Telling composers apart from posers

Some musicians don’t seek the creative spark. They find a success formula, and stick to it

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Carl Seashore begins his landmark book Psychology of Music with a conversation he had with American composer Horatio Parker, who said: “There are no musicians in this country.” To his intimation that there must be some near-musicians, Parker, after some deliberation, said: “There is one.” On enquiry as to what his particular merits were, it came out he was a composer. “But how about our great singers and instrumental performers?” protested Seashore.  “Ah, they are technicians,” was the dismissive response.

Seashore’s eventual point is to get to the fact that there are many varieties of the musical mind between Parker’s rather stringent standards and lesser ones.  I can think of the brilliant genius, the prodigy, the plodding, competent technician, the good imitator, the poor one and many shades in between.

The musical mind, Seashore hastens to affirm, is a normal mind. Why would one even say this? Well, he is a psychologist and it is important to get that out of the way. A musical mind is a specific, and special, kind of mind, but it is not abnormal like that of a schizophrenic perhaps or a serial killer. On the latter count there may be some disagreement – our gentle ragas and raginis might point trembling fingers at habitual offenders.

But to get back to the astonishing statement “they are all technicians”, what could Parker mean?  All music, but especially those that are meant for impacting an audience, often involve sophisticated technique which practitioners must acquire and perfect. Parker’s point is that a true musician does not stay at the level of technical competence or even perfection. And, in any age and place, such real musicians are few.

The truth of our classical arts is that there is much knowledge and technique to be learnt to get to the level of presentation. But art is killed by technique and discursive thought – that is the paradox. Like Wittgenstein’s ladder it must be climbed, but must be thrown away to get to the heart of the music. Singing a raga must not sound like laboured climbing; or even unlaboured climbing.  Creating a symphony must not be a matter of checking boxes of melody and chord progressions, counterpoints and what have you.

Technique, so important, can be poison. If one relies heavily on technique, there is the real danger of sounding uninspired. So we have the dry, plodding musicians.  They may be very knowledgeable and have good technique, but they simply can’t touch you with their music. But they too are musicians.

Some other musicians also lack or don’t seek the creative spark – they find a success formula and stick to it. It is a package that has once worked and could work again and again.

Stand-up comedian Alex, in one of his acts, offers a take on a popular film music composer of the South. According to the comic’s irreverent and very funny depiction, the composer’s Sunday routine begins with going to church from where he hurries to his studio to ask his assistant to record this brilliant new idea for a song and is searching for the beats for it. Much to his delight his assistant drums the beats. The composer asks, “But how did you get exactly what I needed?” “Saar, this is what we do every Sunday,” comes the response. Harris Jayaraj who has given memorable music for many Tamil films is critiqued for a repetitiveness which seems to not bother his fans.

How about classical music? Surely here expectations are different? Surely it must have no room for anything but the creative, the deep and the brilliant?  Sadly not! Singing a raga is not the easiest thing to do. One looks at past and present masters for ways to go about it. The Sanskrit alankarikas speak of vyutpatti as fundamental to the making of a poet. The aspiring poet should study past masters repeatedly and deeply. There is a saying that there is no merchant who is not a thief, and there is no poet who is not a thief (naasti achowro vanigjanah, naasti achowrah kavijanah). But this thieving is not envisaged to the extent of an Oscar Wilde. When the Irish poet and playwright heard a clever remark by American painter James McNeill Whistler, he said, “Oh, I wish I had said that.” To this Whistler responded: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Students of Hindustani and Carnatic music are encouraged to listen to past masters and attend as many live concerts as possible – this is regarded as important as training and practice. One might even start off by imitating past masters, but this is hardly the path to tread permanently.

The dynamics between the performer and her relationship with the music of past masters is dicey and quite complex. If a performer evokes the music of a past master, that is vested with great value. But if she sounds exactly like a past master then it is dismissed by the discerning, but not necessarily by the average concert goer. There was a time when every female khayal singer sounded exactly like Kishori Amonkar and some of these vocalists are top performers today.  Of one of these singers a rasika remarked that she sounds more like Kishori Amonkar than Kishori Amonkar herself. But that did not stop her rise to the top. Bhimsen Joshi has been the hero for singers from the Dharwad area and, even today, successful singers sing like him to the extent of displaying similar bodily mannerisms. In Carnatic music, the works of GN Balasubramaniam were and continue to be a craze.

Though imitative music or technique-driven music do often bring success, these are not really valuable as art. Such success is enveloped in a cloud of dismissibility and undeservedness. How then does one attain that extra dimension that lifts the music to the level of artistry? It is no doubt an innate capacity that seems to involve being endowed with a very different kind of memory. Performers must train, practice, listen to a great deal of music, but while performing they should be in a state of suspension of explicit memory and discursive thought. It is a risky state, not easy to attain. And it is not unique to the world of art: sports is another case in point. This state is a kind of advaita, where the song is not different from the singer to be recalled in explicit memory. It just flows, as it were.

Parker’s musician and other such rare musical minds are what VS Naipaul would call the truly good. He said, “What matters in the end … what is always there, is the truly good… what is good is always what is new, in both form and content. What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected; we have to catch it on the wing.”

(Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani vocalist as well as a writer and academic based in Chennai)

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