Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Unsound systems

By MV Swaroop
 
It is only two weeks into the season and already one of my pet peeves - the misbehaving sound system - has made an infamous appearance at the Karnataka Sangha hall where the Nungambakkam Cultural Academy holds its concerts, a venue known to be a serial offender when it comes to audio system crimes.
 
I reached N. Ramani’s concert twenty minutes late, when he and Nagai Muralidharan were settling into a rich Begada. The sound system, keen to amplify the richness, produced some unmindful noises. I endured it for ten minutes, and stood up to go backstage to the sound console, when the sound of something snapping led to the entire amplification system producing a muted, distant sound. Strangely, this was better than the previous state of affairs. I sat down and immersed myself in the Begada.
 
A short Athana outline of just four phrases, one of which was an extraordinary five second whirlwind tour of the boundaries of the raga, preceded Sakala Grahabala. Srimushnam Rajarao and the inimitable K.V.Gopalakrishnan laid a lilting substructure for the song, percussively mimicking his trademark flourishes.
 
Shanmukhapriya, very much a post-Trinity raga, has a life outside of its scale now; it is no longer an arrangement of notes, but a raga alive with swaras and a definite feel and mood. Ramani, and then his grandson, Athul, accompanying him yesterday, captured this feel in an unhurried alapana. Sauntering in the mandhra sthayi for an eternity, restless sangati-s flowing amidst long pauses, they made the audience suitably soothed and ready for a heavy Aandavane.
 
The microphone intervened. What had snapped earlier, unsnapped, and the volume was back to its belligerent Amman-kovil utsavam self.
 
I wonder why sabha-s and musicians still don’t pay attention to the sound systems. A musician once told me, “We want only very simple systems. We just want the mic to take what is there, and amplify it. We are not interested in manipulating the sound.”
 
The simplicity of that statement belies the challenges faced in achieving exactly that - amplifying without distortion. To start with, most sabha-s use sub-standard microphones, which ensure that the resultant output is a misrepresentation of the input. The musical sensibilities of the person at the console are often questionable, and he tends to get bullied by the various artistes who make voluminous demands. At another concert, two impish kids made merry at the sound console for a whole minute before the organisers realised why there were bizarre noises.
 
Suitability of the amplification to the hall is not even considered - an open air venue operates on set-ups suitable for indoors and vice versa. While building concert halls, unlike in the West, location of the canteen seems to trump acoustics.
 
The sabha-s’ usual defence is lack of funds. Most sabha-s run on sponsorship and make negligible gate collections. They claim that if they increase ticket prices, audiences will thin even further.
 
That claim is hard to refute - the average rasika’s thriftiness is all too well-known. But there are simple things sabha-s and musicians can do right. First, musicians can ensure that they reach concert venues well before the concert and have a meaningful sound check. Second, sabha-s can ensure that the person sitting at the console has some knowledge of what the knobs before him do, and that he understands what kind of balance he must maintain amongst the main artiste and the accompanists. On many occasions, what is required is not costlier equipment, but simply, more suitable equipment - a little attention to the acoustics at the venue, and what different sound systems are designed is all that is required. Smaller venues should go mic-less - this will require some restraint from the mridangists, but with practice it can be achieved.
 
Ramani Sir’s Kambhoji yesterday was an eye-opener for me in many ways, it gave me many ideas to work with. The balance of measuredness and inventiveness, classicism and eccentricity, was all an education. The devilish korvai at the end, in two nadai-s, played with disarming ease, tickled my brain.
 
I couldn’t help feeling the sound system could have been easier on the ear.

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