By Rajesh Mehta

Director, ORKA-M International Institute of Innovative Music, Mumbai (India)

(This article is slated to be published in an anthology about innovative musical 21st century notation by the American Musicological Society in 2008)


My work with intercultural and interdisciplinary music projects has lead me to, in turn, reflect upon, analyze, deconstruct and challenge existing notions and practices relating to notation and composition.  The terms “new music” or “contemporary music” are for me limiting demarcations of a field of activity which still considers the modern western music manifestations of the 20th century as being the canons of avant-garde music.  In light of the positive aspect of globalized music making and especially through the discovery that there are elements of millennia old world musical traditions that could be deemed “new” or “contemporary” by even the pundits of so-called new music, I feel that “innovative music” can better express and possibly even help support a more open multicultural and multidisciplinary description of 21st century pioneering musical activity.

I was born in Calcutta, India where my first musical exposure was to Indian Film music and began playing the trumpet in the U.S at the age of 10 performing in jazz and classical ensembles and marching bands. I was formally educated at M.I.T. where I studied engineering with a joint degree in the History of Ideas for studies done at U.C. Berkeley.   My work experience included research in acoustics while in parallel studying composition at the Mills College contemporary music center. In 1991, I embarked on a career as a professional musician based in Europe with an extended 6 month residence (1991-1992) in South India collaborating with Carnatic Musicians.  International projects with modern dance, north and south Indian classical musicians, contemporary architecture followed and inspired me to create the “hybrid trumpet”- connecting multiple trumpets together with tubing and sound transforming devices and include a microtonal slide trumpet into my performances.  As a player, these new instruments extended my microtonal, percussive and spatialized music possibilities and allowed for an increased flexibility to work on intercultural and interdisciplinary projects.

The search for a notational framework that would embrace and visually represent this elaborated musical, choreographic, architectural and navigational language lead to a series of graphical drawings which began in 2001 in Berlin, Germany called “imaginational maps” (or i-maps) and another series of narrative paintings which started in 2006 in Chennai, India entitled “Songlines Jewels”.


Imaginational Maps:

These graphical drawings are used as a meta-notational framework which allow for multiple interpretations for western and non-western musicians and instruments as well as provide navigational information for moving musicians, choreographic instructions for dancers, and film projection material.

The musical compositions are derived from the natural measurability and scalability of being drawn on a Cartesian grid – (graph paper felt more familiar to me than staff paper!). The x-axis is used for temporal scaling and the y-axis for pitch and a superimposed pitch and time scaling measurement is employed for vertical objects.  All of the drawings contain fours basic object types: Ornamental objects (O-objects), Pointillistic objects (P-objects), Trajectory Objects (T-objects) and Relational Objects (R-objects).  The Ornamental objects represent lyrical and microtonal forms and have, through various forms of shading, instructions for a particular type of sound transformation or “muting”.  The Pointillistic objects are used as percussive clouds and are in addition to being interpreted by acoustic instruments, also sonically rendered by a graphical computer program.  The Trajectory Objects are glissandi, and finally the Relational Objects –the dotted lines- are gluing devices which interconnect the objects that are crossed on their paths and generate musical pieces which are scored through a timing diagram.


Sounding Buildings:


These graphical drawings form the basis for my music-architecture series entitled “sounding buildings” in which the manifold connections between music and architecture, and the acoustic, navigational, and metaphysical possibilities of those spaces are explored through live and film performances.  In 2002, the imaginational map 2 was the basis for my collaborative film/DVD project “Inaugurating M.I.T.’s Simmons Hall” with the building’s architect Steven Holl.  The same drawing was subsequently used for a live performance at the Lewis Glucksman Modern Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland in 2005 in which the entire building was “sounded” featuring local and international improvisers, sound artists, and contemporary music performers. I-map 2 formed the basis for the compositional and navigational score as well as the film projection material for this project.  In 2006, imap-2 was again used to form the score for a spatialized music concert in the Neues Musiktheater Festival in Rümlingen, Switzerland.  This concert involved contemporary classical musicians and for the first time included a South Indian Classical percussionist.  The adaptation of the imap-2 to work with this non-western musician demonstrated the versatility of this notational framework to engage and integrate musicians and instruments from other cultural traditions.

As the composer, my process is akin to that of a “music architect” where the drawing behaves like an architectural plan leading to the construction of a musical architecture that obeys the structural parameters inherent in the drawing. For the interpreter, however, the metaphor becomes localized into a map in which many degrees of freedom between improvisation and composition are explored through a landscape of shifting sonic and navigational choices.

One of the musician members of sounding buildings reflects on her experience of this musical approach:

The compositional structure of sounding buildings provides a space which at the same time is as open as possible and as defined as needed. The structural elements can be applied to practically every instrument or sound creating body may those be played in “traditional” ways or be prepared and newly invented. The structure creates a common ground on which musicians coming from whichever musical tradition can meet and interact. This interaction always includes the sounding body/building in which the performances take place. (Eunice Martins)


Songlines Jewels:

The narrative paintings series entitled “Songlines Jewels” were made in 2006, while I was a Senior Performing and Creative Arts Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies residing in Chennai for my project “Innovative Music Meetings: Creative Collaborations with Carnatic Music”.  This intensive research phase with musicians from this highly devotional and song-based compositional tradition had a decisive impact on my work which became visually evident in these paintings.  Although the basic language types were similar to the imaginational map series, suddenly there was a conspicuous addition of color and absence of the background grid.   Although I have more than a 16 year relationship to Carnatic Music, I realized that I was entering a new phase of visual representation of music that I could hear emerging from this narrative-rich tradition with its inexhaustible treasure chest of musical “jewels”.  However, the paintings also evoked other cultural associations that I was not consciously aware of while painting, especially the affinity to the unique culture of the Australian aboriginals, their dot paintings, and song cycles - “Songlines” with their built-in navigational tracking devices and an archetypal symbolic world through their concept of the “Dreamtime”.  Therefore, musically interpreting “Songlines Jewels” through concerts in Europe in the autumn of 2006 required a distinctly different approach to the analytic one for the imaginational maps -an approach in which a more intuitive reading of the symbolic terrain created by the painting was needed and the interpreter was encouraged to explore the wealth of generated associations.


Final reflections:


Through my own musical experiences, I have discovered that new notational approaches can act as bridges towards innovative music meetings- they are no longer confined to the western contemporary new music communities but are tools for visually communicating important musical ideas from any world musical tradition to any other.  Furthermore, given the diversity of cultural approaches to music making, symbolic representations of music through new notational forms can evoke archetypal images enlarging the platform for a broader musical-spiritual dialogue.


ORKA-M: International Institute of Innovative Music (Mumbai, India)

I am currently establishing my long-standing vision of 'ORKA-M: International Institute of Innovative Music' in Mumbai, India of which I will function as the founder/artistic director.  ORKA-M is an international platform for creative musical production, research and educational activities with a specific focus on intercultural and interdisciplinary collaborations.



Copyright 2007 Rajesh K. Mehta

(This article is slated to be published in an anthology about innovative musical 21st century notation by the American Musicological Society in 2008)

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