FRIDAY REVIEW

The electronic distraction at concerts

THEY ENCIRCLE an electronic object that emits a metallic tone that is ugly and in total contradiction to delicacy and refinement that characterise Carnatic music. The musicians sometimes seem to be in the grip of some thought process mingled with puerile joy, almost as if in the presence of a new electronic deity.

Carnatic music normally defies all conventional classifications with regard to the pitch mark (like for example in western music the A{+3} is fixed at 440 hertz at 20{+o}) so much so that every musician can set his own standard note. Some use a western pitch pipe and choose a note they then refer to as the tonic sa. This note is then set through the tambura, guardian of the pitch and therefore, in principle, the keeper of the right note.

The tambura, a marvellous instrument in wood, generally emits the sa, pa, sa notes. The tambura, so beautiful with its geometric lines, often has exquisitely refined decorative details and is a joy to behold. For centuries, the fine and delicate tone of its precious wood has discreetly set the standard sa and pa notes for musicians according to the demand of each vocalist or instrumentalist. This instrument is also often used by artistes, who seem to possess the virtues of patience and serenity. In reality, however, this device is at the sole service of the solo vocalist or instrumentalist. The aim is to provide the musician a quiet, reliable and aesthetically beautiful mark of reference whenever necessary.

When the audience hears the tambura, it is as a background sound that is at once melodious and refined that barely draw one's attention. Even then it is more in the nature of an interrogation: What is this constant, enchanting, melodious hum that appeases our senses and charms our spirit? Could it be the benevolent Goddess Saraswathi discreetly encouraging our musicians?

Unfortunately, nowadays, the tambura is being replaced in quite a dramatic fashion by a dreadful electronic gadget called the electronic tambura.

In fact the electronic tambura appears to be basically designed to occupy the sound space because it is possible to increase its volume inordinately and it can sometimes be heard even before the curtain has risen. Thus while the very beautiful background sound of the tambura remained almost imperceptible to the audience, the noise pollution of this electronic gadget is, often, uncomfortably loud enough to lamentably destroy one's listening pleasure. Incidentally, the Madras festival provided us with a case, where during a vocal concert the electronic tambura played louder than the violin. Was this a conspiracy hatched by the singer against her violinist or was it simply an innocent display of her lack of good taste? With its extremely loud volume the electronic tambura has, in fact, become an entirely independent instrument and the background sound of the accompaniment has thus been transformed into a monotonous and repellent melody. The sharp nasal sound, which often worsens the background noises (crackling, vibrations, distortions and echoes) due to poor sound systems found in many auditoriums, becomes a kind of jingle, the uncontested signature tune of Carnatic music. But it is a dead sound being steady like all electronically produced sounds, a fact which renders it incompatible with the originality required of all musical interpretations. The tambura has remained sensitive to the variations provided by the musician's touch. This allows for a margin for coping with unexpected sounds, a fact which renders the tambura less tiring to the ear and as a consequence more musical.

Indeed, on the one hand, certain musicians prefer to sometimes switch off their electronic tambura rather than highlight their vocal or instrumental disagreement with the gadget. They thus prefer, in such a case, a silence that freely allows them to let float their tonic rather than a comparative sound that reveals them to be out of tune. On the other hand, it seems as if a number of musicians are, in reality, dreadfully afraid of silence. They appear to be afraid of taking the courageous initiative of tearing away the immaculate veil of silence with their voice or with their instrument alone. It is evidently less terrifying to play an instrument or to sing in an already noisy environment. To sing a capella and as a soloist is obviously very difficult as all the defects are laid bare as if beneath the bright light of day. The singer would feel naked, like many musicians appeared to feel during the Madras festival, without their noisy gadgets. In fact, the gadgets also serve to mask and to a great extent water down the artiste's imperfections by more or less distracting the attention of the listener. Thus any voice rendered hoarse by the December cold or any violin of indifferent quality would appear elegant in comparison to the horribly amplified electronic sound of the electronic tambura which is shamefully called music. By transposition, the fear of silence that haunts the musicians could be compared to the fear of total immobility in space that could sometimes haunt the dancer. If the musicians can overcome it partially through the electronic gadgets, shouldn't the dancer be able to do so by asking children to perform acrobatics on the edge of the stage even before the start of their performance and thus surreptitiously distract the attention of the audience? In this manner they can combat their fear of being solely responsible for filling the emptiness of the stage, as the eyes of the audience would be fixed on them and on them alone. Could we not conclude therefore that in this respect the dancers seem to reveal more artistic courage than many vocalists or instrumentalists?Some musicians claim that they need their gadget to find their place in the scales. This makes one wonder whether for centuries their ancestors always sang false notes or if they simply possessed a more musical ear. But those who cannot do without this electronic device because of their apparent hearing deficiency or faulty memory of musical notes, must ensure that the sound made by their gadget does not disturb the acoustic comfort of the listeners. It is almost as if a western musician cannot technically do without his metronome and thus amplifies the dreadful tak tak, tak tak... of his balance intending to make the entire audience benefit from it without restraint. The same supposedly technical reason would have the same major aesthetic fault.

Sometimes, the fanatics of the electronic tambura bring to mind young children who need a rubbery pacifier in their mouths in order to feel at ease. They can do without it but their psychological makeup dissuades them from doing so. Whether sucked on or listened to, a pacifier should have calming quality that would still the anguish stemming from the surrounding ambience.

In any case taking recourse to technicalities to justify the use of an electronic gadget sounds very feeble. Fortunately it is still as easy today to find a wooden tambura with its musical and pleasant sound as it is to find devoted musicians who will use it. But then the soloist must be really capable of tuning them by the ear (while the electronic tambura often offers a variety of already adjusted tuning in terms of pitch, intensity and speed.) Besides, one must not forget that this obsession with the right note comes from mathematics. Music deals with neuro-sensory perceptions that belong to the realm of aesthetics rather than the rigours of mathematics. The pitch varies in relation to various factors including its intensity, the heat of the air columns for wind instruments, the rapidity of the production of rising and falling scales, the attraction of the tonic note, the unpredictability of the musicians, the bad quality of the sound system in the halls. What is important is not the accuracy in Hertz but the feeling of accuracy perceived by the hearing mechanism and the pleasure felt by the rasika when he listens to very beautiful artistically assembled sounds.

Most auditoriums, it appears, are not in a position to impose some kind of control over the noise made by electronic gadgets. Consequently, the most judicious solution available is the prohibition in toto of any kind of electronic musical gadget on the stage, provided of course that each hall provides the artists with adequate accompanists and tambura in wood of good quality. As for those artistes who are unable to do without their electronic gadgets which act as a sort of booming crutch for their lack of musical sensitivity, we must conclude that they would then not be really capable of performing in public. This is certainly true also of those western musicians who are unable to perform in public without their irritating crutch, the metronome. And thus, one can objectively conclude that while the tambura reveals to the music lovers the delicate and refined background sound of the universe following either the beating of the drum by Nataraja in the first moments of Creation or the so-called `big bang' of the scholars of astronomy, then the electronic tambura propagated nothing but the detestable noisy nuisance of civilisation.

G. SEM

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