Category Archives: music

Generation ‘W’

Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’,  and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.

But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.

For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:

not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.

With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.

The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!

The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.

The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’  from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?

Why slick steps are not enough

Was in a great place called Auroville attending their first Tango festival, and had a fantastic time. Good dancers, eager beginners, good and bad natured people, all had their representatives in the mix of people present there. I had already written something about the dance itself some time ago. What the festival afforded me was an insight into the psychological aspects surrounding Tango, which go beyond the dance floor and into daily life as well.

The ultimate aim of any dance is to merge with the music completely and express what emotions the music evokes through your self. Couple dances add the complication that it is not only one person that has to do this, but two people at the same time. Tango, being completely improvised, adds yet another dimension of having to be in complete sync with what your partner is doing at any particular moment. If you learn the steps in advance, then only the music matters. Being in synchrony with your partner means letting her inside your head, and vice versa, and this can be quite unnerving. Though it is possible to dance a perfectly good tango without this psychological surrender, the experience is not quite the same.

It was not uncommon in the dances I attended in the evenings to see men exhibiting fantastic steps and good control over the dance. However, it was also common to see that the steps had nothing to do with what music was playing. One could see couples moving at 150 km/hour for a 30 km/hour song, violating the ‘ultimate aim’ of any dance. There were others who were musically inclined, but the necessity to show off still made them do smart steps in time to the music. One look at their partners and you could see them frowning all the time, trying desperately to keep in step with their ‘smart’ leaders and the music was completely secondary to them, which is a terrible thing to happen to a dancer. The dance looked attractive from the outside, but speaking to some of them afterward, it was clear that it was not very enjoyable from the inside.

Chemistry away from the dance floor seems to contribute something intangible but omnipresent in the dance. Those who are friendly, affectionate towards your off the dance floor tend to be excellent people to dance with, regardless of their technical capabilities. Having danced with a few people who were more interested about what was happening elsewhere rather than paying complete attention to the dance, Tango then becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. On the other hand, dancing with someone who is interested you as a person and not only as a dancer makes it possible to create something deep and intense with steps you learn in the first week of your Tango lessons. That tango allows you to create an instant connection even while dancing with a complete stranger is an added bonus, and something special about it. It is said (probably exaggerated) that women in Argentina won’t marry anyone unless they have danced a tango with him first. Looking back at Auroville, it is not hard to understand why.

So, how does this translate to real life? Tango is about being present in that moment, with that note playing, with this person you are dancing with, trying to make the moment as wonderful as possible for both. There is no ultimate aim. This is the reason that those who dance with some motive in mind, like impressing women or trying to find a soul mate, end up being unpleasant people to dance with. The only way to impress your partner or find your soul mate is to not try consciously. The awareness that you have found something/someone special comes to you only after the song is over. All you are doing by giving your 100% to this particular moment is painting an honest picture of yourself, which you can reflect upon and gain a better understanding of yourself.

Thoughts on Tango

Recently started studying Tango under a most fantastic guru in Bangalore, and have to say that it has been a very interesting learning experience. Having never pursued dance seriously or bothered to understand it well has given me not only something to practise but also something to think about.

Tango originated in Argentina (Eric Hobsbawm takes particular care in mentioning that it emerged from the brothels of Argentina, though it has long since moved away from any such associations.) and is meant to be danced by a couple. Argentine Tango is completely improvised, which means that you cannot really get away by practicing with one partner and also that each dance is a new experience.

Dance differs from music and art in the following manner: while playing music, you think about notes and play notes. While painting, you imagine a scene and try to reproduce that visual. Dance, however, is fundamentally an interpretation — you listen to the music and convert it to a tableau with your body. Moreover, the representation that you are creating is not really visible (or audible) to you, but only to a third person, unlike music or art where the feedback is immediate. The only feedback is your own sense of form, which has to be assembled together by your awareness of what configuration the various parts of your body are in.

