By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, June 10, 2016

Brick And Bouquet : Jarring Jazz Vs. Sculpted Quintets

As I said earlier, the surprisingly wide communication gap between visiting foreign musicians and resident Western-music-lovers in New Delhi during the concluding decades of the 2oth century used to cause two different kinds of extreme dissatisfaction, both of which I had described as 'bitter medicine' :  (1) very frequently, authentic and superior music was dispensed to a highly enthusiastic audience in  absurdly small doses ; and (2) perhaps not so regularly, strangely dissonant and distorted music was presented to us, as if we were interested in them, which we certainly weren't. 

In both such contexts, many visiting musicians -- who must have been going on extensive foreign tours -- often seemed to be anxious to demonstrate to us, in this far-away foreign land, just how they were usually performing in their own cultural milieus -- where their kind of music would be overflowing, creating a need for very short recitals, and perhaps also some amusement and comic relief now and then.  But we didn't need such protection from potential monotony in India, because the flow of Western classical music (or even jazz) here was extremely thin.  
Whenever I found fault with the music on such occasions in my Friday column in THE HINDU -- holding the local organizers responsible for not guiding the visiting foreign musicians properly in this regard -- I was anxious to balance the adverse comments with some sincere appreciation for their initiative in organizing Western music events in New Delhi, like somehow cultivating shady oases in a barren desert.

And my criticism was most colorful when I was able to hurl a heavy brick with one hand and offer a lovely bouquet with the other simultaneously, as in the following case :-    

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Max Müller Bhavan  --  The branches of the Goethe Institut -- the globally active German language and cultural institution --  in India's metro cities  used to be called Max Müller Bhavan, to honor the 19th-century Indologist Max Müller (Bhavan meaning 'house' or 'institution'  in Hindi).  Nowadays these centers are called 'Goethe Institut' -- and 'Max Müller Bhavan' is just given as the address sometimes.  I don't  really know when this transition took place, and why. 

India International Center  (IIC)  --  Exclusive culture-oriented institution in New Delhi, with some of the most eminent Indians, and resident foreign diplomats, as Members. 

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New Delhi

23 Oct. 1987

The bizarre and the beautiful 

Within the span of a few days last week, the Max Müller Bhavan and the India International Center jointly organized two concerts in the compact IIC auditorium :  one by the German Free-Jazz duo Peter Broetzman (saxophone and clarinet) and Peter Kowald (bass), and the other by the Bonn Woodwind Quintet.

One would have thought that 'free jazz' is a redundant expression, because jazz itself is free music, improvisation being its very essence.  The question is :  how free can art become? Can good music be produced without any ground rules whatsoever, or without reference even to aesthetic values? 

Just as the rights of the individual in society are matched by his obligations, in the performing arts too freedom must be exercised  within certain limits which must be tacitly understood if not explicitly defined.  Otherwise liberty is likely to become licence, which is hardly desirable unless one belongs to an abstract school of thought which cares nothing for form or structure, let alone substance and beauty. 

We are informed that Broetzmann is a pioneer of 'European Free Jazz', and is the founder of a West German venture called Free Music Production, of which Kowald is a leading member.  Having stretched the definition of jazz itself so as to transcend even the conventional freedom which it has always enjoyed, the visiting artists offered us two half-hour sessions of untitled, free-wheeling music which sounded not merely dissonant, but anarchic.  But the absence of order alone need not have deprived it of beauty, for the utterly strange can also be beautiful. What really made the music create a barren impression in our minds was its consistently harsh, abrasive and raucous quality.

Aberrations in sound

Having no particular route to follow, the two artists produced an uneven assortment of sounds, sometimes going solo, but generally playing together.  If the baritone-sax growled and grunted, the bass groaned and gurgled.  If the tenor-sax screamed, the string instrument squeaked.  If the clarinet wailed, the double-bass droned.  While Broetzmann wrestled with his apparatus and blew his breath into it for all he was worth, Kowald leaned on his instrument, scraping, plucking and gnawing the strings, sometimes even beating them with the bow.  

The effect of all this hectic labor was to create the imagery of sacrificial birds in agony, wild beasts locked in battle, or some science-fiction machine grinding and grating away on alien rocks.  There were occasional traces of ethnic influences, particularly of Eastern Europe, but by and large the music did not seem to have any specific cultural orientation.

The bizarre proceedings were apparently more than what the audience could bear :  and although the auditorium was full when the concert started, the majority of listeners found the intermission a convenient time to disappear.

Lovers of Western music in Delhi constitute an international set.  On the whole we are not too conservative, and some of us do welcome even the presentation of avant-garde music.  But perhaps there are boundaries beyond which our vision gets blurred and we lose our ability to enjoy and appreciate.  While the organizers must be praised for their efforts to produce for us a cross-section of what is currently going on in the West, they might do well to consider our own priorities when they invite foreign artists to perform here.

Sculptures in sound

By contrast, the Bonn Woodwind Quintet's recital last Sunday evening had tremendous popular appeal.  On this occasion too the house was full in the beginning, and it stayed that way till the end.  The main compositions featured in the program were  three superb quintets by  Bach (B-major), Mozart (C-minor, K.406), and Beethoven (E-flat major, Op. 71).

The artists were Andreas  Bossier (flute), Klaus Relet (oboe), Michael Neuhalfen (clarinet), Gustav Kedves (French forn), and Wolfgang Sorge (bassoon).  They all combined well to produce a rich and clear tone which was honey to our ears.

What a serene and wonderful experience it was to listen to this noble music, the slow and lively movements alternating and evoking vivid images of Gothic structures, royal banquets, and aristocratic dances!  Though admittedly among the less monumental works of the great composers, these splendid pieces have an enchanting quality which appeals to one's imagination.  Performing them with great precision and insight, the Bonn Quintet recaptured for us in Delhi all the elegance of a bygone European era.

Even in terms of sheer sound, the music had infinite beauty ;  hearing it in a live concert given by such accomplished musicians was like contemplating an exquisitely chiseled marble sculpture of ancient Greece or Rome.  For making this marvelous experience possible, we owe the organizers a special vote of thanks. 

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