.11).  For music flows out over time, it therefore cannot exist without rhythm.  Music, and performance itself, is “something time bound and embodied” (2012, p. 7).  While the main line of inquiry is practice based, it is also worth briefly considering broader concepts of time and temporality.  For, as Hijleh states, “human experience of temporality in music arrives as a result of our perception of time as an immense hierarchy...time is the definer and medium for all articulation and clarity” (2012, p. 18).  Rhythm represents an attempt to articulate and manipulate time within a musical tradition which has a relationship to the culture within it is framed.

I am not necessarily concerned here with arguments that elements of a musical culture represent the greater culture at large (Blacking, 1973; Meriam, 1964).  As Clayton has argued, the idea of “music as symbolically representing cultural ideologies is both necessary and deeply problematic” (2000, p. 7).  It is far too simplistic to suggest that musical rhythm is a direct expression of a discrete culture; the reality is much more complex.  Clayton asserts that, “cultural symbolism can never be cannot simply reflect time...musical time is the result of a negotiation between physical and psychological restraints...and human individuals’ attempts to describe and order their experience” (2000, p. 7).  My interest is the physical and psychological negotiations of musical time by individuals as they play out in the performative and collaborative experience.  While cultural and philosophical concepts undoubtedly have an important part to play in performance process, “they cannot be a simple determinant of musical structure” (2000, p. 7).  There is further difficulty in undertaking any cross-cultural musical analysis of Irish and Indian concepts of time, because Irish philosophical temporality, unlike the Indian tradition, is difficult to establish and more difficult to define.  While Indian classical music has a long, though not necessarily uninterrupted or ‘pure’, link to a systematized aesthetic and philosophical tradition, it is much harder to understand Irish traditional music in the same vein.[3]  Unlike Indian culture, there is little documentation of the cultural thought of a continuous ‘ancient’ Irish culture which does not require significant interpretation and a ‘filling in of the gaps’.  In fact, it is this lack of historical evidence [cultural vacuum] that has allowed space for the discourse of Irish-Orientalist links (see Dillane & Noone, 2016).

Ultimately, this project seeks to understand constructions of time in performance, although some general socio-cultural comparison is perhaps necessary.  Put succinctly, albeit a little crudely, Irish traditional music, is primarily a dance form, whereas Indian classical music is not.  As Ó Súilleabháin describes, the overall structure of Irish traditional music, namely the tune, its parts, and the round “reflects an understood socio-musical agreement among musicians which has its origins in the past interactions between music and dance in the Irish tradition” (1990, p.118).[4] Indeed, it is the tune itself which provides the main rhythmic force in Irish traditional music and it does not necessarily require accompaniment. As Vallely states, the tune is “supreme in Irish music” (2011, p.451).  Irish traditional melody is inextricably linked to the rhythmic structure of its dance form.  The intrinsic rhythm of Irish melody may be due to the belief that “the melodic phrase has been the basis of European dance, not percussive beat” (Vallely, 2011, p. 180). 

Contrastingly, in Indian classical music the main melodic form (raga) and the rhythmic structure (tal), while co-existent in performance, are also theoretically autonomous.  As Bagchee describes, “there is no fixed association of any particular raga with a particular tal...any raga can be set to any tal” (1998, p. 72).  Indeed, rhythm in Indian classical music could be considered to have three portions, the rhythm of the main melody (performed by the singer or instrumentalist), the rhythm of the tabla player (which is constructed in its own syllabic language called theka) and the abstract tal itself (ibid, p. 73).[5]  The abstract tal represents something akin to the concept of metre, the broad theoretical division of musical time while the theka are the actual sounds produced on the drum.  The singer or instrumentalist explores the many melodic and rhythmic permutations of the raga within both the abstract tal and the syllables of the tabla accompaniment.  Importantly, the tabla has an important role in maintaining a sonic representation of the abstract tal so that the singer/instrumentalist may improvise.  This is strikingly different from the role of the bodhran in Irish traditional music which is (at best) deemed unnecessary for a successful performance.[6]  It makes sense too because Irish traditional music has all the rhythm it needs in the melody itself.  Yet without tabla accompaniment, a full performance of Hindustani music would arguably be impossible.[7]  Clayton suggests that the importance of “accurate and unambiguous time measurement “in Indian classical music stems from its ritualistic origins (2000, p.11).  Indeed, this highly formalised and detailed rhythmic language is one of the trademarks of Indian percussion and also one of the greatest stumbling blocks in inter-cultural collaborations.

But it is also important to reiterate that while rhythmically Indian music is “undoubtedly a difficult and complicated subject” it is perhaps not helpful to suggest that it is “more complex...than any other repertoire”, doing so would further contribute to the alterity of Other (Clayton, 2000, p. 6).  The distinction that I wish to make here is simply that Indian rhythm is much more explicit and specific than Irish dance forms.  It is the ‘unambiguity’ of Indian classical music which sets it apart from Irish traditional music, not a greater or lesser degree of rhythmic complexity.  As Clayton argues, while “Indian metric structures appear, on the whole, more elaborate that those of Western music…the subtlety and ambiguity of metre encountered in some Western music far exceeds that of Indian music” (2000, p. 6). So, how does this ‘subtlety and ambiguity’ of rhythm work in Irish traditional music and how does this have any sympathy to the Indian classical rhythmic tradition in performance?   

It is beyond the scope of this project to go into detail about the entirety of each performance but a few general comments are perhaps necessary here. Generally speaking, what is evident from an examination of the audio-visual documentation is the difference in duration of performances.  While both performances featured only four pieces or sets of tunes, the performance with Debojyoti lasted over eight minutes longer.  Despite our efforts to create long sets akin to Indian Classical structures, only one set with Tommy reached the ten minute mark.  While with the tabla accompaniment two pieces were well over ten minutes.  Even the first set which featured the same tune, The Night Larry Got Stretched were of a similar length despite the set with Tommy containing another tune and also a lengthy drone introduction.  This difference in duration is perhaps due to the defined ‘space’ which tabla accompaniment offers for improvisation which leads to much longer improvisation passages but also pieces with a much longer overall duration. 

This ‘space’ becomes pronounced by definitive function of tala which accents a strong (sam) and weak or empty (kali) beat in the cycle.  The ‘gap’ in the rhythm cycle which is signified by the kali creates a kind of contraction in the pulse and is also a clear temporal marker, an “aural clue” (Clayton, 2000, p.62) for improvising melodic instrument.  The general ‘groove’ then of tabla is created not necessarily by microtiming around the beat but a structured repetitive alteration of “the density of sound events between beats” (Madison et all, 2009, p.239).  This is not just an emphasis on the density of sound between beats but also the absence of density.  The ‘space’ marked by the kali breaks the perception of a continuous unbroken beat and it also signifies ‘where you are’ in the rhythmic cycle.  It then allows a great deal of freedom for improvising, due to the ‘space’ and clarity in rhythmic structure which allows the melodic instrument to wander off and come back, always being able to anchor to various sections of the rhythm cycle. 


As tabla accompaniment is so specific and unambiguous, it metaphorically acts like a container for improvisation, as it frames the melodic improvisation so clearly.  In fact, it is so complete on its own, along with the ever constant tanpura drone, that it does not require that I even play.  For example, with Debojyoti in the piece entitled Drowsy Maggie in the following clip I leave three spaces of at least 4-5 seconds where I am not playing except for perhaps the soft pick of my drone (chikari) strings.[1]


 In contrast, the rhythmic “container metaphor does not inform the complexity of performance” which is at the heart of Irish dance music tradition (Vallely, p. 2011, p.683).  As has been outlined earlier, in Irish traditional music, the rhythm is inherent in the melody rather than functioning as external scaffolding.  For example, when I played a reel with Tommy,  there is not so much of a delineation within the cycle of the groove, there is no clear sam and kali, there is no systematic ‘gap’ or ‘space’ in the rhythm cycle.  Therefore, as an improviser, I am much more fixed to the rhythmic pulse of the bodhran and indeed the tune itself (2:28-3:28).[2] 



Even when Tommy and I played an Indian composition, which is traditionally in 16 beat (teental) cycle, the ‘running rhythm’ of the bodhran dominates the improvisational impulse from (4:30-5:00).[3]



In Irish traditional music, the desired rhythmic swing is often described in ambiguous and subtle ways.  There is also often a disjuncture between tune type rhythmic categories (such as a reel, jig or hornpipe) and how musicians understand these tunes in performance.  Breathnach states that, broadly speaking, all traditional instrumental music accents the first note of the phrase which becomes the longest note in a phrase.  He argues that it is the odd beats of a tune which are more heavily accented than the even beats.  The odd beats will also be “fractionally longer than notes without accent” (1977, p. 89).  Breathnach’s definition is a useful orientation for understanding Irish traditional rhythm, yet it by no means accounts for the multitude of variations (contradictions) of this description.    A crucial element of this form is the understanding of tune types “in terms of rhythmic flow” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, p. 121).  The definition of what this rhythmic flow entails is purposely left open to the interpretation of the musician who “interacts with a given rhythmic flow in such a way as to allow his own musical thought free rein within the traditional norms of rhythmic possibility” (1990, , p.122).[4] This predominantly rhythmic essence, was described in equally ambiguous terms by O’ Neill as “that peculiar rhythm or swing without which Irish dance tunes lose their charm or spirit” (1910, pp.291-292). This almost undefinable rhythmic essence still persists in modern traditional music as “the general feel” which in turns distinguishes it from other traditional music of Europe or the United States (Carson, 1986, p.5).

While the tune, and its inherent rhythmic feel, is supreme in traditional music, perhaps more than any other feature, it is the decoration or ornamentation within and around that tune which gives Irish music its characteristic sound (Keegan, 2010).   These ornamentations are dominated by rhythmic aesthetics.  Ó Súilleabháin asserts that “ornamentation within the dance music tradition is largely a rhythmic rather than a melodic one” (1990, p.122).  Keegan defines ornamentation as “the addition of extra tones to (or the division of) a main tone which is regarded as being embellished” but also describes that “the place in the tune and the type of tune plays a part in the rhythmical structuring” (2010).  The variation of breathing patterns for flute or whistle players, the subtle use of the bow on the fiddle, the adjustment of picking techniques on plucked instruments and a near “infinity of subtle modifications” such as crans, cuts, rolls, slides etc. lead “to a powerful creative subtle that it is unnoticeable except as good feeling” (Kaul, 2009, p .143). Kaul has defines this subtlety of ‘good feeling’ created by rhythmic ornamentation of Irish traditional music though the concept of ‘groove’. Charles Keil’s definition of groove focuses on inconsistencies in timing and pitch, what he calls, “participatory discrepancies”, a “semiconscious or unconscious...out of syncness” (1994, p. 96).  This he suggests is the “make-you-dance” magic, the means of losing yourself in the music, the power to pull people into the music, the energies that fuel the will to party and the pursuit of happiness” (1987, p. 279).  More pragmatically, Madison defines groove as “wanting to move some part of the body in relation to some aspect of the sound pattern.” (2006, p. 201). He argues groove is created by a “degree of repetitive rhythmical patterning and systematic microtiming (Madison et al, 2009, p.239). 

