Two musical curios; and then two more


(Portrait of the artist as a young man)

Here is the BBC Indian Voices prom of Aug 16, still available for listening -- probably until the 23rd. It starts with two curios: a processional Ganupati chant -- five thousand year old religious music invoking Ganesha, the Elephant-headed God, the Remover of Obstacles; followed by a choral rendition of a typical tabla practice.
(Footnote: there are many ways to strike the tabla, and each type of stroke produces a different sound; each stroke has its own name - the names are the Hindustani equivalents of bang, bam and thuck. All North Indian musicians must study the tabla and one part of the study is to memorize the taals, or rhythmic cycles, by learning to sing the sequences of bangs and thucks. A kind of solfage, I suppose, but for a total newcomer -- the proverbial white man -- the effect is extraordinary -- what on earth is this? we pinko-grays exclaim to ourselves).

I said these were curios.


But then comes the 81 year old Pandit Ram Narayan with his daughter Aruna, playing, two-sarangi style, two morning ragas in a sea of wonderful, strange, mysterious, raptuous sound. The sarangi -- a kind of viola da gamba, its name -- so rang -- means a hundred colors -- is a metal-stringed instrument -- and therefore I am not sure one can call hat they do sawing wood -- perhaps metal pulling is a better term, but the sound they produce is absolutely extraordinary. Listen to the sections around minute 25-27 -- it is like the howling of peacocks in the canopies of great tropical trees on a moonless night; or hear the section from minute 46 to minute 52 -- it is like a pair of twelve-foot black-and-gold cobras dancing on their tails.

I have heard plenty of sarangi in my life, but the sound this father and daughter team produce is absolutely unlike anything I have heard before. Interestingly, Ram Narayan's instrument, produced in the 1930s in Meerut, is a storied instrument -- a meibutsu -- like our Stradivarii; and his strings are - unusually for sarangi -- western harp strings; I think it is possible to hear the difference between his and hers as a result.

To me their performance of the two ragas (in an abridged 20 minute version -- abrodged for us attention-deficit-disordered) illustrates how much good music making relies on simply being able to produce good sound, an aspect of music my cellist girlfriend used to call -- sawing wood.

EP studies show how much information - regarding the boy's suitability -- female owls get out of merely hearing the sound of the male hoot. The human ear is as sensitive -- and, incredibly -- or credibly, perhaps, if you have learned to trust Darwin and Dawkins -- in the same ways; it takes only a few listenings -- little more than brief familiarity -- for human females to pick the suitable owl male by merely hearing his hoot. Literally, given the chance to hear a few, we, humans, can tell the healthy owls from the quality of their voice. Would you have guessed as much?

The difference is between hoot and hoot; this comes down, sometimes, to little more than the difference between drawing the bow across the string with just the right amount of strength or -- not.


Note something else, too: how much more interesting this music sounds compared to most western jazz. Both styles of music are improvised, but the difference is -- that Indian classical music has a lot more structure -- more precise (and complex rules) regarding how to improvise -- what types of things can follow what types of things, etc. This prevents simplistic treatments.

Moreover, Indian musicians usually agree a plan prior to a concert -- when I do something like this, you will do something like this, ok? -- The greatness of their improvisation, it turns out, lies in not having too much of it.


And another curio, while we are on the subject of music: here, the little g minor fugue in a graphic representation, each harmonic part in a different color. It's useful in helping the newcomer to the genre develop that difficult skill of listening to several harmonic parts simulataneously; but it is fun to look at for us all.

To me it is also useful in another way: the music is computer generated, and therefore played exactly come scritto; and it sounds a little -- well, mechanical. Dead. I can think of no better way to expose Sviatoslav Richter's lie than this; the man, when asked for the secret of his interpretation, invariably said: oh, I merely play come scritto. But he didn't -- as contrasting his rendition of the little-minor fugue with this, computer-perfect one clearly shows.

Our ears pick up something in his playing, something he put in -- something he put in almost certainly without knowing it himself.

Our ears are smarter than we are.


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