By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, May 21, 2016

When Improvisation In Performance Transcends The Grammar Of Music

I don't normally read books containing deep insights into matters which fall within the areas of my interest as a writer, because I have a life-long fear that if the authors express opinions which resemble even remotely any of my own original ideas, it would diminish my sense of independence and severely undermine my ability to write about them forcefully.  And, of course, the better the books are, the greater the danger would be! 

But once in a while I do find myself falling into the traps of temptation and reading some fine books in the forbidden areas.  When this happens, sometimes I get shell-shocked because someone else's insights and mine overlap intriguingly, and have been expressed admirably. 

For example, in a set of books on jazz which I borrowed from a library when I was on vacation in the winter of  2008, I found some observations on true improvisation in music so closely resembling some of my own thoughts that I couldn't help feeling that I would find it difficult to discuss them ever again in the context of Carnatic or Hindustani music without letting these reflections interfere with the flow of my own words.

However, I just couldn't resist quoting them verbatim  --  as equally and eloquently relevant to Indian classical music  --  in my column 'Musicscan' in THE HINDU. 
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'Manodharma'  --  explained in text . . .  read on!

 Aruna Sairam  --  prima donna of Carnatic music.

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --  classical music of South/North India.

Sawai Gandharva festival  --  a prestigious Hindustani music festival.

Pune  --  Indian city, not far from Bombay  

Sanskrit  --  ancient classical language of North India.

Tamil/Marathi  --    languages of Tamilnadu/Maharashtra States in South/West India. 

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Friday Review
13 Feb. 2009
'Manodharma' in jazz

"The magic of music is that it is the language of memory.  There are several moments in time that stand frozen in my memory . . .  This is where my soul begins to dance  .  . .  I do not think of these moments as anything other than a tryst with the divine . . .”

That’s what Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam said while recalling her thrilling experience at the Sawai Gandharva music festival in Pune, where she sang in Sanskrit, Tamil and Marathi in front of a large audience consisting mostly of lovers of Hindustani music.

Such sublime moments can materialise only when a performance transcends the mere grammar of the music and flows freely from what we call the artist’s ‘manodharma’ in Indian classical music.  Of course, it’s impossible to translate this Sanskrit term perfectly into English, and the best expression I can find is ‘mind’s vision.’

In the normal course, I would have taken for granted such a sentiment expressed by Aruna, for I know all about the soulful and memorable quality of her music, and have myself described it admiringly in these pages.  But on this occasion, her comment made a special impression on me because it came just when I was reading a book about jazz which had set me thinking about the relevance and importance of ‘manodharma’ in jazz.

The book  --  Souljazz: The Heart of the Music, by Michael Brewin, an American jazz guitarist, composer and scholar  --  contains the following insightful remarks on improvisation which can be equally and eloquently true of Carnatic and Hindustani music :

Simple and memorable

"While jazz musicians need a solid foundation of technique and musical theory in order to improvise successfully, they must also utilise intangible features which transcend the physical mechanics and mental physics of music . . . 

Some of the most memorable improvisations in jazz history have been over simple progressions . . .  Most listeners, too, find simpler forms more accessible than cerebral explorations . . .  Simple or sparse arrangements often free musicians to use their entire consciousness to express themselves more purely and clearly, without focusing attention unduly on form . . .

The more complicated the arrangement . . . the more mental energy a musician will have to devote to the technical aspects of improvising.  Therefore only highly accomplished virtuosos of improvisation are able to spontaneously fuse emotion and creativity in the course of soloing over difficult and complex forms at fast tempos . . .

An improvisation too preoccupied with theoretical concepts, form or technique will be experienced by an audience as an academic exercise, whereas the most simple cry of the heart . . . is easily recognised by the sympathetic vibrations within the hearts of its audience.  Moreover, the heartfelt note radiates a sincerity that a flurry of carefully contrived phrases can never emulate . . .

 In fact, the very act of conceptualization (‘thinking’ as opposed to ‘awareness’) removes one’s consciousness from the here and now of the moment, creating a duality of consciousness and an alienation from the heart (‘feeling’) . . . In true improvisation, the heart and mind must be singly focused on the omnipresent, without distraction or self-consciousness.  The key to this feat is to always subordinate everything to the call of the heart — the rest will follow, provided one is already amply prepared, technically speaking . . .
Most jazz musicians have expended considerable energy practising over different forms, methodically applying a variety of theoretical tools. Sometimes musicians will practise a composition until they feel so comfortable and familiar with it that they can then improvise more freely . . .

The highest kind of improvisation happens when a musician becomes so technically disciplined, so immersed in the call of the heart (‘feeling’), and so absolutely single-pointed in concentration that every note combination and nuance unfolds into a new magical excursion, developing into a sublime, cohesive pattern and culminating into its most supreme expression.

Musicians who attain this level with regularity are undoubtedly the musical masters of jazz."

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Postcript, 2016

When I read the above article now, seven years after writing it, it occurs to me that perhaps I should have added the following sentence after that long quotation, to get the focus back on the point I was stressing :-   

Just substitute the expression "masters of Indian classical music"  for "musical masters of jazz" in the above text, and these reflections of Mr. Michael Brewin will still ring absolutely true!

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