musings on music and life

June 29, 2012

In memory of Vellore Ramabhadran and Mayavaram Somu

Filed under: Carnatic Music — Tags: — sankirnam @ 11:43 am

I had been meaning to write about this for a while now, but with work and other things going on this kept getting pushed aside. I finally decided that today I’ll stop procrastinating on this topic and try to write about it while it is still timely.

I had heard about the demise of both of the aforementioned vidwans in the title indirectly, through reading and then seeing the obituaries in The Hindu. Their departure is indeed a big loss to the music world at large, as I will explain below.

Vellore Ramabhadran (or Ramabhadran sir as I might refer to him later) was an extremely famous mrudangam vidwan, best known for his sarvalaghu style of accompaniment. His playing would be very unintrusive, following the pattern of the thalam rather than trying to match the main artist. It was characterised by “sukham” and “saukhyam” (pleasantness and comfort). One way I can describe his playing is that he always maintained strong thalam support, and it would be like the concert was “floating” on his playing. I know this sounds weird, but if you listen to any recordings where he has performed I am sure you will agree.

Ramabhadran sir’s style of playing was therefore the complete opposite of Palghat Mani Iyer (whom I talked about in detail in a previous post). Mani Iyer used to literally “play the songs” on his mrudangam;  Ramabhadran took the opposite style and maintained more or less a constant, uniform mattress of laya support. In fact, that is how he was initially introduced to the music world, as a foil for Palghat Mani Iyer. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer gave him the nickname “Naadabhadran”, and it more or less stuck for his entire career. Ramabhadran sir had accompanied all the leading vidwans during his lifetime, from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers, Ariyakudi, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Maharajapuram Santhanam, Chittibabu, and almost everyone you can think of. In fact, at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana in 2005, I heard him accompany Aruna Sairam live, and in the December season in 2006, I heard him play for Sowmya at the Madras Music Academy.

This video is from the 2005 Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana, and I remember attending this concert with my friend Ramakrishnan Murthy (in fact I think the camera pans to him during one of the audience shots!).

Ramabhadran sir’s style and Palghat Mani Iyer’s style therefore represent two extremes in the art of accompaniment. Nowadays, most mrudangists try to strike a balance between the two, embellishing the song and singing where appropriate, and maintaining a sarvalaghu base to maintain the thalam and kaalapramanam (tempo). Unfortunately, there has been a rather unhealthy trend lately where main artists only prefer mrudangists who heavily use sarvalaghu, almost like human metronomes. This is not good for the growth of the art, especially in an age where laya gnanam (knowledge of rhythm) is decreasing among both artists and rasikas.

I did have the good fortune to meet Ramabhadran sir once, and I did get to play in front of him and receive his good wishes and blessings.

The first time I saw Mayavaram Somu live was at the Madras Music Academy Sadas earlier this year. Before that, I had only heard his playing in audio and video recordings. His concerts with the late Madurai Somu and Ramnad C. S. Murugabhoopathi (mrudangam) are especially legendary. Mayavaram Somu had recieved (if i recall correctly) the TTK Memorial Award for Excellence for his years of service to music as a kanjira vidwan. He was very old, and had stopped performing in concerts, although he was still actively teaching, if my memory serves me correctly. In fact, a lot of people sitting around me were grumbling about why the Music Academy had to wait till these vidwans became very old before deciding to felicitate them, rather than giving them the awards when they were at their peak! Who knows…

Image Mayavaram Somu is 3rd from the right, in orange, standing next to Trichy Sankaran (recipient of Sangita Kalanidhi for 2011, in green).


A photo of Madurai Somu (vocal, center), M. S. Gopalakrishnan (violin, on the right), a young Karaikudi R. Mani (mrudangam, left), and Mayavaram Somu (kanjira, behind Karaikudi Mani).

