Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Indian Classical Music (part 6) -- with a digression

One of my music theory professors once commented on a common "complaint" he tended to receive from many of his students.  The complaint was that after learning a little bit about music -- even a single semester of theoretical training, they could no longer listen to music of any kind in the same way.  They could no longer listen to some pop tune or a symphony without ending up analyzing it to some degree.  To which, he replied, and I agree -- "well, that's a good thing!"  It means they're appreciating it on a higher level than ever before.

Think of all the creationists who chastise scientifically literate people that they have no sense of wonder; no appreciation for the awesomeness of "God's creation."  Real scientists have a far superior sense of awe at the universe than any creationist because they actually understand it rather than simply bask in the mystery.  They take greater awe in it than any creationist ever could because they are able to connect what they see with the naked eye with everything from the microscopic dance of superposed quantum fields all the way up to the bright and brief lives of supermassive stars in galaxies hundreds of thousands of light years across knowing that's only a fraction of the way.  Not only is there more that they see (or for that matter, can see because it's not all a mystery), but the dazzling visions that flood their minds are things that are actually there!

I take the same viewpoint on music, because people who actually understand music have the ability to not merely let it wash over them like some ethereal experience, but they also pick up on the way the composer created those effects.  Why does this tune sound sad?  Why does this tune sound ominous?  Why is this riff catchy?  The deeper you study, the more details you pick up on.  And then the real genius of the musicians actually comes into view.  That doesn't happen when you don't have the knowledge.  Knowledge is power.

I hadn't actually written much on the topic of Carnatic music in quite some time because I felt I'd gotten my major gripes out of the way with parts 3-5...  Parts 1 and 2 were more of an introduction for those new to the subject.  I figured, though, that I'd already aired plenty of grievances, and now, it's about time to point out the merits.  For me, though, the primary merit I find is one that reaches a lot farther than music.  There is a key factor that made me study music theory in college, and that was simply the fact that I found it interesting.  But then...  that's pretty much why I do anything.

The majority of people in this world have absolutely no taste in music whatsoever.  Now, when I say this, I'm not merely playing the crotchety old curmudgeon who's complaining about you darn kids and your music.  Let me be clear that I don't mean that your taste in music sucks.  I mean you actually don't have one in the first place.  They don't have enough understanding, enough depth, enough appreciation to even really develop a taste for anything.  It tends to be more that we'll all pick up on something that speaks to us in some context, and that's about it.  People who are musically inclined tend to be much more specific about how they feel about these things, and tend to branch out a great deal broader and actually think about how they feel about various varieties of music...  and that makes them the exception.

If everybody was musically inclined, of course, there would be much less value in Santana's guitar playing, Pavarotti's vocals, MSG's violin, etc.  There would always be someone else who could do the same or better at some point.  That said, there is some way in which almost everybody can recognize that really great virtuosos like those mentioned prior can stand at a different level than other legitimately skilled artists, so that is the power that music has as an art form.  There is something pretty fundamental about it, and there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that in our evolutionary history, music probably precedes speech.  All you need for music is a capacity for making a complex arrays of sounds, and even some birds have that -- curiously enough, these same avian species also have a very intricate comprehension of rhythm to boot.

In any case, because the majority of people do at least enjoy some music, but don't really have a clue about it means that the majority of music is dumbed down and simplified.  This isn't a new trend, either.  It's actually been the trend for popular music for at least the past 300 years.  That doesn't mean that nobody is doing theoretically deep and interesting and involved substance in the field of music.  It's just that it isn't popular, and for the primary reason that most people simply don't get it.  The flipside of this is that people also take the general attitude that music which is incredibly complex and deep on a theoretical level is completely exclusive from music which is aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable.  I find this a very saddening attitude.

But that's probably why I love Indian classical music so much -- because it's a form of music that, as a rule, spits in the face of this common preconception.

You take for instance, the very concept of raga alapana.  It is, at its base, a period of raga exposition in which an artist is to improvise freeform melodic phrases that stay within the confines of the "rules" defined within a raga.  The idea is to be as complete as possible and do the most you can think of on the spot.  That means ranging all the way from the incredibly simple to the incredibly complex.  And the audience expects a hell of a lot from the artist.  The more you do, the better.  Hindustani performances, especially, focus massively on the depth and breadth of the alapana (or alaap).  Being able to do this at all means being intimately familiar with the characteristics of a raga and being able to understand to a great deal what you can do.  The whole point is to able to weave a wide variety of complex melodic phrases at will.

