Monday, 7 May 2012

The sound of music

By PNV Ram

The recent Oli Chamber Concerts initiative has been an enjoyable listening experience with the real quality of voice and instruments coming through without the distortion of imperfect amplification we have all become so accustomed to. Surprisingly, all the artists, even those who were hesitant to begin with, have enjoyed the process of throwing their voices with expertise so that they can be heard by every listener. The excellent natural acoustics of venues like the boutique Rasvihar at Nungambakkam have helped too. While listening to some of these concerts, my mind went back to the enforced mikelessness of kutcheris in the past, when power blackouts were the cause.

I remembered in particular how a young vocalist rose to the occasion and surmounted the challenge posed by a sudden power outage at Raga Sudha Hall, Luz Avenue. Visalakshi Nityanand managed to sing for over an hour when TNEB decided to strike early in her concert there and stay away for over an hour. The young lady handled the crisis rather well, singing with feeling and total concentration, and drawing repeated applause from a supportive audience. She was encouraged by J. Vaidhyanathan, whose gentle mridangam served to enhance the unusually restrained quality of the music, and Nagai Sriram, the enthusiastic violinist, apparently unaffected by an autorickshaw accident on his way to the concert.

So soothing was the experience that there was a keen sense of disappointment when power was restored, so rewarding the ambience of quietude created by the trio on stage. In a brief speech, the late S. V. Krishnan, known to be a committed promoter of unrecognised talent, referred to one of the compositions sung that evening, and wondered aloud if that might have been the way it sounded when Syama Sastri first sang it.

Appealing as that image of a great composer singing soulfully on the banks of the Cauvery is, the plight of the modern-day musician at times of power failure is quite pitiable, as he has to endure great discomfort in our stuffy, poorly ventilated auditoriums when the fans overhead stop. J. Vaidhyanathan had to face a similar situation the very next day at Sastri Hall, Luz, when he and violinist T. Rukmini accompanied T. M. Krishna. Krishna's concert was worse affected than Visalakshi's, as it started without power and had to face four interruptions along the way.

Sastri Hall is a small auditorium, and though it was not designed with concert acoustics in mind, you can at least be heard there, if you are prepared to belt it out, or thrash the hiding out of your drum, but in bigger halls, the task of the musicians is really cut out, especially the violinists, given the nature of their instrument. (It is quite another matter that many musicians can barely be heard without the aid of microphones). That Krishna and Co. rose to the occasion and they and the audience stayed on braving the inconveniences, including the noise of squeaking, screeching chairs now seemingly amplified, speaks well of both affected parties but is a poor advertisement for the city where a perfect music concert enjoyed in perfect conditions is a rare treat.

Every musician worth his salt has had similar experiences. Sanjay Subrahmanyam remembered a concert for Kala Rasana where power failed during a Todi alapana that became memorable for the thunderous applause it elicited despite, or indeed because of, the loss of amplification.

Sanjay describes the interruption as fortuitous because it came when he was at his most full-throated, having reached the upper tonic. He also fondly recalled a memorable power failure that brought out the best in T. N. Seshagopalan at a concert at Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Mylapore, some years ago.

The time has come for thought to be given to the designing of small, compact auditoriums with good acoustics, facilitating a genuine Carnatic music experience that does not have to depend on either amplification or the lack of it caused by power tripping. Anyone who has attended mikeless concerts at homes, attended by disciples of the musicians, fellow musicians and a close circle of enthusiasts, knows what a special mood is created by such recitals, how true are the voice and tone, how intimate the rapport between performer and audience.

Tailpiece: Where is Visalakshi Nityanand in the concert circuit?

1 comment:

  1. Mikeless concerts requires utmost discipline from the audience and an auditorium designed with good acoustics. While auditoriums can be designed and constructed with help of donors etc, bringing discipline to the general audience in Chennai would be a pretty serious challenge.
    The success of the Oli concerts says a lot about the discipline of the audience and it would seem which is wonderful.
    The mikeless format also highlights the need for a short intermission (frowned by most for sure). The intermission gives the audience to the much needed visit to the toilets, walk around and chat to overcome the pent-up urge perhaps during the concert.