Ladakhi Call

Ladakhi Call was influenced by my trip with my family to Ladakh, a region in the northernmost part of India, in the summer of 2015. My family and I spent 35 days trekking there through the region of the Himalaya encompassed by Ladakh. This region has a unique intersection of two major Asian religions and their cultures: Buddhism and Islam. Since Ladakh is on the northernmost border of India and thus close to Tibet, there is a strong Tibetan Buddhist culture throughout the region that exists together with the Muslim religion that pervades much of Pakistan and northern India.

The piece uses two important musical symbols: one from each religion. The first is the mosque call in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, which I recorded and transcribed during my family’s stay there, which is a very rhythmically free, mostly diatonic melody with several microtonal inflections. It was sung to call people to prayer at the mosque in the very early morning and evening. The second is music from a Buddhist festival which I attended at a monastery in the Indus River valley. This music features jagged trilling figures from oboe-like instruments (known as Gyaling), very low long notes from Tibetan horns, and a multilayered accelerando: A faster, accelerating figure on special Tibetan cymbals known as Rolmo which leads to a strike of the Lag-na, a low drum. The drum strikes occur more and more frequently, so the whole pattern of accelerating cymbals to drum strike itself slowly accelerates, leading to the two-layered accelerando.

The other important musical symbol in the piece is a much less literal one: the mountains themselves, and their complexity and grandeur. This is represented by a rising chromatic chorale, usually in low instruments, which constantly pushes itself higher each measure, giving a feeling of immense weight and breadth. This chordal skeleton is often decorated by triplets or small melodic lines, which is a reference to one of the most unique Ladakhi rock formations in the mountains: very large boulders and cliff faces with hundreds of tiny small rocks embedded in the side of them, such that from far away it looks like a smooth cliff face, but as one approaches closer you can see thousands of these tiny rocks. The chordal skeleton is like the large rocks viewed from a distance, but it is ‘decorated’ by more rhythmic and melodic ornamentation (the smaller rocks) as the piece progresses.

The piece as a whole is meant to depict dawn in Ladakh. The piece opens in darkness with quiet rolls in the percussion. The first glimpse of light occurs with a distant chord played on the marimba- the “Sunlight” chord: a second inversion major seventh chord. Triplets begin to rise through the bass drum, harp, and triangle, but the chord is cut off and the dark percussion rolls quickly return. Then, just as in Leh, the mosque call appears just after first light. Here it is presented in its entirety by solo trombone, still over the darkness in the percussion. After it concludes, the last gesture is echoed through several instruments, and then the ‘mountain’ chorale appears in the low bassoons, as if we could barely make out the shadows of the mountains in the morning twilight. Fragments of the mosque call and the mountain chorale are developed as activity gradually picks up, and the light of the sun gets stronger. Each time the mountain chorale is presented, it has slightly more detail and ornamentation, and the texture gets brighter and brighter with the entrance of the high flutes and violins. Eventually this reaches a small climax (the first appearance of the sun) and then dies away into a brief reprise of the end of the mosque call in the solo trombone again. After a few mysterious phrases accompanied by “wind” sounds in the flutes, the music surges forward again with further development of the mosque call, but is quickly interrupted by the entrance of the Tibetan music, as if the Buddhist ceremony has begun now that the sun has risen. The Tibetan rolmo cymbals, here represented by two small Chinese crash cymbals with straps, drive the accelerandos forward faster and faster each time, with more and more of the woodwinds joining in. This leads to an extremely high, dissonant chord, as the light of the sun becomes blindingly bright, and then the brass all plunge downwards to begin the full statement of the mountain chorale, for the mountains are now visible in all their detail and grandeur. Here all three main elements of the piece are combined: The mountain chorale in the brass, the Tibetan music in the woodwinds, and extremely fast swirling gestures based on the shape of the mosque call in the strings. Eventually the mountain chorale attempts to cadence, but instead resolves to the same “sunlight” chord that was played in the distance at the beginning of the piece, except here it is presented in the full orchestra, with incredible power. The rising triplets from the opening also return throughout the mountain chorale, moving from the tubas to the top of the trumpets during the final “sunlight” chord. The piece finally resolves with a low B in the bass instruments and a huge crash on the tam-tam.

Specific instrumentation is in the second page of the score.

Score (pdf): Ladakhi Call Score

Recording: The recording of the reading of this piece by the Seattle Symphony is copyrighted by the Seattle Symphony, so I cannot post it here.  Contact me if you are interested in that recording. This is a midi recording:

For additional information, questions, or parts requests, contact Aidan at