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Responses to
Amplification is killing live music
by Bruno Kavanagh

January 24, 2009

Further Response to "Amplification is killing live music" by A Seshan
I thank Sasikala Mani for her note pointing out what appears to her to be factually wrong in my write-up on the menace of loud amplification. I give my clarifications below. It has taken quite some time for me to work further on the matter and interact with other experts since she had raised important issues in her critique.....Read on

September 29, 2008

There are 2 points that the commentators seem to be unaware of:

1. A Seshan states that, "The veena is not as strong or rich in overtones (also known as harmonics or upper partials) as other stringed instruments like guitar."

On we read: ...the frets have much more curvature than any other instrument. This design produces more harmonics than any other instruments.

Such is the opinion of Nobel Prize-winning physicist C.V. Raman.

2. Regarding the amplifier-free auditoriums.
I know that some excellent auditoriums are built even in India by foreign specialists (, as it seems to be true that the quality of education in the Indian universities that the sound engineers receive cannot match the quality of education in Europe or America.

We may ponder why, 50 years after the Independence, the Indian cricket teams are still being trained by foreigners. Shall we hope that, maybe by 2100, our sound engineers will raise their level of professionalism?

- Sasikala Mani

Sept 28, 2008

Bruno's article highlighted one huge gap between the European and the Indian perceptions.

There is no other country in the world where you could see the "Ferrari" and "Formula 1" labels proudly adorning the autorickshaws in Madras. Our imagination takes us to the unattainable heights of perfection, and is one of the most powerful instruments in the Tantric tradition.

The material and analytical western mind lacks the imaginative & creative faculty: it cannot see beyond the physical symbol. It cannot go beyond the 5 senses, whether it is music or dance or painting. After all, even the best dancer, the best musician and the best instrument are poor replicas of the heavenly things.

When we listen to badly amplified music, we do not pay much attention to it, but listen to our internal sound. The external serves merely as a clue, a guide. I was told that some rasikas close their eyes and imagine devas and apsaras dance while they are watching a totally out-of-shape senior dancer. But of course when you are a dance critic from the Hindu, you have to go down to earth a bit. :-)

I was amused to see how horrified the westerners were when they saw some devotees in Varanasi bathing in the Ganges. The westerners abhorred the filthy river. They were scared they would surely catch a skin disease if they attempted anything like that. The devotees can bathe in the dirtiest pool, and their imagination produces the power that saves their bodies. Ever tried walking on fire?

Our imagination is our saviour. Bruno has to learn to close his eyes and imagine the perfect music and the perfect dancing even while he is watching the most horrible dancers and hears the most horrible music from the most horrible loudspeakers.

If you are caught up in a traffic jam in Madras, breathing the most suffocating traffic fumes, it is a good time for an exercise: imagine you are in the Alps smelling the flowers. If your imagination is strong enough, it will change the material things around you too.

Good luck
- Varsha S

Sept 22, 2008
An update: Madhavi and Arushi Mudgal

As a happy postscript to this exchange I'd like to report a marvellous performance of Odissi yesterday, at New York's City Center, by Madhavi Mudgal. The piece, called 'Pravaha', was an exquisite duet between Ms. Mudgal and her niece Arushi - a heart-stoppingly beautiful mover (and no doubt a major star for the future). Best of all, the sound balance was perfect, with low-key amplification giving the musicians just enough enhancement to fill the large auditorium - but no more than strictly necessary. As a result, the dancers' feet were wonderfully audible as they created complex dialogues with the percussion. For this observer, Ms. Mudgal has fully restored faith in classical dance as an art-form capable of the most subtle musicality and beauty. And I was not alone - the predominantly non-Indian audience (a packed house of just under 3,000) thumped and cheered its approval at the end, as the two Mudgals took their bow.

This followed the disappointing Dance Festival of India on Friday night at Carnegie Hall. An opportunity to enjoy music and movement in a hall with arguably the world's best natural acoustic was tragically missed, with the usual cacophonous set-up of microphones (too many, too close, too loud) disfiguring the sound. A notable exception, it should be said, was a rousing closing piece by Prerana Shrimali and the dancers of Kathak Kendra, which did some justice to the occasion and the venue.

But this post is about 'Roses' not 'Thorns.' I prefer to dwell on Madhavi and Arushi Mudgal. Truly wonderful ambassadors for Indian classical art at the highest level.
- Bruno Kavanagh

September 4, 2008
The comment of Bruno Kavanagh entitled "Amplification is killing live music" has come not a day too soon. Rasikas of Indian classical music and dance have suffered for too long in silence from the increasing loudness in concerts. He has mentioned a few auditoria in the West without loudspeaker arrangements. The Sydney Opera House can be added to that list. I visited this icon of Australia in 1988 and took a tour of the place. The Concert Hall is the largest interior venue there among several. With its high vaulted ceiling and interior finishes of brush box and white birch timber it is designed primarily for acoustic performances. The tourists were then informed that such materials were used in flooring (including carpets), walls, ceiling and furniture that would eliminate the need for amplification. The maximum seating capacity of the Hall is 2,679. This size is larger than those of any of the auditoria in India with the exception of the one in Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha in Mumbai. Since two decades had passed, I enquired with the Opera House about the continued absence of amplification. The reply said: "In our largest theatre, the Concert Hall, it is correct that performers have worked without amplification as the natural acoustic is so good. However, if a performer wishes, we can use microphones or other equipment." The problem in India is that we do not have an auditorium built with a design to dispense with amplification.

