What Am I Going To Achieve With My Music?

by rexplorations

This is a cross posting of an article I wrote for The Hindu on the margazhi music season in December in Chennai.

The original article is at this link.

It is that time of the year again — scores of Carnatic music aficionados, some curious, some hard core enthusiasts, some artists themselves and some just looking for a musical evening throng the concert halls in Chennai. Much has been said and written about artists old and new and the settings of Chennai’s well known concert halls that have been graced by the biggest names in Carnatic classical music. Not enough has been said, perhaps, about the crowds for which these festivals happen. Chennai is blessed with a more erudite crowd than most musical crowds for a musical festival on this scale, and the Margazhi season is, in fact, unique for this reason.

A little bit of time spent with these concert-going aficionados of one of India’s oldest musical art forms reveals how diverse they actually are. Among concert-going rasikas are a wide swath of people, from different age and professional groups, different leanings and even diverse musical and artistic tastes. We have bank clerks and call centre employees, software engineers and postal officers sitting side by side and enjoying concerts. Scenes from concert halls will reveal camera-toting note takers sitting alongside seemingly stoic veteran performers, unassumingly keeping track of the rhythm and pondering this melodic phrase or that. Some will tap notes into their smartphones, some scribble in tiny notebooks, as others whisper and murmur to neighbours about this raga or that tala. They’re a lively and responsive audience, generally, applauding the emphatic bits (however tasteful) and uttering a “shabhash” here or a “bhale” there. They’re not short on criticism either — opinions fly forth in concert debriefs over cups of coffee and snacks, with one rasika loving something that another simultaneously seems to hate. I too am one of these scores of people, attending concerts year after year, evolving tastes and finding new things to like (and dislike) along my musical journey.

The ‘business of music’

There is a specific subset of rasikas, though, that has my attention this time. These are the rasikas that not only attend a few concerts, but try their hand at the music too. Criticism is easy enough when you’re a consumer who only wants the answers. The creative process, however, involves questions. Music is an art form, and these questions I allude to are generated by an exploration of the medium, rather than developed objectively from some science or first principles. It would be unwise to contend, however, that there aren’t principles — they are indeed there, the system of notes and ragas and talas being rudimentary ones, other aspects besides. Subjective as each person’s musical explorations are, as humans we share a sense of aesthetics, while seeking out new styles and forms — and this is the very business of music, isn’t it?

This ‘business of music’ seems to be to answer questions that address, in the case of Carnatic music, some melodic possibility, some rhythmic possibility, or both. There’s more — there is sahityam, the verse, there is the voice, there is the panoply of the instrumental palette with flat and pitched drums to drones and voices. There is the management of time, theatrics and tradition too. The rasikas that are artists or performers in their own right see things through these various lenses. Further, they’re able to empathise with artists at some level, perhaps from the limited appreciation of one instrument, or perhaps its mastery, or perhaps the acquaintance with multiple instruments.

These artists who are mostly rasikas and concert-goers are, to me, what the music season is all about. They don’t find the question, “What do I do with my musical ability?” rhetorical. They probably don’t find a need to be more hopeful for their music to mean something in the context of the art itself. They probably don’t care if their music becomes something bigger than it is, or if others value it enough to buy it. Some may not even care to analyse their own music in detail, although they may find inspiration once in a while for such things. The fact that drives them to their instruments or to sing, is probably the fact that they value the time they spend playing music, or singing. They value the time they spend creating their own musical experience. They find some beauty in exploring their own string of questions and answers to what the art means to them. Perhaps they ask what this raga or that tala could mean in a given context, perhaps they wonder how something else would work better. Perhaps they just use the basic rules to explore new melodies and develop impromptu responses to creative impulses. More than anything, this ability to participate in the music themselves, enables them to visualise, imagine and “see the point of” another’s music, and this helps them as concert-goers.

I see immense value in something like this, personally, because of the variety of musical experience it opens one up to. When there are questions, there is curiosity, the whiffs of doubt, the excitement of exploration.

I implore those rasikas who are either dabblers in Carnatic music, or Carnatic musicians themselves, to therefore consider a few things, this music season:

  • The pieces you will listen to in various concerts, by various artists, are not about the artists, or their gurus, or even the composers. The pieces you will listen to ought to be about you, your musical experience, and what these pieces mean to you.
  • Your music is valuable — perhaps it is more valuable than you think. As long as it is music you created — yes, based on the rules of this musical form, but music you created — you ought to value it, understand it, seek to explore it and improve it as you see fit
  • Your music is, in fact, valuable enough to be shared. While some especially talented artists who are rasikas are not keen on sharing their music freely, I think it may be a good idea for those of us who are developing our musicianship, technique and aesthetics. We may not only receive feedback (as much as these may be our questions and answers, feedback surely opens up new ideas), but we may also inspire someone else to start their musical journey.

This music season, dabblers and amateur musician rasikas, make the music yourselves too, and make every piece of music you listen to, your own musical journey, your own experience. Not only will you experience each concert or piece more completely, but you will probably also start a new musical exploration of your own.