Whitman Wire

Sitarist J.J. Gregg Returns with “An Afternoon Pause”

Renny Acheson, Staff Reporter

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On Friday, Sep. 28, members of the Whitman community had the unique opportunity to listen to three pieces of South Asian classical music preformed on sitar by music instructor J.J. Gregg. Set in the ethnomusicology room in the Hall of Music, audience members enjoyed an intimate musical experience that appealed to all of the senses.

“It’s obviously a much smaller space, and it will be a very different kind of energy in the room because people will have to be packed in and hopefully squished up to the front. It’s much different to see the sitar up close than to have it be more distant on stage,” Gregg said of the venue.

Compared to larger, more open performance spaces such as Kimball Auditorium or Cordiner Hall — where Gregg typically performs — Room 102 allowed the sounds of the instrument to reverberate through the smaller, more personal recital hall.

Titled “Sitar at Four: An Afternoon Pause,” the performance was as cultural as it was musical. Gregg asked audience members to remove their shoes before entering and to turn off their phones entirely in order to more fully engage with the ragas — the fixed groups of notes and ascending/descending scales that comprise each individual piece of music.

Though each raga shares the same fundamental structures, it is up to the performer to render them individually through performance.

“Depending on what you pick up on, you may feel like ‘oh that was exactly the same way it was,’ or someone else might say ‘oh wow that was so different,’” Gregg said. “It depends on what you’re focusing on in terms of a melody or a rhythm.”

Gregg’s sitar training began 18 years ago when he decided to take a sitar class taught by David Whetstone in preparation for a 6 month study abroad in Pune, Maharashtra, India. Upon his arrival in India, he met the man who would become his guru, Ustad Usman Khan. From this point on, Gregg embarked on a journey to master both the technical and emotional elements of the instrument.

Gregg commented on the metaphysical process of sitar: “there’s something there that you can’t explain what it is. You have to listen to it, then be able to reproduce it, and so part of what the training is, among all these technical things, is to over time train your ear to be able to hear these things, and train your hand to be able to reproduce them.”

Beyond just the musical realm, Gregg’s performance presents an invaluable opportunity for the Whitman community to learn about different cultural notions of music and music theory.

First year audience member Greta Hoffman commented on this immersive experience for Whitman students: “I think they can learn a lot about music that’s less popular in the Pacific Northwest.”

Whether or not they had heard sitar music before, it is clear that Gregg’s music had the ability to unite audience members in peaceful late-afternoon reflection.

Of his performances, Gregg said “it’s kind of a collective meditation to have. It brings people together for a concert.”

If you are interested in hearing more of Gregg’s music, he can be found on Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/jjgregg) and Bandcamp (https://jjgregg.bandcamp.com/).

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Sitarist J.J. Gregg Returns with “An Afternoon Pause”