Historical Performance – and Unfair Comparisons

I’m currently reading Taruskin’s Text and Act – essays on Music and Performance. A part of the beginning of the book is all about the intersections of musicology and music performance. Musicology in part is important to the western tradition also because of the concept of historical performance – to reproduce, as accurately as one can, the music from a time period not their own. This, as one can imagine, includes many many disciplines – people who study scores to find out what different things mean, instrument makers and repairers – who can decipher from text – the technology from a different time and recreate it, experts on intonation – those who can interpret how intonation might have been from the score and the hints in writing, historians – who can interpret the mood and the setting of the music, and lastly conductors, theorists and teachers, interpreting how the music must have sounded from score. This means that music performance majors also specialise in particular times in history.

Several of these disciplines that emerge from the insistence on Historical Performance, are not fundamental to the study of music in a cultural performance studies like Indian music. In part, this is perhaps what makes it very easy for Indian musicians to undermine the importance and strength of the entire discipline of musicology. The history that we are trying to reproduce doesn’t exist from any time period in particular, but is a reference to a common, homogenous, historic ‘whole’, that may or may not have been in the past. A trope such as ‘why write about music if you can practise it’, and ‘if you write that must mean you are actually no good at performance’ can come about only because of a different angle of historical performance.

This meanwhile, is true for most musical cultures. As they start to get objectified, their nature changes. They are sometimes viewed from the outside, sometimes their agency shifts, as in the case of Indian folk music, from social functions and rituals, to catering to the tourists. The subjects that the songs are about, instead of changing to match the new life of the people, become inwardly – sticking to archaic themes in apparent attempts of preserving historicity. This is visible not just in folk music but also in part in the newly composed khyal material in Indian classical music. Non-canonized new compositions self-censor their language to not be contemporary on purpose. The subjects to reflect an imagined time in ‘history’, but without a date and a place. In this sense, the new themes are often lost entirely, and never spoken about in song.

So – what is the position of musicology in such a setup?


Countable pieces versus uncountable music

Hindustani music does not have an inherent concept of a musical ‘piece’. Yes of course there are individual pieces with specific lyrics that one sings and elaborates, but there is no such thing as a pre-composed piece that is several minutes long, with musical gestures and actions that are pre-indicated by the composer. A movement from A to B, changing the mode at this junction and so on – this is hot how pieces are composed in Hindustani music.

If someone asks me to present a raga, I don’t have to think of what to present ‘in it‘, and in that sense music just becomes a continuum, a part of which I can elaborate through the medium of the mood of the raga. On the other hand, sitting at a piano and having to sing makes me think ‘but which one‘, and sets the tone of quantifiable, known pieces with predictable movement and certainty of appreciation. At least if it doesn’t go well, a larger part of it goes to the choice of composition than if I am just supposed to render a raga.

Western classical music turned towards being ‘pieces’ much earlier in history. The canonical notion of a piece, and the signature of a composer to be enshrined in his work – edited to precision, and to be interpreted thereafter, does not exist as is in many musical systems in the world. This leaves the practitioners of Western music to display their virtuosity in interpretation of pieces that already exist. But another thing it does, is to make it possible for us to think about temporal movement across generations. When music is improvised, it’s hard to find out how improvisation vocabulary has changed over long periods of time. A lot of this is because of printing musical pieces, and playing as ensembles, both of which require all musicians to be on the same page. This also made it possible for composers to add a larger amount of affective intent into their writing.

Stock photo from http://www.123rf.com/photo_15604523_music-puzzle-concept.html
A piece of music

The role of a composer to set a piece of text to raga, on the other hand, is that of an illustrator, presenting a side of the raga that could be elaborated even more beautifully. Each line in such a composition unravels a new meaning in a different area of the song. Although there are these upsides for something that is surprising to hear each time with each rendition, there are some things that also feature in terms of what an audience expects for a piece.

In the order of pre-composition, the some known songforms are arranged in a descending order: Geet -> Ghazal -> Dadra/ Thumri/ Tappa/ Tarana -> Chhota Khyal -> Bada Khyal -> Alaap
Geet-ghazal are much more predictable than Alaap in terms of what is to come next. Because of the amount of improvised material in them, it is also often that alaap and bada khyal will be adjusted according to the feedback and the mood of the audience, as well as the time available to a performer. This makes each new transition of segment surprising – and to an audience who listens for predictability rather than surprise, this might be unsettling.

