Music And Dance Ecology
What is music? To different people it would mean different things. There are many genres and varieties of music, each perhaps laying differing emphasis on various contributory factors like melody, rhythm, lyric and what have you. But the basic definition of music is simple. As the Chambers English Dictionary puts it, music is the art of expression in sound, in melody and harmony, including both composition and execution, sometimes specially of instrumental performance to the exclusion of singing." And how is noise defined ? It is " sound of any kind: an unmusical sound: an overloud or disturbing sound...." So, while sound is basic to music, music should have melody and harmony. These definitions indicate that any over-loud or disturbing sound is to be classified as noise.
What is the common experience of a rasika who attends a concert of Carnatic music? Barring a few exceptions, he or she is usually subjected to a projection of sound at a decibel level and with attendant distortions which merits description as noise. Much has been said about this but, regrettably, no noticeable improvement has come about in the last 10 years.
Sruti has also been recording its concern in this regard from time to time. In the February 1988 issue [Sruti 41) which covered the Madras 'season' during the 1987- 88, it was observed: A great deal has been written in Sruti itself (see especially Sruti 29) about the torture being inflicted by the mindless use of microphones and the ignorant use of amplifiers. But those in charge of organizing concerts seem to be indifferent or, more likely, incapable of dealing with this evil with a firm hand." It would be worthwhile to recall more of what Sruti said at that time.
'Separate microphones for sidemen have become a fact of life and perhaps it is not possible to do away with them, till we are able to introduce some sophisticated, balanced arrangement that will do less injustice to the main performer and the listener Of course, the main performer is also the culprit very often, asking for the boosting of the volume to unwarranted levels.
“While unacceptable volume levels were one of the banes of some of the festival concerts, there was also the equally painful lack of balance. The latter manifested itself in two forms: the first was the very common situation of inordinately high levels of amplification for the sidemen as compared to that provided for the main artist, resulting in the suppression of the finer nuances of the latter. The second was the lack of uniformity of sound in different spots of the auditorium. There does not seem to be any serious effort at monitoring the sound projected at different locations of the concert hall and to bring about an optimum balance...."
The ranks of listeners today include some music lovers who can recall the mikeless days when the singer (or the instrumentalist) had to depend on his lung power (or the penetrative capacity of the instrument) to reach the farthest corner of the recital hall or pandal. We are told that great singers could sustain a five-hour concert, on the strength of their own voices, attended by several hundreds of people. We have to. concede that, as in most other things, there maybe considerable exaggeration in this claim. Certainly we do not wish to return to the condition of those times, because power amplification, properly handled, can provide advantages, especially since it enables musicians to emphasise nuancing rather than lung power. Moreover, voice culture among Carnatic musicians today being what it is, such a reversal would be disastrous to most of our vocalists: many of them have to sing so close to the microphone as to seem to be eating it.
So the microphone, the amplifier and the loudspeakers are here to stay. And thank god for them for, without them, most of us would be denied the pleasure of listening to any music at all. The only complaint is that sound amplification equipment is more often misused than used properly, without consideration for the listener for whom it is really intended.
Most of the 'halls' where concerts are held are general purpose auditoria of, worse, many have been built without any special attention to acoustics. There are of course some exceptions but these continue to be the exceptions proving the rule. Some of the sabha-s hold their concerts in improvised enclosures with asbestos or thatched roofs.
And some are forced to have their concerts in the open air. In most cases, what we find is that there are sets of loudspeakers placed at two or more points in the hall. Perhaps the mandarins of the sabhas think that their responsibility ceases once this is done. But the result is terrible. Those who have to sit close to the loudspeakers have to suffer such an onslaught of sound that it is a miracle that they are not turned into zombies by the time a performance is over. It is not often that those in charge try to find out whether there is an optimum level of sound delivered to all sections of the audience. More often than not, the man in charge of the sound system simply responds to any request either to boost or buck the volume, from any section of the audience or, more importantly, from the performers themselves.
But here is the main problem. Our musicians seem to be obsessed with 'feedback'. To most of us, it is a familiar experience to see the main performer asking the sound system operator to jack up the output level of his own voice or instrument. Whatever may be the reason- poor acoustics, poor equipment or the performer's hardness of hearing- the result is a bombardment of sound. The sidemen rise to the occasion and demand their own instruments be made more audible. Indeed, grapevine has it that some of the singers and players secure, through such means as gift-giving, the assistance of the technician beforehand so that they are ensured of being heard and of hearing themselves! A radical solution may to provide the performers with headphones (like the playback singers) through which they can hear their own contribution, without inflicting unhealthy noise on the poor listener!
In the recent past, this problem has been largely overcome in cassette recordings, where the volume of the music of the accompanists is kept at a realistic level and raised when they play solo pieces. A similar approach is not impossible in concerts. What is essential is that the decibels are kept at a bearable level throughout the auditorium, so that the members of the audience do not wear a stoned look by the time the concert is over.
A charitable view would be that the persons in charge of the amplifier are lacking in training. Can't the sabha-s get them trained by specialists from AIR or DD or some well-known experts in sound projection?
In the final analysis, a concert is for the listener. The performer cannot thrive without him. If those responsible exercise their responsibility, this demon of noise pollution can be tamed and conquered. What is required is the will.