A true place I can pull toward: Making music, making magic during quarantine
When life as I knew it was breaking down, I found my way back to a soothing continuity in the pulling sound of my sitar.
By Lauren DePino
LOS ANGELES — A few months ago, for what felt like the thousandth time, I tweaked my bedroom/music studio/office into just office for a Zoom meeting. On my trestle desk, I angled my computer so no one would see the bedding, the electric piano, the sweatpants. The neglected sitar.
It was standing right behind me the whole time. Through over a year of quarantine, through countless video calls. My black fiberglass sitar case sat untouched in the corner of my bedroom, but I couldn’t gather the courage to open it.
Then, when I logged on to author Dani Shapiro’s virtual writing retreat, she posed a question that redirected my point of view.
“As writers, we are our own instrument,” Dani said. “So what happens when the instrument is altered?” Of course, Dani was referring to the global pandemic’s effect on our psyches. Once we attuned to our inner states, we could evoke emotionally honest work. “Know your own bone,” she quoted Henry David Thoreau.
Finding ways to cope
Meanwhile, the L.A. sun was a ship made of flames whisking toward me with zero care for where I was planted; It docked opposite my eyes. I shifted my face, the computer, out of the searing brightness. In the changed frame, the light illumed snowy, volant motes on my sitar case.
What was the state of this instrument, the one I loved to play in my 20s, the one that allayed my anxiety more than talk therapy ever could?
My family, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year, was facing health crisis after health crisis back in Philadelphia, without me there. Even if I were in my hometown, I couldn’t physically be near them. I couldn’t sit by my dad in the hospital. I couldn’t visit close relatives, beleaguered by COVID-19, sequestered to separate rooms. The fact that I was hardly alone in my circumstance gave me no comfort.
As we continue to navigate the ripples and twists of this pandemic, many of us are still seeking (and finding) our own ways to cope, to hold on, until a time resembling an “after” arrives. For a friend I’ve known since childhood, it’s sewing blouses. For my partner, it’s reinventing Mexican cuisine from his childhood (I’m well-fed). For me, it’s this long-necked string instrument with a pear-shaped gourd for a base.
The sitar first called to me more than a decade ago when I was in my 20s, alone at an all-night raga (an Indian musical genre) concert in Manhattan. The lure was the pull. There, I learned that the bending sound I kept hearing has roots in vocal music, that the bend is the voice.
An endless spread of tones
The heart of this instrument, as my Philly teacher, Allyn Miner says, is its unique capacity to slide from note to note, a feat that the piano, my other preferred instrument second to my singing voice, cannot achieve. In North Indian (Hindustani) music, the slide embellishment has a name. The "meend" occurs when you pull the main string sideways.
It’s like glissandoor portamento in Western classical music. The Spanish slide guitar begets a resembling cry.
The meend happens when you travel from one tone to another without stopping continuity. Without breaking sound.
Imagine accessing the endless spread of tones that lies quiet in the seams of the 12 ivory white and black keys; imagine sliding freely among them.
Imagine feeling terrified of chasms, of fissures, of events that disrupt and interrupt our prized human ties. Imagine sympathetic strings whose only job is to support the music of the overlying main strings, to join in when their matching notes resound, to bring further richness to the lingering ring of song.
An instrument's caretaker
After Dani’s retreat, I emailed Allyn and asked her if she’d teach me again. But first, I had to fulfill my responsibility as a sitarist: I had to care for this instrument. Allyn brought it back for me from Mumbai, after witnessing my many futile attempts to acquire an instrument with a decent sound. When she asked legendary maestro Arvind Parikh if he happened to have a sitar for her student, he gave her one made by his luthier, the artists who craft these instruments. It was Vilayat Khan-style. Khan and his father are said to have evolved the sitar to allow the player to sing through the instrument with a gliding sound.
This sitar was meant for me, Allyn had said – and I could not return it to her, even though I knew she deserved this instrument more than I did. The least I could do is take care of it.