Film songs on the other hand are very reliable. Folk songs from ancient times are, too, pre-composed material. Even if it is rendered by different people differently, the textual and melodic material is low variability and provides a good sense of grasp for an audience.

In a way, to have a piece of music makes it easier to commodify in some way. The time, the mood, the length, the physical demands of performance etc are very predictable. We can apply even modern methods such as semantic tagging to songs that exist as objects, and sometimes even with non pre-composed pieces that are one time renditions of classical music. To go to the short play recordings of Bade Ghulam Ali and to point at that one 3 minute Thumri and say ‘I like that “Yaad piya ki aaye”‘, not just Yaad piya ki aaye the thumri, is a matter of an open composition to become a commodity. No amount of Yaad piya ki aaye will give you the satisfaction that you get from those three minutes that you have heard before.

This makes me think that not just pre-composition, but a definite length of music can be formalized and interpreted as a ‘piece’. If a symphony wasn’t broken down into movements, or if the lengths of pieces were non finite, it would make it a harder case for predictability. Jazz comes with the same struggle at times. Although a larger duration of it is repeated each time, giving it a small measure of predictability, it is possible to lose the audience members who can’t keep track of where we are in the standard. It’s actually so hard to quantize music as pieces in my tradition, that whenever i have seen iconic representations of music, they have been in the form of Western notes although we never ever ever ever use them to write in in India.

Image Courtesy https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CAcQjRxqFQoTCIXB-K73-8gCFckcjgod-QEGFA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.qykapp.com%2Farticle%2Fcome-enter-the-world-of-ragas-learn-karnatic-music%2F&bvm=bv.106923889,d.c2E&psig=AFQjCNEXg8qC8zwWJo1mFR4QJhzN1rE5Hw&ust=1446903877086804 This is not how we write Indian music.

There is a lot of suggestion from behavioral sciences and music, to say that we aurally cherish repetition. Predictable patterns of musical movement bring us lots and lots of pleasure. It could be that once we are through with receiving this kind of pleasure, we can move towards the unknown with more confidence – just like hardcore film music audience listen to an unplugged version or two, where musical expression is just a bit more unchained. Perhaps slowly we will move to much more unpredictability.

Problems with being in Classical Music here right now

It is hard to be a classical musician in India right now. It may be hard to have been a classical musician anywhere at any point of time, but here are my key observations about here and now, since i live there. I acknowledge that my experiences and interpretations don’t represent very large parts of India – I have lived in only a couple of cities, and perhaps there are other people whose experiences have been very different from these.

Get educated to educate?

To ask, “What is that knowledge good for?” is an unfortunate question, but let us say it is impractical not to ask such a question for the sake of ensuring a life with some money to preserve oneself.

HCM is a tradition that has produced a grand legacy of students in music, who learn with their masters for several years, move on to entertain rasika listeners for another part of their life, and spend the rest of it teaching their craft to other students. The purpose of this education, thus seems, like several other academic disciplines – to get educated in order to educate.

Day in and out in music classes across the country, young students who want to become playback singers go to their teachers hoping they could teach them a ‘base’ through classical music. And then they would be free to explore the rest of it. But what is there in the rest of it that isn’t there in classical music? Why are these people not interested in careers in classical music? Teachers try to answer this in different ways.

It is easy to shrug this question off, pretending that new students must be lazy, and technology must be causing it, and that in a fast moving world, nobody has time for a slow paced art that requires deliberate effort and years of practice. But if we examine the structure of resource allocation / ‘job’ allocation in classical music, it is not easy to see how hard it would be to foresee a dream career. If you wanted to be a performer, how would you get that job? There are no job postings anywhere. It’s hard to find an artist manager in the beginning of your career. It is hard to imagine that you want to spend a life teaching classical music? In the end we implore people to think that they should want to learn from a pure desire to learn, rather than an expectation from classical music. Which is okay, but how can one not have an expectation from the economics of classical music?

The dilemma of warranted change and frivolity

When are you ready to make change? What is the difference between change that comes from within and change that comes from without?

I used to have a teacher who would express her dissent towards fusion music consisting of a trained vocalist with a flair for improvisational variations, who is juxtaposed with a guitarist playing some accompanying chords, and a drummer who destroyed the polarity in the taal of khyal. The irritation of this teacher towards destroying the principles that run the system of khyal is understandable, but it is also equally true that bands aren’t performing khyal at all. But then what are fusion musicians performing?