My tabla accompanist, Debojyoti Sanyal, suggested to me many times during our collaboration, that the problem with using traditional tabla patterns with Irish music was that Indian classical rhythm simply didn’t groove. Mickey Hart supports this viewpoint, arguing that while “Indian drummers ....[have] taken rhythmic complexity to its ultimate expression...they often play like brilliant metronomes”.  He recounts that he had to teach tabla maestro Zakir Hassein how let the music move him, to be “imprecise” or to “groove” (1990, p. 154).    This does not necessarily mean however that ‘groove; has no place in an Indian percussionists’ repertoire.  Ruckert states that in Indian folk drumming, particularly associated with drums such as the dhol or dholak, “the patterns are repetitive and the lilt, or “groove”, of the drumming is highly desirable” (2004, p. 50).[5]  Likewise, groove is indeed, “a fundamental part of the light classical tradition and many of the very best drummers who can lay down a lively groove are engaged in the industry of producing film and pop music” (ibid, p. 50). The distinction though is still clearly made here between the “poetic compositions” of the ‘pure’ classical tradition (in which arguably groove has less of a hierarchical value) and the preference for “lilting rhythmic grooves” of light classical, folk or pop music (ibid, p. 51). 


 Main analysis

            As the main focus of these two performances is to compare different accompaniment styles with the same basic melodic material, the following section will focus specifically on two ‘sets’ of melodies- The Night Larry got (Really) stretched and Junior’s Lament.  These two sets are also rich in a wide range of different tempi, ranging from the slow non-metred introduction approach of the alap to a rapid jhala type crescendo of Hindustani music. There is also a mix of Irish tune types, although there are no reels in these sets.[6]  These selections also represent a variety of time registers and rhythm cycles, from the relatively unmetered pulse of a slow air or alap, to variations on jig time and nine, eleven and twelve beat cycles. The two sets are also indicative of the general arc of most of the pieces utilised with both accompanists, namely that they build in dynamic and temporal intensity using relatively fixed tonal material with improvisatory interaction between sarode and percussion. 

While the main focus of the two performances was not primarily melodic, I will first spend some time covering some of my melodic approaches. This is relevant, firstly from a rhythmic perspective in terms of how each of the musicians interpreted the structures of melodies outside of their ordinary experience.  Secondly, it becomes evident that when different rhythmic approaches arise, the melodies themselves may become adapted.  Thirdly, the nature of the rhythmic approach also dictates to some degree the kinds of improvisation that the main melodic instrument can explore.  It is important to reiterate that these differences are exemplars of the individual percussionist’s signature style who move between and beyond their chosen traditions. I chose to work with both Tommy and Debojyoti because of their experience with various other musics and their ability to move beyond the boundaries of tradition.  This analysis in general will hopefully allow me to shed some light on my own internal practice of 'bridge building' between these divergent rhythmic approaches.  The following attempts at further representation of the performance, through a mixture of audio-video, notational and gestural analysis, also further reflect the mongrelity of my practice. 


Transcription approach and the problems of staff notation

            In any analysis of musical performance which goes beyond a purely sonic approach, at some point visual notation of some description becomes useful, and perhaps, necessary.  This is problematic and highlights the question of whether written notation is even useful at all (Nettl, 1983).  This debate is especially relevant in regards to both Irish and Indian traditions as both musical systems are predominantly aural.  While in the modern era, both traditions have adopted some form of notation as an aide memoir, sagam notation in Hindustani music and either staff notation or ABC notation in Irish music, it is generally accepted that these are imperfect representations.  Ruckert explains that in North Indian music using traditional staff notation “cannot communicate certain essential musical relationships which are germinal” to both Indian Classical and other modal musics, among which we could include Irish traditional repertoire (2002, p. 15).  Likewise, Wade describes that when an Indian melody is notated, “a far different degree of exactness is implied...than for its Western counterpart...the notated form is unlikely to be the source from which the performer learned the melody” (2004, p.26).  In Irish traditional music there are similar reservations concerning the use of staff notation, despite its widespread use in dissemination and cataloguing.  As Ciaron Carson observes, “a traditional tune printed in a book is not the tune; it is a description of one its many possible shapes” (1986, p. 8). 

Likewise, the transcriptions which follow in this section should not be considered as complete descriptions of the performative moment nor are they intended as prescriptive scores for future performances.  Indeed, I would urge the reader at this point, if they have not done so already, to watch the audio-visual documentation of these performances in full before reading the transcription of performance excerpts which follows.  My use of transcription does not intend to document the performance but in this analysis is used as way of assisting with dialogue and particularly in deference to the reader who may be unfamiliar with the musical systems involved. It also constitutes a valid descriptive tool in this instance because to a degree, it is part of the mongrelity of my practice. 

To reiterate, the main orientation of this entire analysis is to attempt to understand how my own practice may embody hybrid confluences which may express a sympathetic inter-cultural musical process.  To capture this confluence accurately in notation also requires a mixed method of transcription.  So, as well as standard staff notation, I will incorporate elements of Indian classical music transcription. This will involve the melodic sol-fa system called sagam, and as we are primarily interested in rhythmic analysis, the syllabic rhythmic dictation of Hindustani music (theka). I will deal with the complexities of rhythmic notation in this project later, but firstly a very brief explanation of the sagam transcription is necessary so that we may use it to look at the basic melodic material of the ‘sets’ we will be discussing. 

The scale material of Indian classical music, even in instrumental music, is denoted in an abbreviated sol-fa system called sagam.  The basic seven notes of a scale degree (svara) are called shadj, rishabh, gandhar, madhyam, pancham, dhaivat and nishad (Bor, 1999, p. vii).  In common practice they are shortened to the syllables Sa, Re, Ga, ma, Pa, Dha, Ni Sa. In notation practice, these syllables may be notated as simply the first letter of the note S,R, G, m, P, D, N, S. The first letter of the note is often made lower case if the note is flattened (komal) except for Sa and Pa, the fifth and the tonic, which always stay the same. Compositions and important phrases of raga may be notated in this short hand fashion by the student, although it is a practice which is generally discouraged; aural memorization being much preferred. It is important to realize however, that this system does not account for ‘micro-tonal’ variations on these basic notes which are a significant feature of melodic form in the Indian classical tradition. 

The Indian classical approach to notation also highlights the important modal basis of the music.  We can correspond the notes to a western scale, particularly on my own sarode which is tuned in D therefore Sa= D, Re=E, Ga=F, ma=G, Pa=A, Dha=B, Ni= C.  However, simply comparing sagam to western scales does not fully represent the fundamental relational and modal nature of Indian music. For example, ‘Sa’ could be set at any pitch, depending upon the singer or the instrument.[7]  Once you decide on ‘your Sa’, then all of the other notes of any particular mode, scale or raga became relational to that tonic and the particular finger positions of your instrument, or the internal positioning of notes in the case of the voice.  It is important to point out in the case of my experience of Irish music, especially when referring to a tune from staff notation, that Sa is not necessarily the note D.  I take Sa to be the tonic, the ground of the whole music.[8]  This understanding will be explored in the following performance examples.  In the transcriptions of these performances, I have placed basic sagam notation above the melody, not as an addendum, but as an indication of the primary way I understand the ‘tune’ more globally as a gestalt of melody-rhythm- form.


 The Night Larry Got Stretched    

            The Night Larry Got Stretched is a slip-jig (9/8) from the Irish tradition which takes its name from a traditional song.  I first heard this tune from the playing of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill (2008) and instantly loved it.  I listened to it so many times that by the time I came to try and play it on my sarode; the melody was already there under my fingers.  By repeated listening I had begun to be able to translate the melody in my head to fit my sarode using Indian sagam regardless of the key of the original tune.  For example, I never even looked at the notation for the tune, presented above  in Emin .  When I listened to the tune, I immediately recognised that it would work on the sarode and began by conceptualizing a modal understanding of it in my mind.  This process, which is something both of my sarode teachers have taught me as a way to listen to raga, is to first identify the tonic base of the mode (Sa).  The next step is to identify the fifth (Pa) if present, followed by the other notes of the scale, which are either sharpened (tivra) or flattened (komal).  From this procedure, as a form of raga identification, one begins to hear which notes are being emphasized (vadi), which ones may by omitted (varjit svara) and any notes which seem to be an ‘enemy’ (vivadi) to the creation of the mood of the piece.  The overall movement of the raga (chalan) may come into view this way, punctuated by particular catch phrases (pakar).  There are indeed some ragas I know well which I can identify from just the sound of the tuning alone.

Importantly, my experience of music, not just Indian classical music, has taught me that it is all so much more than the notes. A raga is a constellation of notes, in a way like a person with its own characteristics, a certain way of moving, and of breathing.  Therefore, when I listen to a tune, or even if I read a standard staff notation, I am always trying to figure out the way that the melody moves, its melodic relations, its mood, its tonic, what drone will work with it, its internal logic.  In relation to learning an Irish tune, the discernment of a concrete note, e.g. F natural or C, means very little to me on its own.  This note is only important within its relationship to the musical mode or scale within which it is a living, vibrating entity. So once I know where Sa is, then all the other notes emerge in a relational dance.  The challenge of this way of hearing is that the internal logic of the melody in Irish music, is outlined very, very quickly in a tightly condensed fixed tune generally with only two or sometimes a few more strains.  Whereas in Indian classical music, especially in the introductory passages (alap), a very slow, deliberate, note by note, phrase by phrase unveiling of the raga theory takes place.  To get to grips with the logic of a tune requires learning it first; only then does the tune become a possible road map for meaningful improvisation. 

It is still difficult for me at this stage to confidently identify the way The Night Larry Got Stretched as I would describe it, ‘moves’.  By this I mean an identification of its grammatical phrases in terms of raga aesthetics such as (chalan, pakar) which lead to a unique mood (bava) or flavour (rasa).   To honour the tune in this way, I believe would require a much lengthier gestation with it as a performer and also would require further analytical tools which are beyond the scope of the project at hand.  However, broadly speaking, I hypothesize the salient features of a tune in general comparison with my experience of raga.  The scale material of The Night Larry Got Stretched fits into the Asawari thata although it does not really fit into the mood of the Rag Asawari. [9]  My sense is that the (ga) is a strong note and also the tonic Sa.  The fifth (Pa) also is a dominant note in the tune.  Other features might be that (dha) is connected to (Pa) and maybe only is used in a descending motion.  Similarly, (Re) seems to be more in descent and connected to komal ni in the middle register (sthyai).  These suggestions, at this stage, are still hypothetical and based very much on my intuition as a performer rather than systematic musicological analysis.  While there have been some attempts to analyse Irish traditional melody in a more broader categorization of tune types, most notably Breanthach (1977) O’ Canainn (1978)and Cowdery (1990) these have not been part of my practice (yet).  Jim Cowdery puts forward the argument that the sonic architecture of the Irish folk tradition is built on a “process of composition...suggested by complex permutations on melodic pools” (1990, p. 93).  He further suggests that these ‘melodic pools’ have underlying ‘principles’ that the bear a strong resemblance to North Indian classical principle of chalan, which is the melodic scaffolding for raga based improvisation (1990, p. 132).  As this research project is primarily practice based, I feel it is important that I endeavour as much as possible to shed light on my own musical procedures first and foremost.  Hopefully, at a future date a more comparative and thorough musicological investigation into the notion of an ‘Irish rasa theory’ and tune types may be achieved by building on this performative foundation. 


