Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Music for this chameleon

Having just returned from Canada a couple of days ago, I'm experiencing a phenomenon that I thoroughly enjoy even if I don't have time for it. Briefly the story goes like this.

I love music, but unlike many (most) people I know, I don't really have a single favourite genre. Indian Classical, Western Classical, Rock and Jazz (not in order) are my four big favourites, though I enjoy many other kinds of music off and on (and I greatly enjoy selected Bollywood songs, both new and old).

The problem is that I don't really have the time to indulge this obsession. In these days it's easy to do a count. I added up all the music I possess in various forms (CD, cassette, LP, mp3 files on several different hard disks) and it adds up to more hours than I have left to live, even by a very optimistic estimate. And, for whatever it's worth, I do have a career of some not totally negligible value. And friends and relatives. Plus I love to sleep at night. So what's a person to do?

Inevitably I focus on one genre and neglect all the others over a long period. But in this, like the chameleon in the title of this posting, I take on the hue of my surroundings. A few weeks ago I was in Pondicherry and heard an excellent concert of the violinists Ganesh and Kumaresh. That revived my interest in Carnatic music, dormant since a few decades. I dug out from my cassette collection a recording of a concert by Chitravina maestro N. Ravikiran which, remarkably, took place in my own studio apartment on the TIFR campus in the mid 1980's. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Purandaradasa's "Jagadodharana" which in turn led to the extraction of a K.V. Narayanaswamy cassette where he has performed a truly moving rendition of this piece. And so on. I should mention that every time I dig out a cassette, I listen to it and simultaneously convert it into mp3 format on my hard disk so is preserved (for ever? I wonder).

Then I went to Beijing. That was a short trip and I didn't hear any music there - so nothing happened. I focused on my lectures.

A few months earlier I spent a month at CERN, living in the countryside outside Geneva. During this period I listened endlessly to the music of Chopin.

But this posting is about Canada, from where I returned a couple of days ago. Now here is an interesting case. Many famous rock musicians, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, hail from Canada (though they are usually thought of just as "American"). So the radio stations there play more of their music. I am a great admirer of both these talented musicians and on previous visits to Canada have acquired some recordings that I didn't previously have.

This time it was different. I can't tell exactly when it happened, but a rock band called simply "The Band" came back into my consciousness after ages. This is a band with a difference - superb musicians in a highly visible field who from the outset eschewed visibility in favour of high art and fine craftsmanship. From their early beginnings as a backing band (notably for Bob Dylan) they went on to establish an independent reputation for a kind of music that simply doesn't exist anywhere else. And yes, four of the five members hailed from Canada.

I refer you to this website, remarkably hosted in Norway, for more information about them than you'll ever need. But let me briefly say my piece. Robbie Robertson was the main composer and lead guitarist. His guitar style was an eye-opener for me. Not for him the self-indulgent antics and lengthy solos of other guitarists. Though he was one of the two front-men on stage (side-by-side with Rick Danko) he would always play an understated role, mostly confined to rhythm, and then underline his presence in mid-song with the briefest and most Zen-like solo, a perfect summary of everything in just four or five seconds. The Band boasted three different vocalists, Richard Manuel (who also played piano), Levon Helm (who also played drums) and Rick Danko, the bassist, each one with voices of a different tonal colour. Helm was the lone American. And finally Garth Hudson, on organ, accordion and other keyboards, lent a bent, atonal colour to the music that had one wondering whether it qualified as folk (the origins of this band) or hard rock, or even something synthesiser-based and Pink-Floydish.

The greatest hit song of The Band (they didn't really do hits, though) was "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", an anthem of the American Civil War that sounds as if it surely must have been written just after that war and in remembrance of it, rather than in 1969 by the Canadian Robbie Robertson. (Predictably the song was publicised - and murdered - by the insufferable Joan Baez). But this is for sure not a one-song band. Each of their studio albums is a masterpiece and every single song is worth listening to.

They recorded seven such albums before falling into, sadly, the chaotic decline typical of so many rock bands. Manuel committed suicide following a long bout of alcoholism, Danko dropped dead after a similar period of drug and alcohol issues, and Helm and Robertson were (and perhaps still are) at war over credit. I haven't listened to their last three, post-Manuel and minus-Robertson, albums but they have received good reviews and my next three days are earmarked for them.

For newcomers to The Band, there is the Martin Scorsese movie "The Last Waltz", based on their "final" concert in San Francisco in 1976. At this concert The Band were accompanied by their many friends including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young. Unless you're living on a faraway planet, you might have heard of some or all of them.

My fixation with The Band will last a few more days, but in their memory I will quote Dylan, who sang during the Last Waltz concert: "May God bless and keep you always".


Ramanan said...

Ganesh and Kumaresh have a fanstastic album called "Carnatic Chills" which the record company describes as their New Age album. its fusion without fusion.

Btw, the store Rhythm House is online at and if you already know, do tell us about how to get the site working because the search rarely works. However, you get your order in 1 day almost anywhere in India.

Anonymous said...

"[..] the insufferable Joan Baez"

What arouses this extreme dislike? She does have a fabulous voice!

Sunil Mukhi said...

Anti-cargo: That's just it. Having a fabulous voice is too often taken to imply that the person has talent too (there are several notable examples in Indian Classical Music).

I personally believe (and I realise it's a minority view) that a singer with a good voice is like a poet with good handwriting. The quality of one's art depends on the actual music and poetry, not on the presentation through voice and handwriting.

The "extreme dislike" you noticed was perhaps exaggerated on my part, but stems from the fact that: (i) X writes a stunning song and his band performs it superbly, but no one knows about it, (ii) Y performs the same song solo after incompetently mangling many of the lyrics (details here) and it's well received because of her "fabulous voice". It would be like no one reading Shakespeare until someone transcribed his plays patiently in beautiful longhand - that could happen, but would hardly be fair.

Indrajeet Patil said...

Do you like Orchestral music? If yes, then you must listen to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack by Howard Shore. Its magnificent.

Meta Dynamic Systems said...

I have such a difficulty in not letting out my spontaneous thought of using your favourite phrase (It is official now in my acquaintance circle that I am the brand ambassador for that phrase!) for going so minute to details as to becoming horrifically microscopic... Sunil, I will leave it for you to complete.

Morphing the perception of the music Vs voice debate, say, to perfection Vs Mediocre, interestingly, can connect to an Integral part of the central theme of Amadeus - A superb cinematization in general, that, in particular, magnifies, a not so appropriate (even discounting on behalf of, the so called, cinematic liberty) a theory about the spiteful relationship of Salieri to Mozart.

Anyways, a delightful blog entry. Kudos. I look forward to more of this type. Cant' Separate: Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game", Deepak, you and my psyche.

An almost equally morphed note: I have a great, my own, recipe book. I am sure that very few will come close to my cooking!