Performing/Creative Arts Fellowship
Carnatic Music on the Double Bass
I am requesting a Senior Performing Arts fellowship to enable me to engage in nine months of intensive study of Carnatic music inSouthern India. The goal of my project is four-fold: 1) to further develop skill in performing Carnatic violin music on my instrument, the double bass (bass violin), by studying with leading Carnatic violin master Mr. Lalgudi Jairaman and to perform often with other Carnatic musicians (violin, vina, mridangam). Mr. Jairaman has agreed to teach me during the grant period; 2) to learn specific Carnatic compositions and techniques for Carnatic improvisation, and incorporate these in my traditional western recitals. This will introduce Carnatic music to a broader audience in the West; 3) to explore ways of combing elements of improvised Carnatic music, improvised American Jazz, and Western Classical music to develop a new style of improvisation which is a synthesis of these three different musical styles; 4) to compare new works (fully notated compositions) for the double bass which combine elements of Carnatic music (ragas, talas, bhava, and specific composed songs, e.g., compositions by Saint Tyagaraja) and Western Classical music (harmony and musical form, e.g., J.S. Bach and Mozart) and Jazz (rhythm and harmony). My intention is to compose works which I and other professional western double bassists will find interesting and exciting to perform.
To the best of my knowledge, I am the first double bassist to explore the synthesis of Carnatic music and western music. This cross-cultural artistic project will add a new kind of music to the concert repertoire for double bass. Introducing the double bass in the performance of Carnatic music may also have important implications for music inIndiaitself (the western violin played with Indian tunings is a central instrument in Carnatic music, although it was introduced only a little more than 100 years ago). In 1998 I studied for five weeks inIndiawith Carnatic violinist Bala Subramaniam. At the beginning of my studies, Mr. Bala Subramaniam had strong reservations about the feasibility of performing Carnatic music on the double bass. As our work progressed, he heard how well the violin and double bass work together, and he became very enthusiastic about the depth of sound and increased musical possibilities the addition of the double bass provides to the performance of Carnatic music. The important discoveries we made concerning the adaptability of the double bass to the performance of Carnatic music are as follows:
1) The double bass is a versatile instrument, capable of both solo and accompanying roles. It has almost a four octave pitch range and is able to play three octaves below the violin, as well as in the violin range. The two instruments complement each other in exciting and interesting ways. They can play the same melody either in unison or separated by one or more octaves, making possible tremendous power of musical expression. When playing in a call-and-response style, the dialogue between the two solo instruments is easy to follow due to their contrasting tone colors and registers. When the double bass assumes the role of accompanying the violin, it usually plays in a lower register than the violin. Yet because of its capacity for soloistic virtuosity, the double bass can play accompaniment music which is melodically interesting and source of musical ideas for the violin. The double bass can even assume the role of the tambura, providing the simple drone accompaniment traditionally used in performance of Carnatic music.
2) The sound of the bowed double bass is expressive, beautiful, warm and exceptional in its capacity to imitate the human singing voice. Its range spans the high female voice to the low male voice.
3) Because I am trained in Western music, my Carnatic improvisations include aspects of Western music such as a Western approach to thematic development and interest in harmony. These Western ideas which I bring to a violin/double bass performance necessarily provide the Carnatic violinist with many new ideas.
While my work is pioneering new possibilities for the double bass in the field of music in the West, hopefully it will have an impact inIndiaas well. Considering the possibilities and strengths of the double bass as both a solo and accompanying instrument, it is my hope that Indian musicians will be inspired to explore further the use of the double bass in Carnatic performance.
My first exposure to Carnatic music came when I heard Carnatic violinist Bala Subramaniam perform while I was on a sabbatical trip to India in 1997. I was fascinated by the beauty of the melodic lines, the intricacies of the improvisations, and the intensely personal expression which I felt I his performance. Since then, I have found strong parallels between Carnatic music performance and my own approach to playing the double bass.
Carnatic music is of particular interest to me because it is essentially a vocal tradition. In Carnatic music there is essentially no distinction between vocal and instrumental concert repertoires; the instrument is treated as a voice. My approach to playing the double bass has long been rooted in imitating the lyrical and expressive characteristics of singing. I strive to mimic as closely as I can the sound, inflections, phrasings, vibrato, and tonal support used by singers. In my lessons with Bala Subramaniam, I had to listen to and sing back the music he played on the violin. When I was successful singing accurately, I then was able to play the music on the double bass. A large portion of my learning thus involved being able to identify and remember what he presented, and to imitate him with my own personal expressiveness.
Improvisation is an integral part of my performing, and my skills as a Jazz improviser serve me very well as I learn the Carnatic style. My interest in Carnatic music also stems from its strong improvisational component. Both improvisation and the rendition of pre-composed pieces play important roles in Carnatic musical performances. I appreciate improvised Carnatic music, particularly because it provides a unique musical way of speaking about some of the more sublime human emotions, such as beauty, joy, yearning and love.
