Hammering Out Some Crazy New Math

Another busy day. Too much to get done, in too little time, on way too little sleep. Yoo-Mi and I are both suffering jet lag and wake at the ungodly hour of 4:00 am; so we start cranking.

Other than our rapidly diminishing bandwidth, there is nothing much to report. You all know what work is; and it is not different here than there.

The evening, however, presented our first chance to join up with our friends Sridhar and Supriya. We decided to attend a concert, one of the many that are occurring daily in Madras during the Carnatic music season, which runs each year from December through the middle of January. We were joined by Smita and our friends from San Francisco, Jen and Terry. Before the tsunami struck, and our itinerary had little or no urgency about it, we had hoped to take full advantage of being here for the music season. Now, it looks like our ability to attend the concerts will be catch-as-catch-can.

The auditorium was packed, not because the concert was free (though it was), but because the featured musician was the magnificent mandolinist U Srinivas. Yoo-Mi and I had seen this 30-year old phenom play in Paris this past summer as a member of Shakti, with John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain. Here we were treated to a full Carnatic concert, with improvisational ragas of increasing length and complexity and several bajans thrown in to round off the performance.
U Srinivas
The performance was, indeed, electrifying. About the only thing Srinivas has in common with other mandolin virtuosi is his wicked speed and deadly accuracy. Srinivas makes the mandolin sound entirely like something it is not. His smooth, swift transitional approaches from one swara to the next make the instrument seem fretless. The bend he produces is almost veena-like, as though the mandolin were deeply fretted, lightly strung, or long-necked; but it is none of those things.

Sridhar summed up the performance best when he leaned over and commented, “Those guys are hammering out some crazy new math.” The tala (rhythms) alternated among eight, three, sixteen, five, sixteen, and seven beat cycles. There were times, for example when Srinivas and his drummers (a mrdungam and a ghatam) were playing two cycles of seven-and-a-half in order to make three cycles of five.

The swaras (notes) were no less intricately rendered. For example, though raga-based music is not harmonic, there were clearly times in his improvisations when Srinivas would fire off asdcending and descending arpeggios which found triplets or four-note runs of harmonically related swaras all perfectly within the chosen raga. To my ear this displayed the influence of Srinivas’s association with John McLaughlin, yet it was never out of place in the classical setting.

As luck had it, Sridhar’s grandparents were also in the audience that night, and we caught up with them after the performance. Sridhar’s grandmother was and is an acclaimed veena player – and a heck of a teacher too, if the amazing musicianship of Srihar’s mom, Malathi is any indication – and she was eager to comment on the music. “He’s absolutely brilliant,” she confided to me about Srinivas, “but you are lucky that he simplifies the ragas. Otherwise, it is probably too difficult for you to hear what is going on.” It was not her intent to insult my listening skills, which are certainly not those of a trained musician. Still, her comment was dead-on. Srinivas did break down the ragas in several of the pieces, avoiding some of the traditional complicated approaches to the predominant swaras from well above or well below.

The difference in our perspectives demonstrates just how many light-years I am from ever being able to fully understand this music. I thought I’d been given a “math lesson” and Sridhar’s grandmother thought she’d been asked to add simple sums. But that’s also the great thing about music: even if you are not knowledgeable enough to listen with your brain, you can always listen with your ears and be enraptured by the experience.

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