By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Waiting For A Wasted Evening Of Western Music

In the preceding few blogs this month (June 2016), I had recalled some of my reflections in THE HINDU's New Delhi and Madras editions -- separated by 30 years, not less! -- expressing a strong and strikingly similar grievance about the prevailing live Western music scenarios: that visiting foreign musicians were usually quite insensitive to our earnest desire to hear substantial live sessions of authentic Western classical music, and tended to dole out their excellent music to us in extremely small doses, like some bitter medicine.   In the above contexts, I hadn't used the analogy of 'bitter medicine' to mean the quality of the music, but the quantity.

There were, however, certain other contexts in which the character of the music itself could be described as a bitter medicine, because the musicians seemed to be equally insensitive to our tastes, preferences and expectations, and often tended to inflict on us some bizarre works of music which made no sense at all to us in this part of the world.  So then, here's a sample for you!   

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New Delhi 

28 August 1987 

We never asked for this

In spite of an occasional shower, this freak summer of 1987 is showing no signs of really going away, and the sweltering heat continues to bog us down in the Capital.  But after several successive weeks of zero-level activity, the performing arts have started showing some signs of life again.

Probably the current events had been planned much in advance, and the organizers might be finding it difficult to postpone them simply because the awful weather happens to be continuing unexpectedly.  This must be specially so in the case of foreign musicians scheduled to perform here.

If I were an Englishman, I would hate to visit New Delhi in this stewing season ;  but if the British Council and the India International Center had booked me well in advance for a concert this week, I suppose I wouldn't be able to avoid coming over and sweating it out here!  This was the thought which crossed my mind as I saw Timothy Walker from England playing the guitar at the IIC last Tuesday evening, loosely wearing an informal shirt like any of us.  (His companion on flute, Judith Hall, however, appeared in a formal evening gown).

Attentive audience

The first half of the program featured some sublime music, the highlights being Bach's Suite in C-Minor, and Giuliani's Grosse Sonata.  Although the audience was guilty of applauding after every movement (which was repeatedly acknowledged by the performers with amused smiles), they heard the music in grim and breathless silence.

Both Judith Hall and Timothy Walker are accomplished players of their chosen instruments, and are associated with leading orchestras in London.  In the classical numbers the flute naturally dominated, with the guitar figuring only in a supporting role.

After the intermission, however, there was an abrupt transformation in the mood and the method.  It looked as if the guitarist wanted to assert himself with a vengeance, and some of the works chosen for this part of the program were so devised as to produce the most peculiar sounds and effects.

Take the piece called 'Five Seasons', by Jonathan Lloyd.  The pianist announced that it had some Indian overtones:  this was quite true, but it had many other things besides.  The guitarist pulled and plucked at his strings vigorously, then wildly ;  he patted and thumped on his guitar with his palm, to produce an assortment of percussive sounds.  The overall effect, I must say, wasn't very pleasing.  

A short, lovely piece by Rodrigo came next, but the relief was short-lived, for it was followed by a work by David Bedford which not only revived, but enlarged the bizarre mood created by 'Five Seasons'.

Comic exercise

Once again turning part-time percussionist, the guitarist just let himself go : pulling and plucking, tapping and thumping -- and, oh yes, he did much more than that this time!  He clouted the guitar with his knuckles, turned it round and gave its back a good rubbing-down.  He pulled out some metallic object from his pocket and pecked at the guitar with it.  He shoved a folded sheet of paper under the strings and produced some muffled sounds.  He scraped and scratched -- and even tickled the guitar, if you like -- making some of the weirdest noises ever produced by a musical instrument.  The only thing he didn't do was to smash the guitar or step on it!  

Who exactly is David Bedford, and what kind of music is this?  Perhaps only Stockhausen's admirers would be able to appreciate such a strange exercise!  We wait for weeks and months in Delhi for some live Western music, and we do expect to be offered something which lifts our spirit.  Are we to observe a musical instrument being treated like a toy in a kindergarten, and pretend to  be carried away?

But in fairness to the composer and the performer, I must acknowledge that a clue was provided by the title of the piece : You Asked For It.  I dare say in a place like London or Paris, where live Western music daily overflows, this kind of prank might be providing a not unpleasant comic relief.  But let me assure you, ladies and gentlemen of the West, we never asked for it in New Delhi! 

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