Brooklyn-based pianist Richard Bennett was walking in a bird sanctuary a few days after Hurricane Sandy. An enormous swan climbed out of a moat created by the storm and that was a sign, he says, to write a raga.
Ragas are the musical system underpinning Indian classical music. Bennett got turned on to them about eight years ago. That's when his wife, a singer, traveled to India to study with an Indian vocalist, and Bennett went along. Soon he was jamming with Indian musicians. He found that his style — mixing jazz, blues, minimalism and New Orleans music — blended well with the subcontinent's styles.
His fourth album of raga-infused piano music is due out soon on a major Indian label.
"On the piano, the simple ragas are harder to play in a lot of ways, because you can just sound like you're playing a nursery rhyme," Bennett said recently. "I once went to a raga concert and I swear it sounded like someone playing 'The Bear Went Over the Mountain' for an hour. So you have to watch for the associations of these notes.'"
When he takes up a simple raga, Richard Bennett searches for the moodier aspects that lie under the nursery rhyme-like surface. He had been working with a raga called Hansadhwani, which means "Song of Swans."
He'd known about the raga for a while, but was inspired to write a song in it by an experience he had a few days after Hurricane Sandy. He was walking in a bird sanctuary on the water on the outskirts of New York City. The sanctuary had been damaged by the storm.
"Around a quarter mile in, you couldn't walk any further because the water had gone over the land and had created this big moat," Bennett recalls.
"I get up to the edge of the moat, and, all of a sudden, this enormous swan comes climbing out and stares at me. And I'd already been thinking about Hansadhwani, and recording it, and I thought, 'Well, this is a sign of nature.'"
He's joined on his new album by a drummer, bassist, tabla player, violinist, and the droning tambura.
(The audio is an excerpt from "The Swan Soars," the second of four songs in the Hansadhwani raga on Richard Bennett's new album, New York City Swara.)
Bennett's apartment, only a few blocks from the East River, was remarkably unaffected by Sandy. His tabla player, who lives nearby, was not as lucky. He didn't have power for six weeks, so he spent much of the time crashing on Bennett's floor.
"I have a couch, but he prefers floors," Bennett laughs. "We actually recorded quite a lot of the music in my apartment. He would wake up, he would set up, and we would start playing. So, out of his hardship, came the music."
Bennett says those weeks after Sandy were actually a good moment to focus fully on music. New York City was struggling to recover, and a lot of music venues were closed. Musicians would gather and record at his apartment.
"We knew we had all day — there was no place to go. So, when you know you have all day, the pressure of having to get music done in a certain time is off," he says
His adventures in Indian music — which now span eight years and four albums — have focused him, too, he says, making him more fully appreciate the potential of individual notes. Ragas can play out over a long time, the musicians milking each note before moving on to the next.
"If you've ever gone to a club and you've seen people dancing to the same beat for half an hour and then they just change one beat of the drum and everybody goes nuts, it's the same idea as the raga idea — it's the value of a note."
It's a lesson that started in India, and was reshaped, like the coastline, by Hurricane Sandy.