Saturday, May 1, 2010

A recent article about Gurucharan and me

New and perhaps improved

I'm back. Its been a while since I wrote on the blog - my fault. I will start updating this as and when possible. Write in, tell me your views and critique.

More than ever, music seems to be the only truth I know.

NIE, 2 weeks ago

Music and the Mind

It’s April and already it is impossible to sit without ceiling fans and air-conditioners. Most of us are busy figuring out the lull that this time of the year usually brings in. The ubiquitous summer camp advertisements are here. One particular flyer caught my attention. A camp is being organized to learn classical music in two weeks leaves me wondering if there is a miracle worker in our midst that I am yet to meet!

Funnily enough, I was part of a panel on music education two weeks ago that brought up a related query. Can classical music be taught in smaller chunks? I wonder. As a musician, classical music has always been a passion I took seriously, and I am yet to lay claim on “having learnt it”. Clearly, the need that my esteemed panellists voiced was for music appreciation. And a fundamental understanding of principles, concepts and ideas in music. Now why is this suddenly becoming important and is there any functional “utility” related to it?

A friend of mine who is an educationist recently told me a very moving story. She was working with a well-known charitable organization that rehabilitates and retools abused children. Being a pragmatist, my friend was plagued with questions on what “retooling” could mean, especially since the children in question were reluctant to rejoin the mainstream for reasons most of us appreciate and understand. It was then that she came across 8 year old Smita*, a victim of severe physical abuse who was rescued a year ago from Delhi. A cheerful child otherwise, Smita was showing anxiety and reluctance in sitting down with the tutor, a lady who was known for her patience and empathy with these beautiful children. On probing, it became clear that the child was dyslexic and in combination with her psychological trauma, a sort of exaggerated learning disability pattern emerged. Running out of methods to help Smita, my friend casually put on a cassette with classical music in it, playing only the raga alapana section (or free-style improvisation on a chosen raga). Smita and two of her friends became instantly hooked, out of a combination of curiosity and wonder. Emboldened, my friend began vocal exercises in simple five-tone ragas which the children not only enjoyed, but started looking forward to. My friend then drew the notes on the floor of the classroom as a giant piano keyboard, and started devising games of skipping notes and combining them. In less than three weeks, the change in the attitudes of these children towards learning, and towards establishing higher abilities to discern patterns and understand counting started bearing fruit. Further, music was having a positive effect on mood, morale and concentration, something we all already experience even as adults.

Therefore, is music the only solution to an ailing planet? It would be easy for me to reply in the affirmative. From Oliver Sacks in the neuroscientific realm to Howard Gardner, the effect of music on cognitive processing and learning is a much-discussed topic. Music and its effects on decision making and ability to judge visual-spatial distances are being studied and experimented with. And yet, most of us are happy deleting music from higher education, preferring to award the more popular sciences and mathematics first place.

Which brings me to the notion of “functional utility” that I expressed earlier in this article. In a world obsessed with “subjects that are linked to better job prospects”, I believe the arts suffer a lot. Not only do we make the crucial mistake of expecting all disciplines to have direct correlations with careers, but we completely discount the purpose of schooling or all education, for that matter. We are no longer interested in having a child develop at his/her pace. Instead, we want job assurances by the time the child arrives in the ninth grade, rushing to secure admissions in schools that have “better IIT placement track records”. Whither music?

Until we start considering the effect music has on a child like Smita. On not only helping her overcome learning disabilities but enhancing her outlook towards life. Or on a more everyday note, start considering the lives of the great men and women of our time. From CEOs to doctors and corporate lawyers, look at a success story the next time you read about it. You will find that these individuals also lay claim to artistic talent, or at least, a proclivity for the arts. Many of them become leading art and music patrons, or well-known artists themselves. A favourite piece of music or a favourite musician always finds mention. In effect, it is an integral, all-important part of the “success code” that we all seem to define on some rather stringent parameters for no apparent reason.

