Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Western Classical Music and Indian Audience

ATTENDING WESTERN CLASSICAL CONCERTS has become a status symbol for Indian socialites, especially in metropolises like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. But too many Indian listeners tend to behave the same way as they do in Indian classical concerts  audible rhythm-tapping, misplaced applause, and other sundry disturbances, especially during crescendos and fast cadenzas, and worst of all, between movements. Attending a formal concert in India can be a source of anxiety to the purist due to the ever present danger of spontaneous expressions of delight from the audience!

      Annoying, yes, but one can’t really blame the audience. The reason, I believe, is due to the vastly different nature of Indian classical music. Both Indian and western systems demand totally different types of participation from the audience. Western classical music expects absolute silence from the audience, especially between movements;  Indian music demands feedback from the audience.
      This demonstrates that music is really not an international language  at higher levels. Indian and western systems differ so widely from each other that a listener nurtured exclusively in one system can find the other completely alien. For example, western harmony comprises combinations forbidden by Indian musical tenets (apa-swaram).

Structure versus creativity.

The deeply melodic nature of Indian music prevents any possibility of harmony. It always consists of a single line of music (melody) at any given time — that too, dictated by the main performer. The accompanists follow his lead at first and then individual musicians enter into rapturous dialogues, and subsequently each explores the taala or raga according to virtuosity. This enables the performer to make the melody as complex as he wants so that it freely swings within the framework of his chosen raga and taala. The advantage of this is that each musician in an Indian classical performance gets ample scope for instant creativity through improvisation.
      Instant creativity also calls for instant appreciation from the audience. Each Indian classical performance is unique and can never be repeated. A performance’s intricacies cannot be recorded as notations  because notes cannot replicate the rapture of the “here and now.”  Applauses and verbal exclamations of appreciation seldom distract an Indian musician. On the contrary, feedback from a musically erudite audience is expected and can guide the rendering to suit the collective consciousness of the assembly and help formation of a bond between the performer and his listeners, and between the listeners themselves.
      Such an active participation never works for western classical music. Here is the listener is supposed to listen quietly. Certain structural factors are responsible for this difference. 


Complex Harmony versus complex melody.

A more important factor — albeit an indirect one — is the harmony-oriented nature of western music. Melody, the main line, tends to be simple and is merely the main thread of a carefully constructed harmonic structure. In a symphony orchestra there can be a hundred musicians, divided into groups, each group playing its own melodic line, precisely interwoven into those of the others. Several musicians having to play differently but exact coordination, puts limitations. They cannot let loose their instant creativity the way an Indian performer can. A highly developed system of musical notation ensures that even the tiniest tremor is specified beforehand with precision. Very little is left to the freedom of the performer.
       With the split second accuracy that a symphony  — or even a duet — demands, it is obvious how extreme discipline is mandatory if an orchestra or choir is to produce meaningful music. So everything is standardized, right from the “concert pitch” to the manner of holding and playing each instrument. Violin bows and trombone barrels rise and fall uniformly and at the same angle.
       This is where the participation — rather, the non-participation — of the audience becomes relevant. A musically erudite western listener is trained to keep a disciplined silence during the entire performance, however exciting it may be, applauding only at the end of each piece. Indian listeners have been trained to participate!
        In addition, finding the end of a symphony is always a problem for Indian listeners!  Unlike the Indian music, which is played at the same amplitude throughout, the western music is played at dramatically varying loudness — from deafeningly loud to whisper soft. The most dangerous phase is the gap between movements. Such moments of near and total silence are among the most poignant parts of the piece and have the effect of highlighting by contrast, the music played just before, and lull the listener into a contemplative reverie. Applause at this juncture is blasphemy. In some of the concerts I have listened in Delhi, the conductor learned his lessons only after the first few gaps and panicked and carried on without giving the gap so that the listeners won’t applaud. At first the musicians did not get the cue and looked confused at the maestro’s actions, then smiled and continued.

Contrasting attitudes on technique and tone

Western classical music demands absolute silence and careful attention from the audience for yet another reason: the importance it gives to details and pure technique. Incidentally, high degrees of technical perfection is easier for a western performer because his job is rather like that of a news reader, who, with the text in front of him, can afford to devote attention to frills like accent and poise. Meanwhile and Indian musician is like an extempore speaker, who has to rely on spontaneity. The Indian is more concerned with getting the idea out, and may be excused if he seems sloppy.
       I don’t mean that a western musician is a robot automatically reproducing whatever the composer originally wrote. Each composition has a theme. The composer tries to express and emotion, paint a scene, re-live an event, sometimes all the three. The musician, especially the conductor, has to internalize this theme and recreate with his own interpretation.
       In large orchestra, this job is mainly left to the conductor. Great conductors like the late Leonard Bernstein are superb leaders and teachers too, and have the ability to draw out of their musicians exactly the way they want. It is the conductor’s prerogative to “arrange” a composition albeit to a limited extent. He may overstress the strings, for example, and downplay the brasses. Or he may add or delete a line here and there. This way he interprets and adapts the composer’s original intent to suit himself.

Western musical note and Indian shruti are different.

Western chromatic scale consists of 12 notes in an octave, while Indian octave crams in 22 (called shruti), I still do not know exactly how. You can move from shruti to shruti very fast, and “slide” between shrutis (nadas), but you cannot stop in between. This means vibrato is a no no! Regarding Indian scales, or ragas, they are different from western scales, and are based on a complex Vedic philosophy. The video below demonstrates a strange new harmonium with 22 shrutis in an octave.

Note on the video:
I wonder why the inventor created a manual harmonium for this.
An electronic keyboard could have been easily programmed even more accurately.

Rhythm and  taala are not the same

The extreme simplicity of the western rhythms frees the listener from having to count beats to keep track of the rhythm.  Experiments with slightly more complex rhythms like 7/8 never really caught on. One major advantage of this simplicity was that western classical music could avoid the crassness of drums too obvious in modern popular music.  Indian taalas, however, can be exceedingly complex (with difficult cycles of 17, 19 etc. subdivided even more inscrutably) that it is impossible to keep time without a percussion accompaniment. In addition, each beat has it own The intricacies of taala will be clear from this exposition written for western readers by the American tabla exponent and philosopher, David R. Courtney. 

A delightful compromise: the alchemy of Bollywood

It was Indian film industry, alias "Bollywood," which managed to capture and use the versatility of western classical music. Evolving for the past 80 years or so, it has resulted in a new genre of music where ragas and taalas beautifully merge with western orchestra. Bollywood also settled for a big compromise by allowing vibrato in raga based compositions. Here’s an example of how a western orchestra (Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in this case) can capably support Indian light music despite their incompatible roots.

Note on this video:
The orchestral score here is true to the 1960's original, though there is more emphasis on the strings and less on the rhythm. The one main difference is that Indian rhythm instruments (table or dholak) are conspicuously absent in this rendering, probably because “Indian singing drums”, with sliding tones of their own, are not quite compatible with a full orchestra. Indian composers were aware of this so even in the original scores of Hindi film music, string “bits” were rarely accompanied by percussion.

t seems to me that as India’s economic might grows, there will be more western takers for Indian classical music and it is good to have a basic introduction. While Mozart sounds pleasant to even babies and cows, this is not true of Indian classical music. It is very much an acquired taste, even for us Indians. But once you get it, it grows on you and can move you beyond what any western performance can. Indian music has a spiritual depth to it, as attested by none other than the late maestro Yehudi Menuhin. In this short excerpt from his series Music of Man, Menuhin introduces to us the basics of Indian music and finally plays an delightful duet with Ravi Shankar, accompanied by Alla Rakha on tabla