The Madras String Quartet (MSQ) was founded in 1993 by V S Narasimhan, one of the most respected names in the Madras film music industry. Ilaiyaraja fans may know him from the lovely Karnatak-style violin passages he played in that composer's non-film album How to Name It. Narasimhan is an unusual musician who plays and composes Karnatak music, and plays, composes and conducts in the Western classical tradition as well. It is very rare that we come across a musician who is so highly accomplished in two classical systems, not to speak of the film idiom.
Away from the glare of the music channels, MSQ has been quietly working with some of the finest Indian and international musicians. A decade ago, Narasimhan recorded two albums with John Kaizan Neptune, an American-born Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) player. The River Rhythm linked Karnatak music, jazz and Japanese music, and was
recorded in Madras in 1993.
In 1989, Pandit Ravishankar and Phillip Glass, the minimalist master, recorded an album called Passage, and MSQ played for them. George Harrison's 1997 album also featured the quartet, and Karaikudi Mani and his troupe Srutilaya have experimented extensively with Narasimhan.
It's strange that Resonance, MSQ's sterling effort at fusing Karnatak music with the Western classical idiom, went largely unnoticed. It was recorded in 2000, and except for a stray review or two, nothing much happened. One reason could be that there are so many dubious fusion albums around that people simply ignore all of them. Another could be that music channels on television, which fuel album sales these days, are busy promoting junk music, and hardly notice efforts such as this one.
cover describes it as "a string quartet's journey in the land of
temples". But not any string quartet could not have
accomplished this masterly fusion of two disparate classical systems
and forged a new sound vision. MSQ members on this album
are V R Sekar (cello), Krishna Murali, V S Narasimhan (violins) and
B J Chandran (viola). Sekar, incidentally, is the son of the
Karnatak violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan.
Resonance is one of the most moving compilations of fusion music I have heard. I was touched by the tenderness and felicity of expression in pieces like Mokshamugalada (raga Saramati) and Krishna nee begane baaro (Yaman Kalyani). Narasimhan on the lead violin makes no concessions to crass expectations of speed, and plays with his heart immersed in the compositions. The backup violins play Western harmonic patterns that are sometimes so unpredictable that your ears prick up, startled, and then settle down to a voyage where your mind's eye alternates between the emerald green landscape of south India and the gentle riverscapes of Italy.
If by fusion we mean two traditions coming together without either getting demeaned, this is it. In lesser fusion attempts, the Western and mostly pop or rock idiom sets the pace, and Indian music comes on just for "exotic" or "ethnic" effect. In Resonance, the marriage of Karnatak music with the Western classical tradition happens with great dignity; such is the sense of proportion that neither system dominates or feels small.
Resonance is MSQ's first full-fledged recording, but nowhere on the album cover is its name mentioned. The quartet's ambition is to popularise chamber music, which is music played at small, intimate venues.
The Patnam Subramania Iyer ragamalika, which opens the album, shows you how, if you were to separate the Karnatak and Western tracks, you would find each true to its classical idiom.
The next piece Palukavademira by Mysore Vasudevachar, in raga Devamanohari, is treated differently in the Western parts. There are spurts of phrases rather than a general backup. The kriti is a gentle remonstration against god for not responding to the pleas of the believer.
In Esane in raga Chakravakam, the four musicians, I suspect, take turns playing some part of the Papanasam Sivan kriti. The others play a variety of harmonic passages. They take off on raga Chakravakam and weave silken interludes, they then flow into cascades and jets of the raga alternating with the same scale without the raga graces. Yet raga grammar is always intact, and no stray note is added.
Raghuvamsa Sutha by Patnam Subramania Iyer in raga Kathanakuthoohalam is composed on Western classical lines. In the Karnatak repertoire, such tunes are called 'English notes'. The quartet interprets this in the style of a Mozart air; what is remarkable is the dignity in a composition that tempts many seasoned Karnatak artistes to treat it as flippant relief from their more sober presentations.
My personal favourite jatiswaram in raga Bhairavi, Amba Kamakshi, is tenderly rendered by the main violin. But I should say I was disappointed with the back-up. In such a long composition, MSQ plays only a minimalist chord background -- instead of trying out varying phrases on eduppus which begin on each of the seven swaras of the scale -- and this is to stifle its poise and make it out to be a sullen affair.
Karnatak music purists may complain that there is no alapana and no swaraprasthara on any of these compositions. That's probably because MSQ worked from a written score. But listening to Thyagaraja's Mokshumugalada in raga Saramati is still an intense experience.
It was like a shift in perspective after Bhairavi. There's no mridangam anywhere, in fact there
is no explicit rhythm. Yet you don't miss percussion, and feel all the better for being able to listen to the nuances of three varieties of the violin family.
This Saramati will touch and inspire many. The
deep cello which plays bits carries home the spirit of this
reclusive, philosophical raga.
A brisk interpretation of Thyagaraja's Sara sara samarai in raga Kuntalavarali
brings you out of the Saramati reverie. You can picture a ballroom and its music.
short alapana in raga Bilahari sounds promising at the beginning. But the
showmanship of reaching out suddenly for a higher octave rather
spoils this. Mohanalahari, a Karnatak-style composition by Narasimhan, follows the guidelines laid down by great compositions like Paridaanam
ichite . The Western harmonies give it both subtle and bold layerings
which touch and intrigue you in turns.
Krishna nee begane baaro has been popular with fusion
groups, including Colonial Cousins. The long introductory passage
uses the Misra Yaman scale to advantage, playing up the 'anya' or foreign
swaras. In fact the prelude to the composition was so good it reminded me of great themes from movie soundtracks.
inlay card thoughtfully gives you each composer's name and time, but no information
about the performers except their names.
I would be proud to gift this tape to a
Westerner to show the rich genius of Indian musicianship, and as an
introduction to Karnatak music. This is fusion of a very high
order, and if I were asked if I've heard anything better,
I would only name the efforts of maestros Ravi Shankar and
Yehudi Menuhin in East Meets West.
Resonance is available with
Bharat Records International. You could contact them on these
(044) 827 7674
Mumbai (022) 415 6769
New Delhi (011) 685
Bangalore (080) 223 4043
Also available from Oriental Records Inc,
PO Box 387,
Williston Park, New York. Phone: (516) 746 0140.
S Suchitra Lata
(additional notes by
S R Ramakrishna)
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