 Possible tune theory-The Night Larry Got Stretched

Scale material (Melodic Minor-Aeolian mode)

Vadi- ga or Sa

Samvadi- Pa


A performative example of this ‘tune rasa’ is alluded to in my alap style introduction for this tune with Debojyoti (from 00:18-1:36).[10]  Overall, I do not think this performance was particularly successful in capturing the essence of the tune, although elements of the improvisation, particularly the general structure (which follows the basic arc of an alap beginning with the tonic and improvisations around the middle register before moving to the upper octave) are a good foundation for further development.  


In the performance of the same tune with Tommy, I also play an alap style introduction, although this is using a different tune as the first in the set, my own composition, The Black Fox of Corofin.[11]  This introduction (from 0:35-1:05) I felt was more successful in capturing the mood of the following tune (from 1:05-3:17).  Again, as the focus of this project is on the rhythmic accompaniment, I will not dwell on this aspect in detail but will note that these improvised introductions could be an interesting starting point for                                                             future research for understanding tune types.[12]


The problems of cross-cultural rhythmic notation

            Now that the basic melodic material has been described, my focus shall turn to the problems of graphically representing the different percussive element of the performances.  As has already been outlined, Irish and Indian rhythmic practices are quite different in their level of explicitness and also in conceptual framework. This difference is exemplified in an attempt to notate the basic accompaniment patterns of Tommy and Debojyoti.  Indian classical music has a prescribed syllabic language for every sound produced on the tabla and has clear sub divisions of accents and weak notes, the sam and khali.  Again, while it is an aural tradition first and foremost, Indian rhythms can be transcribed using this syllabic language with some modern conventions.  It is perhaps less appropriate to use traditional staff notation for Indian rhythms because it breaks the cyclic convention and does not convey the important performative expression of “intricate counterpoint” which the tabla player performs (Ruckert, 2002, p.215).  This intricate counterpoint is based upon underlying rhythm cycle (tala) which “consists of a fixed number of time units or counts (matras) and is made up of two or more sections” (Bor, 1999, p. 7).  The first beat of each section is either stressed or unstressed which is demonstrated by clapping or a wave of the right hand.  The more theoretical tala, somewhat akin to metre in western music, is represented in the basic theka produced by the tabla.  The theka also has a syllabic language based (bols) on the sound of the tabla drum.  The pattern of these bols set to a fixed tala then creates the unique theka. The sam is the first beat of the cycle followed by the ‘empty’ beat of khali usually in the middle of the rhythmic composition. The tempo at which a rhythm is performed “is specified in relative terms: vilambit (slow), madhya (medium) and drut (fast).  In performance, the tempo would gradually increase and include all three of these time frames although the theka may stay the same.  Sometimes, the time cycle (tala) might be changed by the singer or instrumentalist, in which case the tabla player would introduce a new appropriate theka.      

It is therefore understandable that standard staff notation would be inadequate to fully capture the performance of tabla.  Also, the above description of general rhythmic practice in Indian classical music does not necessarily match the performances which I shall attempt to describe in more detail here as the performances were something of a ‘hybrid’.  This general description of Indian classical rhythmic structure is useful however to help understand the underlying principles which influenced my own, and most particularly Debojyoti’s approach to constructing rhythmic accompaniment with Irish melodies. 

In The Night Larry got Stretched, the two sections of the piece are constructed around a temporal frame similar to a Hindustani performance.  In particular, the first section is a slow (vilambit) and the final section, which changes tala could be understood as the drut or fast concluding portion.  In the opening vilambit section, Debojyoti chose to play a 9 beat cycle called mata tal.  It can be described thus.  Matta Taal = 9 beats of 4 + 2 + 3.  The theka described below 

mata tal staff notation.gif



In contrast, Tommy played a relatively traditional accompaniment of three groups of three quavers which could be basically notated as:  

In these examples we can already see two very different approaches to the same rhythm cycle.  It is interesting to note here, that while Irish music does not have a strict syllabic language to describe rhythm, various tune types are often described by melodic examples.  For example, I have asked many traditional musicians to tell me the rhythm of a slip-jig, more often than not, an example of a tune will be ‘lilted’ rather than the rhythm being discussed independently of the melody.[13]  The fact that standard rhythmic notation does not account for significant re-interpretation by the individual in Irish traditional music makes the above transcription of a slip-jig rhythm somewhat limited.  In this type staff notation comparative analysis, it is also very difficult to compare like with like, so to speak, as not only to both traditions have very different division of the nine beat cycle, the very relationship between melody and rhythm is seemingly incongruent.  Furthermore, the cyclicity which is such a feature of both Irish and Indian music is not apparent in the above rhythmic examples.


Rhythm and Feeling Tone

            In my own practice, I do not understand either of these rhythms in the way that they have been transcribed here.  While I can comprehend them in this fashion, I understand them more in the ‘feeling tone’ of performance. Feeling tone is a term I have appropriated from Coward and Goa (2004) who whose it to describe the affect of musical sound not by what it “cognitively reveals but by the complex vibration or feeling tone it creates in the practising person” (p. 6).   For example, I never would count the divisions of a nine beat tabla accompaniment. Rather, I would attempt to absorb the rhythm into my feeling world and listen for my own understanding of the ‘groove’ of the tabla, the subtle undulating accents of strong and weak pulses.  Likewise, with Irish music, I would not count the division of three sets of quavers, I am usually internally hearing the tune repeat again and again.  This, more than anything else, becomes my rhythmic touchstone.  These two examples suggest a significant difference in the way I engage with rhythm in my performance practice, through the tabla in the Indian classical format and with the tune itself in Irish traditional music.

Yet, the whole point of this exercise is not just to show that Irish and Indian rhythms are different but rather how this difference may be reconciled in performance.  While the mathematics of these rhythms may appear completely disjunctive, the fact is that, with varying degrees of success, in the performances documented here, I am attempting to mediate a sympathetic rhythmic understanding.  To account for this sympathy, I feel it necessary to incorporate a third system of notation to compare the performance on a rhythmic basis which better represents my own understanding and also accounts for the idiosyncratic nature of the two percussionists.  While I think it is useful that I use standard notation and sagam to outline Irish tunes, standard notation is not visually readable enough to highlight what the percussionists did in the performative moment.   Standard notation does not give a good sense of the cyclical nature of both traditions either, nor does a purely mathematical analysis.  Likewise, simply adding Indian syllables (theka) to the standard staff notation of rhythm cycles only really works for the tabla rhythms and not the bodhran.  This does not allow us to understand both accompaniments within the same framework.  Therefore, I have chosen to use a ‘hybrid’ system of notation which gives a better visual representation of the cyclical nature of rhythm.  This system, which is called Geometric visualization, was designed by my mentor, fellow Australian and traditional guitarist Steve Cooney.  


 A possible solution to cross-cultural transcription

            The GV system employs a melodic spiral system of rhythmic durations indicated by various circular symbols. Rhythmically, as pictured below, a dot represents the shortest duration is (1) which would be a quaver in standard notation. A duration of (2) is be a small circle.  A duration of (3) then becomes a small circle with a dot inside. A duration of (4) is a larger circle.  (5) is a large circle with a dot inside and so on and so on.  These durations can also be given a syllabic utterance which depends on the disposition of the individual or cultural frame.



These symbols can then be arranged into rhythm rings representing repeated iterations of the strains which can be clapped or spoken.   The beginning of rhythm ring is indicated by the accent lines which are outside the circle.  The rings are played in a clockwise direction.  This is a simplified description of the system but for the purposes of recording basic tunes and rhythms it should suffice, especially because most rhythms are made up of beat durations ranging from 1-4. This system can also represent melody by placing these rhythmic signs on the differing degrees of a “clock face”.  However, this dimension of the system will not be utilised in this discussion.[14] The following images should explain the rhythmic notation more explicitly.

nine beat GV.jpg

The symbols here show Tommy’s shaker pattern for the Night Larry got stretched and also Debojyoti’s tabla accompaniment for the same tune.  I have added the ‘cloud’ symbol  in the Indian rhythm ring to notate the kali (empty beat).  One can clearly see that, although both are constructed in a cyclical fashion, they utilize quite different groupings to make up a cycle of nine.  Firstly, looking at the broader systemic differences, the Irish division is much more orientated towards the steady beat requirements of step dancing. The nine beat tala, (mata tal), which Debojyoti plays, is associated the history of Dhrupad where this is performed on pakawaj.[15] It is not particularly common tala and is mainly used by instrumentalists as a showcase for rhythmic dexterity and control over musical time.


The difference between these two very different rhythms is not just related to Irish and Indian musical culture but also the player’s in-the-moment choices.  For example, our decision to use this matta tal was not an attempt in virtuosic vanity, rather it was in fact a performance compromise, one which shall be explained shortly.  In the performance with Tommy, there was also a choice to compromise, or perhaps more accurately, deviate according to Tommy’s aesthetic preferences, away from the traditional dance pulse.  Despite the common characterization of Irish traditional music as constrained by the rhythmic demands of dance accompaniment, it is important to realize that there is an increasing distance between the dance origins of the tradition and the instrumental performance practices of modern musicians.

 Vallely concedes that “the terms used by musicians may not match the expectation of step dancers...particularly with regard to rhythm and tempo” (Vallely ed, 2011, p. 368).  Furthermore, Tommy, while accepted as an icon of the traditional music scene, does not strictly use dance structures as his reference for his accompaniment in this tune.  He is in fact, as he describes himself, attempting to “follow the tune” in a rhythmic sense (personal communication, 2015).  He uses various ornaments to accent and shift the accent of the beat rather than maintaining a steady and unvarying repetition of the three beat pulse.  His aesthetic preferences come from a wide exposure to other musical genres, most noticeably jazz and various ‘world musics’, but also his percussive appreciation of traditional instrumental music.  Post-performance, he explained that he was using what he called a “finger style,” which he likened to mimicking the effect of the pipes, notably the effect of ‘cranning’ on triplets, which he admitted is hard to do with a shaker (ibid, 2015).  From my analysis of Tommy’s accompaniment in this tune, I can observe three main variations from the main rhythm of three quavers (Figure No: 5.1, 5.2, 5.3).  These notations show that although Tommy is playing a ‘traditional’ jig rhythm, his variations stray from the dance pulse of the original tune.  This also creates the aforementioned, ‘space’ and ‘contraction’ which I feel is so necessary to create the right ‘groove’ for performance, which in turn creates room for improvisation.


