Last year for Valentine’s Day my husband took me to ‘Nirvana’ a concert featuring innovative fusion tunes by five acclaimed musicians. Zakir Hussain playing the Indian tabla (percussion instrument) led the concert, ably followed by maestros Edgar Meyer (upright bass), Bela Fleck (banjo), U Srinivas (mandolin) and Rakesh Chaurasia (flute). Between them, the artists have more than 43 Grammy nominations and awards, as well as the prestigious Sangeeta Ratna and the Padma Shree awards in India.
To a hardcore music lover this is what dreams are made of!!!! It was a Melody of Rhythm with the musicians serving up a spellbinding display of largely improvised music, which drew on jazz, Indian classical music, bluegrass and more. Indian mandolin legend Upalappu Srinivas and his countryman, rising flutist Rakesh Chaurasia, took the stage only sporadically but added that much needed texture to the brimming ethnic brew. But it was Hussain’s show, and as he showered the room with intricate tabla dialogues, it was easy to see why so many have dubbed him ‘the best percussionist in the world’. I could have gone on listening for a few more hours.
One year on I was given the opportunity to watch the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform to the Shakespearean beats – an innovative piece that wove its way through the various ballads of the Bard combining it with the effects of the various planets. Innovative, imaginative, different, masterful were all words that came to my mind as a crowd of 10,000 strong sat mesmerised by the orchestra! But when I returned home as I contemplated comparing the two performances.
There appears to be a difference in my reaction to the two art forms the two major art forms ICM (Indian Classical Music) and WCM (Western Classical Music). While I fidgeted towards the end of a two hour long WCM concert I could have easily taken a few more hours of the ICM. I was very disturbed by my realisation. I love music and have always maintained that music has no borders. Why then did I enjoy one more than the other? Surely it cant be because I have been exposed to ICM from birth (Note that by “Indian Classical”, I am referring to both Hindustani as well as Carnatic). There had to be something else. Something about its form and rendition…Isn’t music universal? What makes one music different from another? Are there significant differences between the two forms of music that makes one more audible and enjoyable than the other?
I started reading on the subject. Let me share what I found out and what made sense to me…
Composed vs Improvised
To a creative mind like mine this reason stood out. WCM is composed, ICM is improvised. All WCM compositions are formally written using the Staff Notation, and performers have virtually no latitude for improvisation. The converse is the case with ICM, where no ‘work’ is ever written down, and the Teacher-Student tradition of learning ICM leads to each performance being an improvisation. Like Chinese whispers it has changed from its original form adopting improvisations from various genius. A simple composition like “Krishna Nee Begane Varo” has been improvised by thousands of singers to bring in the emotion of a mother calling her child. Each one different, yet saying the same thing. There is a basic framework and the more creative the genius the more improvisation he is able to bring into it keeping the audience engrossed.
So, though there is merit in the discipline of the known there is creativity in improvisation that quenches the thirst of an inquisitive listener.
Vocals vs Instrumentation
Vocals are used in both ICM & WCM, but the way they’re treated in relation to instruments and accompaniments is where the fundamental difference lies. When vocals are used in ICM, all the rest of the instruments are mere ‘accompaniments’ — there are Tanpooras that act like drones, harmonium that follows the tonality of the voice by providing chords, etc. Whereas in WCM, when vocals are used, the instrumentation still carries a lot of weight in the overall composition. In other words, Voice forms the Basis of the structure surrounding an ICM recital, whereas it is an Addition to the instrumentally-generated structure of WCM composition.
In ICM, the individual performer shines through his improvisation. In any recital or performance, there is a lead vocalist or instrumentalist, who expounds the raga, while others providing accompaniment, are relegated to the background (except for occasional interludes where they show off their virtuosity). In WCM, the composer and conductor shine as individuals, but the performance is largely a group effort. It is only in solo works and solo concertos that individual performers are under the spotlight.
The term ‘voice’ is hence used in a generic way in WCM and doesn’t always mean human voice. A ‘voice’ can be any theme played by an instrument. Thus, one can have a four-voice fugue being played on the piano using two hands, where each hand is playing one of four voices at any given time.
ICM uses ‘Taal’ — a cycle of beats centered around ‘Sam’ that repeats itself. WCM doesn’t use such complex beat cycles; ‘Shruti’ ICM makes extensive use of quarter-tones & microtones, usually referred to as ‘Shruti’. WCM, however, has largely been restricted to using semitones (though it does have a few microtonal pioneers in recent times like Charles Ives, Julián Carrillo, Alois Hába, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, and Mildred Couper.)
Nature & Spirituality
ICM has a closer, intimate association with nature than WCM. Ragas have specific times of day or seasons of the year associated with them, while most of WCM doesn’t have any such characteristic. The ICM depicts the nine Rasas by its arrangements of notes, and an exponent can beautifully depict a beautiful woman with rag bihag, love for one by rag yaman. It can describe dusk in bhairavi and dawn in Ahir Bhairav. You can just close your eyes and be transported to the scene. This is because ICM’s roots are spiritual and are based on feelings and emotions. Secular works in WCM, however, have roots in factors like individual experiences, significant historical events in human history, entertainment, occasions with dance celebrations, and so on.
What better way to sum up how I feel than to let Rabindranath Tagore say it
“For us, music has above all a transcendental significance. It disengages the spiritual from the happenings of life; it sings of the relationships of the human soul with the soul of things beyond. The world by day is like European music; a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments. And the night world is our Indian music; one pure, deep and tender raga. They both stir us, yet the two are contradictory in spirit. But that cannot be helped. At the very root nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are overpowered by the sense of One and Infinite. Our music draws the listener away beyond the limits of everyday human joys and sorrows, and takes us to that lonely region of renunciation which lies at the root of the universe, while European music leads us a variegated dance through the endless rise and fall of human grief and joy.”
Note: these are just my opinions… I claim to be no champion exponent of either. I am just a discerning listener with my views on the subject and am more than happy to be wrong 🙂