Thursday, April 7, 2016

Frets and Strings

Today is Ravi Shankar's 96th birthday. He died in December, 2012, but sprang to prominence in the Western world as the expert who introduced The Beatles to the sitar - a unique, stringed instrument. I had the opportunity to see him in concert when I was younger - one night with him seated on a carpet-covered podium. I'm trying to remember if it was with the Denver Symphony, or while I was at college. Perhaps it was a TV special. But I just can't pull the room up around the memory of the incredible music and the electrifying performance. The music was sublime and I've never forgotten it.

Ravi Shankar always had this almost devilish grin. He was
a consummate artist of the sitar. I've never been able to hold
this instrument and so I have never quite understood it, but it
produces a fascinating sound. 

Add that to the fact that the world lost Merle Haggard yesterday, dying on the date of his 79th birthday. I'm not that into country music these days, although I've had my times of listening to it fairly extensively. Merle was a legend in that industry, and it was a fame that was well deserved. His music transcended the boundaries of country and hit all of America. Under his tutoring, we were all just one more "Oakie from Muskogee".

Merle Haggard was one of the outlaws in Country music. He
was in and out of trouble and jail for much of his youth. 

When I think of these two great instrumentalists, I am struck by how amazingly different their sounds were, yet both were using stretched strings fitted across a neck. Plucking those strings created sound and sound allowed their personalities and their talents to emerge. There is nothing similar about the sounds of the two instruments - the sitar and the guitar are radically different. But the basic concept of the instruments are the same - stretch a string and pluck it.

The Japanese Shamisen is a three-stringed instrument. Once
again, the concept of a stretched string is simple, but the sound
produced is very different. 

Who thought about stretching a string to create music? The wind instruments are pretty easy to conceive as wind blows through reeds with holes in them. But the string instruments take more thought and a better ear. Who first stretched gut tightly enough to produce sound? Was that sound more like the guitar? Or perhaps it was closer in appearance to the Japanese shamisen - an ancient 3-stringed instrument.

Barely scratching the surface of stringed instruments brings
all of these styles to the forefront. And there are so many
more that aren't pictured here. It's amazing what a variety
of sounds can be produced by a stretched string in the hands
of a master instrumentalist. 

Whatever it's form, the concept of stringed instruments is one of the basic structures for musical production around the world. Celebrate music today by listening to something that features a stringed instrument, and thank that nameless ancestor who first plucked a string. How shallow our lives would be without that musical accompaniment. Happy Thursday, everyone!

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