Brooklyn Raga Massive – In D
(BRM. Album review by Jane Mann)
This new download from the Brooklyn Raga Massive is their inspired tribute to Californian minimalist composer Terry Riley.
In 2012, a weekly casual jam session in Brooklyn was set up by sitar player and composer Neel Murgai with a group of his friends. The session became popular, and soon Murgai was casting around for a suitable piece for a live performance by the newly formed Brooklyn Raga Massive – quite a challenge given the diversity of instruments and musical backgrounds, and the vast number of players now in the group. He picked Terry Riley’s In C.
This masterpiece by pioneer of minimalism, Terry Riley, was composed in 1964 and is a work for an indeterminate number of musicians. It consists of 53 numbered short fragments to be played in sequence. The accompanying instructions explain that individuals may play each fragment as many times as they like, and if any phrases are too hard to play on their instrument, then they should miss those bits out and press on. The whole endeavour should be guided by a pulse, the note C, played on a piano, marimba or similar, to keep the ensemble in time, especially as the players have the option to play some fragments at half speed when they feel like it. Riley was enthusiastic about how In C turned out, especially the tape loop-like effect of all those repeating fragments played on top of each other:
It was total disruption of time as we knew it. It was like being in a time capsule and floating out in space somewhere waiting for the next event to happen. And I enjoyed that kind of waiting.
The original performance included such luminaries as Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick, but the piece turned out also to be perfect for community music performance, accommodating as it does different levels of musicianship. I have direct experience here – for a while I met weekly with a disparate group of musician neighbours in Peckham – we used a variety of musical instruments, we had widely varying levels of ability, and we only played one piece: Terry Riley’s In C. It was great fun.
Murgai’s choice went down a storm with players and audience, and the Brooklyn Raga Massive decided to release In C as an album and a video. This caught the attention of Riley, who got in touch. He had an idea to compose and perform a new piece with them, but sadly this plan fell through. They were understandably disappointed, but that same night Neel Murgai and David Ellenbogen sat down together and wrote In D. Ellenbogen explains:
We thought, why not write the piece that we wished Terry Riley would write for us. With the title we were kind of making fun of ourselves since we would need to play in the key of D for the sitar. The piece is based on the concepts of In C…but now would be rooted in a particular raga.
Given that raga, an Indian classical music form which incorporates modal scales, repeated motifs and improvisation, was a significant influence on Terry Riley’s work, this seemed an entirely appropriate shape for their homage to him.
The result is extraordinary. The instrumentation is wild and strange, with musicians and instruments from many traditions playing together. There is an emphasis on classical Indian sounds, but given the diversity of the performers other elements bubble up, or wander into view before merging back into the soundscape. Crucially, whereas In C is tightly scored, here the players have the space to improvise and ornament to their heart’s content.
The band includes some raga masters: Jay Gandhi, a bansuri (Indian classical flute) player, and Abhik Mukherjee, sitar, both of whom also contributed to the composition, and Hindustani classical vocalist Samarth Nagarkar. There are a number of string players incorporating traditions from around the globe, including Carnatic violin, cellos, Celtic harp, oud and kora. Representing the jazz world, there is Ron McBee (conga, percussion) of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Charlie Burnham on violin. New Music specialist Aaron Shragge is there on trumpet and shakuhachi. On mandolin and clarinet is Bluegrass and Klezmer expert Andy Statman. Terry Riley’s son Gyan Riley joins Ellenbogen on electric guitar, and there is electric bass, and an eclectic set of percussion instruments, including tablas.
In D is in three sections, which could each stand alone, but are linked together, and played straight through make for a fascinating musical journey. Broadly speaking the first raga is cheerful and melodic, the second is meditative and melancholy and the third begins quite sombrely but before you know it is soon full of energy and optimism, with an upbeat finish. The polyrhythms, the repeated lines and the moiré effect of the overlapping phrases are archetypal Riley. The trance-inducing rhythms, the musical embellishments and the exquisite vocals, especially in the exciting finale of the third section, the Raga Darbari, are the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s own. Co-composer Mukherjee comments:
The raga selections match the pandemic situation we now face. We plunged from our normal happy lives into darkness and finally, after passing through these phases, we have hope.
The album was made in the middle of the pandemic, in a massive recording studio in New York City used to accommodating classical orchestras. There was therefore plenty of space for the 24 musicians to spread out – either masked and 6 foot apart, or behind screens, as appropriate – and play together. The recording was made in one take.
Many records that I review make me want to hear the performers live – this one made me want to go to Brooklyn and join in.
Brooklyn Raga Massive premiered In D in November 2020 as the penultimate act at the annual Ragas Live Festival, a 24-hour broadcast of raga-inspired music from around the globe. They were followed by the headliner: Terry Riley giving a solo performance from Japan. The Brooklyn Raga Massive finally got to share their music, and a stage, if only virtually, with their inspiration.