June 19, 2012

Sunday’s lec-dem

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 6:31 pm

I participated in a lec-dem last Sunday at UCLA with my friends Aditya Prakash and Shiva Ramamurthi. This was held at the Fowler Museum at UCLA; some details can be seen at this link: It was very fun; Aditya did a very good job covering the basics of Carnatic music for those unfamiliar with it. We began with Ninnukori (Mohanam varnam). This was followed by an explanation of the ragam concept by Aditya, and also a demonstration of how various ragams display different rasas (emotions). Shiva also talked a little on the role and nature of violin accompaniment. The fact that everything on stage is impromptu was stressed; while the songs are common, how they are delivered will vary each time. Alapanas will be sung differently, and niraval and kalpana swarams will always vary each time. Aditya also talked about the concept of thalam, and that it is a cyclic measure of keeping the time, which is often done with the hand. I played several theermanams (ending phrases) of varying lengths to illustrate the concept that phrases must land back on the proper eduppu (pick up point) on the thalam. We then played several rounds of kalpana swarams for the charanam of the varnam to illustrate improvisation in Carnatic music. Within this, Aditya switched to tisra gathi (3 counts per beat) to illustrate the concept of varying counts per beat. The program was then concluded with the popular Senchurutti thillana.

It was a very fun experience. Aditya has a very energetic style, and playing with Shiva is always fun, since we have teamed together in innumerable concerts so far. The only drawback was that this was held outdoors in the museum courtyard, under the blazing sun, and so my mrudangam went completely off pitch! Fortunately Aditya understood and was a good sport about it.

This gives me something to think about, regarding coming up with new designs for the instrument…

June 15, 2012

on Harry Potter

Filed under: Internet craziness — sankirnam @ 4:57 pm

I always maintain that the ending for the 7th Harry Potter book was incredibly anticlimactic. The whole setup reeked of Deus Ex Machina and just lazy authorship. If it were up to me, in the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, Harry should have busted out a glock at the last minute and said “Hey Voldy, DODGE THIS!! MUGGLE POWER!!!” and fired a barrage of bullets, filling the dark lord’s body with sweet sweet lead. Unfortunately, J. K. Rowling had to take the high road and make some convoluted ending based on the badass wand being able to belong to someone while that person had never laid a hand on it. I ask you, what part of that makes any sense?!?

My ending is superior for a few reasons:

1. Nobody would have been anticipating it

2. Guns are just cool. After reading 6.9 books filled with wands (anyone remember the “wang project”?), introducing a firearm would be a welcome change.

3. J. K. Rowling consistently alludes to Voldemort not taking other people/races seriously (like house-elves, Muggles, etc.). Voldemort ultimately being killed by a Muggle weapon would have been incredibly symbolic from this angle.

But then again, who am I to criticize? I’m not the internationally famous author with billions of dollars in her pocket.

Here’s what SHOULD have happened at some point in the 6th book (I found this in the SA forums years ago):

Harry shotgunned the rest of his Felix Felicis. “Tonight,” he said, wiping his mouth, “I’m gettin’ lucky.”

The next morning, Harry stumbled down into the Gryffandor common room. “Don’t talk,” he told Ron, “I got a wicked hangover. I need some Jack. No, give me the whole bottle.”

“Blimey! What happened?” asked Ron as he handed over a fifth of whiskey.

“Your sister happened,” said Harry. “Twelve times.”

Hermoine joined them moments later. “I can’t remember anything from last night,” she said rubbing her head, “And why did I wake up in your bed Harry?”

Harry winked at her. “That’d be one of the half-blood prince’s potions, babe. Roofinus Maximus.”

“Blimey!” said Ron, “That’s the darkest of dark magic! Even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has ever used it!”

“That’s why I can beat him,” Harry said, winking at Ron. “You see, I have the ability to love. Again, and again, and again.”

The bell rang and the girls filed out of their dorms, all slightly rosy cheeked and nodding at Harry. Harry ignored them.

“Blimey!” said Ron, “not all of them!”

“You two will be late for class,” said Professor McGonnagal as she led out Buckbeak by his mane feathers through the portal, “And I’ll see you in my office, Mr. Potter.” She disapppeared.