At a seminar on music at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai a few years ago there was a comprehensive lecture by a sound engineer for more than one hour. Inter alia, he brought out brilliantly the need for the right arrangements for amplification to make a performance rasika-friendly. And he said that keeping one mike each on either side of the mridangam neutralised its sound! Incidentally he also referred to the undesirable practice of tapping on the mike to find out whether it is working. It damages its fine micro-electronic parts.

In the past, masters of Carnatic music performed before large audiences without the help of mikes. Thus the late Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer, the great vainika, used to play on the veena before audiences sometimes running to a thousand. The veena is not as strong or rich in overtones (also known as harmonics or upper partials) as other stringed instruments like guitar. Still his recital could be heard without amplification by the man in the last row. It was because of his technique of meettu (fingering and plucking the strings). Following the practice adopted by other contemporary vainikas, my guru, the late Devakottai Narayana Iyengar, used a contact mike on his veena for a short period. Harsh metallic sounds of the strings being plucked were heard by the audience and were jarring on the ears. The natural sunadam (sweet melody) in the timbre of the instrument was lost. Also, because of the position of the mike on the kudam, swaras in the upper octave could not be heard well. He gave up the use of the contact mike after I pointed out its deficiencies.

One of the casualties of loud music is the disappearance of mellinam and vallinam (soft and hard intonations, respectively), which are among the ornamentations in Carnatic music. And when the sound of the percussion artiste drowns out the musician, it is nothing but chaos. It is noisy like the market place. It would look as if the vocalist is accompanying the mridangist! Often, the latter does not play on the instrument; he just beats or strikes it with as much force and violence as possible, as if it is nobody's business. If the instrument has a mouth, it would let out a loud cry in agony. I think that amplification also encourages talking among the members of the audience. If there is no loudspeaker, they are likely to observe silence.

One justification for amplification is the limitation of the vocalists with a low adhara shadja. Indian music provides the freedom for a singer to choose his or her own pitch unlike in Western classical music, where it is fixed for different classes of singers like soprano, tenor, et al. Male voices have generally lower pitches than the female ones due to the differences in the gender-specific anatomy of vocal chords. There is nothing wrong in this. But, perhaps conscious of the low pitch, the singer thinks of making it up with amplification. This also sidelines the need for voice culture. But here again I can say that maestros like the late Madurai Mani Iyer with a low sruti of one-and-a-half kattais were perfectly audible to large audiences before the pre-mike days.

Among the leading musicians, Pandit Ravi Shankar is reported to take interest in proper amplification. He visits the venue in advance to supervise the arrangements to ensure his satisfaction. Some musicians, both Hindustani and Carnatic, signal to the percussionist to stop playing occasionally while traversing some delicate passages in raga exposition. In "Sogasuga" (Sriranjani) Tyagaraja has referred to rhythmic pause or silence as one of the main elements of a kriti. The late Palghat Mani Iyer, maestro of mridangam, emphasised the appropriate role of silence while accompanying vocal or instrumental artistes. He also used to insist on mikeless concerts for his participation.

In the West the audio technician for a dance performance participates in some of the early rehearsals to learn the sequence of movements that make up each composition and to take notes on each cue or change in accompaniment. Sound cues include changing volume, fading sound in or out, and turning accompaniment on or off. In India, such concepts are practically unknown. The volume is generally at a uniform level with no modulation to suit specific occasions. The louder the better! It is not unusual to see the volume control unattended during a performance due to the monitoring gentleman disappearing from his seat for a cup of tea! (Choreography A Basic Approach using Improvisation, Sandra Cerny Minton and Dance Symposium on Choreography A Report Part II, A Seshan, Shanmukha, January-March 2005)

- A Seshan

August 21, 2008
I happened to read Bruno Kavanagh piece on how bad the sound was for Ms. Aruna Sairam's concert at New York was. I videographed the entire concert and I agree with Bruno Kavanagh that the sound was indeed bad but to say that all 'Indian sound engineers be strangled by the power cable of the last loudspeaker' is offensive. So what does Bruno suggest? All Indian sound engineers are useless and so get a 'white' sound engineer? I do audio for some select shows and I have had praise from the artists and audience alike. So do I have also to be strangled with the cable of my speakers? I consider this as a threat and as a racist comment.

I shall wait for an apology.
- Nandakumar Nayar

    August 22, 2008
    Mr. Nayar raises a good point - and I am happy to offer an apology for referring to 'Indian sound engineers' in my original piece. I have asked the editors of this website to change the phrase to 'incompetent sound engineers.' Incompetence, or its opposite, can of course be found in any culture or national grouping. But since a reference to 'throttling' remains in the piece, I should perhaps make clear that the comment is intended as a light-hearted reference to a joke made by an eighteenth-century French philosopher, and should in no way be taken literally as an attempt to advocate mass murder.
    - Bruno Kavanagh

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