1. A stop and slap in which he accents the off-beat, either the 2 or 3 (example from 3:34-3:46)

2. The triplet ‘cranning’ technique’ at the end of the cycle of the tune (example from 3:50-3:57)
3. A pause at the end of the bar, like a kali or empty beat in the cycle (from 4:20-4:35)[16]

These examples begin to shed light on what is an important concept in this analysis, namely that cross-cultural musical analysis must take into account individual (re-)interpretation of traditions within the performative moment.  These variations demonstrate how in the performance process individuals make creative choices which are responsive and sympathetic to the needs of a collaboration.  So, what we are discussing here is not an explanation of Irish traditional vs Indian Classical accompaniment but rather the ways in which individuals negotiate, choose, and shape multiple aspects, of multiple traditions, in an attempt to construct a resonant and sympathetic musical expression.  However, these attempts may also, as is inevitable in any experimentation, fall short of the mark of the desired goal.  One such example is my pursuit of a sympathetic rhythmic Indian accompaniment for the humble jig. 


Getting Jiggy with it

In all of my collaborations with Indian percussionists, melodies in jig time have proved the most difficult to realize in performance, as was noted in the previous chapter when discussing my experience during the Indian tour.  This was a tendency that continued into my collaboration with Debojyoti.  However, the difference in this second case was that the two of us have a long history of playing together, so we were already somewhat sympathetic to each other.  Technically, however, we remained at something of an impasse.  Although theoretically there are talas ranging from 3 up to 128 beats, Debojyoti said that he was not aware of any three beat cycle (in performance discussion, 2015).  There certainly is a 6 beat cycle (dadra tal) but naturally this would not match up for a slip-jig of 9/8.  Likewise, even though mata tal is not an even grouping of threes, it can be made to fit this rhythm cycle, just about.  Neither of us were entirely comfortable with this choice of tal and although it technically fits the tune, it was difficult to keep time in a relaxed manner.  For Debojyoti, it was also difficult to identify the sam from the tune itself.  This is apparent in the performance (from 1:37-1:55), when after my introduction, Debojyoti is hesitant to join with the tune. 


In this performance his sam is not the same as mine.  He begins his accompaniment (from 1:55) on the 7th beat of the jig’s nine beat cycle, at the beginning of the last set of three quavers.



In the transcription you can see that the Debojyoti misreads the first beat (sam) of the tune and begins his accompaniment on the seventh beat of the cycle.  This is an understandable error as this is a strong beat in the melody.  However, technically we were not in complete synchronisation.  Therefore, during the performance, it was not clear for me where we were in the rhythmic cycle.  Hence, I was somewhat reluctant in my improvisation. Although Debojyoti adapts as the performance proceed and we eventually lock into a shared sense of the pulse, his accompaniment is very much accenting the beat structure of the tune, which made it hard for me to deviate from the phrasing of the tune’s melody while improvising.  The other problem for me was the tempo. We actually played the cycle at around 112bpm, much closer to a traditional slip jig rhythm but I felt this was too fast difficult to establish and develop an appropriate mood.[17]


Debojyoti and I discussed this piece and analysed the video recording together.  He was very unhappy with the performance of this piece and suggested a way to improve it for the future.  He explained that “I played a slow nine…it should be doubled…played in a flat way” (from interview 04/08/16).  We actually performed this piece at another concert in August 2016 and Debojyoti used this rhythm structure: Dhin Take Dhin Na Tun Na Dhin Dhin Na.  He suggested that he should play this kind of nine beat and “take out the kali and the swari to make the rhythm fit the melody”.[18]  Doing this makes the rhythm “not strictly classical” but then as Debojyoti argued, “Indian rhythm is based on melody structure” and in this sense we are following an Indian aesthetic as much as possible with the structure of an Irish melody (from interview, 04/08/16).


The Night Larry got (really) Stretched

The title of the second part of this set, the Night Larry Got Really Stretched is a tongue in cheek description of rhythmic variations on the original slip-jig melody.  The second part of this tune, rhythmically, is Tommy’s composition.  In one of our rehearsals, he was experimenting with an eleven and a half beat cycle and asked if I could make the melody fit.  We tried but I couldn’t manage to get my head around it.  So we compromised on moving between an 11 beat and 12 beat version of the original tune.  The A part eventually has been re-set into a 13 beat rhythm while the B part was put into 12.  Both of these rhythms have a sort of built in kali or empty beat in the cycle.  In fact, Tommy describes this rhythm as 11 beat, as when he originally played it he counted it with a sub-division into 3, 5 and 3.  This doesn’t account for the 2 (quaver) beats of empty space which creates the striking syncopation of the tune.  This caused much confusion in the counting of the beat, although in performance we never questioned what the time cycle was, we just played the tune.  It probably was my own deviation from Tommy’s original 11 beat cycle which has now become the standard.  The twelve beat is divided into 3, 5, 4 or two sets of three quavers followed by a crochet and three quavers.  III, III, IIII.[19]


Tommy’s accompaniment for The Night Larry got (Really) Stetched is represented thus: 



Debojyoti’s interpretation of this same melody was to use another of his own variations of an eleven beat cycle for the first section of the tune, followed by a twelve beat (ektal) cycle. [20]  These tals can also be represented in GV form.


 Both Tommy’s and Debojyoti’s approach to accompanying The Night Larry got (Really) Stretched are very different.  Firstly, Tommy plays a cycle of two extra beats, which accounts for a longer pause in the middle of the melody.  Likewise, the division of the cycle is much more syncopated in Tommy’s style.   Debojyoti follows a fairly (in his own words) ‘flat’ cycle of eleven, featuring no kali or swari but just one accent on the eighth note of the cycle to emphasise the gap in the melody.  In observing the GV models of the two different twelve beat accompaniments, it is clear that Tommy and Debojyoti’s approaches are strikingly different.  This difference is because Tommy is following the intrinsic rhythm of the tune while Debojyoti is using the more abstract theka set to the twelve beat tala.

It should be noted that changing tala in the same composition is not common practice, in Hindustani or indeed Irish traditional music.  Despite this however, I believe this is one reason why this section is so successful, as it represents a sympathy that has evolved out of my own practice.  Rather than trying to find sympathy between the diverse rhythm practices of these two traditions, we have developed a rhythmic performance which is in itself sympathetic. Especially with Tommy, and increasingly when I work with Debojyoti, I have always felt it was better to create new rhythms for accompaniment rather than trying to copy Hindustani rhythm cycles.  There would be little point in telling Tommy to play a twelve beat cycle with four sub divisions and an empty cycle as it is not his language for understanding rhythm.  Likewise, with Debojyoti, I have tried to encourage him to find his own approach within the framework of tala to find something which works with Irish traditional tunes.  Often, I would lilt him the basic rhythmic pulse but felt it was necessary that the language of the accompaniment come from him.  This performance of this tune, particularly of the second part of Larry got (Really) stretched, is again not just an example of Irish-Indian rhythmic divergences but also the individual approaches to the reconciliation of these differences through the musicians involved.  Ironically though, this is where a true sympathy can be found, in the performance practice of the individuals working to overcome perceived obstacles to creative expression.  Also, for this reason, the two performances are somewhat different.[21] 

The main tension of this tune, in both performances, is built up around, what was initially, an unconscious shifting of the accent and ‘space’ of the rhythm cycle.  The concepts of sam and kali are so ingrained into my musical understanding that I naturally try to find some way to mould melodies to fit this structure.  This is not done intellectually or mathematically, although it is possible to use this type of thinking to make sense of what we did after the performance.  However, despite the rhythmic forms being slightly different, namely that Irish forms are informed by the melody and groove orientated whereas Indian classical forms are isolated from the melody and orientated towards structured improvisation, in these performances, I personally experience their end result, in terms of the ‘feeling tone’ to be in sympathy.  I would suggest that the difference in the quality of that ‘feeling’ has more to do with the individual expression of the musicians (and perhaps also the sonic properties of their instruments), rather than the musical structures themselves. 


Junior's Lament

Junior’s Lament is a piece which I have been playing with Tommy in our project entitled AnTara, for a number of years.[22]  Drawing upon basic North Indian Classical music structures, this medley arose from the desire to create longer sets of tunes which built from the slow and reflective up to a fast climax.  The appeal of this structure is due in part to my experience with Indian music but also has been a signature of my musical process since my early years playing instrumental rock guitar.  While in general, Junior’s Lament follows an Indian classical temporal arc, it does not strictly follow the same scale material or mode.  I have found that there is something not satisfying about combining Irish melodies with exactly the same scale material for extended periods.  Moreover, changing modality is a crucial factor in the efficacy of Irish music.  As Smyth describes, an important feature of Irish traditional music is “its apparent ability to switch between modes during tune clusters, or sometimes even during the course of the tune itself” (2009, p. 55).   Arguably, it is this “switching between one mode and another…which gives Irish music its characteristically plaintive undercurrent” (Vallely, 1999, p. 234).  This brings into question conventional relationships of affective associations with particular fixed scale material, “in particular, the association of major scales with joy and minor scales with sorrow” (Smyth, 2009, p. 55).   This understanding of the aesthetic purpose of modality is in striking contrast with the approach of Indian classical music where one mode is explored at considerable length and usually has fixed, albeit multi-layered emotional characteristics that are ascribed to the particular raga form.[23] 


The set which I have entitled Junior's lament ', is a compromise between the demands of the important structures of both Irish and Indian traditions.  It follows a temporal arc of Indian music but also subtly moves between modes and slight changes of scale to create the interest and dynamic changes which are so important to contemporary traditional Irish music.  It begins with a slow air, from which the title for the whole piece is taken, of my own composition which was inspired by Junior Crehan.[24]  In fact, the air came from my own half remembered attempts to play another slow air which Junior recorded called The Priest' Lament.[25]  I named the tune after Junior in honour of his direct inspiration for this piece. 


The air is in a modal G minor, although I understand it also in a D minor way, as my tonic reference moves between D (SA) and G (ma).  In this way it is somewhat similar to some ragas which have a strong accent (vadi) on the fourth note of the scale (ma) such as Raga Malkauns, however, the structure follows more of my own perception of the general rules of Junior's air playing.  Like with the previous example of the introduction for The Night Larry Got Stretched, when I improvised on this piece I was following my intuitive sense of the melodies grammar. My experience with North Indian classical music has taught me that inside the composition is the way to move with aesthetic of the rag, in a very compact form.  My teacher used to say that if you could unfold the composition you can find a musical road map, the grammar, the mood or the rasa of the raga. I have attempted below to outline my understanding of Junior’s Lament in this way.

Possible tune theory of Junior’s Lament

It has two parts.  One in the lower register and one upper.

The scale material is- Sa, ga, ma, Pa, dha, ni, Sa .

However, Re is in the scale but only as a passing note to ga.

There is also a strong descending movement between ni and dha.