As one can imagine, relying on such inputs to create something beautiful while actively interpreting the music you hear cannot be easy (or beautiful!). What dance does reinforce is the recognition that humans are intensely visual and aural creatures, relying mainly on our sense of sight and hearing to help us navigate through the world. Dance uses a very different sense, which is known as proprioception which we use mainly unconsciously. Thus, it is not uncommon to see people who seem to be dancing atrociously without having any idea that they are doing so. It is also why dancers rely heavily on lingual inputs from their teachers and visual inputs from a mirror — they are using their dominant senses to train the others. In other words, you have to learn to ‘listen’ to your body, which is not something you commonly do.

Probably because dancers rely on a less dominant (and mostly unconscious) sense like proprioception, all dances emphasize heavily on form — the shape in which your body is at any given time. Tango is no different and though its formal aspects are not too many they will be repeated over and over in class. Hubert (my guru) calls them the ‘geometry’ of Tango — the structure of the embrace, the angle and distance between partners and how it changes over time, among other things. It is very easy to look terrible dancing Tango since the dance is mainly improvised. A choreographed  dance can be drilled into someone, but that is not the case here.

Since Tango involves two people, communicative aspects invariably enter the picture. How one can (should!) communicate without visual or audible signs is at the core of any dancer’s training. All communication requires a medium, and the Tango embrace provides this medium. It also requires a grammar, which in Tango is not very elaborate, making it possible to ‘express yourself’ quite early in your Tango classes. It also makes it easy to achieve the goal of being able to dance with anyone, anywhere. Of course, this is possible only if both partners know the grammar perfectly, and beginner’s Tango classes are a fascinating aid in trying to imagine a world where there does not exist any language. It would probably be a very angry and frustrated world!

A lot of Tango, especially in the Hollywood movies, emphasizes its spectacular and the erotic aspects out of all proportion. Thus, it will seem to the outsider that Tango has not really moved away from the brothels of Argentina. But anyone who attends a class will know that the focus of the dancer will be more on not kicking or getting kicked by their partner! More seriously, Tango is more of an intimate dance than an erotic one. The intimacy derives from various sources. One, the very fact that you are physically close to your partner (duh!). Two, the fact that you are touching your partner — touch is the most immediate of senses, along with taste. Three, the fact that you are communicating with another person without using sight or sound. It implies that you have to be ‘tuned in’ to your partner to a greater extent than usual, since listening to someone’s touch is not a part of everyday experience. In fact, it is not uncommon for partners to look confused or break out into a smile at the same time, without ever exchanging a word. Four, the fact that you are your partner are listening and trying to interpret the same bit of music. A particularly good interpretation will suddenly increase the ‘zing’ in the dance, for both.

It has been an interesting few classes, and I find Tango to be a particularly good way to learn more about myself, since your partner is like a mirror, showing you what don’t want to see!

Life at 8 kmph – A Walker’s Manifesto

Whether on four limbs or two, we and our ancestors have been walking for millenia. It is in our DNA, and we still rely on it from time to time when our cars break down, just like our ancestors relied on it when their donkeys suddenly died. In fact, we have been walking for longer than we have been thinking, which explains why the average human walks far better the she can think – If everybody walked as well as they thought, the world would be a very dizzy place for most of us.

Here, no attempt is made to outline the physical importance of walking – This every IT professional or MBA knows and no farmer or street vendor needs to know – this is an attempt to delineate the cosmology of the walker. Also, it is an attempt to understand how man’s relationship with his walk changed after cataclysms like the invention of the wheel and the iPod. However, technical questions like how much to walk, at what intensity, with whom, how can one associate a real number with a certain kind of walk and other publishable questions are left to future theoreticians from some Institutes of Science.

A walker is a peaceful animal. She knows that she cannot walk faster than some 10 kmph regardless of what happens, therefore is content with her lot. Running is possible, but not for long distances – walking is the only way to ensure that one can transport oneself daily from point A to B without dying at a very early age. A walker is also a very careful animal. He is at his most vulnerable when not protected by his home and family. Thorns, predators, snakes, stones, pretty much everything in his path is potentially fatal. For example, if people only knew how to walk, then people would not have such a problem with night traffic being banned in Bandipur. Instead, they would request that such a ban be enforced in the interest of the walking public. For the walker, time is not composed of discrete intervals determined by some cesium atom. One does not have to reach some place at some time, one reaches a place when one reaches the place (preferably before sunset, when we are even more vulnerable).

