The soundscape of music – part 1


In this exclusive interview, which we feature in two parts, SHUBHENDRA RAO and SASKIA RAO-DE HAAS speak with V. SRINIVASAN about their careers in music, about the role of music in education, and about the broader meaning of vibration, resonance, harmony and rhythm in life. Here, they start with the meaning of music.

Q: What does music mean to you in your life, at the core of your heart?

SRH: Music is life, to me, the vibrations. Any vibration in this universe is music. It’s who we are, who I am. I think I’m fortunate to live that every single day and realize that. Everything that vibrates is music, everything that vibrates has resonance. The sound can be in harmony or disharmony, can be in rhythm or out of rhythm. So, to me music is the same as life.

SR: That’s very beautifully put. For us, we live, eat, sleep, play music. It’s as natural as that for us. But then when you see the world, every small little movement, every chirping of a bird, the sound of the ocean, every small sound of the breeze, the rattling of leaves … There is music in everything. It’s for us to realize and for us to feel that.

SRH: We have to be careful what we add to that soundscape of nature with our voice, our speaking. What do we say? I mean, this is what every enlightened person is telling us. From a musical perspective, this is also true. Noise pollution and harsh words all have a negative impact, as much as the vibration of Nature, of plants, trees and animals. So, there is a huge effect of music. I think of the story of what happened to the roses at your house.

Q: Yes, I grew up in Bangalore and we had a small garden in front of the house. My mother was very interested in gardening whenever she had the time. So, we had five or six beautiful rose bushes growing there; each one had flowers of a different color and the roses were huge. They were so beautiful that every person who walked past had to turn and look, and appreciate them. Our neighbors thought that they could get some cuttings from our bushes and plant them in their own garden, so they’d also get beautiful flowers. They were beautiful, but they were not as good. Some people took some soil, too, and some fertilizer from the same packet that we were using. Again, they were still not as good. And then somebody said, “Where can we find the music you play?” because at our house there was always twelve to fourteen hours of music inside the home every day. The roses were actually responding to the music. Everything that music gives is Nature. Music means life.

SRH: Before our son Ishaan was born, when I was pregnant, I would practice every day. The larger I got, the closer the cello rested on my belly, all these vibrations. We believe this had a huge impact on his development. He could talk by the age of eight months, speak three languages by the age of one and a half, and read and write by two. So, clearly there was something in the impact music had on him.

SR: Why only Ishaan? For that matter, it is also true for our little puppy that has been with us for three years. Normally you associate a small dog with a lot of barking and whining, but this guy never barks. He is so quiet, so attuned to the music that he has experienced for the three years of his existence. We believe that music is his backbone, too, and he never barks. We want him to bark, and maybe once in a week he does bark, for two seconds! That’s the power of music.

Q: So, this leads me to my next question: There are many people in the world who look at music from a spiritual perspective. They feel that music, in one sense, is spiritual for them. Even in your article, you have mentioned how music is meditative. So, in this context can you share your insight on how music connects with spirituality?

SR: Music is meditation. Maybe for that you have to ask: What is meditation? Meditation, from my understanding and my experience, is to lose everything else in your mind, and to be able to empty yourself. It is to be able to focus on a single point where all your energy and everything goes into realizing that point. And that’s what we do as musicians. So, it’s not music as meditation, but music is meditation. The years and years of practice that you put in, the tapasya and sadhana that you do – that is music and that is meditation. During my teens and early 20s, I was practicing twelve hours a day. When you’re so focused on one thing, that itself is meditation.

SRH: Absolutely, but it’s also not necessary that you work with that as a musician. Some musicians have different perspectives. For us, personally, it is literally the way to communicate with the Divine, because this is our most direct and easiest way to feel that connection and experience it – not every day, not every time, but at least try for it every single day. I always like the analogy of Baba Allah Rakha to see music as a light, which you can call the light divine. You’re in a dark tunnel and you try to reach that light. That is what music practice means to us, and that is meditation. Often, music is seen only as entertainment. There is nothing wrong with that role of music, it’s fine, but people lose out on everything else that music is. It doesn’t mean that music is a means to meditation. It is meditation. So, we don’t need to meditate and listen to music. If you listen to music in the right context, especially neoclassical music, you are meditating. And I think sometimes there is confusion because people mean well – I’m meditating and I’m listening to music, which means there is a cut into two separate experiences. Whereas, when you come with that knowledge of meditation and you listen to the music, you just listen and let it flow. You don’t need to do any extra breathing exercise, chants, or anything else, as the music will guide you. Sometimes I feel there is a subtle difference between the two.

Meditation, from my understanding and my experience,
is to lose everything else in your mind,
and to be able to empty yourself.

Q: Wonderful! So, great music is seen as a product of great inspiration. It’s a deeply creative process. What is the interplay between music and creativity? Does one have to be intuitively creative as a musician or a composer, or is it the other way around?

