All this talk about 10 Ragas To a Disco Beat reminded me of an essay I wrote for The Wire six years ago. I just found it — here it is.
The Wire, September 2004
by Geeta Dayal
My dad was an organic chemistry professor, an eccentric sort who would often reel off Sanskrit quotes and organic chemistry formulae in the same stream-of-consciousness sentence. He spent lots of time reading in his office in the cellar, with teetering piles of dusty chemistry texts stacked in every conceivable corner. A single photo of Einstein adorned the bare white wall. When I asked my dad why he admired him, he glossed over the physics and said it was because Einstein cycled to work and refused to comb his hair.
When my dad wasn’t thinking about weird science, he thought about weird music. I was a science obsessive and a music obsessive, too. The problem was, our tastes in music diverged wildly and often. My favourite music as a little kid was pop. Meanwhile, he was immersed in Indian classical music by the likes of Zakir Hussain and Ravi Shankar. My dad was a fairly accomplished tabla and harmonium player, and I’d often wake up on weekends to the sounds of him playing ragas in the living room as the sun rose. He was eager to share his enthusiasm for his music, but my eyes glazed over the minute I heard it. Sometimes he would take me to Indian classical concerts and I’d fall fast asleep, what with the constant repetition, lengthy soloing, the insistent soothing drone of the tanpura…
Year: 1987. I’m eight years old and we’re on the annual holiday to a cottage on a lake in New Hampshire. I take out the cassette tape in the car — one of my dad’s beloved Indian classical music tapes — and put in my very first cassette purchase: The White Album.
“Turn this rubbish off!” ordered my dad.
“But Dad, it’s The Beatles! They were popular when you were young!”
“I don’t care who ‘The Beatles’ are. Turn it off!”
My dad couldn’t stand The Beatles, or most other Western rock and pop music for that matter. To this day, he doesn’t know David Bowie, or The Stones, or any of that. Maybe it didn’t make sense — more likely, it just bored him. He shook his head when he saw me watching MTV. To him, it was all horrible noise.
The music he loved best had no melodies I understood. It favored endless repetition over an attractive pop package. Verses bled into other verses with no discernible choruses. It all seemed formless to me at the time. I would fall asleep almost immediately just listening to it.
My mother only listened to Hindu religious music. The house was crammed full with her tapes. She had a temple room upstairs with marble Krishna deities that she’d bought in Jaipur, and I’d find her sitting there with her eyes closed, listening to circular, repeating chants for hours on end. She’d go to marathon prayer sessions at the local Hindu temple that lasted all night, where groups would pray with the same call-and-response chants for hours.
I didn’t understand my parents, or their culture. Unlike them, I’d been born and raised in America. What started out as boredom and irritation with Indian music as a child became a passionate rejection of Indian music, and all things Indian, as a snarling, rebellious teenager. I cut most of my black hair off and dyed the rest of it purple, then red, then blue, then green. I listened to punk rock and wore leather, steel-toed boots and a bad attitude. When I pierced my nose at age 18, though, my mother was pleased because she thought I was finally embracing my Indian heritage. But rebellion — and hair dye — fade, and soon after getting to university I got interested in, er, experimentation of different sorts.
Year: 1997. I went to MIT to study chemistry with the goal of being a chemistry professor, just like my dad. Somewhere along the way, I decided I never liked chemistry much and I’d rather be a writer. My dad was heartbroken. A few years later, after reluctantly finishing my science degree, I went back to his office in the cellar and flipped through his organic chemistry textbooks. Yellowed, tattered pages fell out of the books — poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats. I asked him about it. “I never much wanted to do chemistry when I was your age,” he admitted. “I liked poetry. I wanted to be a writer.”
I felt I understood my dad better then, but what made me understand him more was my growing interest in more exploratory music, from obscure techno to Krautrock to field recordings to the outer reaches of jazz. I took courses in music composition. A class in Western counterpoint and harmony was easy enough, but a class in Indian music composition was intensely difficult. I started to see how Indian classical music was crawling with infinitely complex patterns, and how it trained you to listen to sounds differently. And it was then that I realized that my dad just heard music in a different way — he found beauty in endless repetition, discerned shape in sounds that seemed shapeless. And I found that my reluctant exposure to his music when I was small informed me, in some way, in whatever I listened to now. My love for Neu! can be traced back to Indian music and the ecstatic feeling that comes from constantly looping chants. My love for The Fall stems, at least partially, from my tolerance of repetition. My mother’s all-night temple blissouts helped me to understand rave culture and dance music. I became interested in minimalism, and the more I read about its formal ties to Indian music, the more it made sense. Instead of The Beatles, I played different stuff for my dad in the car: Terry Riley, microhouse, Sun City Girls. He was into it, and suddenly I realized how hip my dad always was.
Year: 2004. It’s a hazy Saturday evening in New York, and I’m in my hideout from the city grind — La Monte Young’s Dream House on Church Street. I lay down on the white carpet, my head perched on a white pillow, absorbing drones through every fibre of my body. There’s a little shrine to Pandit Pran Nath in the corner, with some candles and incense. I start to think that maybe I should take my parents here sometime; they’d probably like this place. They were the ones who taught me to like this music, after all.