The ascending/descending (aroh/ avaroh) pattern might resemble something more in G with the tonic being the ma.

Vadi- ni~dha


With Tommy, I played the piece as an unaccompanied slow air with a D drone played by an accordion on the loop pedal (from 0:07-2:21).[26]  I utilize the open drone strings of the sarode to begin the piece, much like in an alap, and also strum these open strings in between sections of the air.  Most of my pick technique is down strokes, with occasional passages of up strokes for a softer effect.  Very little deviation from the melody itself takes place, and is more used in the second round of the air (for rhythmic cadences example 1:34-1:44 and ornamentation on slides for example 1:57-2:04).  I am conscious when playing a slow air, that it is not like an alap in Indian music, in that it is a fixed melody, often with its origins in a song.  Improvisation can take place up to a point but the essence of the air cannot be lost.  From my listening of other musicians performing airs, especially Tony Mac Mahon, Junior Crehan and Willie Clancy, there are very few long pauses on the tonic or other expressive notes as there would be in an alap.  The integrity of the song is kept in flow with minor ornamental improvisation or rhythmic/melodic cadences. 


With Debojyoti, I played the air through once unaccompanied then he joined with a sitarkhani 16 beat rhythm cycle (from 0:12- 4:12).[27]  The choice of sitarkhani is an interesting one and it appears regularly in my performances with Debojyoti.  The rhythm is not strictly classical in the Indian sense and it is often reserved for short light, more romantic pieces which are often used to conclude a recital.  However, sitarkhani seems to be a good fit for many Irish melodies which are in a 4/4 rhythmic structure, much more so than the more classical 16 beat cycle of teental.  Debojyoti explained that he felt that sitarkhani accompaniment worked so well with Irish traditional music because “groove is there…it has a wave…it’s not straight” (in interview 04/08/16).  This syncopation produces a 'groove', which is mostly absent in more strictly classical talas and this feeling of ‘lift’ is such an important part of Irish melodic performance.

The use of sitarkhani changed the phrasing of the piece quite considerably as I felt the need to leave long gaps to fit the accents of the rhythm cycle.  In my performance with the tabla, the phrase of the slow air fits into one cycle of sitarkhani.  The following cycle of 16 beats is left open leading into the next part of the air.  It also made the duration of the piece considerably longer than when I played it with Tommy.  Interestingly, although a slow air in Irish music is not technically metered, it often has a subtle regularly accented pulse, possibly perhaps from the vocal origin of many of these airs.[28]  It seems to be a natural fit to accompany a slow air with a simple rhythmic accompaniment.  This also allows more structure on which to build improvisation, especially within the cycles of Indian tala which are designed for this purpose (for examples from 2:27-2:37 & 2:59-3:05). As with previous examples, the ‘container’ of the tala acted as a catalyst for improvisation although importantly, in deference to the tradition of slow air playing in Irish music, the main melody was not abandoned altogether.  As we also maintained this rhythm for the next piece, which was a hornpipe, it created more of what I would call a ‘narrative arc’.



Caislean an Oirr

This hornpipe is one of Junior Crehan's most famous compositions.  The melody in this performance was in D Dorian mode and is beautiful and quite mournful when played slowly.[29]  The tune type is often in a slow setting and “performed in a deliberate manner with definite accents on beats one and three of each bar” (ibid, p. 352).  The tempo of the hornpipe is generally slower than a reel, and rhythms most commonly encountered in hornpipe fiddle dances include 2/4 and 4/4 dotted rhythms such as:

However, I personally feel that the traditional rhythm of a hornpipe is quite laborious and doesn’t allow the natural beauty of the tune to be presented.  In my performance with Tommy, we worked with a way to create more ‘space’ within a hornpipe which would allow more scope improvisation (from 4:14-5:21).  This was achieved using a simple cow bell pattern represented in standard notation and in GV.  For comparison I will also include the tabla pattern. 


Cowbell pattern in standard notation and GV followed by tabla patter in sitarkhani in GV (left to right)

In this simple accompaniment, Tommy also occasionally adds a single strike on a low pitched bodhran in between the cowbell pattern.  Note that in Figure no, this is written in 3/4 as the pulse of the bell follows the underlying threes of the hornpipe rhythm. In the GV example (Figure No: 6.7) the twelve beat cycle is divided by two and ten beats.  While this doesn’t clearly articulate a cyclic rhythm it is strikingly different to the standard hornpipe accompaniments shown in Figure No: 6.5.  However, these notations are only useful for more abstract analysis.  In my performance of Caislean an Oir with Tommy, I actually follow the natural melodic cadence of the cow bell pattern, which sounds on the fourth (ma) and flattened third (ga), rather than following an abstract mathematical metre.  My mirroring of the cow bell part can clearly be heard in the following clip 5:06-5:21.  Due to this cow bell accompaniment, the resulting tonal centre of the piece moves between the tonic (Sa) and the fourth (ma) which makes a nice transition from the beginning slow air. I find this interplay between these two tones creates an interesting sense of contraction in the rhythm, somewhat akin to the sam/ kali dynamic of Indian classical music.   This scaffolding allows for an interplay around these accents and I believe works really well for improvisation (from 4:01- 4:34). 

Again, however, my improvisation is somewhat linked to phrases around the melody. Although I do abandon the main tune altogether, my phrases are small groups of melodic ideas rather than an extended exploration of the scale material.  I feel this type of improvisation is more rhythmic in character rather than melodic.  The accent of Tommy’s accompaniment frames the phrases of my own passages, especially in a feeling of three’s or six. My phrases coincide with either Tommy’s bell or bodhran pattern.  His accenting of the beat, which is grouped more like 12 e.g. (four groups of 3), is the anchor from which my phrases can stray.  The example here shows how I accent the fifth (Pa) and the tonic (Sa) at the same time as Tommy’s cowbell (Pa) and bodhran ( Sa).  The combination of the unusual bell pattern and the strong bodhran bass throb, construct a kind of sam and khali interplay, with the sam resolving on the bodhran, the bell feeling like an empty beat, although, this rule doesn’t strictly apply throughout the whole improvisation.


With this same hornpipe in the performance with Debojyoti, we actually continued the sitarkhani accompaniment from the slow air.  In rehearsals, we had tried using a 16 beat teental and even a 12 beat ektal accompaniment, but they simply didn’t work.  This was primarily because the different accents of these rhythms contrasted too dramatically with the hornpipe.  Even though a hornpipe is notated with a 4/4 time signature, as already discussed, it has a strong pulse of three, whereas as teental is a very straight pulse of four and ektal is subdivided with a pulse of twos.  However, the choice of sitarkhani accompaniment still dramatically changed the rhythmic feel of the tune.  Initially, in rehearsals, I had tried playing at half speed as the tempo of sitarkhani felt slightly fast.  This meant that the melody stretched over two cycles of the tala. The melody pattern became shortened, with less dotted quavers, so that I could fit it into the rhythmic cycle.  I also dropped the melody down one tone, so that (ma) the fourth become the vadi and the sixth note (dha) became flattened.  This along with the sitarkhani dotted crochet feel, slightly shifted the pulse of the melody, an effect which is notated here:

However, in the performance (from 4:24- 6:35) I, in fact, played the melody at double this pulse and in the same D minor setting as with Tommy.[30] This created quite a rapid rendition of the tune and I do not think it was particularly successful as a hornpipe or as a sitarkhani composition.  The performance also suffered from a slight confusion over where the sam was at times, both by myself and Debojyoti. I think that this was mostly due to the fact that I initially started the melody at the wrong place in the rhythmic cycle.  This resulted in our final tihai being a little sloppy (from 6:30-6:35).  However, the improvisation section (from 5:20-6:35) is quite interesting and deserves a closer examination as it demonstrates how the unambiguous (sam/kali) cycle of Indian classical tala lends itself to systematic melodic exploration, regardless of the melodic material.  In particular, I think this improvisation is an example of the possibilities of improvisation beyond Irish melody in which the accompaniment holds space for unearthing the ‘internal logic’ of the melody.    

5:20-5:27- (Re is emphasized as strong note as previously recognised in tune...leading to the tonic Sa)

5:27- 5:33 (tabla holds on full cycle of tala and sarode comes at the kali.

5:33-5:46(again Re is explored with a longer sthyai passage, finishing on long meend (sliding note to Sa) 

5:46- 6:01(two phrases from the previous improvisations are repeated with faster stroke (diridiri) patterns.

I am not suggesting that this passage is exceptional improvisation or that it is without flaws, but it does illustrate something of a framework around which more systematic improvisation with Irish tunes can be undertaken.  Certainly, to focus in on such a small section of the performance is an artificial analytic move that detracts from a sense of the gestalt of the entire piece.  Yet this kind of analysis does offer greater insight into the performative future of this project.  Focussing in on this short section allows for reflection on the intuitive and ephemeral nature of my improvisations and begins to highlight the ‘grammar’ of the tune.  This possible grammar or ‘internal logic’ is expressed in the ascending descending scale pattern garnered from the improvisation analysis. 

A tentative ascending and descending scale pattern of the tune is suggested as a ‘crooked’ (vakra) movement (Figure No: 7.8).  Although, importantly what I am arguing here is that this ‘grammar’ of the tune will be expressed very differently depending on the ‘language’ of the rhythmic accompaniment.  For example, in the performance with Tommy, because of his use of the bell pattern, the fourth note (ma) flattened third (ga) were emphasized which made them resemble of the vadi and samvadi, strong or principal notes in Hindustani raga aesthetics.  In the performance with tabla accompaniment, although we originally had rehearsed a setting with a strong emphasis on the (ma), our final arrangement revolved around the tonic (sa), the second (Re), and also the fifth (Pa).  This subtlety changes the mood of the piece and also the approach to improvisation. 

However, despite the different accompaniment techniques, some of the tune’s ‘logic’ is apparent in both performances.  This I feel is because both accompanying rhythms provide a defined ‘space’ which allows for improvisation.  One example of the ‘grammar’ of this tune’s logic is evident in the pakar (catch phrase) of sliding up to the flattened 7th (ni).  In Irish traditional music, particularly in the styles of many well-known East Clare fiddle players, sliding up to or ‘scooping’ this note, (which is C natural), is often equated with the mysterious quality of the ‘lonesome touch’.  In combination with other stylistic and technical approaches, such as the use of minor keys, dropping tunes down a step, a slow tempo and use of dynamic expression, this ‘scooping’ of the note (incidentally called a meend in Hindustani music) is not only associated with the melancholy aesthetic of ‘lonesomeness’ (O’ Shea, 2008, p.70-77) but also is connected to the prized effect of ‘draoicht’ literally ‘a spell or magic’ (Vallely, 2011, p. 222).  The use of glissando and other more elaborate ornamentation in Hindustani music is also attributed to the evocation of particular moods.  These types of ornamentation could be considered primarily rhythmic in nature, as they deal with the manipulation of melodic material over a strict time, although the focus of the instrumentalist or singer is arguably predominantly melodic.  Some scholars (Holryde, 1968) (Jaizrabhoy, 2008) suggest that it is within these ornamentations that the elusive ‘sruti’ resides, rather than existing in the pure tone itself.[31] 

This type of argument has interesting implications for exploring this same concept further in Irish traditional music.  In contrast to the Hindustani tradition, ornamentation in Irish traditional music is often considered primarily rhythmic, again another example of the interwoven nature of melody and rhythm resulting from a dance function.  However, within the ornamentations of traditional musicians, there is a whole universe of micro-tonal and micro-rhythmic cadences.  These cadences, accents, inflections and modulations, when mediated against the pulse of temporal progression, are at the core of the affective power of traditional music.  My argument here is that these rhythmic ornamentations can only be understood in their performative context, which is bound by melodic restraints. 