A walker is learning and playing all the time, unlike those who need specialized locations for both. Learning about what to eat, where to stop, how much to talk are all part of the curriculum. At the same time, listening to the wind rustling through the leaves, the robin announcing the arrival of spring with interesting lectures from the tree tops, watching the trees burst into bloom and the grass drying out are all part of the small pleasures that come by the walker’s way. A walker can stand and stare for as long as she wants, an ability that is slowly dying out. Staring is a very important part of both the intellectual and aesthetic development of the walker, though nowadays she would be accused of sexual harassment or mental illness for doing the same.

A walker does not go visit point B alone, but an infinite number of places along the way. People coming to Mysore complain that they only have around 10 places to visit, boring place. Maybe a walk around will change their mind. Thus, for a walker space is not composed of finite points connected by finite curves, but a continuum of points from here to everywhere. It is therefore not surprising that walkers know more about a place than anyone else. Nothing is boring because nothing is static, space in a walker’s view is always fluid, just like time, and both are in consonance – more the space in front of you, the more the time you will have.

And then comes the wheel. Nowadays, everybody wants their own wheels, depending on what they can afford. Thus, an American rides a Harley, an Indian rides a Hero Honda and an IIScian rides a cycle. For some strange reasons not well understood, from where they come (point A) and where they go (point B) suddenly are given undue importance. Another strange concept called ‘saving time’ also gets introduced, which justifies riding wheels that rotate faster than ever. Time cannot be stored for a rainy day, nor does it need saving from anything, thus this saving business seems to be mere wordplay rather than a concrete concept. Space and time are now quantities that are opposed to each other – farther means you ‘save less time’. The harmony between space and time is destroyed in this process.

Now everybody has ‘saved’ time, and therefore has plenty of time to ‘spare’. Since it cannot be lent to others, it must be used by its owner in the best manner possible – parties, philosophy, defence policy, business expansion and the like. Unfortunately, as was noted before, man does not think as well as he walks. Thus, it is not surprising that most of the problems in the world today are caused by the ‘savers’ – animals with too much time and too little brains. If they only had less time to plot jihads or search for cheap labor markets, we might have been better off. Simply put, walking naturally leads to world peace!

Earplugs which deliver music right to your eardrum is another invention that is killing the pleasure of walking. Like all good earplugs, they cutoff the walker from his surroundings, surrounding him with badly composed notes which are not even infinite like the ones he is cutoff from. Thus, his concept of space and time are completely dictated by another person (sometimes rightly called the ‘conductor’). Since the walker no longer pays attention to his surroundings, all the dangers that he faces are thus to be paved over by roads, killed or put into National Parks. Thus, not only does he affect himself, but everything around him as well.

These and other pernicious inventions have relegated the walker from being the centre of her universe to a small, sometimes irritating, part of someone else’s universe. It is high time we discover the walker in ourselves, before we evolve to a stage where we do not know what to do when our donkey dies.

Epistemic limits of scientific enquiry

Had attended a talk the other day by Dr. Jayant Haritsa from the CSA department, on using textual representations of Carnatic music (Music written as Sa Ri Ga Ma etc.,) to determine what is the ‘Aarohana’ and ‘Avarohana’ (the equivalent of scale in Western music) of a given Raaga or identifying the raaga itself, given another piece of music, outside the ones used to train the identification system. Among other aims than the ones given above, was to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for the raagas, based on the statistics of usage of notes in various compositions, and maybe, provide a better Arohana/Avarohana for the raaga itself than the one received from tradition.

The talk was itself quite interesting and the system seems to do pretty well. In the Q&A session, a lot of concern was generated as to whether the ‘better’ Arohana/Avarohana proposed by the system would capture the ‘mood’ of the raaga, which seems to be an essential part of each raaga. Haritsa was of the opinion that as scientific researchers, we must not take things for granted and must try to question tradition using tools of science.