It is traditional for classical musicians to place some musical styles simply out of the scope of musical reasoning. This kind of fusion music doesn’t matter to classical music, because it isn’t classical music. Although, must we remember that this was also what was said about ghazals more than hundred years ago. Ghazals which, then, slowly snuck in to capture many mainstream classical singers and managed to reach the classical auditorium, standing side by side with a tarana. This was also said about the harmonium, suspected as an instrument with vice, completely unsuitable for the Indian Classical form because of its fixed intonation. This was, to go far behind, also said about the khyal itself. These forms somehow stuck around and became ‘classical’. Should we start to expect such a thing out of a fusion form which relies on harmony as well? If yes, how are we to elaborate the theoretical structure of such a form and who does that responsibility lie upon.

If we keep telling trained musicians that it is not their right to change classical music, we forget to account for the changes that occur regardless of telling or not telling musicians what is their right.

Form and Function

Classical music is not the only or not among the few ways of entertaining oneself through music that is available to us. Music – and effectively music producing any kind of affect – is available to us literally everywhere. People now have started to think of classical khyal music as more and more ‘meditative’ and absorptive, rather than mentally engaging, mathematically challenging. This doesn’t leave khyal music with the credit of being extremely mathematically complex and poetically demanding.

In fact, raga music is increasingly is accessed just to seek the affect of trance and devotion. It is increasingly rare to find an educated rasik listener especially in cities, who can point towards the nuances of notes and moods, who can identify the technicalities of classical music and not just absorb in the mood.

Electronic music, computers, and digitization

Thorough knowledge in theory of music helps one understand the basics of using computer systems fairly easily – but wait. Trained as a classical musician in India, one only trains their ears in melodic listening. It is difficult to hear and get used to the nuances of harmony regardless of how many years you spend training for melodic listening.

Computer tools for music use piano as the basis for most of the work. Piano roll writing is the most common way to give midi information to a computer for any digital audio workstation, and we don’t use a piano for classical music. Despite introducing western notation reading in the coursework for Hindustani training, most students are unfamiliar with this, as it is almost never used to represent Hindustani music.

In most courses for classical music, there is very little or no teaching of Digital workstations, recording equipment, and we like to pretend that those don’t exist and cannot interfere in the realm of classical music. We want to isolate the electronic from the ‘real’, and pretend as though the electronic doesn’t matter to the real, regardless of how many electronic CDs we may churn out, and amplifiers we may use to help music be heard in auditoriums.

The disparity between industry requirements and classical training

Playback singing, session music and composition seem like other routes that a classical musician may take after they’re sufficiently trained.

But there is always the complaint that film composition is ‘light’ and thus a lesser form than classical music. Mainstream composers have time and again been uneducated and uninformed about what they are writing. A film song is an object that exists in and of itself, while a raga is a semantically insatiable object. You may sing it for all of your life, but never have completed singing it, never have finished finding it. How do we look at the compatibility of these methods of hearing as one?

In a country that is obsessed with loose terminology like ‘passion’ ‘mood’ ‘creativity’ to describe arts that are in fact precise and elaborate, like music, it is hard to stress upon the requirement for specificity as a measure of divergence from cliché. The things we like as ‘new’, may not be that at all – but there is no way to know, unless we examine with education.

Indian things are cool again

I was sitting with some south Bombay-ites in Leopolds once, and one of my friends remarked “Oh you learnt the sitar?! How cool is that?”. Despite the fact that I was perplexed by his statement, walk into any music shop and you will probably find 100 guitars and 0 sitars.

As far as marketing and popularization goes, we have clearly not done that great a job – but wait! It’s coming back. It’s very cool to find a small Hindustani ‘taan’ embedded in a dub track played in your club on Saturday. At least one devotional song or a heartbreak song with alaap is still a staple per movie that we produce. Musical ‘objects’ are, in this way subverted to serve as token reminders of affect.

But should we rely on systems like this to keep our musical system alive? Isn’t participation the best way to keep something up?

We must answer the hard question of what education in classical music really helps you build. Until then, there is just a reiteration of reticence and judgement from the experienced, and quick object-production by the young.

