Tabla Notation in New Music Contexts

As a musician with a background in both Western classical and Indian classical music, I have long been working to bring the two together by commissioning new works for tabla from composers of new music (for a selected list of repertoire, click here). Over the past 15+ years, these collaborations have led to the development of a new notation system for tabla. Initially devised by the American composer Payton MacDonald, this system has been refined and expanded, and has come to be affectionately known as the MacDonald/Mativetsky tabla notation system.

The system is very simple and straightforward. It can be easily read by tabla players with varied backgrounds and it removes questions of interpretation that might be caused by differences in technique or interpretation due to having learned in a different tradition (such as in different gharanas). To accommodate players who might not read Western notation, tabla bols can easily be added underneath. This notation has a significant advantage over notation on a single line, as it allows conductors and other musicians, who may not necessarily understand the complexity of the tabla language, to be able to read the score and have some idea of the contour and texture of the tabla part. For composers, the system is highly intuitive and is very similar to notation for multiple percussion or drumset.

Tabla notation key courtesy of composer Tawnie Olson

 
Position on the Staff Tabla Bol Description
Above the staff Ra Dahina/Dayan: Ring+middle fingers or index finger on the chanti/kinar.
5th line Na / Ta Dahina/Dayan: Index finger strikes chanti/kinar, while ring finger touches edge of syahi.
5th line (x notehead) Tik / Tak Dahina/Dayan: Index finger strikes chanti/kinar, while ring finger touches edge of syahi, and middle finger mutes on syahi. Snapping sound.
4th space Tin / Tun Dahina/Dayan: Open tone, produced by striking with index finger in the centre of the drum
4th line Tin / Ta Dahina/Dayan: Index finger strikes lao/sur, while ring finger touches edge of syahi (in some traditions, middle finger will also strike centre of syahi).
3rd space
(round notehead)
Te / Ti / Ra / Re / Ta Dahina/Dayan: Closed tone, produced by striking in the centre of the syahi. Depending on tradition, can be produced by the middle+ring, middle, ring, index fingers.
3rd space (x notehead) Te / Re / Ti Dahina/Dayan: Closed tone, produced by striking with the palm on the syahi, as in the stroke DhereDhere / DhiReDhiRe.
1st space
(round notehead)
Ke / Ka / Ki Baya: Closed tone, produced by striking with the full hand.
1st space (x notehead) Snap Baya: Sharp closed tone, produced by snapping the edge of the skin with the index or middle fingers while applying pressure to the skin with the wrist.
Below the staff Ge / Ghe / Ga / Gha / Gi / Ghi Baya: open, resonant tone, produced by striking with the full hand, middle, ring, middle+ring, index fingers. (Relative pitch can be indicated by graphical notation below the score, or glissandi can be indicated with arrows following noteheads.)


I would strongly encourage any composers interested in writing for tabla to adopt this system. Numerous pieces have already been composed with it, and these pieces are most definitely the easiest to read, as the notation is so clear and compact. Why create a new system, when there is already a successful one in place? If you are planning to write for tabla, please do consider adopting this system.

Here are a few short score examples:
 

Payton MacDonald's 4th Concerto for Tabla and Percussion Quartet (video clip available here)

 

Tawnie Olson's Something to Say for tabla with fixed media (audio available here). Score available from the Canadian Music Centre.


Paul Frehner's Ke-Te for solo tabla (available on the album Cycles). Score available from the Canadian Music Centre.


Here is a partial list of pieces that have used this notation system:

SOLO
Taylor Brook, Coil (2013)
Paul Frehner, Ke-Te (2006)
Payton MacDonald, Alap (2003)
Payton MacDonald, Jor (2005)
Payton MacDonald, Jhala (2005)
Tawnie Olson, Something to Say (2014)
Patrick Saint-Denis, Frictions (2007)

SOLO WITH ENSEMBLE
Payton MacDonald, 1st Concerto for Tabla and Percussion Quartet (2002)
Payton MacDonald, 2nd Concerto for Tabla and Percussion Quartet (2003)
Payton MacDonald, 3rd Concerto for Tabla and Percussion Quartet (2004)
Payton MacDonald, 4th Concerto for Tabla and Percussion Quartet (2013)
Payton MacDonald, Farmaishi (2004)
Payton MacDonald, Samsara (2008)

CHAMBER MUSIC
Gabriel Dharmoo, Ainthu miniyeccars (2011)
Jim Hiscott, Shadow Play (2007)
Elizabeth Kelly, Hands On (2017)
Payton MacDonald, Farmaishi (2003)
Payton MacDonald, Ikky Gober (2002)
Payton MacDonald, Jugalbandi (2007)
Monica Pearce, damask (2016)

Other Resources