Like a Sick, Breathing Tambura is based on a 15 beat, North Indian rhythmic 'tala' – or beat cycle – called Tala Pacham Sawari. I became familiar with this rhythmic pattern through a visiting lecture series at Princeton given by Zakir Hussain, the Indian tabla master and virtuoso. I attended several of his lectures on Indian classical music (an art form of which I've always been an admirer), and listened to many of his recordings.
One piece I especially loved was a "dueling tabla" realization of this beat cycle that he played and recorded with his father. The rhythm has a great feel, especially on beats 11-15 where it becomes syncopated. The whole thing feels very "cantabile" to me, which is sort of unusual (in my experience) for something that is strictly rhythmic. I was so taken by this pattern that I lifted it from the recording, transcribed it, and then went to work on it on my own. I figured that this wasn't really stealing, since it's a pattern that gets used over and over again in Indian music. Anyway, my piece just uses the basic feel of this rhythm and then goes off to do something totally different...
I really don't know much about Indian music, and after Zakir's lectures, I realized that I know even less than I ever thought I did! Indian music doesn't really inform any other part of this piece, with the exception of the beginning (and the "optional" ending) where I was trying to simulate the sound of a tambura by using two bowed cymbals and a bowed vibraphone. The name of the piece is an allusion to this- it was originally just supposed to be an imaginative tempo marking, but it kind of grew on me, and in lieu of finding something different I just kept it.
The 15 beat cycle and its various permutations run throughout the entire piece, with the exception of the very last section where it starts to get filtered out. Other than that, it's pretty much in every bar and in every instrument...