Dr. Larry Bitensky explores southern Indian musical rhythms with unique class
Students in Associate Professor of Music Larry Bitensky’s classroom are flexing their muscles — physically and musically — in his newest world rhythms class, which features the fascinating sounds of southern India.
“The classical music tradition of southern India developed a rhythmic system that is easily one of the most sophisticated and complex in the world,” Bitensky explains. “It involves using syllables to articulate complicated rhythms while keeping time with various types of hand-clapping patterns.
“I’ve been teaching myself this technique, called solkattu, slowly over many years,” he continues, “and I’ve incorporated it into some of my classes. It’s extremely challenging, weirdly addictive and incredibly fun.”
The course began by teaching basic rhythms and syllables, building in complexity and length from there. Throughout the term, students are kept on their solkattu toes by being randomly quizzed on syllable names and rhythmic patterns. The final examination involves a lengthy group performance by the entire class.
Bitensky is especially excited about the opportunity this class presents to his students.
“One of the great things about doing solkattu is that students can have a real hands-on experience with learning a non-Western, oral musical tradition without having to buy and learn an instrument, travel or study with a master over long periods,” he explains. “Taking this class gives students an exposure to this style of music-making that can have real depth.
“Solkattu also does wonders for developing one’s inner rhythmic sense,” he adds, “in addition to one’s ability to memorize complex musical patterns and learn orally. Musicians in any style of music can benefit from this.”
For Bitensky, the class is just as rewarding for him as a teacher and musician as it is for his students.
“Solkattu is kind of like a difficult sodoku puzzle,” he jokes. “It’s frustrating and brain-taxing, but comes with a decent rush of dopamine when you get it. I’m looking forward to watching students ‘get’ the material as it becomes progressively harder.”
Learn more about music studies at Centre.
By Mariel Smith