Visit to Boston: Playing with Veena, Violin and Double Mridungam

(Edit: 10/22/07: Pictures of this concert have been posted here.

It appears that even after my attempt to get back to posting here, I let a couple months go by again. I moved to a new residence, though I am still in the Bay Area. It was a hectic month packing, moving, painting, and buying/selling/giving away furniture. I also painstakingly set up a sound system: speaker cables/banana plugs and all — definitely a subject of another post.

Anyways, this post is about a concert I am about to do tomorrow evening in Framingham, MA. I will be playing a very unique Carnatic concert with four musicians: Durga Krishnan (Veena), Tara Anand (Violin), Pravin Sitaram (Mridungam) and Mali Santhanakrishnan (Mridungam). Here are the details:

Keefe Tech School,
750 Winter st, Framingham, MA 01702
6th October 2007, Saturday: 4:00 PM

This is a significant event for both myself and listeners, and here is why:

1. A Unique Combination: It is not common to have a instruments such as veena, saxophone and violin performing together in such a format — I suppose it is close to the famous “veena, venu, violin” trio concept that comes around once in a while, but it is agreeably a rare case. We had a rehearsal yesterday just to touch base, and the sound is quite unique. I suppose the double mridungam, while not too common, is also not uncommon at all these days.

Warning: Delving into some instrumental technicalities below!

2. Sruthi and Flexibility in Ragas: The significance here is mainly from my perspective. I will be playing my alto saxophone as I usually do, but instead of playing my normal sruthi of Bb as I do in my solo concerts, I will be playing in D. Most musicians would wonder why that is a big deal. In jazz and Western music, the key/chords are always changing. We have to practice jazz standards in all keys, right?

For Carnatic music it is much different. Of course the details of how that is would be too much to mention here, but suffice it to say, it is a challenging endeavor just to play Carnatic music on the saxophone in one key/sruthi. That is of course because of the difficulty of producing gamakas etc. on the instrument and also the fact that changing the key changes in all ways possible, the complete approach to producing gamakas and rendering Carnatic compositions on the saxophone. For those Carnatic listeners/musicians out there, the only way to adjust to pitch on the saxophone beyond maybe a 1/4 step is to start on a different note, thus changing the fingering. In order to do such a thing, one would have to re-evaluate and re-invent, while slowly perfecting fingering/blowing technique and crafting an approach to playing in the new sruthi, taking into account the limitations of the instrument.

That said, my guru Sri Kadri Gopalnath had initially adapted the saxophone to Carnatic music in Bb taking to account the range and possibilities of the instrument. Having spent much time studying under him and practicing on my own, as well as having many other influences, I still very much agree with his choice of Bb as the best and most musical sruthi for adapting the alto saxophone to Carnatic music.

Why then, do you ask would I change my sruthi for this concert, and how would I actually perform? Good question! For the sake of the group and for trying to have a concert with this instrumentation, it was necessary. I am just taking it as a challenge and hoping that it will in some way, help me develop more. Over preparing for the concert the past few days, I already feel that it is opening up different ideas for me, though in very subtle ways.

The three biggest challenges are limited range, producing appropriate gamakas, and lastly playing compositions and improvising in a completely different fingering set, effectively unlearning my years of practice and muscle memory. Such a thing is commonplace in jazz, but in Carnatic music, it just is not the same, as strange as that may sound to jazz or Western musicians.

So those of you who attend the concert will be able to hear the Carnatic saxophone in a different, much higher pitch than usual. It should be interesting.

Special thanks to all the musicians for going along on this journey.

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