The essential issue, which one can generalize to things further than just music and its analysis, is the question of what is knowledge and/or Truth. More specifically in this context, one can ask the question as to what type of knowledge can we obtain using the scientific method, and whether this is the only kind which is ‘reliable’, the rest being ‘subjective’  is useless in a more general context, i.e, whether Truth in all its glory is best sought out using the scientific method.

Upfront, one must understand the fundamental premise of the scientific method, even leaving out its reductionist inclinations — Nature is not random: it follows some logic, some pattern which by large number of observations and/or experiments is discovered and this knowledge (from observation/experimentation) eventually can be called Truth. This is not hard to justify: we can see patterns everywhere in Nature and can build quite accurate models of the same. The reliability of scientific knowledge depends hugely on the concept of measurement – representing natural phenomena as cardinal numbers – numbers we can use to say something about the size of the measured phenomenon. No observation or experiment can be called a success/failure if it does not produce some kind of number. For example, Haritsa’s system produces a number per candidate scale for a raaga — higher the number, more likely it is the correct scale.

Immediately, one can see phenomena that the scientific method cannot be used to investigate : Emotions, ethics, likes, dislikes, etc., etc., Not only are these immeasurable (neuroscientists may disagree!) quantities, but they are also incommensurable: a statement like 2.5\times Happiness \geq 0.5\times Sadness makes absolutely no sense. Also, science can give no answers to statements like ‘The world is Maaya’, or ‘What we perceive is not what Is’. These statements belong to the same class of knowledge that the fundamental ‘axiom’ of science belongs to — you cannot prove or disprove them within the logical system that is built upon that axiom.

Now, music is a strange beast. It is highly patterned (scientists like to talk about its ‘mathematical’ structure), but at the same time, its main (probably only) value is in the emotion that it evokes: it is not coincidence that music is an essential part of religious worship, especially of the Bhakti variety. Therefore, no musical education is complete without a good understanding of both the patterns and the emotions (Bhaava) associated with music. Now, scientists are uncomfortable (or dismissive) about things they cannot measure, and musicians are uncomfortable (or dismissive!) of statistical analyses of their art. Therefore, it is not surprising to for each to value one of the two more. Haritsa’s and the audience’s apprehensions merely betrays their respective inclinations.

With the advent of huge computing power, a scientist’s optimism in understanding the universe has understandably increased. It is a common notion that failure of mathematical models is simply due to the ‘exclusion of some variable’ from the model. With more information/data, one can do arbitrarily well. This attitude conveniently ignores the fact that some quantities are not measurable and even if some quantitative representation is possible, they might be incommensurable. This can be seen best in sciences dealing with human tastes and values, like economics, sociology or anthropology. Subjects like econometrics, social psychology seem to be treading a fine line that distinguishes scientific knowledge from gobbledygook. For example, if one surveys 100 students asking them to rate the facilities at the hostel on a scale of 1 to 10, and we conclude that the average score is 8 and so most are satisfied (assume a score greater than 7 implies satisified), we are making two assumptions : we can add the satisfaction of 100 people and divide that number by 100, and that one student’s rating of 7 is the same as another student’s rating of 7. Though there have been arguments justifying such an approach, it is upto the individual to decide how seriously to take such surveys.

The dominant paradigm of our times is that of scientific optimism, and most appeals to emotion or morals are considered ‘woolly’ and ‘unscientific’. But one must realise that unless there is a healthy engagement with both pattern finding and moralising, the Truth can never emerge.

Carnatic corner here!

I have begun to upload whatever lessons I have learnt in the past couple of years of Classical violin classes. All these will be available on a page called ‘Carnatic corner‘, accessible by the link on the right side of your screen.

For now, I have added the complete ‘basic’ lessons, upto Geethe, and will skip Swarajathis and Varnas for now, and go straight to the Kritis, which I’m currently learning. All are typeset in Kannada, since the present set of available books in print have atrocious typesetting.