Saraswati, goddess of learning and music

Varnam (1971)
five melody instruments, finger cymbals, percussion and drone

Robert Morris

Program Notes

When I wrote Varnam, the slogan "minimalism" had not been coined. However, there were earlier terms for such music (such as "trance music" or "modal pulse") but none of these terms did or does justice to this piece. Rather, Varnam marks my first serious attempt to bridge two or more musical cultures in one unified composition, a occupation that was to engage me for the next six years. Varnam was inspired by my ongoing study and appreciation of Carnatic music of South India. The title denotes a genre of Carnatic pieces that is akin to the Western etude (in the artistic sense). Like other strict forms of Indian music, varnams are composed (not improvised) in a traditional melodic mode (raga) and rhythmic cycle (tala). My use of the varnam is integrated with Western music by the use of canonic textures and Western instruments. Yet most of the compositional details are derived from Indian models. The piece is a set of five canons (or rounds). Each canon is composed at a very close time interval, making the texture resemble a tape or digital delay. Each canon has its own melodic mode whose notes are chosen from the 72 basic South Indian Melakarta scales. In addition, each canon uses a different ten-beat rhythmic-cycle whose subdivisions are articulated by the finger-cymbals.

The function of the canons is to "translate" (or "amplify") the melodic signatures of the Indian modes into a more Western format; the successive intervals in the mode are overlapped into a "harmonic" texture. Moreover, since the typically intricate ornamentation of Indian music is hardly idiomatic on Western melody instruments, the canonic heterophony tends to recapture some of the richness that is lost in the literal translation of Eastern to Western music.