SRH: I have always loved what Osho said about creativity: that any activity we can do with a sense of creativity, whether it’s a sweeper or the highest form of music, is more a way you approach every task in your life. So, music clearly is very easy in that sense to be creative with because it comes from that creative impulse. I think it’s not only in music we show that, it’s literally everywhere. I think, for us, the creative process in music is every day. I mean, like the day before yesterday, we had a session about what music is, what Indian music is. And I was visualizing it and comparing it with how Plato describes an idea – realized knowledge versus something that you learn. So, Indian music is more realized knowledge, right? You feel that a raga in the air and we take a little bit of inspiration for creativity from it, express it and release it again. So, based on that I created a piece which is a complete meditation; it’s an old chant on the cello with very subtle overtones of all the notes of a specific raga in the background.

SR: It’s just amazing. If you have that in every house, or if we can send it to all the violent activities across the world, everybody will give it up because it brings so much peace, it connects you to a point where nothing else can connect, it’s very, very simple. And honestly, I think it doesn’t need to be a 100-minute piece with 300 musicians. It’s just one person creating that, although of course there are layers in that using modern technology. You have to listen to that to believe it and you have to experience it to understand what we’re saying, I feel it’s highly evolved, simple music. Every house should reverberate with it for 24 hours, so that everyone feels connected.

SRH: Like our little puppy. Normally, he lies down in one part of the house, and I have it playing in a loop and he comes and he stays near it throughout. So, with creativity and inspiration, sometimes you get an idea to set it to music and sometimes it’s a concept. So, this was a concept, also like the color of white which contains all the colors. So, we wanted to recreate the sound of the tanpura, the drone of old charm that is always there that contains the beginning of the universe; it contains all the notes. It’s like the color white in a way.

SR: Absolutely. It’s an endless process. Every day you create, every minute you create. It’s not an extensive 100-minute piece, it’s literally bringing it down to a single point, and it’s so organic, it’s purity at its best.

SRH: Exactly, there’s a different one for when you listen to it in the morning with the notes of the morning raga, or if you listen in the afternoon or evening. So, an organic process of music, how we’re inspired as musicians, changes it accordingly, as well.


Q: You have performed across the world in front of global audiences and interacted with so many people in this field. Now, looking at the world today, there is polarity, conflict, and there’s a rise in forces which are sometimes very depressing, creating turmoil in the atmosphere. There are also other vibrations which are very positive, but if you think in terms of balance and counter balance, sometimes it seems the negativity is really overpowering. So, from your own practical experience, how do you think music could create a wellspring that could positively impact global peace and harmony?

SR: Negativity sells more in terms of TRP ratings, newspaper sales etc., but actually there’s a lot more good in this world than negativity. The only thing is the good doesn’t come in your face all the time because it doesn’t sell, so, there’s an underlying financial aspect. And if we go back in history, in mythology, as well as in today’s world, wherever there is positive, there also has to be negative; wherever there is negative there has to be positive. They are going to live together. It’s not possible to have only positivity for people to understand what is positive. Unless they see the negative, how can they understand the positive?

Yes, there’s a lot of negativity, but in my personal view, there’s a lot more positivity.


And if we see it from that angle, we’re immediately spreading positivity. And music has different functions also. One of them is the shanti rus, but music can also be very provocative, as we know, whether it’s for the rise of nationalism in different parts of the world, and how music was used even there. Music is used in so many different ways, so, I think we should all start feeling positive within and try and spread that to every person we meet. If you’re positive you spread that positivity to ten more people who will spread it to another ten, then a hundred people.

SRH: That’s true, music does have those different functions for me. One is in finding peace within; to have access to that function though, we really need to focus a lot more on music education. And that is one of the main reasons we started our “Sangeet4All,” to make sure that children had access to value music education and not to perceive it only as entertainment. The other main function of music is to connect communities, whether it’s bhajans, or folk songs, whether it is dancing together – that is what a lot of popular music is based on, that community feeling. But it’s exploiting them in a way, isn’t it? I mean, teenagers should be teenagers and explore who they are, but that aspect is exploited very professionally by big multinational companies, the basic dancing around the campfire, right? And that is I don’t know how many million dollars industry. Whereas, if we give a value-based music education from day one, maybe we can bring back some of that sense of community, whether it’s at school or elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that they only need to sing classical music. It’s completely independent of style, but it’s how we use music, what values do we learn from it? Military and marching music is one function, again the community feeling, right? One is the communal introspective part with God, and the other is being in a society. Both are equally important in music and music can give wonderful expression to that. But if we want to promote peace, we need to use those functions of music in a constructive way, and one of them is definitely music education. The other is to do with your wonderful organization, bringing that community feeling of being together, listening to music together in such a positive way; and it can also be dancing together, there’s nothing wrong in that either. The only sad part is when it gets exploited.


To be continued

Interviewed by V. SRINIVASAN

Saskia Rao-De Haas And Shubhendra Rao

About Saskia Rao-De Haas And Shubhendra Rao

Composer and performer, Pandit Shubhendra Rao, is ranked amongst the key soloists of India, who lived with Pandit Ravi Shankar for over 10 years, assisting him in concerts and compositions around the world. He is a musical ambassador by his natural ability to bridge cultures across the world. His wife, Saskia Rao-de Haas is a cellist and composer, originally from the Netherlands, who has enriched North Indian classical music with the Indian cello, as well as being an accomplished western classical cellist. She studied with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia as well as at CODARTS and the University of Amsterdam.

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