Friday, August 2, 2013

Unusual conversations – an introduction

At times, we enjoy conversations and at others, we do not. Some conversations become quotations that we tend to enjoy repeating. In the world of music, conversations happen between human voices and at other times between musical instruments. Sometimes, it can be between human voices and musical instruments too. In the Indian film music tradition, there are rarely films, that do not have duets, sang typically by a male and a female singer. There are duets featuring same gender voices too. Almost all duets are dialogs or conversations between two participating voices.

In this analysis, we will focus more on conversations between musical instruments. This is universal and has no language barriers such as a human duet song. In the Indian music tradition, jugalbandhis are musical instrument conversations. One instrument makes a call and the other responds.

Here is an example of a fantastic conversation between Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Hari Prasad Chaurasia (flute) in a Jugalbandhi:


Several Carnatic kutcheris have instrument ensembles which tend to have conversations between a mirudhangam and a violin or a kanjira , a violin etc. Such musical conversations have inadvertently seeped into Indian musical sensibilities that it has become part of our musical taste regardless of classical or popular film music.

Here is an example of a Kutcheri by Embar Kannan (he plays violin for Raja) and between 12:06 and 14:25 in this you tube video, you can see several rounds of conversations between mirudhangam, kanjira and ghatam.

In the Western music world, some choirs tend to have conversations between voices.  This is also very common in the pop and jazz world.

Here is a simple demonstration from the jazz world:

Even with Electronic Music Technology (EMT) and new software tools, producers have been fast to adopt this to the new world of computer software and tools.


Conversations in general are exchange of ideas between two persons.  In the world of music, it is exchange of notes between two instruments that we will focus on. These conversations tend to be in a call and response (C&R) format. When the first instrument makes a call, the second one, responds back. It is like the way birds make sounds.

When arranged and written properly, C&R can be very seductive and pleasant to the ears. Almost every film music composer in India uses the C&R as one of their staple technique. Raja is no exception. In fact, some accuse him of overuse of this technique. As with several other myths, this is also untrue. His C&R is so exhaustive and he chooses to use them very seductively in his interludes, it has almost become a sub-conscious aspect to most of his listeners to expect this technique, even if most of them  cannot identify it.

Raja has the unique ability to bring in any mood with any instrument. We saw that in our detailed discussions on ‘Moods of Raja’. Similarly, what sets him apart from other composers is the fact that he has used several instruments in the C&R mode.  These C&R arrangements are unthinkable for most composers as Raja’s unique choice of instruments stands out with every form of arrangement he does. 

So, how do we go about doing this analysis? Firstly, we need to define what usual conversations are. Only when we understand the usual ones, we can go after the unusual conversations.

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