I now had to make amends with it before it could sing to me again. The sitar is nothing like an electric piano, which I only have to switch on. It’s ridiculously difficult to string and tune (I’ve punctured an eyebrow). Building up calluses hurts (I’ve bled). And the longer it’s gone neglected, the more likely it is that rust and corrosion have set in, that the frets, tethered with honey yellow string, have slipped, even coming undone. If sitar maintenance is a kind of reverence, a requisite devotion for a humbling, rare gift, I have failed.
But when I finally opened the case, I sensed the instrument would forgive me. I dug through old notebooks until I found the tuning Allyn once gave me for Raga Rageshri, which is both bright and sorrowful and is meant to be played late at night. I slowly found the notes with the tips of my fingers, raw and painful grooves forming. I remembered, as the musician puts herself in tune with the raga, she becomes more in tune with herself.
On the morning of my virtual lesson, seeing Allyn’s gentle smile felt like reuniting with my younger self. I was less worried then, more apt to give myself over to music. She asked how I was doing; I told her the truth. We determined I needed to replace two strings.
Music makes us feel healed
Before we could get to the pulls, we had to go over the scales. She played the notes for Rageshri in their rightful order, ascending and descending. The strings and drone rang out, hypnotic and shimmering.
I mirrored her, not sounding as good as she did. But it was coming back to me.
When I gave my fingers a break, I told Allyn that I gravitated toward the glide even as a child. When I sang in a traveling choir and I slid too much during a solo, the conductor would wince. She’d later take me aside to ensure I knew to make breaks between notes. Allyn laughed and said, “With the sitar, you can have all the pulls you want.”
We were back to it. “You can do this after me if your fingers can tolerate it,” she said, playing higher notes than I expected we’d play. The strings at the gourd are more taut, which means less merciful for the budding callus. Finally it was time for pull exercises. The more I practiced them, the more I wanted to understand why this musical effect makes me feel healed.
In Ravi Shankar’s "My Music, My Life," he points out that in Indian music, “the transition from one tone to another is never made directly, as in most Western music, but a subtle ornament, a kind of gliding, is added to soften and mellow the movement.” There are stories of raga working miracle, such as flowers opening, rain falling, stones melting. I refuse to rule out any of it.
A place I can pull you toward
Especially throughout these past 18 months, with mortality at the forefront of our minds, every message notifying us that someone we love is no longer safe is too violent, too abrupt, too unbending. But when I practice my pulls on my sitar, in these pleasant, tender dips and climbs in musical time, I find the inverse, an antidote. These unforgiving rifts melt into spacious color, blending into circle upon circle, going, still going, going still.
Soon after my lesson, I wrote to Philip Alperson, my former philosophy of music professor, and asked what he thought of my sitar’s imprint on my current state of mind. He replied:
“What’s interesting about this pulling effect in instrumental music is that the object seems to be much more amorphous than say, waiting for the case to be solved or waiting for a lover in real life. You have the effect of the tension, but you can’t say exactly what the tension is all about.”
Maybe turning to words to describe what this pull sound does for me is just fumbling or grasping, only to diminish a miracle. Maybe it deflates it of its magic.
Or maybe, as a writer who reaches for experiences with words with an earnest urge to discover, and as a musician who perceives the sounds of words as equally important as their meaning – maybe there is a true place I can pull you toward.
When Allyn demonstrated a particularly long, gorgeous sounding pull that made the grooves on my fingers throb, I asked her how she drew so strong a sound where mine was weak.
“You have to pull it before the sound dies.”
I thought about Dani’s question and how the state of one instrument (my sitar) has an immense bearing on the other instrument (myself). I restored one; now I could restore the other.
I tried the pull again, getting closer. I felt life itself vibrate in the growing pink slits in my fingers. I heard both sadness and joy; they hovered, haloed. And for those moments, the cuts, the splits, the severs and shakes in the ground that’s meant to hold me steady were bridged together by music – by winding, gliding, beautiful sound.
Lauren DePino is a Los Angeles-based writer and singer at work on a memoir called "Funeral Singer: A Memoir of Falling in Love, Facing the Dark, and Finding the Light."