Part of the reason why it works is because rules are still in play.  A raga, at its most basic level is just a pair of an ascending and descending scale (the two need not be reverses of each other), along with a series of inflections and ornamentations on the notes that describe how you might move through the scale - which in turn ends up restricting the forms of melodies you can create.  Some ragas are pretty wide-open, but others are extremely restrictive.  But I also think in practice, there's another bigger reason why it works.  A skilled artist doesn't merely jump right out of the gate and flood you with complexity.  They build it up and start from a low level and constructively add in complexity.  The end result is something that still "flows"...  when we throw in very simple and/or familiar phrases in a particular raga, it primes the listener's mind and gets them into a state where they get a general sense or feel for the tune, and then the flash comes forth.
Above, I have an example of a particularly loaded alapana in Hamsanandhi.  In the beginning, there's nothing all that apparently special about it.  But if you compare this beginning to the types of tunes produced some 5 or 10 minutes in, they're in a completely different class.  Those are laden with all sorts of multi-level vibratos and cyclical stepped walks back and forth through the scale, deft vocal gymnastics and so on.  Around 11 and a half minutes in, there's also a grahabedham (tonic shift) which makes the Hamsanandhi sound like Madhyamavati (akin to the way you can make a C major scale with a tonic shift sound like a D Dorian scale).  Nothing you can just do light-heartedly, but that's also why you have to work your way there.

This sort of buildup also applies throughout all the improvisation as well.  In swara prastharas (improvised solfeggio tunes), especially, there is a lot of focus on rhythm in Carnatic music.  The singer in the video above -- T.N. Seshagopalan -- is the type to frequently weave patterns constructed in different rhythmic cycles into an existing fixed framework.  For instance, he might take a Khanda gati pattern (i.e. pattern cycle of 5) and spread it out in a beat that is constructed on 4 counts per beat.  Doing this means he has to do some number of cycles before his out-of-time cycle comes back in line with the "correct" beat.  My favorite singer of all time -- S. Kalyanaraman -- will go even a notch further than this in that he will change the timing resolution itself.  Rather than overlay cycles of 5 on 4 counts per beat, he will go to 5 counts per beat while keeping the absolute time of a beat the same.  Meaning that instead of a count being say, 150 milliseconds, he cuts it down to 120 ms.

But whatever the case, none of these people will pull out this sort of complexity as a first step.  They will do something in a more comfortable pace and get you ready for the tsunami of intricate ideas to come.  So whatever else you get, you still end up with something that has a sense of progression and feels structured in spite of the fact that there is probably quite a lot that goes over the heads of the average listener.

That said, the average listener in an Indian classical concert is a great deal more educated than the average listener at some Lady Gaga concert.  And that is almost necessary to ensure that this sort of format can actually endure in any sense.  There's no way for someone who knows nothing on the theoretical level to listen to music like this and really appreciate anything more than, perhaps, the skill level of the musicians simply to perform.  Sometimes, not even that.

And I think this corresponds to a large extent with what I do for a living.  Although I've studied music theory in my university days, I'm still an engineer by trade.  Composition is something I haven't done in years, and performance not even in decades.  But the kind of work I do is scientifically and mathematically heavy lifting.  It's not like rocket science...  it is rocket science (and I mean that in the sense that principles borne out of rocket science among other disciplines do come up).  And yet, in the end, this serves the needs of people who are ultimately going to use that in order to get a panda to fight a peacock and a tabby to wear boots and fence while a boy learns how to train his dragon.

So what's my point?  Well, my point is that we normally don't think of these sorts of things as being related.  We see science and mathematics as this sort of mechanical practice of cold unfettered objectivity.  While art is nebulous and subjective, and it's a world where truth is a fluid thing.  This is stupid.

There is no reason why we should think of these two things as disparate.  There is a reason why the play of light and shadow in a painting is as significant as it is, and that reason has to do with science.  There is a reason why Einstein's field equations can be related to the shininess of your hair.  There is a reason why art and music have structural foundations while still being able to excite you or make you weep.  Similarly, there's a reason why scientists can stand in awe at the sight of a night sky even though they know the stars are merely swirling orbs of plasma that can't possibly influence their personal love lives.  It's not all heart and soul in the arts, and it's not all grey matter in science.  But it is all happening in your brain.  Love your brain.  It does everything.