Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Stravinsky At Harvard, T.M.Krishna At CII And 'Semmangudi Mama'.

An angry reader, a self styled writer/translator, commented on my last blog that I had not explored the 'why' of how music developed differently in two continents, Europe and India (Asia). I had, indeed, mentioned how classical music in India, by virtue of being exclusively religious, was otherworldly and therefore with no interest in the contemporary issues. Taking the reader's comment seriously I shall explain with greater detail on the 'why'. A disclaimer, this blog is not a criticism of the musical or singing abilities of any musician or singer. In fact singers like T.M.Krishna and Sanjay Subramanian are highly talented singers whose talent and craft passes my understanding and ability to appreciate.

The reasons behind the divergence of what is considered philosophy in India vs the West is relevant to understanding the divergence of why the musical cultures of the two traditions differ. Much of Indian philosophy, not all, is justifiably looked at by westerners as more of 'theology' than 'philosophy' in the classical sense of the word 'philosophy'. This is not a trivial 'lost in translation' difference. Indian philosophy and music is more concerned with the unknowable beyond. In fact both philosophy and music were seen as paths to rise above the daily tumult of earthly life in India.

Prodigy and legendary violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin writes in 'Music of man', "For the Indian, the individual note, with all its inflections and colors, equates with the idea of personal salvation, of resignation and acceptance. India once entertained the idea of counterpoint, but while they could have developed it, their philosophy was alien to it".

The Renaissance and Reformation movements completely remade the intellectual life of Europe giving birth to the most important contribution to mankind, the modern university. The Carnatic music trinity are contemporaries to each other and to Mozart and Beethoven. I don't know what Thyagaraja, Dikshithar and Syama Shastry read. There are no records. Their lyrics are purely religious showing religious instruction and nothing beyond. To be fair, education in then India was nothing like what the universities of Germany, the cradle of Western classical music.

Bach had a 6 volume edition of Luther's writings. Mozart was well read in classics. Beethoven had a thirst for classics and we have detailed, albeit partial, records of what he read (see link below). "He had complete editions of Cicero, Euripedes, Goethe, Homer, Schiller and Shakespeare". "Travel books, Italian and Latin dictionaries, French grammar book" too were among his vast collection of books on music theory, compositions of Mozart, Haydn and more. A German composer had acquired by books of his contemporaries, Greek and Roman authors, an English playwright, dictionaries of an alien language and more. The collection also shows his wide interest in drama, poetry, theory of music and traveling. This is the modern European.

Mozart uses material from Shakespeare and Ovid to write his ribald opera 'Cosi fan tutte'. Beethoven uses Schiller to write the immortal finale in the 9th. When we come to a composer like Wagner the connection between philosophy, music and intellectual wandering takes on a different dimension.

Wagner was deeply influenced by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and who in turn was influenced through Kant by Buddhist philosophy (and through Persian translation of Upanishad by Dhara Shikoh, the Mughal Prince, which found its way to Germany). When Liszt proposes to write Dante's 'Divine Comedy' as opera Wagner writes to him. Wagner rejects Judeo-Christian theology in favor of Buddhism and asks Liszt to consider that when he writes his music. Here are two German composers talking about writing an opera based on an Italian writer's work and discussing Eastern philosophy. Paul Schofiield, Wagner afficionado, lectured about the influence of Buddhism on Wagner in Boston recently. Completing the ring was Wagner's influence on Nietzsche. We should note that Bach's son and famous composer C.P.E. Bach, Goethe, Wagner, Nietzche all went to the university of Leipzig.

Europe which laid the precursor of modern university education laid stress on graduates learning philosophy. If one lived in Germany in that era one breathed philosophy. Indians take great pride in crossing oceans and conquering distant (by then standards) countries but little is known of what kind of literatures they brought home from abroad. This gap in our knowledge of Indian history, now given more to taking pride in what Indians taught the world than what they learned, is a serious impediment.

Whether it is a musician like Wagner or a mathematician like Leibniz or a literary giant like Goethe or a sculptor like Michaelangelo or Da Vinci a deep knowledge of philosophy is a common feature and the philosophical predilections of the creator is manifest in their respective forms of creations. America's educational system, a child of the Renaissance and Reformation, continues to lay stress on knowledge of classics and liberal arts for any graduate.

A westerner seeks the best from every corner of the world and tries to alloy them to his or her craft. Thats why we have John Coltrane and Leonard Bernstein drawing inspiration from Indian music. That why Herman Hesse and Schopenhauer and Goethe study Indian literature. Indians are smug about Goethe's admiration of Kalidasa or other such influences. Rarely have Indians asked "what can we learn from the west".