Dolpat Music – The status of folk

Folk songs, as a cultural artefact, are fast disappearing from modern life. Urban communities, with plenty of music listening opportunities available to them, have musical experiences in private more often than with other people. Passive listening of music far outweighs actively playing or even listening to live performances. Even as music constrains itself to an art to be enjoyed more than experienced directly – with performance and education, folk music upholds not only musical, but community traditions and practises. The hallmarks of folk music are functional as well as structural. In important occasions that dictate cultural practises such as weddings, funerals and childbirth, these songs pass on the moral and ritual values of cultural groups. Songs about daily life, labor, work and relationships remind of the normative nature of hardships and turn troubles into a shared experience. Songs of supplication to god, and pride about the culture or nation, too, incite a ritual experience, woven with cultural values and shared identities.

With the coming of urban life, and the invasions of urban comforts in rural life, folk traditions are slowly changing. Folk songs that existed solely for the purpose of communities coming together, now also exist for commerce. This changes the paradigm, by transforming functional music into a commercial object. This can be seen in almost every state in India – there exists a mainstream commercial musical project, along with an underbelly – folk music, that is written in an old folk style, but is about urban problems, involving poorly orchestrated versions of rich folk songs. These new folk songs are cut into cds and sold in street markets, and their value as a community heritage is diminished by mass production and mass consumption. These songs don’t cut well with urban listeners – who will look up songs from the folk traditions from different languages, and make fun of their humble lyrics and simplistic production techniques. How does folk music undergo this transformation? From being a pillar of rituals and dances that were sung and played by large communities – to being poorly produced and written not to last? Simply put, the value of folk music is not in buying a cd and playing it on your system – but its value is only realised when communities interact with the music together – singing along, participating in practises, writing new songs about unique experiences within the culture. To see a culture that preserves

We first heard Dolpat music in a wedding at Lakshadweep. It is an astonishing artefact that has survived despite television, pop music and mass media from the mainland being present on the islands. This music is untouched by both – the production methods that dictate the use of instruments, and recording methods as they do on the mainland – as well as the classicization and adaptation of folk music to classical music. We find in Dolpat, a unique sustenance of all these characteristics that help fortify a community through the help of music. Not only do these songs serve as essential elements of ritual ceremonies on the island, but the administrative authorities have also participated in this tradition, as the Kurikals are appointed by the governing officers of late, as opposed to being selected by the community. This is a unique feature, and it means that the state takes interest in actively upholding the cultural practises of the region. This music is also completely untouched by musical practises in the mainland, as Kurikal from Kavaratti mentioned about not knowing or being taught the so called classical music from the mainland.

By visiting the islands and interacting with musicians who practise dolpat and other music and dance forms, I hope to gain a comprehensive understanding of this musical tradition, and create an archival repository of their musical material. This way their songs will stay written somewhere for reference, and we can hear their recordings and more. By talking about this unique folk form, we can help preserve this music. Amarras records from Rajasthan has made it possible for practitioners of Manganiar folk music to enjoy enormous success, but more importantly made it possible for many many people to enjoy their wonderful folk form.

More importantly, I wish to learn about the interactions of this musical community and the governing authorities, and how they work together in maintaining this important facet of their cultural life. This model could be useful at other places where folk traditions are in danger. By keeping community musical traditions alive in other places, we can help diversify our knowledge of folk communities, and help these musical traditions find their own ground.

Locus of power in performing

Performing music in front of a crowd always gives me the heebie jeebies. Talking about something in front of a crowd does not. Making jokes in front of a crowd is even worse, but singing in front of a small room of people does not. This anxiety, as i have come to find, is not really about other people. It is absolutely pleasurable to get someone interested in a new type of music that they have never heard before. It is great to get them involved in what are the pressure points of that music, what makes it great, and why they could develop an ear for it. But then there is always the question of why and how i must be the one to deliver this information. How can i be confident that I am delivering it correctly and that i deserve to be delivering this. I don’t want to dismiss this simply as an anxiety about self.

It could also be that once you practise and become better and better at something, you want to showcase those skills to going in front of other people, and express the fruits of your practise. It is a sort of a dig at showing off, but giving the pleasure of listening to other people. Which bothers me too. The desire for others to appreciate something that you did that was good – and not just others you know who care about what you have to say – *any* others, some others – ‘others’.

What power dynamic dictates whether a person feels desirous and deserving to go in front of an unknown audience – and what unknown audience – why them and why you.