To fully explore the possibilities of Irish traditional ornamentation as a microcosm for aesthetic theory and extended improvisation, requires that the traditional roles of rhythm and melody need to be somewhat untangled so that the full potential of the tune’s grammar may be elucidated.  As melody and rhythm are so intertwined in Irish traditional dance music, this generally makes the role of the rhythmic accompanist in one sense static as the rhythm required relates so closely to the tune itself.   Yet traditional accompaniment is also ambiguous in that the individual can interpret what is actually required in service to the tune.  My own performances represent an initial attempt at re-configuring this relationship between rhythm and melody by understanding the role of rhythm in an unambiguous manner, namely that rhythm ‘holds a space’ for improvisation.[32]  Any further exploration of the internal logic in the melodic cadences of traditional music requires a continuation of this performance based approach rather than isolated and extrapolated analysis of existing practices.   


 The Heron Jig              

            The next piece in the set, the Heron jig, is a tune that ‘fell under my fingers’ during a week-long workshop as part of the PhD programme in the academy.  It was the first tune I ever made, in the traditional context.  The tune, and the heron, literally came to me while I was sitting beside the river Shannon with my instrument.  In this performance context, however, the tune which is a double jig, posed some problems for the tabla accompaniment.  For this jig we tried using Dadra tal accompaniment which is an Indian folk rhythm in six (3 +3) beats, sam is on the first beat and kali is on the fourth beat.  It is notated here.

Debojyoti explains that he chose to play this in double tempo and slightly alter the “traditional syllable of the rhythm”. He said that this wasn’t an intellectual process but that, ”I just followed accent of your tune and structure” (from email communication, 2015).  The sam and kali are still in the same place as traditional dadra tal but the strokes (bols) on the tabla are different, offering more of a triplet feel.  Debojyoti stated that he purposely didn’t “play straight theka” but rather he “adjusted with the melody structure” (in interview 04/08/16).  The syllables are then slightly changed to-

 Dhage - ne Dhikete | Take - te Dhikete, and also to Dha- Take te Na Dhin Dhin. 

Debojyoti reflected that, “it was lovely tune” and that he enjoyed what he called “the inside rhythm of heron jig”(from 6:35-8:10_).  In particular, he complimented my approach to Irish melody as establishing a “kind of trance mood” (from email communication, 2015).  However, I did not really feel that we were particular in synchrony for this tune. When I notated it using GV I found that it wasn’t really working as a cycle, as the ‘one’ is constantly emphasized. I felt the tabla accompaniment wasn’t particularly responsive to my improvisations. This lack of cyclicity is perhaps best represented in the GV notation of this tabla accompaniment compared with the bodhran accompaniment of the same tune.

Various tabla accompaniment of a jig in GV notation.

Two different ways of notating the bodhran accompaniment in GV notation for a jig

I have included three possible ways to notate Debojyoti’s tabla accompaniment because it is somewhat ambiguous as to what is the actual main pulse.  While dadra tal traditional has an empty beat on the third beat of the six beat cycle, the kali did not seem so pronounced for me in the performance as the cycle is very short. It was in fact difficult to hear the tune running over a long cycle of 12 bars, which is something I thought Debojyoti and I had done very successfully with other Irish tune types.  In this case though, the tabla pattern was so short and the kali didn’t really give that contraction which it does in longer tal cycles.  Tommy explained that when he heard Debojyoti’s accompaniment that “he played it like a rock drummer” (personal communication, 2015).  Tommy had made similar comments about other tabla players he heard playing jigs from the Indian tour discussed previously.  In fairness to Debojyoti, unlike some of the other tabla players I have worked with, he was aware that a different kind of rhythm outside of traditional tala was needed to suit this tune type and he asked many questions about the tune’s structure and as he called it, its’ ‘groove’.  Interestingly, it was only when I began to convey the tune by lilting it, that we began to make any progress towards achieving a satisfactory approach.

 While I did manage an improvised section with the tabla accompaniment (from 7:37-8:01), I ironically felt somewhat constrained by the lack of clear structure to the rhythm cycle. I was reminded of other examples of Irish-Indian ‘fusion’, especially those in which a tabla player simply plays along with a jig or a reel, and felt that we didn’t quite reach the levels of discernment I would have hoped. Again, as with some of the other Irish pieces, our final tihai (8:05-8:10) was slightly out of sync.  There were some interesting moments though and in particular, from (7:24-7:38).  In this section, I am mostly following the structure of the tune and Debojyoti is accenting the end of the phrase with six rapid bass notes of his tabla (bayan).  My interpretation is that this section seems to be dynamically moving because of the accent which Debojyoti is creating at the end of the phrase.  This creates a clearer rhythmic definition that the melody can wrap itself around.

  With Tommy, I felt the performance of the Heron jig was much more successful and dynamic even though it followed a fairly traditional grouping of threes with accents on the 1 and the 3 (from 5:23-7:24).  The accenting of the first and third beat creates a feeling of a undulating pulse, with the second beat acting as a continuous kali (Figure no).  Perhaps, though the biggest difference here was Tommy’s familiarity and comfort with the jig form and also our own experience at performing the piece.  This experience resulted in a much longer improvised section than with the tabla accompaniment.  Just over 30 seconds with Debojyoti (with tabla from 7:23-8:01) and almost a minute with Tommy from 6:28-7:23).  This improvisation with Tommy had three clear sections (Improv 1 from 6:28-6:43 Improv 2 from 6:43-7:05 Improv 3 from 7:10-7:25)


Improv 1 (sthyai, middle register improvisations down to flattened sixth (dha)

6:28-6:35 ( Sa ni Pa, dha--dha...dha...dha-ni...Sa Re ga Re Sa ni dha Pa,

Sa ni Pa, dha- dha- dha...Sa Re ga ma Pa ma ga Re Sa

6:35-6:39(Sa ni Pa, dha--dha--dha. ni,... Sa Re RgR sa

6:39-6:43 (Sa ni Pa dha- Sa Re Sa ni Sa..Sa Re ma Pa ma ga Re Sa, Re ga ma

Improv 2- (upper register between Pa and Sa, repeated emphasis on Pa)

6:43-6:49 Pa Pa Pa dha Pa ma Re ga ma Pa, Pa ,Pa, Pa-

6:49- 6:54 (moves up to upper octave Sa, emphasis on dha)

6:54- 7:05 (off beat variations on phrase from Pa moving down to middle register Sa)(repeated three times-tihai-)

 7:05-7:10    ( B part of main tune is repeated)

Improv 3

 7:10-7:25 (jor/jhala section where basic notes are accentuated using open strumming)

          Re, Re,  ni, ni, dha, dha, ni, ni (again repeated three times)(Figure no)

7:24- 7:30 (B part of main tune is repeated)

7:30- 7:33 (short tihai made out of finale phrase of tune)


What can be gleamed from such a breakdown of an improvisation?  Firstly, it becomes apparent how I am applying various Indian classical rhythmic techniques to structure my improvisation.  An obvious example is the use of tihais (a three times repeated motif, usually landing on the sam) which are used to signify the end of an improvisatory passage.  Secondly, in the broader structure, there is a general resemblance to the basics of raga presentation.  The improvisation doesn’t just go anywhere, it follows a pattern.  This pattern also follows a dynamic arc moving from the speculative to the more intense opening strumming of the third improv section.  The improvisation begins around the middle octave and the tonic (sthyai), to exploring the fifth (Pa) up to the upper octave tonic (antara), then returns again to the (sthayi). 

I do not wish to suggest that this simplistic explication is an exhaustive explanation of Indian classical performance, nor that I am an expert authority of the nuances of raga.  My experience of Indian music is barely even a drop in the ocean compared to that of true masters, yet the practice has taught me how an intentional structure gives great freedom.  The clarity of form and the rigours of its application, through the paradoxical freedom of improvisation, can ultimately lead to a transcendence which for me is the highest goal performance.  This kind of analysis, while also identifying improvisatory musical structures, allows us to hone in on the performative and affective realization of the purpose of these structures.  It also may offer the ability to reverse engineer, so to speak, the ‘internal logic’ of the tune itself.  As this tune is one of my own compositions, it would be interesting to interpret the tune’s logic or grammar and what elements, if any, can be attributed to a signature style or a broader category of tune types.  Again, this is beyond the limits of this chapter but it is hoped that the processes undertaken in this initial research can lay the foundation for future practice based inquiry.        


The performative moment and gesture

                 Another approach to understand the affective or ‘feeling tone’ of these performances is an analysis of the performances gestural dimension (Clayton & Leante, 2011; Clayton, 2007; Morton, 2005; Knapp et al, 2009; Rahaim, 2012). By reviewing the video footage, certain facial expressions, such as closed eyes, head nods, winks, smiles and various verbalised gestures are expressions of the musical affect of the performative moment, which in turn I believe effects the performance.  By analysing the musical moments of some of these key gestural expressions, I hope to gain further insight into the sympathetic affective experience of the performance and the musical materials present in these moments.  In particular, I feel the Heron jig was one of the most effective and affective pieces in the whole performance with Tommy.  There are clear gestural signs of both of us enjoying this tune and musically trading ideas.

For example, from 6:04-6:12 the camera focusses in on Tommy: eyes are closed, slight smile, swaying head, left shoulder moving up and down in time with the third beat of his bodhran as his left hand moves up and down the back of the bodhran to manipulate the tone.  From 6:12-6:17 Tommy closes his eyes more tightly purses his lips and slightly sticks out his tongue as he begins a variation on the pulse, playing twelve crochet beats against the pulse of 6/8.  From 6:18-6:20 he opens his eyes again and follows the main pulse before launching into another variation when he closes his eyes tight and plays a flurry of fast triplets down the face of his drum.  The mood has been established by this stage and we are both comfortable.  I being to improvise from 6:28-6:42 and Tommy begins following the rhythmic accent of my phrases.  From 6:43-6:49 I begin to strum strong open chords on the first beat of each triplet (Pa, Pa, Pa, Pa) and Tommy contrasts this with his rapid triplet run down the bodhran.  I then lean back, close my eyes tightly, grimacing as I play an ascending meend up to the high tonic from 6:49-6:54).  Tommy closes his eyes again and from 6:54-7:04 sways his head from side to side, following my descending tihai phrase which leads back to the B part of the composition.


