MUSIC REVIEW - Published in the the Spring Journal of the International Assocation of Women in Music: 

​Hasu Patel: Compositions for Sitar and Orchestra (Multiple Self-Released CDs available via CDBaby, Amazon, HasuPatel.com)

In 2017, Hasu Patel, a world-renowned performer, composer, and educator of Indian classical music, released three CDs of Raga Sangeet (Music of Colors). Each of the discs contain two Raga performances with Hasu on sitar, accompanied by Kalinath Misra on tabla. The performances are elegant and deft examples of music in the Hindustani (North India) tradition, performed in the Gayaki Ang or “vocal song” style. In addition to reviewing music from these new discs, I will also address a recording of one of her three Concertos for Sitar and Orchestra.

A representative example of the music found in Hasu’s new repertoire is from her “Raga: Yaman Kalyan/Raga: Kirwani” CD. The opening composition is a performance of the Yaman Kalyan raga. In Indian classical music, ragas—akin to Western scales, but different in significant ways—are intended to evoke specific moods (rasas). The mood of the Yaman Kalyan is tranquil and devotional. While the raga dictates the melodic framework for the composition, the “taal” is the rhythmic framework. In this collection, Hasu employs the “teentaal” rhythm, a framework consisting of an arrangement of sixteen beats (matras) in four equal divisions. The raga opens with an improvised, unmetered prelude known as the “Alap.” Here, Hasu delicately develops the mood of the raga in a slow and serene manner against a drone created by using the “chikari” strings of the sitar. The sonority is akin to the Western Lydian mode, but creates a mood uniquely non-Western. Passages play over a spacious C/G drone, with frequent ornament around F#. While in Western contexts, the F# would create a dissonance as the tritone above the C (or major 7th above the G), here the sonority strikes a balanced consonance. Following the Alap, the piece moves to the Gat, a metered, composed section where the tabla enters. Over the next eighteen minutes, the piece moves from a slow (Vilambit) and tranquil mingling of sitar and tabla to a fast (Drut) and fervent interplay, with the tabla employing its ability to use melodic attributes through applying finger or palm pressure to the tabla skins to modulate pitch. The piece concludes with an ecstatic dialogue, with both players executing their parts with superb precision. The recording is engineered with care and closely renders each instrument’s nuances.

Other ragas performed in Hasu’s new releases include: the Raga Kirwani, which evokes a melancholy mood; the Raga Charukauns, a raga of grandeur and pathos; the Bhairavi raga, a raga close to the Western Phrygian mode that elicits a mood of peacefulness; the charming and graceful Raga Lalit; and finally, the Raga Darbari Kanada, which summons feelings of devotion and is known to be one of the most difficult ragas to perform. Each of these ragas are performed with exquisite skill and lucidity.

Of special interest is Hasu’s Sitar Concerto Mangal Dhwani (Auspicious Sound), the first of her three concertos for sitar and orchestra. The concerto, from 2014, was commissioned and performed by the Doctor’s Orchestra of Houston. The composition utilizes the traditional concerto format of spotlighting an individual instrument (sitar) with contrasting passages from the orchestra. This concerto employs the Raga Bageswari, a raga intended to conjure the feelings of longing for an absent lover. The work undertakes the difficult challenge of marrying the melodic aspects of the raga, which utilize micro-tones (shrutis) naturally playable on sitar and tabla, with Western scales played by Western instruments built to support a tuning system based on equal temperament. It’s clear from the recording that maestro Patel—in conjunction with conductor Libi Lebel—have crafted the music and rehearsed the instrumentalists to produce authentic classical Indian harmonic texture within the framework of a Western orchestra. The result is a rich and sonically colorful musical experience. Patel’s Mangal Dhwani opens with a brief Alap on the sitar, but is joined shortly by the strings, with woodwind and harp flourishes. The first prominent theme is introduced by the brass and tympani and develops into a contrapuntal exposition with the orchestral tutti, which calls to mind some of Maurice Ravel’s most colorful orchestrations. At approximately the 17-minute mark, the tabla joins with the sitar in an astonishingly fast and virtuosic interlude. The piece builds, via accelerando and crescendo, to a rousing conclusion, with added sparkle coming from the addition of a glockenspiel doubling the melody in its highest register. The only quibble I have is with the quality of the sound recording: the performance seems as if it was recorded using a single microphone placed somewhere in the audience, so the audio fidelity is not what it could be. (I should note that I have heard the forthcoming recording of Hasu’s second Sitar Concerto and the audio quality is superb.)

The compositions in these recordings represent a very high-caliber musical intelligence and talent, and I warmly recommend them to all music-lovers.  But more than that, they make a gesture—in their native context, at least—to something greater than pleasure to the ear.  These compositions gesture at the sruthi (that which is heard) of the gods. The classical music of ancient India is deeply connected to their Vedic spiritual tradition. The four, foundational Vedic texts of that tradition are indeed filled with songs, and the Samaveda—which is abundant with musical notation—is considered to be one of the world’s oldest surviving musical manuscripts. Finally, it’s worth calling forth here the title of maestro Patel’s Mangal Dhwani concerto: Auspicious Sounds. The word “auspicious,” meaning something “conducive to success,” originates from a Latin word that comes from the ancient near-East practice of observing the flight of birds in order to divine the indications of a favorable blessing. I’d like to suggest that these recordings, bestowed upon us by Hasu Patel, are auspicious musical gestures, full of the power to successfully preserve and propagate the classical music of ancient India. May they continue.


Robert Black is an independent scholar and songwriter. He holds a BFA and MA from Kent State University and a PhD from the University of Washington (Seattle). Additionally, Dr. Black has studied music composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. His portfolio includes original music for plays by Aristophanes, Brecht, Picasso (yes, Pablo Picasso!), Sartre, and Shakespeare. He adapted Godard's film "A Bout de Souffle" ("Breathless") for the stage, which he directed at Kent State University. He recently completed a theatrical song-cycle based on James Joyce's Ulysses.