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Opinion » Columns » M.V. Ramakrishnan

Updated: June 15, 2010 14:07 IST

The sound of music

M.V. Ramakrishnan
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Music everywhere.
Music everywhere.

MUSICSCAN: So far as live performances of Carnatic music is concerned progressive developments in technology have by and large resulted only in the amplification of the sound, and not in any real improvement in its quality.

In the context of the sound of Carnatic music, technological progress achieved during the 20th century has been a great blessing as well as a severe problem. The blessing -- as in the case of music everywhere else in the world -- has mainly been the ever-increasing improvement in the scope and quality of recorded music, while the problem (which still persists in the 21st century!) mainly concerns the quality of the sound of Carnatic music in live concerts.

Once upon a time there was a spring-driven machine called the gramophone, which led to the mass production of three-minute vinyl records revolving 78 times per minute, with the inevitable grating noise made by the sonic needle running along the circular groove on the plastic surface. Then came the electrically operated recording machine with a feather-weight stylus and the 45/33-rpm extended/long-playing records, which not only stretched the length of the recordings up to half an hour, but considerably reduced the disturbing background noise, and also introduced the concept of stereo recording.

Then, of course, came the tape-recorder and the cassette-player, extending the duration of continuous recordings still further – followed by the laser machine and the compact disc, which totally eliminated the distracting noise and extended the duration of a single record well beyond a whole hour. All these, and further sophisticated innovations in high-fidelity digital recording techniques, have made a great contribution to the consolidation and preservation of authentic musical traditions all over the world -- and Carnatic music is no exception.

Volume and balance

But unfortunately, so far as live performances of Carnatic music is concerned -- whether in the concert halls or elsewhere – progressive developments in technology have by and large resulted only in the amplification of the sound, and not in any real improvement in its quality. Moreover, the whole system of amplification is usually handled so inefficiently and imperfectly that it often causes serious distortions in the sound, which is a constant source of distraction for the audience and distress for the performing artists. The most glaring aspect of this scenario is usually the strident quality of the music, resulting from extremely high levels of volume. This problem is frequently compounded by an imbalance between the levels at which the volume of the voice and the different instruments are set. One of the usual consequences is that the percussion instruments just tend to pulverise the music! Very often the 'sruti' itself sounds abnormally loud, so that its droning sound tends to drown the whole music.

By the way, in the case of the sruti, the problem is not just one of high volume, but also concerns the whole relevance of the electronic 'sruti-box', which is fancied today by every musician, whether high-ranking or otherwise, and which is the root cause of many awful distortions.

Seasoned rasikas are fond of recalling the legendary mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer's inflexible resolution in the 1970's never to perform in conditions where there were any microphones and loudspeakers. But that was an extremely emotional and tough stand which was not really justified. In fact, there were many occasions, in mike-free concerts, when his own instrument used to overpower the gentle voice of some vocalist — KVN's, for instance — which would badly need amplification to be heard across a big concert hall, leave alone surviving the powerful onslaught even of the mikeless mridangam! Oh, no, mikeless music is not the real solution at all in the modern world! What needs to be done is for organisers and musicians alike to review and re-orient their whole attitude and approach in this context. This raises several intricate questions which need careful scrutiny.

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