In the summer of 2016, musician and producer Paul Davie contacted me and my duo partner Wendy Sassafras Ramsay about performing in his annual BeatleCuse concert—a major event involving 70 musicians from the Syracuse area and beyond. Plans for 2017 included appearances by Joey Molland of Badfinger and Hilton Valentine of the Animals, and a complete performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in honor of the album’s 50th anniversary.
Among the many creative and logistical challenges presented by Sgt. Pepper was the Indian instrumentation of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You.” Paul was excited to learn in my bio that I had studied Indian music, and asked me to help bring that haunting, complex song to life onstage.
What followed was a lenthy process of research, problem solving, and a little detective work, as detailed below. And then, finally, a magical night on April 8, 2017, at the sold-out Palace Theater, with 750 fans who hung on every note.
My connection in Indian music began with a backpacking trip to India and Nepal when I was right out of college with my girlfriend, who’d lived as a child in Sri Lanka and was studying in south India. I came home with a tabla from Benares (now Varanasi); we were living in San Francisco, and I soon learned that some of the world’s best Indian musicians could be found in a little suburban house just north of the city in Marin County, at the Ali Akbar College of Music. So I became a student of Swapan Chaudhuri, Ali Akbar Khan’s brilliant accompanist.
I was (and am) at heart a guitarist and songwriter, but I loved exploring the intricacies of north Indian music—it blew apart my notions of rhythm, melody, and musical structure. Along with my studies came sublime concert experiences hearing not only Swapan-ji and Khan sahib (as they were called by students) but Ravi Shankar, Lakshmi Shankar, and a pantheon of Indian musicians who performed in the Bay Area.
A few years later, we spent a year living in Madras (now Chennai), in south India. I wanted to continue my tabla studies and found it surprisingly difficult to locate a teacher. Chennai is a center for Carnatic music, the south Indian classical tradition, but tabla is a north Indian Hindustani instrument. Everyone told me I should study mridangam, the Carnatic drum, but I really didn’t want to start over. With some persistence I found a teacher, N.V. Murthy, a tabla and mridangam player who’d retired from years of studio work in the Tamil film industry.
My tabla lessons with the kindhearted Mr. Murthy had no set start or end times. I’d take the long, dusty bus ride across the chaotic city to his home. We’d have tea and eventually start playing for a while—as in my earlier lessons, the training was all by ear, with him reciting rhythmic patterns (using tabla bols, syllables representing the drums’ different sounds) and me attempting to follow along.
After a while we’d take a break and talk over more tea. And play a little more. And then his wife would serve lunch—the most delicious food I ate that year, tamarind rice and vadai and pakoras and all sorts of goodies. After that, we might play a bit more, until eventually it seemed like time for me to get back on the sweaty, packed bus, three or four or five hours after my arrival.
I loved tabla but at some point felt like playing it was an all-or-nothing proposition. I had my guitar and my songwriting, the band Heavy Wood with my brother, and my job as editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine, plus a toddler at home. My tabla playing fell by the wayside, but the love of Indian music did not.
Which is why I was thrilled when I got the call to go inside “Within You Without You.”
Syracuse is a pretty diverse city, and the Indian community is large enough to support three or four Indian grocery stores. But it’s not NYC/New Jersey or San Francisco or other bigger metropolitan areas with South Asian cultural hubs. So finding the instruments and the players for “Within You Without You” took some asking around.
The lead instrument on the record is dilruba, a bowed Indian instrument that I’ve yet to encounter in person. For that role we turned to Ithaca violinist Max Buckholtz, who did a beautiful job emulating the sound and feel.
For tabla I briefly considered dusting off my chops and tackling the part myself, but I decided that was too much to take on along with the vocal. So we put the tabla part in the much more capable hands of Alan Simon, a gifted player from Rochester (here’s a solo clip).
Tambura, the drone instrument, seemed simple but wasn’t really. Tamburas come in various sizes for different settings, and to get the deep drone in the right key and range, we needed a male-pitched instrument. For that we were lucky to find Mahmud Burton down in Ithaca.
“Within You” also has a brief, supporting appearance by the sitar in the instrumental section. I did find a local sitar player, but unfortunately he dropped out of the production when it was too late to find a replacement. We made do with a keyboard sitar patch played by Paul Davie.
Another instrument on the track is the swarmandal, an Indian harp that produces that gorgeous curtain of sound in the intro and after the instrumental. I puzzled over how to cover this part, hoping not to default to a keyboard simulation. One idea that popped up was the Autoharp. A music teacher who was playing in the BeatleCuse horn section found one for me—it had been gathering dust in a middle school closet for at least 15 years and had multiple busted strings.
As I fooled around with the Autoharp, it became obvious that I would not be able to get what I needed through the instrument’s usual system of damping unwanted strings to produce chords. Instead, I dug into The Beatles Complete Scores to find the actual swarmandal pitches transcribed: Bb, C, E, F, and G, in two octaves. So I retuned sequential strings on the Autoharp to that sequence, using a drill’s chuck key, and voilà—the sound was remarkably close. Check it out.
The other essential component of “Within You Without You” is the strings. For this, we had Chris Notarthomas working from the Beatles score book to create an arrangement for the excellent Opus Black String Quartet—Liz Freidel, Kristin Kopf, Juliane Price, and Allyson Sass Sklar.
Putting the pieces together
One twist with “Within You Without You” is that the original, it turns out, was recorded in C but then sped up to C#. For simplicity’s sake, we wanted to perform it in C but at a similar tempo as the sped-up album track. I used Audacity’s effects plug-ins to take the original recordings (the album version as well as separated tracks of instruments only, vocal only, and tabla only) and get them into the target key and tempo, so we’d all have those recordings to practice with.
Because the musicians lived fairly far apart, we were able to schedule only one rehearsal. Though everyone had done their homework, putting all the parts together presented numerous difficulties.
None of the string quartet members had played Indian music before, so Max coached them on some different types of fingerings to get the characteristic glissandos and phrasing—sliding up and down the same strings much more than they’d normally do.
Rhythmically, the opening and closing sections of “Within You” are in tintal, a 16-beat cycle; the instrumental in the middle is in jhaptal, a ten-beat cycle. In the Westernized Beatles scores these are rendered as 4/4 and 5/4, respectively, but this is a simplification—a 16-beat cycle is not the same as four measures of 4/4.
On the other hand, the song does not entirely follow the conventions of Indian music. Several times the accented beat shifts in relation to the melody, in ways that felt strange to Alan, our tabla player. When the song restarts in tintal after the instrumental, the vocal melody begins at a particularly odd place in the cycle—it’s as if they lopped out a couple of beats (I wonder, in fact, if they might have spliced the tape in that spot). In this instance, we did wind up making the rhythmic cycle more regular, which made the whole last section feel more relaxed.
And then there was the singing, my only job aside from a couple of strums on the Autoharp/swarmandal. Once I got past learning the notes, I began searching for the right way to get at the feeling of the song. I soon realized that this vocal was in no way about projecting or emoting or even performing in the way we usually think about it.
What I needed to do, first of all, was lock in with the phrasing of the violin/dilruba (and vice versa), because we sing the melody together throughout. And I needed to find what I can only describe as the center of each note, with a special kind of stillness and focus. I could feel when it found it. This wasn’t about my trying or even achieving anything; it was about getting myself out of the way to let the melody come through.
It took a while for me to come to that realization, but really the instructions were right there in the lyrics.
Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really very small
And life flows on within you and without you
Here’s another clip from the BeatleCuse show: my duo partner, Wendy, and I performed our slowed-down duet arrangement of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as well as “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”