Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Carnatic Classical Music (Andy, ILR'15)

On June 4 we were fortunate enough to be invited to high tea and a Carnatic concert in the evening performed by the Mysore Brothers, an Indian violin duo, with two percussionists accompanying them. As a percussionist and avid music listener myself, I cannot put into words how amazing this music was to experience in its home country. Since it is almost entirely improvised, the music is amazingly expressive, and allows the musicians to “say” whatever is on their minds at the time. With the virtuosity of these award-winning musicians, they were able to convey some truly powerful ideas. As I told them after the concert, I have listened to and played with many orchestras in the United States, but I have never heard a violin sing as I did that night. And as a percussionist, hearing how much command their accompanists had over the mind-bendingly complex rhythms was truly humbling.

While the percussionists played an improvised duet, the Mysore Brothers kept the rhythm, or tala, by clapping. The clapping occurs with either the palm down or up. Here, the eight-beat meter followed the pattern “down, down, down, down, down, up, down, up.” These clapping patterns are one of the first things Indian musicians learn, so it is second-nature to them. The rhythm is therefore internalized so much more effectively. Even when they are not clapping, I could sense that they “feel” the pattern.

During the concert, while not playing, the musicians listened very intently. They often nodded and would even express their approval out loud when something particularly beautiful was played. They encouraged the audience to do the same, even though Western concertgoers are often silent for the performance. But collective gasps and some “Wow!”s could be heard throughout the concert (probably mostly from me…), which made it a much more intimate environment.

Just seeing the smiles on the musicians’ faces drew the audience in more. You knew that they were enjoying themselves, and the music was not seen as their work, which seemed to invite the audience to enjoy the music along with them. It made me reflect on how seriously I can take music sometimes, and was a good reminder of what is important in any art form.

Explanations of various aspects of Carnatic music helped the Western audience grasp what exactly went on during the concert. Here we are learning about the drone machine, which was set to a D# for the concert. This machine – which emulates and replaces a player who would usually play the drone on a stringed instrument for the duration of the concert – helps the players tune and gives them a reference pitch to base their raga, or scale, on.

This photo is rather blurry, but this is me with one of the musicians after the concert. They were all very humble, which is a lesson all of us can learn from. When I told one of the percussionists how amazed I was at his playing, he responded by telling me that it is not him that is amazing, but the music he played, and that I should appreciate not him, but the whole tradition of Carnatic music. 

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