Love that drone: Amit Chaudhuri and Heidi Berry

Last night to King’s Place to hear Amit Chaudhuri and his band perform A Moment of Mishearing, a show that presents his ‘not fusion’ of Indian classical music and Western rock idioms. What you get is live performance from Chaudhuri on vocals backed by piano, tabla, and electric guitar and bass, with striking visuals slung up on a screen during songs and between them, when you also get a characteristically dry (quietly dry) voiceover.

The instrumental music is impressive rather than – for me – revelatory (I’m no particular fan of jazz) and the bits of the rock and pop canon that Chaudhuri brings to the table are not ones with which I have any meaningful emotional connection. I’m talking Beach Boys, Stones, Hendrix – and it’s in those voiceovers that Chaudhuri explains how his musical education involved a swinging to and fro between these different influences, until he realised, listening to the Eric Clapton’s godawful Layla, that they were linked, tonally, in ways he hadn’t ever suspected.

As I say, that music is not my music, generationally speaking, but I do love Chaudhuri’s singing and, listening to it live (he is better live than on any of the recordings I have heard) I as reminded of another, rather different singer, that I was listening to and thinking about only the day before, as I was travelled by train to Norwich: onetime Creation and 4AD artist Heidi Berry, and specifically her song North Shore Train.

Here is Chaudhuri’s take on Good Vibrations.

And here is Berry’s song.

What I love about them both is the drone in the voice, by which I mean the way the singing seems to resonate in the singer’s head rather than their voicebox. (This is not something I know anything about from a technical point of view.) It is not necessarily a ‘pure’ sound; there is something nasal about it, though not unpleasantly so – listen to the ‘in’ and the ‘ing’ of morning in the first line of Berry’s song. I like it because it sounds like the sound I make when I sing or hum to myself. Try humming, yourself, and hear how the sound changes in resonance when you ‘move’ it from your throat to your head. There is something satisfying about using your own head (your skull) as an amplifier, like a tortoise shell in an ancient Greek lyre.

Of course, the drone is at the heart of Indian music, in a way that the plodding lumpy sound of a bass guitar really isn’t in pop and rock music. I remember Chaudhuri teaching (and singing) us the basics of the raag in a seminar at UEA a few years ago, but it was my friend Anjali who reminded me that it is there in one of his novels, too, Afternoon Raag (collected in Picador’s Three Novels). Writing about the tanpura, a four-stringed sitar-like instrument used to accompany the singer, Chaudhuri writes:

The four strings provide only two notes as a background to the song; sa, or shadja, the first, the mother-note, from which all other notes come, with which one’s relationship is permanent and unambiguous, and the second ntoe, depending the raag, the father-note, circumstantial but constructive.

Then, a little further down:

While this painful business, this struggle, of tuning continues, four white threads are slipped under the strings as they lie on the bridge, and moved up and down till a point is discovered where each string loses its flat metallic note, and buzzes, a hum like that of the wandering drone, or electricity.

The drone came to the fore, last night, in songs like the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, where the famous ‘woo-woo’ backing vocals are replaced, in Chaudhuri’s version, by a return to a long, low, drone-like ‘Ohh-ohhh’ (impossible to transcribe, naturally).

I hear that sound, that buzz, that self-sufficient drone, in some baritones, (The National’s Matt Berninger) and think of it the humming with which Glenn Gould sometimes accompanies his piano playing. Sometimes Berninger is singing within his range, and sometimes he returns to a base (not bass) note that seems to belong not to the song, but to him. It makes we wonder, thinking of how some instruments have ‘natural tones’ (again, I’m not expert) – the note you get when you blow into a clarinet, for example, without applying any fingering – whether we each of us have, not just a vocal range, but a natural tone, like the tone of a tuned drum, that produces the most satisfying resonance. What pitch is our individual skull tuned to, and how does that affect the way we listen to, and make music?

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