sculpture by Regardt van der Meulen

Like a Sick Breathing Tambura

for percussion quartet
duration: 10'
first performance: 12 May 2006; Northwestern University, Chicago, IL; Third Coast Percussion
availability: for sale
recording: non-commercial
detailed instrumentation: I= glock/KD/SD/bongos/3 grad.cowb/1 brake d/claves/sm susp.cym/Ch.cym; II= vib/4 grad mtl.pipes/2congas/ 2wbl/ BD; III= mar/4tom-t/bongos/5tbl/4grad pots and pans/med susp.cym; IV= mar/KD/4tom-t/4grad mtl.pipes/bongos/2 wbl/ lgsusp.cym/hi-hat

If using Safari and the player doesn't work, try clicking in the waveform of the player window.


Like a Sick, Breathing Tambura is based on a 15 beat, North Indian rhythmic 'tala' – or beat cycle – called Tala Pacham Sawari. I became familiar with this rhythmic pattern through a visiting lecture series at Princeton University given by Zakir Hussain, the Indian tabla master and virtuoso. I attended several of his lectures on Indian classical music, and listened to many of his recordings.

One recording I especially loved was a "dueling tabla" piece, based on the beat cycle mentioned above, that he played and recorded with his father. The rhythm has a wonderful groove-like quality, especially on beats 11-15 where it becomes syncopated. The whole thing somehow feels very cantabile to me, which seems sort of unusual for something that is so strictly rhythmic. I was so taken by this pattern that I lifted it from the recording, transcribed it, and then went to work on it on my own (I figured that this wasn't really stealing, since it's a pattern that gets used over and over again in Indian music).

I really don't know much about Indian music, and after Mr. Hussain’s lectures, I realized that I know even less than I ever thought I did. Indian music doesn't really inform any other part of this piece, with the exception of the beginning (and the "optional" ending) where I was trying to simulate the sound of a tambura by using two bowed cymbals and a bowed vibraphone — the title of the piece is an allusion to this. The words “Like a Sick Breathing Tambura” were originally just supposed to be an imaginative tempo marking, but they kind of grew on me, and in lieu of finding something different I just kept them for the title.

The 15 beat cycle and its various permutations run throughout the entire piece, with the exception of the very last section where it starts to get filtered out. Other than that, it lives in most every bar and in every instrument.