No wonder then that discussions related to music education are finding more takers in corporate boardrooms. Functional utility aside, the need for a child to enhance his/her decision and learning abilities and aesthetic sensibilities with some exposure to classical music is now finally being understood. But far from shouting my hurrahs, I wait for this understanding to reach the stampede outside the admissions offices of our elite schools. This is not an argument to replace the sciences or mathematics with music and the visual arts. It is merely a suggestion not to ignore that vital aspect of a child’s intelligence.

For now, temper down the scorching heat by playing some music that you like on your stereo. You will find it much easier to breathe. And think about all that I said. This summer might well be a time for transition.


Monday, June 1, 2009

My article on 31st May, Sunday Express

An echo of poignant serenity

Anil Srinivasan
First Published : 31 May 2009 11:14:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 31 May 2009 01:28:35 PM IST

A musician is at times made to answer questions — scathing ones, like the purpose of art, the use of it all. One plausible ideal is the creation of music for its own sake. This, accompanied by an innate, almost supernal, force exhorting us to give it our best. Many great musicians manage to do just that. Listen to their recordings of 50 years ago. At the right moment in your life, their inspiration can

enter your soul and pull it up. This, more than anything else, seems to be the only ideal driving some very special musicians. As a listener, I find myself flying back towards their music when I need spiritual solace, a homing pigeon in search of its perch.

Today, I return to M D Ramanathan. This great Carnatic musician, teacher and composer would have turned 86 last month, had he been alive. My first introduction to his music was listening to him rendering Samajavaragamana in an old LP belonging to my parents. Much younger then, I found the music unappealing: very slow, with the alankaras (musical ornamentations) a little too elaborate for me to understand. I “ditched” listening to MDR soon afterwards, preferring a more

melodious M S Subbulakshmi and faster-paced younger vocalists who held greater appeal. The fact that much fun was made of MDR’s facial contortions while performing did not help my childish imagination either, and I put him down as ‘uncool’.

It was in New York, in early 2005, that I retu­rned to MDR’s music. Listening to an assorted tape at a friend’s apartment, I came across the same Thyagaraja composition in Hindolam. This was followed by a rendition of his

thillana in raga Behag. With the snow falling gently outside, the overheated atmosphere inside the apartment began to slow my pulse. I sat back, closed my eyes, and started allowing my mind to swirl meditatively to this vocalist’s rendition. In art, you can often see the outlines of an older painting if you look closely at a canvas. This effect, called “pentimento”, perhaps applies to music too.

Listening to MDR on that midwinter afternoon, I could glimpse several years of my life as though in kaleidoscopic vision. Each note seemed to drag itself out of the previous one, creating a patchwork quilt of musical ideas. As he stitched the melody slowly, I started seeing the composition in its entirety, understanding the purpose of each successive phrase,

savouring each moment of reposeful silence and quietening myself to the point of absolute concentration. The pace of rendition was purposeful and not because he “could not sing” any faster, and the silences were pregnant with possibilities, as though he had a clutch of different musical permutations at his disposal, but chose one deliberately and with precision.

In fighting my own battles as an adult, and trying to find my feet in the musical milieu and define my “sound”, I find myself guilty of earlier having not understood MDR’s depth and unique place in the firmament of Carnatic music. How beautiful a silence is! And how rare it seems to be in today’s obsession with razzmatazz! In understanding the man from his music, I see an artist whose only ideal seems to have been music itself. He was often in the “background”, devoted to his belo­ved Kalakshetra and not acquiring the sheen of popular fame or bloated fortune. The

silences were from his own soul, offered with surrender and piety to his teacher and musical schooling. And like the snow outside,

it fell in gentle but beautiful patterns on the listener’s ears.

