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When Indian Raga meets the Grateful Dead

Features - Classical Music | Orchestral

When Indian Raga meets the Grateful Dead

by Andrew Ford on August 11, 2016 (August 11, 2016) filed under Classical Music | Orchestral | Comment Now
Andrew Ford introduces his new electric guitar concerto for Zane Banks and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Work Raga
Composer Andrew Ford
Scored for Electric guitar and orchestra
Commissioned by Kim Williams, ASO, Adelaide Guitar Festival
Premiere August 13, 2016
Performers Zane Banks, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey


I have been wanting to compose an electric guitar concerto for so long – at least since the late 1990s – that I can’t recall the exact genesis of the idea. What I can say is that the piece has always been called Raga, and somewhere behind it all lies the Grateful Dead.

I am more an admirer of the Grateful Dead than a fan, and what I admire is (was) the band’s stamina. They took rock and roll and made it long. This is not the same as inflating it like a progressive rock band. On the contrary, the Dead remained a rock band – no glitter, no interpolated bits of Bach – but they saw the possibilities of the art, how you could stick pretty close to your three-chord last, yet create something that was epic in scale and heroic in nature.

The classical Indian rag or raag or raga is similar to a Grateful Dead jam and with its drone still more harmonically limited, though it is infinitely more subtle and far, far older. I first heard Indian music when I was at school just outside London. There was a concert by a sitar player at the Horniman Museum in Dulwich, and I was transfixed. I can’t tell you the name of the raga or even that of the player (I suppose he might have been quite famous), but 40-something years later I can still sing you a melodic fragment of what I now know is called the gat – that’s the fast, rhythmic section, accompanied by tabla, that makes up the later stages of a raga.

Even if its soloist looks more like Jerry Garcia than Ravi Shankar, my electric guitar concerto is structured after a raga. There is, if not always a drone, the strong gravitational pull of a low E. And there’s a slow, exploratory alap, followed by a faster, more rhythmic gat with drums. The drums don’t include tabla, but eventually a rock drummer arrives seated at a drum kit. This is in the cadenza. And yes, I’m aware that ragas don’t have cadenzas, but concertos do.

Does Raga sound Indian? No. Does it sound like rock music? No, though at one time the stylistic connections were meant to be close. But at the urging of the commissioner, Kim Williams, the piece involves improvisation, and in response to the talents of the soloist, Australian classical and electric guitarist Zane Banks, it is certainly virtuosic.


Andrew Ford's Raga is premiered at the Adelaide Guitar Festival on August 13

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