Carnatic music

One of the great joys of living in this era is that we can not only hear music of previous eras, but music from other world traditions as well. Ironically, it was the relative isolation which allowed unique traditions to prosper, so in many ways this is a one-time event. Traditions naturally borrow from others, and this is already happening. It would be pessimistic to state that it weakens them, but in the short term, such an impression is unavoidable. This is only another reason to savor what we have, because we can hardly wish for an end to communication. For those readers unfamiliar with it, especially those with Western musical backgrounds, Carnatic music is the classical tradition of South India. The music generally called "Indian classical" without further elaboration is that of North India, also called Hindustani music for the purpose of distinguishing. The two traditions obviously have many similarities, but are also rather distinct. The point at which they diverged definitively is certainly open to debate, but is generally given as around the fourteenth century. The North was greatly influenced by Muslim rulers and would have always felt more impact from across the Hindu Kush mountains. Although the South is relatively more isolated geographically, it does not stand still, and indeed regular sea communication dates back to the Romans and beyond.

Like many world traditions, the modern "concert format" has only been standardized relatively recently. While the historical development of singing on stage for an audience is a complex process, the decisive and final role was played by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), and at this point the format is rather stable. Carnatic music is very much centered on historical compositions, songs written in specific lyrical forms and called kritis. The topic of these songs is overwhelmingly religious, and the roots of what is now called Carnatic music are partially traced to the 15th century dasa (or "God's servants") movement of what we would call itinerant monks. These include such renowned composers as Purandara Dasa (1484-1564), whose songs are still frequently sung in concerts. While one might perceive an analogy to an era of great change in Western music (that of Josquin Desprez and colleagues), the parallel does not stop here. Indeed, the composers who dominate today's Carnatic concerts were all contemporaries of Beethoven, Shyama Sastri (1762-1827), Thyagaraja (1767-1847), and Mutthuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1827). They are known collectively as "The Trinity" and all lived at one time in the town of Tiruvarur (the South Indian Vienna). However, the twentieth century has seen no "break" in composition, and indeed there are more recent composers who are among the most performed, and whose work is frequently included alongside that of earlier composers. Song composition remains the most important static endeavor, as instrumental repertory is a direct copy of vocal repertory. The best instrumentalists can nearly "pronounce" the words as they play, and of course add instrumental techniques as well. Perhaps the most significant arena for innovation of this sort is adapting Carnatic songs to new instruments in a recognizable way. The violin has become a major Carnatic instrument, introduced by the brother of Mutthuswamy Dikshitar, and played down the chest in Renaissance fashion. It is now the most common vocal accompaniment as well as a prominent solo instrument.

Like Hindustani music, Carnatic music is based upon melodic organization by raga and rhythmic organization by tala. A raga is a more complicated idea than our "mode", but related in concept. The tala is a specific rhythmic style, somewhat related to our timed measure, but certainly more sophisticated. Compared to North Indian style, Carnatic music has more variety in raga as well as more dissonant treatment in some cases. The pace of Carnatic music is generally faster, and the rhythmic contours more angular. Many Indian listeners consider Carnatic music more difficult, but that distinction should probably not be stressed. There are also analogies to the classical tradition of Tamil music during the Roman era, and while the surviving treatises are extensive, they have been only partially explored. Although the kriti is a composed form, it is elaborated in performance with improvisational elements which are undertaken at specific points and in specific formats, roughly analogous to variation technique. Perhaps more precisely, the restatement of the main theme in different rhythmic guises called neraval is closely related to the Western Renaissance idea of "rhythmic divisions" and diminutions. The song itself is often preceded by an improvised unmeasured prelude which sets the raga, and then begins on some beat (not necessarily, or even usually, the first) of the tala cycle, which is generally accented by a percussionist. After the neraval divisions, on a theme which is usually quite complex in rhythmic nuance, the next improvisation is the fast kalpana swaras in which the sol-fa syllables are used for elaborate filigrees related to the elements of the kriti. The elaboration can become even more complex when the performance is concluded with a percussion solo, where the rhythmic constituents of the song are manipulated directly and in reference to what has happened already. The extreme syncopations and diminutions, especially when done with close attention to the melody, invoke for me a sort of "nonsimultaneous polyphony" (perhaps as in a hocket) and have a similarly satisfying effect.

While the form of Carnatic songs themselves might be most evocative of the monophonic songs of Machaut, or perhaps the Ars Subtilior, the continuous performing tradition has invested them with a far more elaborate improvisational context. Especially as there is no sense of tentativeness, I find these refined performance ideas quite stimulating for the growth of early music performance practice. The Carnatic page at this site will provide various pointers for those interested, although accessible scholarly sources are few. Unfortunately, recorded performances of serious Carnatic artistes are difficult to find, of poor production quality, or usually both. Attention can be drawn here to three releases. First, that of Aruna Sayeeram on Auvidis Ethnic provides a very clear articulation of basic forms, without much misdirection, and with uncharacteristically clear sound. It is also distributed around the world, and is particularly approachable for the Western listener. Second, the Nonesuch reissue of Ramnad Krishnan's recital from the 1960s is also commonly available and has much to offer. Finally, a recent recording of K.V. Narayanaswamy on the Koel label is perhaps more illustrative of the heights of Carnatic music, and although somewhat obscure, distributed through regular retail channels in the US. If the opportunity arises, concert experience is preferable, as the recitals are not truncated in that case. The major flaw of Carnatic concerts is that they are grossly overamplified, but I recommend them highly nonetheless.

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Todd M. McComb