Song of Surrender

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Concert as a Unity

By Ramaswamy R. Iyer

Discussions of the ‘kutcheri paddhati’ usually follow one of two routes. One is a debate on tradition versus innovation, some insisting on adherence to tradition, others proclaiming the importance of innovation, and yet others accepting the need for innovation but trying to keep it within limits. The other route is the socio-cultural one, explaining the move from Tanjavur to Madras, from the rural to the urban context, from patronage by zamindars and princes to dependence on urban middle class audiences organised in sabhas, and the changes that this brought about in the duration, organisation and content of concerts. There is, however, an aesthetic aspect that is not often discussed.

The form and content of a concert are determined not merely by history or socio-cultural preferences or economics but also (to varying degrees) by the musician’s own musical sense. A concert can be regarded as a sequence of pieces arranged in a particular order, or it can be regarded as a unity, an integral whole, providing a total musical experience.

To some extent, all concerts involve some degree of organisation with judgments on a suitable mix and sequencing of the constituent elements. However, a well-ordered concert may remain just that, and may not transcend that level and achieve greatness. That may happen very occasionally, through a combination of factors. When that happens, the concert becomes one integral whole, and the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

What is the difference that I have in mind? It is the following: in the case of many concerts, we later on remember particular peaks of excellence: we say “what a Kalyani that was!”, or “a memorable Evari mata”, or “wonderful niraval in the sankarabharanam kriti”; but occasionally we remember the totality of a concert as a rare, unforgettable musical experience (with some peaks of course but with excellence throughout). This does not always happen even in the case of the great musicians: many of their concerts may be good or very good or even excellent, but only some reach the level of ‘total musical experience’.

Two clarifications may be in order. (i) I am not saying merely that even in the case of the great musicians the quality varies and that some concerts are better than the others. That is a statement of the obvious. I am saying that only some concerts become a memorable totality in which there is a perfection, an inevitability, about the choices, the ordering, and the performance, so that everything fits together and nothing can be changed or improved. (ii) There is an element of chance in this: the voice being at its best, the musician being in an inspired state, etc, but there is also an act of exceptionally felicitous and imaginative structuring.

The point that I am struggling to make is that apart from the musical forms that all of us recognise, such as varnam, kriti, etc, the total concert itself (on exceptional occasions) constitutes a musical form. I offer this point in a tentative, exploratory spirit, for corroboration or rejection by others.

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