S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Sax Meets Strings

By Chitra Srikrishna

The cello, piano and saxophone belong largely to western classical and popular music. Of these, the saxophone has made it to centrestage in Carnatic music concerts, while the piano has been part of experimental collaborations with Carnatic musicians. A long series of western instruments, starting with the violin (or fiddle as old-timers like to call it in India), fretless and regular guitars, the mandolin and clarinet amongst others, have not only appeared but also flourished on the Carnatic stage. As with any change, audience reactions have ranged from curiosity and at times disdain and dismissal to surprise and kudos. Yet artists old and young have taken the risk of not merely trying out these instruments but in many instances promoting them by playing them exclusively and helping them thrive. This happened as music writer A Seshan eloquently put it, through a “process of adoption, adaptation and assimilation” to the Carnatic idiom. 

Have these instruments influenced the Carnatic form and if so how?

These instruments, it can be argued, have brought not just new sounds but helped engage youngsters and at times jaded elders in the Carnatic music scene, by their very novelty. But have they helped the Carnatic kutcheri form to evolve? Carnatic music, as with any music tradition has evolved but not without rasikas or even artists at times being recalcitrant to change. For instance, when artists such as T.M. Krishna have attempted to innovate with nearly the century-old kutcheri or concert format, there has been a fair bit of criticism. T.M. Krishna himself in an earlier opinion piece in the Hindu had spoken critically of the adoption of Western instruments that are not capable of preserving the “aesthetic” of Carnatic music, most notably gamakas. Such conversations around change and innovation are both necessary and a part of continual evolution required for a musical tradition to thrive. 

Sax meets strings 

It is in this background, that I found myself looking forward to attending a recent concert, dubbed “Sax Meets Strings: a Carnatic instrumental concert” organized by Dhvani, an organization promoting classical Indian music and dance in Columbus, USA. Dhvani’s mission has been ‘art as education, entertainment, as well as a way of enriching our lives.’ 

The performers of the evening were Anvita Hariharan on the saxophone, Sandhya Anand on the violin and Vinod Seetharaman on the mridangam. I found myself intrigued by the title - Sax Meets Strings - rather than as a Saxophone concert. Once the artists were on stage, the seating of Anvita and Sandhya both facing the audience and with Vinod, in the typical mridangist position to the right of the artists was the first indication that this was to be a different performance. The concert opened with the invocatory song “Pranamamyaham” in raga Gowli, played together on the saxophone and violin, ending with an interplay of kalpana swaras.

Then Anvita presented a solo rendition of raga Shanmukhapriya followed by the song “Vilayada Idhu Nerama” and kalpana swaras for the same.

Sandhya then played raga Varali followed by Syama Sastry’s composition “Mamava Meenakshi” with kalpana swaras for the song. The main piece of the concert was “Inta soukhyamanine” in raga Kapi which was presented by both artistes.

Vinod explained the ‘tani avartanam’ segment of a concertand used konnakol (the art of performing percussion syllables vocally) to highlight the concepts of ‘korvai’ and ‘mora’. His presentation was crisp and clear. The concert concluded with a tillana, a composition of Lalgudi Jayaraman in raga Mohana Kalyani, and Bhagyada Lakshmibaramma, a composition of Purandaradasa in the raga Sri.

Here was an instance of two young musicians, one with more concert experience than the other, playing together in good harmony, yet showing a distinct style that reflected both their training and the instrument of their choice. Typical concerts that all of us are familiar with, usually feature a primary performer (whether vocal or instrumental) with both strings (violin) and percussion (mridangam) clearly in support roles. The biggest surprise and in turn the greatest pleasure for me in this performance, was the fact that the saxophone and violin were primary performers with the mridangam solely playing the support role. 

Musicians don’t make an impact just while they are on stage - they leave behind lasting memories. As Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

No two artistes are the same and the breadth and capabilities of each instrument are judged easier on a stand-alone basis. So any time two artists come together, as they did in Sax Meets Strings, the audience can never be certain how things would turn out. And when the two instruments are both western, one a wind and the other stringed and are paired equally to present a classical Indian concert it can pose a bigger challenge for the musicians and the organizers. These range from the simple - will one instrument overshadow the other, whether in sheer playing time or with their distinctive sounds improperly balanced, to the more nebulous such as how would the overall experience be for the audience? 

At best when there is a duet, the audience wants one instrument to be a foil for the other so that the net effect is balanced. Sax Meet Strings was not a duet in the classical sense - but an innovative experiment, that suggested that even as western instruments find more acceptance in Carnatic music, they can help the concert form evolve too!

The author, a musician, blogs at chitrasrikrishna.com

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