Participants in various editions of the The Hindu Friday Review November Fest talk about collaborative acts across musical spectrums.
As a graduate student studying music and its effects on how information is processed by the brain, I remember coming across a quote by John Rahn, Professor of Music at the University of Washington.
He says, “It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole.” He goes on to say that when this beauty is achieved, we would have achieved true “counterpoint”.
Every November, special groups of musicians experiment and concoct new sounds in search of meaning. The best of these experiments achieves the idea of musical counterpoint. Long before the idea of combined experimental stages took root on our airwaves (MTV’s Coke Studio and “The Dewarists”, for instance), the The Hindu Friday Review November Fest had pioneered the quest for counterpoint, bringing together collaborative acts from across geographical and musical spectrums.
In music, “counterpoint” comprises five equally important principles. Structurally, each melodic line needs to be individually and independently constructed and second, each line should harmonically link with the other. Third, the moods of the different lines (or voices) have to be correlated. Fourth, each melody taken by itself can make sense, but taken without the other does not articulate the wholeness of the composition. Fifth, and perhaps the most complex principle, the musician/ composer should ensure that the structural complexity cannot exempt him/her from exhibiting all other musical precepts and stylistic expressions in performance i.e. the uniqueness of counterpoint does not in any way preclude the performers from having to follow all other grammatical or stylistic principles inherent in the musical form in which the piece is presented. So, for instance, dynamics will still have to be accentuated, speed and pacing have to be matched, chord progressions still have to follow certain rules and so on.
Accordingly, I spoke to five fantastic musicians each of whom have been a part of the November Fest in previous years. Each musician presented one of these principles in their descriptions, making the conversations delightful. “The NovFest Alumni” are special — each of them is incredibly gifted, and each of them has blazed trails too difficult for one article to describe. And yet, every one of them holds the NovFest very dear to their hearts and for unique reasons.
Chitravina Ravikiran’s story from being a child prodigy to the heights he has scaled all over the world is well documented. Ravikiran presented a collaboration with Pt. Vishwamohan Bhatt featuring mridangam giant Padma Vibhushan Dr. Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman and others in one of the first editions of the festival. “The fact that there were these great virtuosos on stage makes such evenings unforgettable. I remember composing a pallavi that included the names of everyone on stage that we all enjoyed. The fact that it was such a successful concert is due to the strength of each independent strain of musical excellence on stage, and the fact that each person was mindful of bringing out the best in the other. I was thrilled that the same notion carried through in the collaboration I did last year in Bangalore, featuring seven musicians on stage where I had composed a special piece in a 15-beat cycle in fast tempo. We had Unnikrishnan as a guest artiste, another fine collaborator. It was an unforgettable experience.”
Mandolin wizard U. Shrinivas recounts: “Playing with Shri Sultan Khan sahab in the first edition of the NovFest is perhaps one of my most cherished memories. He changed his travel plan just for my sake and I knew how exhausting it was for him. But the concert was a tremendous success. Sahab is a master at being able to interlink each musical phrase I present with another musical idea of his effortlessly. It was an honour and a blessing to be given an opportunity to work with him. Two years later I worked with the dynamic Hariharan sir, which proved equally memorable. Last year, I performed with a very talented string player from China. I feel that the NovFest has become a platform for me to keep learning more about my art and the boundless possibilities in the musical universe.”
Vocalist extraordinaire Sudha Ragunathan recalls her collaboration with guitarist-composer Amit Heri in the Bangalore and Coimbatore editions of the NovFest with a lot of joy. A collaboration that was born from their experience of working together in the film Morning Raga, Sudha and Heri have gone on to perform in multiple other venues and are set to tour internationally as well. “The success of the collaboration was the ability of Amit to seamlessly integrate his arrangements and compositional technique with my Carnatic renditions. When I first heard ‘Thaaye Yashoda’ on the soundtrack, I couldn’t believe that Thodi could be layered this way. To me, the success of such collaborations lies in each musician being able to understand the emotional underpinnings of each other’s oeuvre, matching moods and presenting something truly exceptional. We also worked at it, chiselling our work step by step. The journey was as enjoyable as the destination.”
The master of the flute, Shashank is a well-known collaborator in the global circuits. His concert for the NovFest with the redoubtable Manganiyars is still etched in the memory of all who attended this presentation two years ago. “To me, a collaboration is successful only when the musicians involved think and breathe nothing but their art. They must be at complete ease with their craft, as it is only then that a certain flexibility and ease of sharing stage with another accomplished musician become possible. The Manganiyars had become master collaborators by the time we worked together, as they had worked with a number of great musicians. We not only matched each other’s musical moods and ideas, but enjoyed interacting as people offstage as well. To me, that concert was successful because each of us complemented the other without restraint or reserve. It made sense taken together, and I was thrilled that such an opportunity was made possible by The Hindu’s Friday Review November Fest”.
The last of the musicians I spoke to was vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, whom I had the opportunity of working with in the NovFest 2007 edition. Gurucharan represents the next generation of musicians who have been given the opportunity to collaborate on multiple platforms. This was probably the most difficult conversation to have but also the most revealing. “I think the important thing is that I did not change the way I sing. I stuck to the grammar that I know and cherish, and the compositions evolved around that. It made me more exposed in a way, since I had to take complete control over the Carnatic aspects of our collaboration, not having the support I normally receive from accompanying Carnatic musicians. But it made me realise my responsibility towards my art and training, and it has made me grow and become more confident as I approach other collaborations and formats.”
In its myriad colours and combinatorial excellence, The Hindu Friday Review November Fest has managed to create a platform that is musically unique. As a pioneer in musical innovation, this platform will always hold a special place in the hearts of music lovers.