Thursday, February 23, 2012

Noises off

Reproduced from the pages of Sruti.

A recent concert had the audience running for cover from the explosive decibellage of voice, strings and drums. The volume levels were unprecedented even for a city inured to unwholesome assaults on the listener’s eardrums in the name of amplification considered de rigueur in the urban milieu of large halls with non-existent sound engineering. Sadly the concert was taking place at the Music Academy auditorium, once famed for its perfect acoustics designed to accommodate mikeless concerts—before alterations to its structure changed that somewhat—but generally accepted as one of the better halls in the city for listening pleasure.

This was one of the first issues Sruti decided to address on the eve of the greatest spectacle of Carnatic music on the planet—the Chennai music season, which used to be called the December season before it expanded forwards and backwards some years ago to straddle the calendar in a fusillade of concerts. We decided to pose a number of questions and invite responses from all parties concerned, with the hope that we can start a process leading to a whole new aesthetic experience: Why are audiences subjected to murder by sound by people who should know better—practitioners of nadopasana one and all, from musicians to mikemen to sabhanayakas, to steal a couple of phrases from Sruti’s founder? Why do musicians regularly agree to perform under acoustically unsatisfactory conditions, musicians who are used to the state of the art in sound systems on their travels abroad? Why do listeners put up with tympanum threatening noise instead of the divine music everyone promises Carnatic music really is? Why are organizers of concerts impervious to criticism and apparently reluctant to invest in equipment and personnel that can ensure such an experience? Why is a sound test at the start of a concert such a rare occurrence, if ever attempted in Carnatic music?

Not long ago, The Hindu commented editorially: “There is little doubt that the standard of acoustics at most venues falls short of a minimum assured quality. Improvements in this technical area will go some way in sustaining interest in live performances as a socially worthwhile experience in the age of mass-produced compact discs. Moreover, acoustic quality is a real concern to artistes, since the overall impact of a performance depends on the symmetry between appropriate amplification and feedback on the stage. Debate on some of these wide-ranging issues will shape the future of Carnatic music in the 21st century. At the same time, it is vital for the mega event — the extraordinary Chennai music season — to retain the character of a self-regulating enterprise, something it has managed to do over many decades.”

Back in the 1990s, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer told Sruti: “ is neither necessary nor desirable to have separate mikes provided to the accompanists. A single mike should do, preferably the sensitive kind that is hung from the ceiling. Where is the need for a forest of mikes planted on the platform in front of the artists taking part in a concert?"

“The number of loudspeakers used and their placement also contribute to the quality of sound. ..It is better to use several smaller speakers and place them judiciously around so that each part of the hall gets to hear the musicians as if there were no amplification."

“Ideally, of course, I would like the kutcheri to take place in a small air-conditioned hall without any sound amplification.”

“Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, on a concert tour of India, laid down a few conditions at the Swati Tirunal Sangita Sabha, Trivandrum. There should be no amplification; all doors should be closed once he started performing; all fans should be switched off; no member of the audience should be permitted to move about during the performance; so on and so forth.” Menuhin was heard clearly at every part of the hall throughout the concert, Semmangudi continued.

Vocalist Vijay Siva spoke up for the right use of technology (Sruti December 2001). State of the art microphones could help to get the purest sound reproduction in recordings and also in the auditorium.

When we asked vocalist Sanjay Subramanyam for his views on the standard of acoustics in Carnatic music cutcheris, he wondered aloud if instead of writing about the unsatisfactory situation, someone would take the initiative in organizing a workshop by an international acoustics expert on proper sound management at concerts. He said that he never let poor acoustics or other inconveniences affect his performance on the concert platform. “I focus on my job—that of singing—regardless of the conditions. The only thing that can bother me is the recalcitrance of my voice if and when I run into such problems.”

Speaking in a similar vein, Aruna Sairam had not long ago informed a small private audience that she would be willing to participate in any effort to educate sound engineers on the best contemporary practices in acoustics for music concerts. She was replying to a query from a Hindustani music aficionado about the high noise levels in Carnatic music concerts.

Audiences, sometimes even music critics, believe that the musicians are accessories after the fact, often the instigators of the excesses perpetrated by the soundmen. P Orr wrote in Sruti, February 2001: “Poor acoustics is characteristic of a majority of the sabhas. Many don’t have really top class sound amplification systems and arrangements either. ..The musicians performing on the stage are the ones who usually tell the sound technician what to do. They always ask the volume to be jacked up.”

Young vocalist Savita Narasimhan clarifies that the musician on the stage rarely asks for the volume to be turned up for the listeners. He or she is actually asking for help with the feedback (or fallback) so essential for the performer on stage. “Often the vocalist cannot hear the percussionist or violinist and vice versa. The musician’s request to increase the volume of the monitor is misunderstood and the technician increases the volume for the audience.” In the West, mikes are provided for the vocalist as well as the accompanying instrumentalists and the amplification is perfectly balanced. The result is aesthetically pleasing. For instance, even in concerts where two microphones are provided for the two sides of the mridangam, the overall balance is maintained perfectly, and the percussion does not drown the voice. It is this balancing, giving due weightage to different types of voices and instruments, that is vital for correct sound amplification.

That brings us to the need for sound checks before the start of a concert. How often do we see artists reach the venue in time to carry them out? Is it their fault that they don’t?

We’ll soon be witness to the frenetic programming of the “season” in which each sabha will pack three to four concerts into each day of the festival. The artists of one programme will ascend the stage barely minutes after the previous performers have left it. What kind of sound check can be done in the time available? And, increasingly, sabhas seem to despatch their sound engineer—if such an animal exists—to some unknown destination minutes before the concert begins, not to surface until the end of the programme.

Is it time then to organise workshops on aesthetically acceptable acoustics in Carnatic music to be conducted by experts in the field of sound management? For every self-respecting sabha to hire a full time acoustics engineer available round the year or at least during concerts to ensure listening pleasure? For auditoria specifically designed for music concerts to be built or for existing halls to be redesigned to suit the purpose? For audiences to behave themselves as they are forced to everytime a Yehudi Menuhin or Zubin Mehta descends on us?

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