When you feel nice, you feel nothing.
It would be tempting to think of the sitar — the long-necked string instrument from the Indian subcontinent most commonly associated with Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and the long-lived Khan family dynasty of players — as a beacon of bliss. Of tranquility. Of inner peace.
That’s only part of what it’s about. The nice part.
But when you listen to the sitar, underneath the airy plucked notes and the deeper tones that emanate from the sitar’s body, you hear the sound of a drone.
And drones are annoying.
Just think of bagpipes. Why do bagpipe players walk while they play? To get away from the noise. Drones are annoying because they can put you in a state of mind that isn’t blissful, bucolic or placid.
Drones are annoying because — much like silence — they take you on a journey that concentrates focus and turns that focus inward. Close your eyes and you’re restless. You move. You’re alone with your thoughts.
Thoughts that are not necessarily so tranquil.
So you train your mind. Look at those sweet, bright clothes that the sitar player wears. Look at how intent and intense he is while he plays. You think of how nice this all is. You think of The Beatles. Did I leave the iron on?
Your mind wanders. Open your eyes.
The drones that a sitar creates put you in touch with something greater than yourself. Even if only for a moment, this transportive, transformative instrument shows something to you that no one else will know. No one else will experience the same transforming moment, even though there’s a bunch of people all in a room together.
But this is not aloneness. Far from it. The deeper you go into the simple, deeply human experience of listening, the more you hear. The more you hear, the more you delve deeply into your own self. Free association of images occurs. It’s a psychedelic experience without the need of psychedelics to experience.
And sometimes, going deeper into your own self sucks.
Is every musical moment supposed to deliver you unto joy on high? Does each time that you listen to your favorite song give you the same amount of goosebumps? Did you count? If not, why?
The sitar’s underpinning drones also connect it to a deeper level of emotion. Of sadness. Of loss. Of meditation on the impermanence of things. The reverberation of the strings fades. The player ultimately dies. The song remains — but even then, for how long?
Sitar concerts are often presented with an implicit sense of exoticism — literally orientalism — that manifests itself as a certain level of self-congratulation and complacency. This quality can makes you feel cultural or well-rounded.
And yet the sitar is not simply exemplary of a culture, but is, in fact, a doorway to it — as much as its music presents a doorway into the depth of your own psyche.
Of course this makes the sitar sounds dangerous. This description suggests that it may cause you to confront feelings in yourself it summons up when you listen that you don’t particularly like.
Feelings that aren’t particularly peaceful.
The real danger is tranquility. The real danger is in relaxing. The real danger lies in dismissing the sitar as just another musical instrument when in fact it is also an instrument of power.
Music sounds different when you close your eyes and listen — especially sitar music. It’s almost like experiencing two concerts. The first one comes when you manipulate your senses by seeing and hearing the performance. But the memory of what you heard when you listened to it — changeable and unreliable as memory tends to be — gives you another kind of experience entirely.
Or, to paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “You never step in the same river twice.”
The sitar is that same doorway to a greater understanding of self that glides along drones that are seemingly endless, rising on notes that soar as though seemingly weightless, and reveal that things are not always as they seem, nor appear, nor look as they immediately present themselves to you. Listen more deeply, and you’ll be rewarded with an understanding that is at once all your own and suggestive of the broader human experience. As it is your own understanding of self, not all of it will be lengthy or involved or complete. It’s only a glimpse — a glimpse as brief and fleeting as music that floats on air and vanishes into the night. And sometimes, a momentary glimpse is better than a long, difficult nothing.
Will Marsh understands this.
A student of the sitar since 2006, he studied at the California Institute of the Arts under Ustad Aashish Khan — a master sarode player and composer who comes from a long line of musicians; his grandfather was the famous North Indian classical musician and teacher Allauddin Khan. Marsh has immersed himself in this powerful and centuries-old style of music, and will bring his sacred and innovative improvisations to Namba Performing Arts Space in Ventura this weekend. It’s an opportunity to get a glimpse of those inner landscapes that might otherwise stay hidden.
The challenge, for the listener, is knowing what eye to open, and which to close.
Will Marsh appears with tabla player Leonice Shinneman on Saturday, April 20, at 8 p.m. at Namba Performing Arts Space, 47 S. Oak. St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 805.628.9250 or visit nambaarts.com.