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky revolutionized western classical music with his 'Rites of the spring'. Opera houses in Paris witnessed bedlam when it was performed. Harvard University invited Stravinsky to deliver the 'Charles Norton lectures on Poetics'. Its a high honor for anyone. Stravinsky starts his first lecture on 'poetics' (not poetry) by drawing on Aristotle's definition of poetics. An American university had invited a Russian music composer to talk on 'poetics' and he in turn opens the speech with a definition from a Greek philosopher. Stravinsky delivers 6 lectures of such intellectual class about music. He does not talk about notes, modes, scales. He delves into the higher 'philosophy' of music. It is a trite cliche to say that a bird cooing is music. Stravinsky says no and outlines why only human beings can make music. Thats just the icing.

A journalist interviews Leonard Bernstein over dinner for nearly 7 hours and publishes 'Dinner with Lenny'. Bernstein races over Freud, Hindustani, Blake, Mahler and much more and gives a veritable feast to show that a great musician draws on every art form to instruct his craft. Thats why I consider T.M.Krishna, Ravi Shankar, Sanjay Subramaniam etc as 'performers'. Amongst them somebody like Ravi Shankar is a genius in that frame of analyses.

T.M. Krishna addressing CII leadership meeting tries to be a different carnatic musician from what we are accustomed to seeing or hearing. He is very articulate, charismatic and has enthusiasm. He also has some worthy ideas like the archiving effort he is doing (which is very contrary to the 'oral' tradition of Indian culture). The West excels in record keeping. Mozart's birth record, Shakespeare's marriage record, Beethoven's book list, details of when and where Wordsworth wrote a poetry are all meticulously researched and maintained. Whereas we have only sketchy details of even a recent person like Bharathi. Where Krishna fails miserably is in his attempt to be an intellectual defining what is culture and what is classical music. His lack of reading is evident. His complete lack of any philosophical background is obvious. The worst part of the lecture was his brazen statement "I practice the most sophisticated art (i.e. carnatic music), we are all geniuses". Thats it. No explanation or divination on that. There is no semblance of anything intellectual in the speech. He is a typical carnatic musician. I can bet that even today if one walks into the home of most carnatic musicians, so called doyens, one would not find half the books that Beethoven read 200 years ago.

Even if I were to take Krishna's assertion at face value I'd have liked to see him educate the audience with a historical background of how the musical trinity come to be contemporaries in a sleepy souther town. He could have fleshed out a narrative of the historical setting, how they changed music forever, state of music before and after, what did they build on, whose shoulders they stood on etc. But he is no Bernstein. This is not something that is missing in just Krishna alone. Its the typical smug Indian attitude of "I've nothing to learn from the world and the greatness of my culture is axiomatic".

Contrast this with what Yehudi Menuhin writes: "I think sometimes that we should establish such exotic interludes in our own concerts. It would encourage people to become aware of what is in not their own while strenghtening their sense of what is theirs". I do not believe that Carnatic music cannot be improved upon. Nothing in this world is like that. Carnatic music has indeed changed and adapted. Particularly in the use of instruments. Specifically the violin. But the music itself is still fossilized.

Compare and contrast the curriculums of music colleges in Tamil Nadu with that of Juilliard, New York. In USA one cannot become a music graduate without adequate grounding in liberal arts and classical literature. In the west too we have musicians who are not philosophical. Michael Jackson comes to mind. Yes he redefined a genre but he had no intellectual ability to philosophize like Beethoven. And thats why in 200 years Jackson will live in the archives of some university library for students to research a period but Beethoven's 9th will still echo in Lincoln center in NYC.

Dialogues between Western classical musicians do not dwell just on techniques. They talk of proximate issues. Sometimes the dialogues are heavy philosophical discourses. Daniel Barenboim, musician and conductor, meets the orientalist and philosopher Edward Said. The discourses become an intellectually delightful book "Parallels and Paradoxes" thats a tour-de-force.

Sanjay Subramnian spends a day with Semmangudi 'mama' on the occasion of going to receive an award in Mumbai. Sanjay is thrilled at Semmangudi's power of observation because, as the flight entered Dharavi, he recognized the place and asked if it was the same. After the function Semmangudi calls Sanjay to ask if the award Sanjay had recieved was in the form of a cheque or a demand draft (Semmangudi too got the award. He was just cross checking what the other guy got) and it is a draft then 'we have to lose bank charges'. These two, Sanjay says, were significant things in that trip. God save Carnatic music.

Sanjay alludes indirectly to some unflattering rumors of Semmangudi. Writer Jeyamohan narrated an incident in his blog recently. Another Carnatic musician, GNB, had prostrated at hte feet of Hindustani singer Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Semmangudi had asked GNB "அந்த   துலுக்கன் காலில் ஏன் விழுந்த". T.M.Krishna embarrassingly glides over the topic of casteism in carnatic music.

