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Arts Festival Review: Subramaniam

Arts Festival Review: Subramaniam

Reviewed by Tyler Hersey

L. Subramaniam
March 14, 7pm
St Mary of the Angels

For his Festival concert at Saint Mary of the Angels, classical Indian violin virtuoso L Subramaniam explored the fusion of eastern and western musical tradition with the help of two hand drummers and a player of the moorsing, a mouth harp. Although the uncomfortable, boomy church probably wasn’t the best venue for this demanding concert, the skill and emotion flowing from each player was spellbinding. Selecting just two extended improvisations for the entire 90-minute concert, Subramaniam displayed a cornucopia of moods and techniques within the boundaries of southern Indian classical (Karnatic) music.

After a good ten minutes of relaxed on-stage tuning, Subramaniam gently explained the essentials of Karnatic music to the audience before embarking on his first 40-minute exploration. Each raga is based on a set of rules which determine its tonal palate, mood, and rhythmic pulse. Foremost of these regulations is the scale of notes to be used in the piece. Certain notes are used in sequence, and many times there are different scales for ascending and descending passages.

If you recall the old tune “Doe, a Deer [Do-Re-Me]” from The Sound of Music, the seven major degrees of the musical scale can be described as Do (I)-Re (II)-Me (III)-Fa (IV)-So (V)-La (VI)-Te (VII). In western terminology, this naming system is called solfege. When both the natural and flat degrees of each note are counted, we have a total of twelve basic notes which can be played on modern instruments - A-flat, A, B-flat, B, etc. The I (one), Do, is movable; often the first note of a piece, it is the tonal centre around which the entire piece revolves. In most Indian music, this note is constantly played by the buzzing tampura, a simple string instrument which provides a drone over which the soloist creates and ornaments a melody. In this concert, an electronic tampura was used.

For his first raga, Subramaniam was limited to six of the twelve tones: Do, Re, the flat Me, Fa, La, and the flat Te. The flatted third and seventh degrees lent a dark, mysterious undertone to the piece, while the fourth and major six had a triumphant, almost majestic sound. By playing a series of three-note motifs which jumped between these two moods, Subramaniam created a wonderful juxtaposition of light and dark, of mystical eastern tonality mixed with familiar western sounds. At times, the raga took on a strong resemblance to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, which itself was an attempted to mix eastern and western tradition.

In his second raga, which was based on a kriti, or song, Subramaniam was free to use almost all degrees of the scale to augment the melody. The result was a much more western sounding piece, which made liberal use of the fifth and major seventh – both of which play a crucial role in western classical music. By occasionally alternating between the major and minor third, the violinist quickly morphed from a light, airy melody into darker, more introspective spaces for only one note, briefly leading the audience from afternoon sunshine into damp tunnels of the mind. The plaintive call of Subramaniam’s violin resonated loudly in the church when he found certain notes (especially the major 3rd), and it soon became apparent that the entire building had become his instrument.

The second set of rules which describes a raga is the tala, or rhythmic pulse of the piece. With two drummers trading lightning quick phrases and stopping on a dime, it was often difficult to follow the beat. Subramaniam’s first raga of the evening was based on groups of seven beats, which the players divided and subdivided with amazing telepathy. The kriti which followed was based on groups of four, and thus was much easier to comprehend. During the extended drum solos and duets featured in this kriti, Subramaniam counted time with the traditional Indian method, which involves a long series of hand gestures and claps which demarcate each beat in the phrase. With the drummers pounding and tapping at a frenetic pace, the rhythm fractured, passed between players like a hot potato. And just when everything seemed to fly off the handle, all hands would come together with a huge crescendo on the first beat of a new phrase, perfectly in time with Subramaniam’s count. Pure magic. Picking up the violin, Subramaniam soon fashioned looping triplets into patterns played just as rapidly as the drummers could tap, the elbow of his bowing arm flying up and down as if he were working a giant water pump. This dexterity is one of his hallmarks, and the rapidity with which he played was a sight to behold.

The third descriptive factor of a raga is the ornamentation which is utilized by the soloist. While the first raga included frequent flutters and microtonal slides, the kriti was again more western in scope, with straightforward tones and perfect intonation. The difference in mood created by these techniques was striking; the violinist formed great moments of tension by relentlessly dancing around his target notes in the first piece, while the second brought fulfilment in its strong, unfettered melodic delivery. It is Subramaniam’s ability to fashion this incredible variety of moods and sounds that makes him a truly unique player in the world today. Although the material he chose for this concert was quite traditional, his liberal use of western technique and tonality make him one of the most important fusion artists of our time.


NZ Arts Festival: Subramaniam
Subramaniam website
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 2006

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