String Theory

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Classical Indian music is all about mood. Songs can evoke joy, tranquillity, even devotion. To accomplish this, musicians base songs on a form called a raga—a melodic pattern built on a framework of notes, rhythms, and musical progressions designed to summon up a particular emotion. It's best to experience ragas if you want to understand them, and now you can get a taste on Stevin McNamara's new album, Om Guitar: Acoustic Meditation Music.

A gifted guitarist and sitarist who has worked with Tina Turner, among others, McNamara has released two earlier solo discs: Caroline Myss' Chakra Meditation Music and Yogitar. McNamara's purpose on his newest album is not to imitate classical Indian music, but to apply the principles of raga to the totality of his background as a player of Indian and Western guitar.

Om Guitar is made up of four lengthy songs (from 13 to 25 minutes) that unfold at the unhurried pace of a sunny day spent in a leafy canyon. The music contains melodic and harmonic echoes of classical European repertoire, coffeehouse strumming, gentle psychedelia, and easygoing jazz. These combine effortlessly with McNamara's skillful microtonal string bends that are unique to North Indian classical music. This technique creates a plaintive sound that is especially effective in the album's first composition, "Aubade," based on a raga designed to awaken passionate longing.

Other compositions showcase McNamara's guitar and sitar playing in tandem. The two instruments intertwine in coy call-and-response patterns and joyful melodies on the album's closing track, "Heartsong Celebration." Another piece, "May Fortune Smile," features McNamara's nylon-string guitar being struck by fingers, brushes, the heel of his hand, and a violin bow. On other tracks, percussionist Nic Dacelo and tamboura/harmonium player Aram Ram provide hypnotic underpinnings. The album as a whole is meditative and soothing, making it an evocative introduction to classical Indian music.