Balamurali Krishna is considered a genius in the theory of Indian classical music and a genius as a singer. My quarrel is with the valuation of his knowledge of music. I am unqualified to speak or pick faults with his knowledge of raga etc, the techniques, of Indian music. But check his interview in Sruti here. The same irritating smugness of "I've nothing to learn from the world". His idea of what makes a music 'classical' is pathetic. He is hoist on his own ideological petard when he complains that his experimentations in music, introducing a hindustani snippet in a carnatic song, is frowned upon by purists. 

Let us even agree that Carnatic music as such may not need any infusion from any other musical tradition. How about the performances itself? In a western classical performance when a soloist performs the rest of the orchestra will be still, their instruments placed in order (not plonked on the floor), the conductor will stand with his hands folded and still. Others will not be fidgeting or picking nose or drinking coffee. When the performance ends the conductor takes an encore and then introduces the key players for individual encores. New York Times reviewed a performance of Chitraveena Ravi Kiran. Kiran was fidgeting in a distracting manner when the soloist was playing. Forget about introducing members of his troupe for individual encores.

At some level I've found Ilayaraja's fans to be more open minded than carnatic music fans. Try asking a carnatic music lover if something can be changed. You will get a sanctimonious lecture "why should we? Who are the westerners and why is it what they do the better? Why should we change to somebody else's tradition of performance? we enjoy our music being performed this way and in fact all of that is what makes carnatic music our own".

The term genius is very loosely used by all. In daily usage we can be lax. But as a matter of judgment we should be careful. I'd say any day that Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin are virtuosos on the instrument. Impressed by Lalgudi Jayaraman's playing of violin Yehudi Menuhin gifted a violin. Jayaraman used that violin till he died. But do I expect Jayaraman or Shankar to write a book like 'Music of man' like Menuhin (actually it was a TV series made into a book)? 

If this is what T.M.Krishna, Sanjay Subramanian, Ravi Shankar etc are then what can we say of a film musician like Ilayaraja or A.R.Rahman. Ilayaraja has a talent to speak foolishly without any thought. He embarrassed himself when he said, trying to praise fellow film musician MSV, 'what we are today is  courtesy of what he spat out. Even his spit is pure". Ilayaraja is a power house of talent in the technique of music. But what is his 'idea' of music? In that same speech Ilayaraja would deride a beutiful lyric written by Kannadasan. Raja made it a fetish to make lyricists write lyrics to his tunes. Not even Mozart did that. Mozart in fact uses the best libretto writer to give heft to his operas. Thats because Mozart knows and understands music at a level far beyond what Ilayaraja even grasps.

That angry commenter had also said that Ilayaraja had a 'revolutionary impact' on the common Tamil. A lack of philosophy incapacitates the commenter too. Yes Tamil Nadu adored Ilayaraja as much as it adored his predecessor and his successor. Tamils love film music and Raja provided fodder for 10 years. When Rahman came Raja was promptly dethroned. Nothing changed in the way Tamils understood music or appreciated music because of Raja. If anything modern technology like concerts on youtube and wikipedia based info has made Tamils appreciate Raja today better than they did 20 years ago. Raja played no role in educating Tamils to appreciate music. Again, that is something that Leonard Bernstein did with his 'Young People's concerts' 40 years ago. A good comparison for readers would be to see Bernstein's lecture at Harvard and Balamurali's remarks at 'Swanubhava' (an attempt by TMK to be Bernstein). See link in references.

References and Links:

Poetics of music in six lessons -- Igor Stravinsky
The philosophy of Schopenhauer - Bryan Magee
Dinner with Lenny - Jonathan Coot

San Diego Opera Talk with Nick Reveles: Cosi Fan Tutte

Library of Beethoven

Paul Schofield's lecture "Wagner and Buddhism" -

T.M.Krishna at CII meet.

T.N.Seshagopalan interview with Mano

John Coltrane and Indian music

Leonard Bernstein at Harvard - The unanswered question "The 20th century crisis"

Balamurali's remarks at Swanubhava


Anonymous said...

Amazing writing and insight. Cant wait to share this with the world.

Unknown said...

I have to disagree on the comment that there is no lasting impact of Illayaraja. I (and many others) had our initiation into western classical music through his brand of film music, even though he did not "explain" the concepts via lectures etc, which is what the author expects. I will be forever grateful for this.

Anonymous said...

As an Indian, I listen to both Indian (Carnatic mostly) and western classical music and enjoy both. I am a novice and not well versed with the technical details of classical music. But I completely agree with the author. Indians do not like to embrace ideas from outside India. This is perhaps the single most reason for it being one of the poorest countries in the world today. While Europe and west in general pulled itself from the morass of dark ages and prospered and advanced, India receded from a position of being one of the greatest civilizations to a third world country.