The Kennedy Center

Peshkar notes on the Tabla

About the Work

Zakir Hussain Composer: Zakir Hussain
© Zakir Hussain

The technique involved in playing the tabla is incredibly complex. So complex that, once mastered, “there is no rhythmic pattern in the world that it cannot execute— whether it’s a Latin pattern, a rap or Hip Hop pattern, jazz, swing, and so forth,” according to Zakir Hussain, the international maestro of this South Asian percussion instrument. “Therefore, the tabla would be the instrument of choice when you’re talking about being able to have instruments of one genre of music interacting with another.”


Which is one of the reasons Hussain was persuaded to write Peshkar, his extraordinary Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra—the main item on this Declassified program. It was commissioned for the Mumbai-based Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI)—the country’s only professional symphony orchestra—and received its premiere at the ensemble’s home performance venue at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in September 2015.


Hussain, now 66, was a child prodigy born into a musical family. He initially learned from his father, the legendary tabla player Alla Rakha, who often performed with the sitar master Ravi Shankar. Now based in San Francisco, Hussain has long been a major presence on the world music scene. Along with his status as a virtuoso of Indian classical music, his musical partners have ranged from Yo-Yo Ma and Joe Henderson to George Harrison, Van Morrison, and Kodo, the Japanese taiko drumming group.


Peshkar began with the idea that there should be a particular repertoire that the SOI is known for,” explains Hussain. Founded as recently as 2006, the SOI comprises musicians from India and the rest of Asia, along with a sizable contingent from Eastern European countries, he says. For their first tour to Europe last year to mark the SOI’s tenth anniversary, the idea arose to take with them a new work that would be associated with the unique personality of this orchestra—rather than merely concentrating on the familiar Western repertory played by so many orchestras.


“The idea has been to develop their own repertory and to make the SOI unique as a symphony orchestra—and at the same time to inject some new ideas into the world of symphonic music,” Hussain says.

A revered master of the vast, rich traditions of Indian music and a virtuoso who interacts with musicians from other cultures around the world, Hussain became the SOI’s obvious choice as the ideal composer to launch this undertaking. Their first collaboration together was in 2013 for the Triple Concerto for Tabla, Banjo, and Double Bass. For this Hussain was joined by his colleagues Béla Fleck on banjo and Edgar Meyer on double bass.


Yet a concerto featuring the tabla’s paired drums alone was a very different prospect. Hussain himself confesses harboring some initial doubts. While the tabla is a drum, it’s actually a tuned instrument. But its primary language, so to speak, is based on rhythm rather than melody, and Hussain was uncertain whether the tabla could sustain the central role of engaging with an entire Western orchestra as the soloist in a large-scale concerto. Eventually he realized that he could turn the tabla’s status as a percussion instrument into an advantage. “As a percussion instrument, I do not have to deal with the do’s and don’t of ragas that regulate Indian melodic instruments.” (A raga refers to the melodic structures or frameworks that are a central feature of Hindustani classical music. Ragas are not really analogous to different types of scales, because they involve much more than an arrangement of pitches and are associated, for example, with specific times of the day and varying emotional states.)


Hussain’s breakthrough moment came when he decided he was free to write melodic versions of the rhythmic patterns that are his usual focus on the instrument. “I could use raga elements or harmonic elements in the orchestra or combine these without restrictions.”


Hussain mentions the concertos composed by Ravi Shankar for the sitar and Western orchestra—concertos for a melodic solo instrument. (Shankar eventually wrote three sitar concertos.) “I know this is something he struggled with in his First Sitar Concerto, because he had to be true to the raga structure. He opened up more in his Second Concerto he opened up more.”


Without facing the same sense of restriction, Hussain explains that in Peshkar he attempted to represent “the rhythm repertoire that has existed for about 2000 years in India. I took that language and improvised upon it a bit so that it could be adopted by the melody instruments in the orchestra.” These melodies could then be woven together to generate harmonic textures.


The word peshkar is used in Hindustani music to refer to a type of composition for solo tabla usually presented at the beginning of a performance. Zane Dalal, the Symphony Orchestra of India’s Associate Music Director, who conducted the premiere of Peshkar in Mumbai, explains additional connotations of the word in his blog: “Peshkar was not only the historic figure that led a Moghul court through its daily schedule of events—the man who introduced ambassadors, the man who managed people in and out of ‘the presence’—but was the schedule itself, suggesting a framework that had form, flexibility, order, and command, all at the same time.”


The conductor Cristian Macelaru is making his Declassified debut this evening and is also collaborating with Zakir Hussain for the first time. “The rhythmic language of this tabla concerto is fascinating to me,” he says. From his perspective, Macelaru explains, the written score looks spare and minimal compared to what actually happens in performance. In Western symphonic scores from the Romantic era forward, “it’s easy to see behind the written notes to the musical gesture in, say, Brahms or Mahler, who includes lots of information in his scores about exactly how to play.”


A more apt comparison, he adds, would be to the world of jazz, where “the bare necessities of what is required to perform are written down, and then the gestures are created in performance.” Another comparison would be to go back in time to Mozart—who, like Hussain, combined two functions as a composer and a virtuoso performer when he played his piano concertos in Vienna. “In Mozart’s scores you also don’t have a lot of indications of how to perform, and we know he would improvise and play things that he didn’t write down.”


While Hussain is allowed the spontaneity of improvising for his solo part, the fact that he is collaborating with a large ensemble of Western musicians playing from the printed score posed some fascinating challenges. “Whatever I come up with has to line up with the orchestra,” he says. While they are playing measured notes divided into separate measures—a defining aspect of Western classical music—the orchestra players have to create the illusion of breaking out of this “straitjacket” of meter while moving in unison. During his own improvisations, remarks Hussain, he often thinks of visual images: the principal beats of a given rhythmic pattern might outline a tile, for example, which he proceeds to decorate “with little inscriptions” at each corner. “Or I might see a flock of birds flying away.” A secret to this art sounds deceptively simple: “You have to listen. You have to in some ways be unselfish.”


Zane Dalal writes that the opening of Peshkar provides “a misty and enticing glimpse of what may come, creating an intentional atmosphere of elusiveness …Using the tabla part as a bedrock, the music weaves a thread incorporating solo lines for several instruments … The composition is less about melody and more about atmosphere, using pulse and color,” culminating in a finale of “pulsing rhythmic unison power for the full orchestra.”


Through the arc of the piece, Hussain follows the traditional Hindustani pattern of what he calls “a seamless progression of tempo, starting at a slow tempo and traveling to a climactic, fast tempo. I chose a way to make the music seamlessly move from one to the next movement so as to be true to the nonstop tradition of Indian performance.”


Hussain will showcase other aspects of what he does as a virtuoso tabla player in this Declassified program. Joining him is the Mumbai-born Rahul Sharma on santoor, a version of the hammered dulcimer. Their duet prefaces Peshkar “to illustrate the melodic raga way of playing as a sort of introductory presentation.”


What has been most rewarding for Hussain about the experience of composing and performing Peshkar?: “The fact that I’m playing these traditions as taught to me by my father 50 years ago, and at the same time can have fun with the orchestra but also retain the validity and authenticity of that tradition is thrilling.”