In spring 2006, I heard another master musician sing live in New York. This was somebody I knew personally, and had not heard in a long time. After a brisk introduction in Shankara­bharanam, he moved into a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition in Sahana, and once again, the reposeful silences came to the fore. Each note had a purpose, and there was no hint at either gimmickry or superfluousness. I’ve often scorned the word “purity” used so ligh­tly in the classical music context, but this was a singer who came very close to embodying it. Not knowing it at the time, I found my eyes moistening and my senses heightened, and a sense of déjà vu as my mind quietened down once again, and focused on life’s possibilities. This was not an ordinary musician. This was “Subra”, my brother’s classmate and my senior from high school, whom the world knows better as Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

While this article is not about Sanjay, I cannot help link the two musicians inextricably in my mind’s eye. There are not many overt similarities apart from their adherence to classicism and a very informed, scholarly approach to many rare ragas. However, there is a common love for pacing and repose, and a profound reverence for silences in their music — pauses in their delineation that allow the listener to unwind, breathe and find room to rejoice again. I remember an American lady who sat next to me for Sanjay’s concert who suddenly clutched my hand at the end of his piece in Sahana. I do not think she followed either lyric or significance or musical context. I think the silences moved her too.

MDR might no longer be with us. But sometimes, in the silences that I allow myself bet­ween rehearsals and a hectic day’s work, his exhortation to contemplate and savour the music I create calms me. And in the rare and precious moments that I do experience Sanjay’s music, I feel at home. I stop questioning my purpose as a musician and just breathe.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Automatic Music

Perched on a stool that was too tall for me, I manage to reach the keys of the piano with the help of two large books and a cushion placed under me. I am three and already, the piano is the only truth I hold sacred. As I grow older and learn to love and cherish my instrument, I realize that it is an expression, and an articulation of everything that is on my mind. Automatically, the fingers move on the piano keys and they dance around when I am happy, and plod on wearily when I am depressed. The impulses are neurologically controlled and the change in body heat and reactance is nonconscious. Procedural memory, or the idea of “wiring” something into your system with repeated trials, can do this to you. And in my case, it is about thirty years of playing my instrument and counting.

When I first read John Bargh and his notion of automated processes, I thought that this was a further glimpse of the obvious. Surely, we all know that we reach out for a switch at night we do not consciously know where it is, but its “wired” deep inside. However, it is only on detailed analysis of this notion that I understood that it has implications on how we approach music, for instance, or more broadly, emotion. Emotional processes are automatically controlled as well. A certain person evokes a bodily and automated response, as does a certain situation or a certain piece of music.

So how does “new music” or a “new genre” get created? For both the musician and the listener, this requires rewiring, changing the way the body responds to music in a far more extensive way than we think. There are a select group of musicians in the world who excel at this task. We call them the renegades or the mavericks until their vibrations seep into our internal processes as well, and we start responding automatically to their sound. It’s a process that takes time, a lot of effort and in today’s day and age, more exposure and publicity.

When John Mayer took the blues and married it with the rock n’roll tradition, we got classics such as “Free Fallin’” and “Your Body is a Wonderland”. The trick has been to use certain sounds that evoke automated responses (the layered guitar intro to Free Fallin’) and then introduce the new sounds very subtly, almost subliminally. And the process of transformation begins. As the momentum grows, the subliminal becomes the dominant, and an entirely new sound and scape is created and we have entered new territory.

Take another John. In this case, John McLaughlin and his wonderful work across the past several decades. John took the world of the blues and jazz and infused elements of those domains into the experience of Carnatic music, a form that he enjoyed as much. What works for it is the deep reverence that the artist exhibits for each element of the whole. Harmonic elements and instrumentation is sometimes heavy handed, but often times, virtuosic, and in the quiet that follows several alaaps, resonant. The opening measures of the much-loved “Giriraja Sudha” from Remember Shakti flow from guitar to U Srinivas’ mandolin in a seamless glide. There is something profound in the tantalizing silence that follows. John McLaughlin is definitely not an ordinary musician. He is a philosopher, and is telling powerful stories through music. And in his considerable effort to rewire, he has created a new template, and continues to “reautomate” the listener.

I am not saying that rewiring requires a “break from” or “alternative to” traditional music and its expressions. It can happen within existing traditional forms of expressions too. To be successful, however, it requires the performer to have automated his emotional pulse

through adequate effort and tooling in the traditional form to such an extent that his or her flight into new territory appears painless, and takes the listener along with it.