 While I did not feel the same affect in my performance of the Heron jig with Debojyoti, we did however, manage to create some nice moments which again are evident in the gestural dimension.  In our short improvisation (from 7:32- 7:37) I slightly alter the composition by finishing on a komal dha rather than a komal ni, Debojyoti is obviously aware of this variation and quietly says, ‘Kya bhat!’ under his breath.  This expression, literally meaning, ‘what a thing!’, is a common exclamation amongst performers and audience members alike in Hindustani music and is used to compliment a performer’s technical skill or ability to bring out the mood of the raga.  It is a crucial part of the dynamic of performance and I think especially between the performers themselves.  This kind of encouraging appreciation is evident in other performative moments with Debojyoti as well.  In fact, an audience member at the performance with Tommy commented on my different posture and gestures between the Indian and Irish melodies.  She suggested that my posture was more upright and spirited in the Irish pieces.[33]  This dynamic interplay between the verbal, gestural and the musical is perhaps most evident in the following tune and final piece of this set in both of these performances which is based on Raga Asawari. 


Gat in Rag Asawari


This piece revolves around an Indian classical gat (fixed composition) based on Raga Asawari in a nine beat cycle (mata tal).  This raga is an early morning raga, which has associations of pathos and romance.[34] It’s strong notes (vadi and samvadi) are the flattened sixth and third (komal dha) and (komal ga).  Asawari is also the name of the main ten family scales (thata) of ragas which were categorized by Bhatkhande (2004) in the 13th century.  The scale material of this thata is in an Aeolian mode e.g. (Sa, Re, ga, ma, Pa, dha, ni, Sa). The ascending/descending pattern omits the flattened third and sixth in the ascent:

Aroh: Sa, Re, ma, Pa, dha, Sa-

Avaroh: Sa, ni, dha, Pa, ma, ga, Re Sa.

 Although I have had a long love affair with this raga, my teacher even improvising on this raga as I walked down the aisle when I got married, I have never formally learnt Asawari in the traditional guru-shishya system.  In fact, this composition does not come from either of my teachers but rather was gleamed from an old cassette recording of Ashish Khan (sarode) and Zakir Hassein (tabla).  Furthermore, I chose this composition, not just because of my love for it, but also because I have not learnt this raga in a strict manner.  Both of my teachers have discussed the importance of keeping classical and ‘fusion’ music somewhat separate, and this is also partly why I have a separate sarode for playing Irish music.  I also try to keep the formal ragas and compositions I have learnt for more traditional classical performance. Aashish Khan has described a similar selection process in his own ‘fusion’ work, suggesting that it is best, “not import ragas wholesale…to avoid offending listeners” (in Mujumdar, 2013).   While compositions can be set to the rhythms of Hindustani music, Khan argues that these melodies should be based on what he describes as “the shadows of ragas” (ibid, 2013).   In particular, I tend to choose the more light classical or Misa ragas for non-traditional performances, ragas such as Asawari, or Bhairavi, Manj Khamaj, Chaurakeshi and Kafi.  This approach also makes the strict rules of grammar and also the aesthetics of the raga more relaxed, which is especially important when working with musicians who do not have any experience with Indian classical music.

Again, in accompaniment, Debojyoti uses the classical nine beat tala, which he used for slip-jig in 9/8, The Night Larry got Stretched except that in this example we have the tala in its natural habitat, accompanying a classical composition.  Tommy on the other hand, is outside of his comfort zone as this composition is not a 9/8 slip jig rhythm, but rather has a sub-division of 4 +2+3.  Tommy’s approach is to follow something of the 1234, 1234, 1234,1234, 1234, 1-2-3-4.  He is in fact just filling in the first six beats of the rhythm with his own improvisation, or as one colleague described, ‘busking it’(in personal communication, 2015). Tommy then catches the final phrase in unison with the melody, which is represented here by dotted quavers.

The first six (crochet) beats of Tommy’s accompaniment, shifts between a pulse of four and three depending on his own whim.  The dynamic then becomes, what I would describe as, much more earthy compared to the clear finesse of the tabla.  However, at least while the melody is being played, Tommy is clearly aware of the contraction of the nine beat cycle and there is a great deal of interplay between us, akin to the relationship of tabla and sarode in the classical tradition.  In particular, this is evident at the very start of the piece (from 7’35-7’50) where we ‘trade’ phrases which might be described as sawal jabab in the Hindustani tradition. In terms of the gestural dimension of this section of the performance, you can clearly see we are enjoying ourselves.


     Further examples of what I consider the gestural expression of sympathy are evident   (from 8:08- 8:15) when the composition is being played and I verbally respond to Tommy’s accompaniment by exclaiming ‘Ah!’  Musically, this is followed by my own response where I slightly change the melody, emphasizing the flattened sixth (komal dha).This gestural sympathy continues as I leave the fixed composition and begin to improvise (from 8:23- 8:33).   This segment of the performance is one of my favourites, both musically and visually, as it represents us rhythmically and emotionally getting into the same groove.  Tommy closes his eyes and sways his shoulders, while tapping his feet, seemingly in rapture. My own eyes were closed and I am intensely focussed on my own breathing and the sound of the improvisation as it appears in my own mind before it is manifested on the instrument. 



Differently from my performance with the tabla accompaniment, my improvisation here is still very much rhythmically tied to Tommy’s playing (from 8:22-9:50).  Yet, the general ‘feeling tone’ of the performance is lively and I would argue in sympathy and this is again expressed verbally at the piece’s conclusion (from 10:00-10:06) where I shout ‘Hep’ to signal the final tihai.




Standard notation and GV notation of nine beat rhythm cycle played on tabla

In the performance with Debojyoti, who provided the clear structure of tala , I am able to play with the groove more, using off-beat phrases in the composition and stretching with and around the sam (from 8:40-9:53 and also from 10:32-11:01).  Not only sonically, but gesturally, the tabla provides a clear framework.  As the nine beat cycle revolves, the kali is signified by the absence of a bass note on the bayan or left side of the pair of drums.  The final phrase of the cycle, Dhin dhin na Dhin dhin na is a dramatic gestural flurry which clearly leads to the clear and resounding sam. Through these bodily signals, combined with their sonic manifestations, we are able to bend and stretch the main pulse of the rhythm and melody, making improvisations which play with the accented first beat (sam), with a constant gestural and musical structure with which to return.  Also Debojyoti gets a chance to improvise, which would be a traditional part of modern raga presentation (from 10:02-10:32). This improvised section is communicated between us with some difficulty via head nods.

 This improvisation also has more dynamic scope, ranging from parts when I do not play at all, to quiet explorations of one or two notes building up to rapid rhythmic and melodic passages (from 9:01-10:02).  The efficacy of such a space for dynamic improvisation is again expressed in the gestural, albeit more subtlety in my case. In this section, I am intensely concentrated, brow furrowed, looking into an empty space just beyond my instrument.  I recognize this look from the clip from many other performance stills.  It is a sign that I am intensely concentrating on the mood of the piece, the mood which I must feel and hear within myself before I can manifest it musically.  This requires a technique of present awareness of the musical moment yet also a detachment from the performance environment.


Reflections on rhythm, groove and the sympathy of the mongrel

                   To summarise the overall analysis presented in this chapter, it would seem that in rhythmic structuring, Irish and Indian music are almost polar opposites.  This rhythmic difference is especially evident if we understand Irish traditional and North Indian classical music in a simplified dichotomy e.g. Irish rhythms are folk – Indian rhythms are classical.  Irish music is for dance- Indian music is for listening.   Yet my purpose here is not purely comparative musicology but a description of my practice, the unique way that I engage with this material.  This is mediated, not only by engagement and understanding of the socio-cultural framework of traditions but an ability to move between them in performance.  Therefore, I do not experience Irish and Indian musical rhythm to be necessarily at odds with each other.  Rather through the mongrelity of my practice, I attempt to find the sympathetic synchrony in the process of performance.  Indeed, I would like to suggest that sympathy is actually an active process in the performative sense.   Inter-cultural musical sympathies are not to be found the static comparison of isolated musical transcriptions and cultural comparisons.  Sympathy is an embodied process mediated by individuals in the performative moment.  Admittedly, finding sympathy in the rhythmic considerations of performance requires a mediation of musicological and socio-cultural factors to some extent.  Yet, just as importantly, the ‘felt’ knowledge and experience of the musicians involved is a vital factor in making inter-cultural collaborations work.    Rhythmic sympathy requires a degree of some compromise, but hopefully when it works neither tradition loses its own defining characteristics. 

I find it useful to understand the process of finding rhythmic sympathy in inter-cultural performance within the metaphor of the groove. Keil suggests that every groove is “both a mystery [and] a testable practice...the practical question is something like: what do we have to do with our bodies playing these instruments and …the music inside the people and the people inside the music? (2004, p. 1).   So, while it is useful, as I hope to have shown in this chapter, to analyse the practical elements of performance, I would like to consider the groove that is the ‘music inside the people’ which undoubtedly is a significant contributor to the sympathy, or lack thereof in the performances analysed here.  In particular, I would like to attempt to understand the mystery of the combination of mongrel music inside of me and how this effects my understanding of rhythm in these performances.

We have established that the concept of rhythm and also groove are at least partly culturally defined.[35]  My understanding of the purpose of rhythm and the feeling of groove is a mixture of my experiences within a range of sonic traditions outlined in the first chapter (e.g. Indian, Irish, rock, African drumming, free jazz, electronica, Zen).  The overriding sympathy in all of my experiences of musical time is that rhythm creates a form and form creates freedom.  Freedom within form, (which I would call improvisation) leads to the possibility of musical transcendence.  The interlocking interplay between freedom and form, which is manifested musical time, I would call ‘groove’.   Although for me groove is related to the body, I understand this movement to be affective as much as physiological.  I understand that music ‘moves us’ in the broadest sense of the term, both physically and emotionally.  Groove carries the affective power of musical time.  Madison asserts that, “groove appears to reflect the music's efficiency for entrainment” (2009, p. 7).  While entrainment may generally be associated with rhythmic together-ness, Clayton (2009) has also argued it could be equated with John Blacking’s concept of ‘fellow feeling’ in music.  He suggests that rhythmic entrainment may be one of the most crucial aspects of music which “lead to fellow feeling and shared mental states” (in LOGOS seminar, 2015). 

