Sunday, December 17, 2006

Intonation in Carnatic concerts

The term Intonation in music means, put simply, producing notes that are in tune. It is what we would call zruti zuddham. (Or, in other words, being a "suswaraM Ramjhi.")

The most important factor for producing a note in tune is possessing an accurate aural perception of that note. Once this is present, intonation is developed by practising to match the note we produce with this standard. (In Carnatic music, of course, we do not have an "absolute note" -- they are all relative to the chosen reference SaDja.) Thus, for perfect intonation, a keen sense of hearing is absolutely essential.

When performing in large halls, musicians hear their own instruments only very faintly. And there isn't enough echo either.* So, intonation becomes a big challenge. Now, an accompanying Carnatic artiste has a tougher problem -- he needs to be able to hear the main performer as well. Furthermore, an instrument that is initially tuned perfectly to the taMbUrA, may go out of tune during the course of the concert; and the musician needs to be able to detect when this happens and correct it based on the taMbUrA that is droning some distace away on the platform. (And, to repeat, "I can't hear no nothing!")

Usually, to enable the performers to hear themselves, a speaker system (called a monitor or "fold-back") that is directed towards the platform is provided. However, I have never seen one in a Carnatic concert. In addition, few concert venues are actually auditoria built with necessary acoustics for a music performance. Many are just open spaces with asbestos roofing (Ayodhya Mandapam, YGP Auditorium, etc.).

Given all these hurdles, I am amazed how our musicians perform with perfect intonation. They are practically performing deaf.

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* An extreme case would be a recording studio, whose walls are built to expressly prevent any echoes. This is why (as we have seen in movies scenes featuring a studio recording) the artistes are supplied with headphones.

Update (20 Dec): I have found a related Wikipedia entry -- Foldback. Excerpts:

The provision of foldback (or monitor) speakers is essential to performers, because without a foldback system, the sound they would hear from front of house would be the reverberated reflections from the rear wall of the venue. The naturally-reflected sound is delayed and distorted.

... On stages with poor or absent foldback mixes, vocalists may end up singing off-tune or out of time with the band.

Update 2 (26 January): A post from an excellent blog (by Ramnarayan) I stumbed upon says:
Young vocalist Savita Narasimhan clarifies that the musician on the stage rarely asks for the volume to be turned up for the listeners. He or she is actually asking for help with the feedback (or fallback) so essential for the performer on stage. “Often the vocalist cannot hear the percussionist or violinist and vice versa. The musician’s request to increase the volume of the monitor is misunderstood and the technician increases the volume for the audience.”

Friday, December 01, 2006

Decongesting Usman Road

In Madras, the Usman Road/Panagal Park area (in T. Nagar) is a major bottleneck for vehicular traffic. The volume of traffic is itself high, but the place also has a number of popular shopping centres to add to the problem. During festive seasons, the place can rival the Kumbha Mela or the Mahamakham for the sheer mass of humanity that descends here to shop. And as we know, in India, festive seasons are spread all round the year. The situation has turned even worse since Saravana Stores opened a new branch, its second in T. Nagar, on Usman Road this year.

Saravana Stores is a huge shopping centre that sells everything -- clothing, footwear, home appliances, kitchen utensils, jewellery, sweets, etc. etc. etc. All at a low price. The (lower?) middle-class loves this shop. People flock to T. Nagar from all round the city (and from suburban areas too) to shop at Saravana Stores.

Decongesting this part of T. Nagar has been a tough question so far. The roads are too narrow to contruct any flyovers. Not that the Corporation (or is it the CMDA?) is interested in solving this issue, for it has permitted construction of huge shops here with no provision for parking.

But it looks like there is still some hope left: Walmart is coming to India, in partnership with Bharti Enterprises.

Some Indian blogs have been looking at Walmart as another grocery supermarket (like FoodWorld), but it's much more than just that. In my opinion, shops like Saravana Stores are a better approximation. If Walmart sets up shop in Madras in a well-connected place (maybe close to another local rail station) Saravana Stores is up for some competition. This is likely to draw away some percentage of the shoppers from T. Nagar.

Of course, "Walmart" is not the right name to have in Tamilnadu (Vaal = tail in Tamil). An alternative that can't go wrong is "Bhar(a)ti Murugan Stores" -- both Bharati and Murugan being immensely popular figures in the state. They can even have a logo with a laughing Sam Walton in it and call him Sami Annachi.