Maybe I am getting too theoretical, and so I will stop. However, I think there are three deep thoughts here. First, that it requires a great amount of intensive practice or “sadhana” to be able to make changes or alterations to existing patterns. Second, that the listener will “automatically” follow the performer, provided the latter’s ability to guide the former slowly and gently, step by step. Last, that this process is considerably facilitated by providing “hooks” in the music that the listener is more used to, and more anchored to, and then gradually expanding his aural horizon.

After all, we have to keep creating more original music and showing the world that we are capable of great things. We are capable of creating new listeners, “rewire” the world if necessary. A R Rahman has raised the bar. Let’s follow suit.

Copyright New Sunday Express. This article appeared on 5th April, 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Next Article..

Whither Independent Music?


(courtesy the New Sunday Express, Mar 8, 2009)

So I am wandering down a deep, dark alleyway on Pocketbroke Lane. Beyond the curtain, I see a man trying to sell the idea of an album to me. He asks me if I will deliver the product to him, and he will not pay me, but he will publicize me well and hopefully, if we sell a few CDs, I can make some of my money back. Interesting, this. My intellectual product, no money, and some of it to be paid to someone else who claims to market your product. In reality, it’s the concerts that bring demand, not the man behind this greasy curtain.

And before you think I am referring to a suspicious drug cartel or dealing with the pirated music mafia, let me assure you that this seems to be the status of all independent music producers and musicians. A bunch of talented people (and sometimes, the not-so-talented-but-moneyed) get together and make some music that is not popular (read as “non-film), and does not contain even one track that will go on to be picturized as an “item number”. If you sell a thousand of these discs, you can declare yourself a success. Five hundred, a moderate success. Less than that, you can call yourself a talented musician.

Is there a future to independent music or are we deluding ourselves? In many conversations I have had recently with friends, on Facebook, in real time, in concert halls, the issue keeps cropping up. With film music flooding the market, and the remaining space taken up by pirated music of all forms, the future for “independent music” looks bleak. By independent music, I refer to all musicians who do not play on film music sessions, or are a part of a larger organization contractually or in terms of affiliation. Like what Norah Jones was before she became a superstar. Or what self-styled fusion groups or indigenous rock bands are.

In recent times, I have given Norah Jones and her story a great deal of thought. When her sound flooded the American airwaves a few years ago, with “Don’t Know Why”, there was a return to an independent sound. Here was an artist who was not “well known”, who had not been contracted out to a big label (Blue Note was a small label at the time), and her soulful and yet intimate music felt like an old friend, warm and sensitive. This was against the grain of popular music thought at the while. No heavy instrumentation and high-powered bass guitaring. Further, this was neither the “blues” nor was it “jazz”, but something in between, a sort of healthy marriage of several influences. And the Grammys smiled on her.

I wonder if we are ready for such an independent sound now in India. Having heard the Raghu Dixit Project in recent times and of course, the hugely popular Indian Ocean, I think we are. Rather than give in to popular sentiment and gloom over the music industry’s transitional state, I think we need to encourage these musicians who march to the rhythm of their own drums. I don’t think that a clutch of film playback singers is all it takes to ensure an evening’s entertainment. Great music in India comes cheap, and is surprisingly fresh and original and uses all our indigenous traditional influences in innovative ways and to great effect.

To all my friends who are “independent” musicians, I think this quote from Virgil Thomson says it best – “I've never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down.”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Indian music beyond Rahman?

Music, Magic, Madness and Madras

ANIL SRINIVASAN (Courtesy, The New Sunday Express, Mar 1st, 2009)

So what happens now? I remember reading an essay by psychologist Cialdini in what he termed “Birging” (Basking-in-reflected-glory). I think nearly all of us are guilty of it at this point, when “our city boy” has done “us” proud and alarmingly, “we’ve done it!”. Some of it is justified, I suppose – we have seldom had great showings at international award functions, least of all that pinnacle of all glory – the Oscars. There is no doubting that A R Rahman is perhaps the most intelligent designer of music and sound, especially in the popular genre, that we’ve had in a long time. However, all the euphoria and excitement aside, my big question remains unanswered. Where do we go from here?