 Feld suggests a broader theoretical definition of groove which does not refer to rhythm.  He describes it as, “an intuitive sense of style as process, a perception of cycle in motion, a form or organizing pattern being revealed, a recurrent clustering of elements through time” (in Hennessy, 2008, p. 142).  It is this ‘perception of cycle in motion, a form or organizing pattern’ which closely meshes with my understanding of the purpose of rhythm and the feeling of groove.  The idea of cyclicity is important here, rather than a linear perception of time.  Likewise, the sense of motion, a continuous chain of rhythmic cycles which are interconnected, is important to my understanding of groove.  Importantly though, while this form must be clearly expressed, it also should have a consistent pulsating variable, such as a recurring strong or weak beat, which signals ones place in the chain of rhythmic events.[36]  The purpose of these interlocking chains is not primarily to invite physical dance but to invite the melodic dance of improvisation.  It is my experience that improvisation (freedom) within this form is what leads to the ephemeral transcendent moment of musical performance.  Therefore, I would suggest that groove, in my own performance practice, relates to understanding the role of rhythm in an unambiguous manner, namely that rhythm becomes a groove when it ‘holds a space’ for improvisation.  This is especially evident when the purpose of rhythm is to create groove to move us in the broadest sense.  In this context, groove could be technically defined as a clearly expressed cyclical relationship between strong and empty beats with the intention of creating an undulating pulse.  This undulation is created by the movement of strong and weak accents and the improviser’s ability to move within and around them.  It is the space within the form of non-ambiguous groove which nurtures the spark of musical creativity.

In reflecting back upon the analysis of this chapter, the main difficulty for finding a meeting point in rhythmic approach was in attempting to apply the above definition of groove as a non-ambiguous cyclical relationship to both Irish and Indian melody in a similar manner.  My definition of groove is very much linked with my experience with North Indian classical music.  However, I believe there is a performative rhythmic sympathy to be found in the Irish tradition.  For me, it is the repetition of the tune, which has the rhythm fixed within it, which creates the possibility for groove.  For unlike Indian classical music, the groove is in the tune.  The tune, with its repeating strong and weak accents, creates a particular feeling tone in the listener which is parallel with the somatics of chant, To paraphrase Coward and Goa, the tune, “is verified not by what it describes or cognitively reveals but by more complex vibration or feeling tone it creates in the practising person” (2004, p. 6). Ó Súilleabháin has touched on this type of analogy in his own writing, describing how the groove of “main can actually feel them move through your body, and you can see them going through the musician’s body” (2001, p. 7).  

My interest, both as a scholar and a performer, is how it may be possible to understand the rhythms of Irish traditional music in an embodied but less ambiguous manner.  This interest arises from a need in my own practice to find a sympathetic rhythmic approach to Irish and Indian melodies.  To create this sympathy requires bringing rhythmic elements from both of these musical worlds together; namely the ambiguous ‘groove’ or ‘lift’ of Irish dance music and the non-ambiguous improvisatory rhythmic scaffolding of the Indian tradition.  To do this requires a broader theoretical, yet still technically grounded, performance based understanding of groove.  I hope that this research is an initial step to realize these lofty aims.




[1] 2:27-3:23



[4]  These ‘norms of rhythmic possibility’ are defined by the regional and personal style, the tune type, and the instrument itself.   A combination of factors then leads to the manner in which a player can vary the “basic motor rhythm” of traditional dance music to “achieve the desired rhythmic effect...frequently referred to by traditional musicians as lift”( Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, p. 122).’  Indeed, as O’ Shea argues, “having the right rhythm has long been recognised as the sign of an authentic Irish style” (2008, p. 95).

[5] The dhol and dholak are two sided barrel drums much associated with Indian folk traditions.  They have in particular become associated with modern urban hybrid musics such as bhangra. See (Sharma et al, 1996) (Bennet, 1997)(Taylor, 2007).

[6] The scarcity of reels (an Irish traditional tune type usually notated in 4/4) in the performances in general is due to the difficulty of playing these melodies on the sarode.  In both performances, we did play a few reels in conjunction with Indian compositions in fast teental or sitarkhani (16 beat cycle) rhythms.  However, the reels required serious re-working to fit Indian rhythmic structures, somewhat altering the original dance pulse of the tune type.  A more detailed discussion of this phenomenon is beyond the focus of this chapter but warrants further investigation.

[7] Male singers might place Sa around D or E, female singers often pitch Sa at B or A.  Sitar often tunes its Sa to D or C#.  Flute players can use locate Sa depending on the scale length of their instrument.  Often on sarode the Sa is pitched around C natural, however, I know of many variations on what this ‘C’ oris...ranging from 442 HZ to 435.

[8] The tonic note (Sa) also has interesting spiritual connotations for many performers.  My first teacher, Sougata Roy Chowdhury, used to talk about making a raga stand by the way you played Sa. Likewise, the concept of the tonic note and its inter-relation with the other notes in the scale material is often described in metaphysical terms by Indian musicians. For an interesting exploration of the tonic and other related metaphysical conceptions of raga see O Brien’s (2014) The Endless search for Sa.

[9] Thata is a broader categorization system of scale types in Hindustani music devised by Bhatkandhe in the 13th century.




94 Apart from Cowdery’s (1990) work in analysing ‘tune families’, Seán Ó Ríada was also inspired by the complex aesthetic theory of Indian classical tradition and was convinced that Irish dance melodies had ‘their own internal logic’ (1982, p.13). 

[13] Lilting is a common term used to describe the musical style of vocalisation in Irish music.  “It’s typical sound structure has been adopted as the colloquial term ‘diddley-dee’ to denote (and often trivialise) traditional music” (Vallely, 2011, p. 403).  Vallely argues that although lilting may appear to be an abstract use of syllables that it “conforms to an unconscious set of rules” (2011, p. 405). Lilting is a fascinating area of Irish traditional music which warrants further study. For more information see (Madden, 1989) (Kjeldsen, 2000).

[14] For more examples see Kíla’s (2011)Book of Tunes- Leabhar Foinn, p. 192-195  


[15] Dhrupad is arguably the oldest form of North Indian classical music.  It’s characteristics include slow and extended alap with short fixed compositions accompanied by the barrel drum pakawaj. For more see Clarke and Tinil (2011).






[18] Swari is a grouping of threes at the end of an Indian classical rhythm cycle.

29. Which has some parallel to a Balkan additive rhythmic structure.

[20] (Debojyoti’s 11 beat cycle)= 7 +1 +4 or 7+5= 11 (Dha Tete Dha ge De ne Dhin Dha Dha Tete Tete)

 Ektaal = 12 beats of 6 + 6: (Dhin dhin dhage terikita tun na kat ta dhage terikita dhin dhage) 



[21] One example of difference beyond the rhythmic cycles is use of tempo.  With Debojyoti we performed this section much faster than I did with Tommy (around 210 BPM & around with 200BPM with Tommy) and we built up to a climatic finish at 240BPM.

[22] Hayes, T. & Noone, M. (2015). AnTara- The space between. OPP6. Independent release.

[23] As described in Chapter 2 and 3, there are a combination of extra-musical associations which give raga its unique character such as rasa (literally taste) and bava (mood).  Further associations are given for the time of day the raga is to be performed such as early morning, sunrise, sunset, midday, midnight or even particular seasons such as the monsoon or Spring.  For more information see (Bagchee, 1998, p. 82-90) (Kaufman, 1968, p. Pp.10-20) (Khan, 2002) (Danielou, 1980) (Holryde, 1964).  Exceptions to fixed scale material are evident in North Indian classical music in so called light classical pieces or when several ragas are mixed together resulting in a raga mala (literally garland of ragas) or mishra (mixed) raga.  

[24] Fiddle player and composer player from West Clare.

[25]  This slow air is featured on the double CD JUNIOR CREHAN (1908-1998): THE LAST HOUSE IN BALLYMAKEA. On this album Junior tells a s story behind the Priest’s Lament and also describes how he devised the tune Caisleann an Oirr from this slow air.




[28] For an interesting discussion on the rhythm of non-metered music see Clayton, 2000, pp. 95-103).

[29] Often this tune is played in the key of A.  It is notated as such in Junior’s book of compositions (2006).



[31] My own teacher, K. Sridhar, has discussed with me many times that the sruti resides within the passing notes of the ornaments.  He describes the effect of srutis in relation to his own practice of nada yoga. He argues that these srutis can be applied in any musical form.  In informal discussions he was described the fiddle playing of Joe Ryan and Tommy Potts to possess good sruti.  It is note the focus of this research to more systematically explore this concept but hopefully future work will extend on from this mostly anecdotal evidence.

[32] To draw upon my earlier practice based definition, ‘groove’ is defined as a clearly expressed cyclical relationship between strong and empty beats with the intention of creating an undulating pulse.

[33] I reflected that this could also because all of the Indian melodies were the fastest and most lively compositions.  Likewise, I am most comfortable with the Indian melodies are they are the most familiar to me.

[34] I hesitate to give references to understand this raga as Hindustani music is primarily an aural tradition and is necessarily a performance knowledge.  Any understanding of raga should be through practice and guidance from a teacher.  However, there is a wealth of scholarly work on raga aesthetics, from both Western and Eastern musicologists.  Examples of Raga Asawari can be found in: Avtar, 2006, p. 33, Kaufman,1968, p. 463-466 & Bor (ed), 1994, p. 24-25.

[35] Although, as Madison suggests it is equally the “physical properties of the sound signal [which] contribute to groove - as opposed to mere association due to previous exposure” (2009, p. 239).

[36] This is explained more musicologically in the analysis section.

[1] The melodies for both performances featured a mixture of Irish traditional tunes and raga based compositions.  The accompanist roles were undertaken by Bengali tablaist Debojyot Sanyal and Irish percussionist Tommy Hayes.  For more information on the instruments themselves see (Schiller, 2002) and (Kippen, 2005).  

[2] SEM/ESEM joint symposium.  Many delegates attended and contributed to the discussion afterwards.

[3] The case of Indian culture and temporal concepts in music is well documented as far back as 5000BC (Rowell, 1992) (Prajnanananda, 1997) (Widdes, 1992) (Simms, 1992). Nonetheless, there is an interesting degree of disjuncture between practice and theory in Indian classical music scholarship.  Likewise, it is important to be cognisant of the construction of Indian classical music within framing national identity (Bahkle, 2005). Irish cultural thought and its connection with music making has a severed history, particular predating the fall of the Gaelic aristocracy 1600's.  There is scant documentation of Irish conceptions of time and musical time even up to the modern era.  Apart from antiquarian attempts at ‘tune’ collection beginning in Ireland in the 17th century, there is no comparable scholarly tradition of musical aesthetics and classification with the Indian tradition.

[4] Ó Súilleabháin describes an entire melody in Irish dance music as one ‘round.  The ‘tune’ is the first half of the usual two part, thirty-two bar round.  The ‘turn’ is the second half of the round when the ‘tune’ is re-configured and often breaks into a higher octave.  He describes some discrepancy between “folk terminology in that the word ‘tune’ can refer to the first half of a round, and also to the piece in its entirety” (1990, p.118).

[5] It has been argued that in early forms of Indian classical music musical time followed the patterns of long and short accents used the poetic meter of chanting the Vedic Hymns (Rowell, 1992;Widdes, 1995).

[6] At worst, the bodhran, as was infamously stated by Seamus Ennis, should be played with a pen knife!

[7] Obviously this is except for the unaccompanied portion of raga development called alap.