My creative efforts for many years have been directed towards developing a unique voice as a double bass soloist. In the last four years I have begun to rely more and more on performing compositions which I have written. These works combine aspects of traditional styles of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music along with aspects of the uniquely American form of music I love to play—Jazz. I recognize in Carnatic music a wealth of new possibilities which I can use to compose new and exiting works for double bass—works which both I and other professional double bassists will want to perform.
Learning Carnatic music presents significant challenges for me as a Western Classical musician. First of all, I have grown up with Western Classical music, which is primarily limited to two scales (ragas)—the major and minor scales. In Carnatic music I have begun to learn some of the well over 80 ragas, which include basic ragas and variations thereof. As a creative artist (performer and composer), this has been an exciting process for me because each raga is associated with a very specific human emotion. I have had to examine the structure of each raga in order to gain an understanding of the notes which are most important for conveying aspects of each specific mood. The challenge this presents me as a Western musician is that not only do I have to develop a command of the theoretical aspects of the raga, but I must also develop the necessary expressive understanding in order to convey successfully the underlying emotion of the raga to the audience.
The second significant challenge in learning Carnatic music has to do with the way in which it is taught. Unlike our Western tradition, the transmission of repertory and performing practice of Carnatic music is achieved almost entirely through aural instruction. Learning a Carnatic song requires that the student first be able to sing the song with all of its embellishments (ornaments) perfectly before being permitted to play it on the instrument. Notation is used mainly as an aid to memory, not for the dissemination of written compositions. As a Western musician, I have almost always relied on reading musical notation to learn music, both Classical music and Jazz. Mr. Bala Subramaniam taught exclusively by ear. This process of learning Carnatic music, which has proven to be both strenuous and time consuming, has required me to use different cognitive skills than I have previously had to use learning Western Classical music. It has become clear to me that the only way to develop the high level Carnatic improvisation skills is to study for an extended period of time with a master.
In August 1998 and again in December, I traveled toIndiawith my double bass to spend a total of five weeks studying with Bala Subramaniam. Working with Bala Subramaniam was very productive and inspiring, and has opened my eyes and ears to a vast world of creative possibilities for my instrument. It is clear to me, though, that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities this music has to offer. Mr. Bala Subramaniam has urged me to go toMadrasso that I can immerse myself for an extended period of time in its rich musical environment. Living there, I will study with Mr. Lalgudi Jairaman and perform frequently with some of the multitude of violinists, vina players, tabla players and singers living there, immediately putting into practice what I learn in private lessons. The outcome of my work will include being able to perform specific works from the Carnatic repertoire, as well as becoming skilled in the techniques of Carnatic improvisation. My research and study will also be devoted to notating major Carnatic compositions and collecting musical ideas which I can use in my own composition of new works for the double bass which combine aspects of Indian Carnatic music with Western Classical music and Jazz.
My interest in learning Carnatic music has led me to such scholarly works as Bonnie Wade’s “Music in India,” C.R. Day’s “The Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India and the Deccan,” Josef Kuckertz “Form and Melodiebildung der Karnatischen Musk Sudindiens,” and the current authoritative text used to teach Carnatic music at the University of Madras—A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer’s ‘Ganamrutha Bodhini.’ With my growing interest and excitement about the possibilities Carnatic music holds for me as a performer, I have recognized the tremendous amount of ground work which I must first do in order to develop a firm foundation of the fundamentals of this music. Three months ago I was very fortunate to begin weekly lessons with [name deleted] a student of Mr. Lalgudi Jairaman. We are systematically working through A. S. Panchapakesa Iyer’s ‘Ganamrutha Bodhini,’ the book she herself used to learn Carnatic music. I am learning the theories and practice of Ragas, Thalam, and general history of the Carnatic tradition, which while connected with greater Indian music, has a theory and history its own. My goal for the coming twelve months is to develop mastery of the theoretical and historical fundamentals of Carnatic music, thus preparing me to be able to work on more sophisticated aspects of Carnatic music performance during my AIIS grant period inIndia.
In February 1999 I had my first opportunity to share Carnatic music on the double bass with leaders in the growing filed of improvised music. I was one of the guest artists (the only bassist, along with seven violinists) at a national conference on improvised music being sponsored by the American String Teachers Association. My session was entitled ‘Improvised Carnatic violin music played on the double bass.’
Toward the conclusion of my stay in India, I intend to record a CD in collaboration with my Indian colleagues and mentors. Included in this recording will be works which explore a new synthesis between Carnatic and Western music. I also will write articles about my work for the International Society of Bassists Journal and the American String Teachers Association Journal. I plan to perform my Carnatic-inspired music at the next International Society of Bassists convention.