There is palpable optimism in the air. Indian cinema has come of age, many movie buffs claim. In one unforgettable email I received recently, a fellow musician claimed that India has finally been given her due. This set me thinking if perhaps getting a globally recognized award was the only proof of all the sophistication and rapid strides we have made intellectually, musically and economically. If Rahman did not win, would we declare ourselves “not yet” ready for global approbation and acclaim? Surely, we have a lot to be proud about already, especially given that Rahman has been astounding us and his global fans for nearly two decades now! And I am not saying all this to sound like a wet blanket or take away from what is surely a great moment for Indian entertainment history.

In another interesting argument I was a part of, some zealous Rahmaniacs claimed that this was a good way of “showing ‘em who’s boss”. Who are we showing off to, and what are we showing off about? I do not think that a Western music listener ever decried the quality of Indian music, nor did he or she ever claim that great music only comes from the West. Having lived in the United States for a good part of the last decade, I can confidently state that the sentiment, if at all expressed, was quite the opposite.

I choose instead, to draw a different set of inferences from all the brouhaha. One, we can finally admit that music is a viable career option and stop being ambiguous about how we answer people asking us musicians “so what else do you do?”. Two, we can assure ourselves, that despite infrastructural constraints (our favourite excuse for not being upto snuff at international competitions), we are capable of fantastic stuff. Three, this only means that we need to pull up our socks and start working harder to better the standards that have now been set. Finally, we need to be equally magnanimous in acknowledging some other wonderful musicians who have been making waves in international circles, creating new musical idioms, and lay the same unquestionable claim on Madras as their home town.

In previous articles, I have referred to Madras as having something magical in the air we breathe that fosters so much originality and creative excellence. This becomes obvious when I take the example of musicians such as U Shrinivas, Chitravina Ravikiran and most appropriately for this week’s essay, Guitar Prasanna. I am sure, that by now most readers will be aware of the documentary “Smile Pinki” that also won on Oscar. Prasanna composed the musical score for this documentary and has contributed in no small measure to the Oscar win.

My first experience of Prasanna’s music was listening to him play “Ksheerasagara Shayana”, a moving composition in Raga Devagandhari on the guitar. What I loved about the effort was the fact that the composition was so complete in itself that I was least bothered about the fact that it was an unconventional instrument rendering it. There was something unique in the way it was rendered, with each note stretching itself languorously across the measure and creating a web of images in the mind’s eye that managed to be both soothing and vivid at the same time. Here is a musician who quit a cerebral and potentially rewarding career post his studies at IIT Madras, who straddles the world of South Indian classical music and jazz with graceful felicity. Prasanna seems to have experimented boldly with silences. There are pauses in his solo renditions that are pregnant with possibilities, several layers of consciousness embedded in the twists and the slides on his instrument. This is an intelligent musician who has charted a very unique path over the last two decades. It so happens that his medium of articulation is the guitar. This is made all the more obvious when listening to his soundtrack for “Smile Pinki”, where the soundscape is richly coloured with the solo guitar playing with and around the strains of a sitar and a bansuri in addition to a rich percussive template. This is contemporary excellence in addition to being uncannily traditional and classical in its melodic treatment.

Coming back to the point about musicians from Madras who are moving dimensions and crafting new paradigms, the most important take-away seems to be the rich collaborative pool we have managed to cultivate. With a plethora of studios buzzing with activity around the city, and schools for audio engineering and classical music (both western and Indian), Madras is living up to its description of being an idea framed by music.

Rahman’s Oscar and Pinki’s smile may just be the beginning of a wonderful era of musical excellence to emerge from our beloved hometown. However, we need to look beyond awards and recognize each and every musician from this city who is making a difference, in his or her own way. We need to go back to the concert halls and breathe in the magic they all create, and use it to channel our collective energies towards making the social and economic climate more conducive towards propagating the city’s musical output.