Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Generating gamakas digitally

By Siddhartha Jagannath

The Music Academy
Chennai, 17 December

The lean and unassuming Mr. M Subramanian delivered the first lec-dem today, on how we can synthesise Carnatic music (with gamakas) on a computer. 

Mr. Subramanian, who seemed to be well versed in Carnatic music, has designed a software package called the Gaayaka program.  You enter notation in the form of “sa, ri, ga” and so on,  and the computer can play it back in veena or flute tones.  The program is available for free.

The key innovation is the way Mr. Subramanian has incorporated the gamakam in Gaayaka. He has painstakingly given the user options to have continuity between notes, control transition times and control the note durations. In order to achieve these nuances the user has to write detailed notations (in an array of parentheses and other symbols) to represent brief anuswarams. But to a casual user, Gaayaka provides gamakas of most of the common ragas which can be directly copied and pasted without too much fuss.

Mr. Subramanian spoke of the many software tools that help the computer play the notes typed. Unfortunately, this only works for western music. Western music does not have any gamakas so the software doesn’t have to be very complicated. Also such software works with staff notation, which most Indians cannot read. Also, in Carnatic music gamakas the anusvaras are so fast that they cannot be written with three dashes underneath them. For this purpose he uses parentheses. For representation of octaves one or more letters are made into a capital letter. For example - the swara “ma” in the lower octave is typed as “mA,” in the middle octave as “ma” and in the higher octave as “Ma.” 

Mr. Subramanian acknowledged that the system was not perfect due to the inherent nature of our music. Gamakas of a particular  note can vary according to the raga and the prayoga. Different banis use gamakas differently. Notations that exist in books today are purely an aid to the musician who fills up the gamakas, making adjustments for rhythm and inserting silences where required. 

Gaayaka was demonstrated for certain common gamaka-oriented ragas like Kalyani, Sankarabharanam and Begada. Subramanian showed pitch graphs of gamakas and even compared them with the pitch graphs of a typical western symphony. He talked about the difficulty in producing notation for typical phrases in a raga of Carnatic music. The program prepares a gamaka definition file for each raga. For each note the program generates a “context string” with information on duration, direction, octave, previous and next note etc.  Subramanian elaborated on these features with numerous examples.     

The software seems versatile as it follows our current system of notation in Carnatic music. The user can choose the tempo and the mela. There is also a tala feature and the option of adding a background tambura. We can save in the “.wav” format as well. We can also play two notes without a break. In this software, grouping of notes is very important. If we do not do this properly, the song when played will not be recognizable. 

If the melam of the notation written is changed then the types of swaras will change automatically. If a song we have typed has one plain note but has to be broken for sahitya purposes, that can also be done. For “synthetic” ragas like Latangi we can combine the ragas Kalyani and Pantuvarali. Mr. Subramanian took the time to demonstrate all this on his computer using ragas like Begada and Pantuvarali.  

The lecture demonstration clearly reminded us of the pros and cons of the textual tradition in Carnatic music, a topic discussed at length and compared with the oral tradition on the previous day at Kasturi Hall.  Listening to all the complexities of such a computer system, the audience felt that it showed great courage on Mr. M. Subramanian’s part to embark on such a mission so rife with obstacles. As a member of the audience said during the Q&A, even landing on the moon was once such an unthinkable task, but a giant step for humanity was made. Mr. M. Subramanian is close to being an octogenarian, but he still has the enthusiasm of a youngster to surmount the insurmountable. 

(Schoolboy music student Siddhartha Jagannath is our youngest contributor)

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