Often times while engaging with music, questions of power need to get asked. These are very explicit in ethnomusicology / musical anthropology contexts, given as it deals with ethnic contexts at the outset. Power questions in whose musicology should be considered ‘ethno’ and why, have now established themselves as the base of modern thinking in ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicological questions sometimes also deliberate about the nature of power within different performers who are playing together. In some cases, this hierarchy is automatically arranged, for example, the conductor is an authority over interpretation and leading the whole orchestra; the concertmaster has an authority over tuning the violins and so on. Other hierarchies are more complex and implicit, such as the one between collaborating performers in Hindustani music, where the instrumentalist must take the back seat and follow the lead vocalist.

These hierarchies and power equations are a matter of the musical culture itself, and perpetrate through performances and through the tradition. However, there has to be another power dynamic in play simply to get up and to say: you must listen to me and i have something important to say now (through music). This question has often confused me as i delve deeper and deeper in trying to understand more about classical and social music – what is that should make one go up in front of other people, confident that what they have to say is important and deserves to be heard.

In classical music, there is also a lot of talk about a ‘worthy’ audience. A lot of the inside secrets of classical music aren’t delivered to unworthy audiences, who wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t be able to comprehend the level of music that you want to be playing.

In community musical styles, this is easily resolved. We all sing together, and the power and the beauty of music is shared. It is known to everyone, and everyone takes agency of it. Even if it is some more than others, everyone is an equal partaker. In a concert hall, you are the messenger, and you have found an abstract message through music. You are a carrier of an unknown abstract message, thickly tainted with your own interpretation, and heavily crusted and cornered with your abilities.

But when i stand in front of an unknown audience, why should i take upon myself, the agency to convey abstract messages that are highly open to interpretation, in front of people i don’t know who have no reason to care about me or the message i want to deliver.

When you are a member of the audience, you share the agency of listening to something with anywhere from 50 to thousand people. When you perform, you share it with far fewer. When you are in the audience, and you feel like walking off, what do i do – how should i modify my craft – what do i do to engage you? If i do everything in my power and still fail, should i blame you? Should i expect you to sympathize with my music or voice and its quirks? Should i expect you to understand me or revere me? To respect me or to relate to me? Should i expect you to love me or to think I am cool? Do these questions in part depend upon genre?

Which of these questions gets to determine the voice of my musical style, the core values that i would like to project? How do i carry this along with the weight of musical tradition and how do i balance it with personal preferences in the artform?

How much of my life do i open in front of an unknown audience? Given how replacable we all are, does my life in particular even deserve any guardedness? Why should my going ahead and playing make me vulnerable? What do the messages say about me anyway? If they are shared and abstract messages, then what does it even matter that I have to deliver them – why should i even get vulnerable. Why are you even celebrating? If i perform, am i not, by default, an exhibitionist?

The answer to most of these questions is – that it is different for different audience. In music, there is not just power in authoritative stature of the performer, but also in the multiplicity of intention and agency, which makes it a very different kind of power place. I don’t feel like i want this power, regardless of whether i could handle it. Armchairs are far more comfortable than any stage could ever be.

Music in Lifestyle Magazines

Music found in lifestyle magazines

Lifestyles of blind beggars on local trains
Playing prayers on old harmoniums suspended

Lifestyles of instrument merchants and makers
With nobody left to buy what they make

Lifestyles of the kamchi iktara maker
Selling ten rupee instruments every summer

Lifestyles of Kirtankars and Priests
Making prayers possible for unrelated people

Through the beat of their word
Their repeated insistence on blurring
phonetic and morphemic boundaries
channeling play between words and feelings
and actions and their empty entry points.

What does this have to do with
Electronic devices and consumption.

Why is
Music is featured in lifestyle sections in newspapers
Next to jewelery and diamonds
Next to white truffles and fine suede
Next to celebrity.

Irrational Fears


Tejaswinee Kelkar

“What are your insecurities about, even? I just don’t understand”, my grandmother yells at me just the same as everyday – trying to get me to open the windows and doors of my room, and let the air in. It used to happen everyday. I used to latch all the glass windows and put on thick grey curtains so that no light or fresh air ever came in. “You like to suffocate yourself”, she used to say, trying to folk-psychoanalyze me.

I was an angry teenager who didn’t want to meet anyone at home – just stick around in my room, latch the door, and sit inside the huge blue steel almirah that was in my room. I would sit under the bed for hours sometimes, until my grandmother would  ‘sweep’ me out with a broom. Or sit inside a small window with glass latch doors.

But the almirah was…

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