“What was McGonnagal doing in the Gryffandor girl’s dorms?” asked Hermoine, confused.

“Baby, the question you should be asking is: what wasn’t she doing.” said Harry.

June 12, 2012

On sustainable energy and the Methanol Economy

Filed under: Chemistry, Uncategorized — Tags: — sankirnam @ 11:39 am

In a previous post, I said that I would go into more detail on the “Methanol Economy”. This is a concept developed by Nobel Laureate Prof. George Olah, and is recently gaining traction throughout the world. The core idea is very simple. Since we are running out of fossil fuel reserves (estimates on the rate of depletion and the amount left will vary from person to person depending on their agenda), it behooves us to find alternate sources of energy. Modern civilization has been built on the foundation of cheap, plentiful energy, and in order to ensure the continued growth and progress of our species, this must continue. Fossil fuels are a gift left to us by nature; they took billions of years to form and literally represent the most raw form of chemical energy (fossil fuels in this case refers to deposits of coal, crude petroleum, or natural gas). To put it another way, the situation with fossil fuels is like taking free energy out of the ground. The components of these fossil fuels are hydrocarbons; they are also valuable as feedstocks for chemical synthesis. In fact, Mendeleev’s oft-repeated statement that “to use petroleum as a fuel is like firing a furnace with banknotes” still rings true today. Since we have become used to using hydrocarbons as a source of energy, we need to look within that class for an alternate, sustainable energy source. C1 and C2 (hydrocarbons with 1 or 2 carbons, respectively) compounds are the ideal candidates, since they can be made with minimum effort through current technologies. However, ethanol (the prototype C2 compound) met with dismal failure after government experiments with promoting “bio-based” ethanol. Diverting food crops for other purposes is never a good idea. Thus, out of the C1 compounds, methanol is the most promising, if not the best.

Methanol is a liquid at ambient temperature and pressure, and has a convenient boiling point (65 deg C). Existing infrastructure for the transportation of alkane hydrocarbons can be used for methanol with little modifications. In fact, for a long time, California used a blend of methanol and gasoline for cars (this was discontinued in the 80’s for some reason); this was called “M85”. Methanol has a very good energy density, although not nearly as high as octane-based gasoline. For those interested in hydrogen fuels, methanol also has a much higher density of hydrogen than liquid hydrogen! This is simply due to the extremely low density of liquid hydrogen, and the fact that 1 mole of methanol contains 4 moles of hydrogen.

Critics of the methanol economy often cite the toxicity of methanol as a potential issue. However, this is offset by other factors, such as it’s ready biodegradation in the environment, and the fact that methanol fires can be extinguished with plain water. Also, methanol is miscible with water in all proportions, making it a lot easier to handle. In fact, methanol is used as the fuel of choice in the Indianapolis 500 for these safety reasons. It burns with an invisible flame, thus posing less problems to drivers from visible obstruction due to the smoke and fire.

Of course, there are challenges to get this system off the ground. The most ideal, renewable feedstock for the synthesis of methanol (a C1 compound) is carbon dioxide (another C1 compound). CO2 levels have been rising lately (from 350 ppm in the 1950’s to 400+ ppm now), and this has major implications for global warming and climate change. Using CO2 as a carbon feedstock would go a long way to mitigating this situation. Of course, the selective reduction of CO2 to methanol is very difficult (usually mixtures of C1 compounds – such as formic acid, formaldehyde, methanol, and methane result), just as the selective oxidation of methane to methanol is very difficult. In fact, on a side note, one of the few proven experimental conditions for the selective oxidation of methane to methanol is in superacid media! The methanol, once formed, gets immediately protonated in the medium to form the methyloxonium ion, preventing further oxidation. Of course, this remains a subject of academic curiosity, since handling large amounts of highly corrosive acids on scale is not trivial. There are other groups continuing this line of research, including that of Roy Periana at Scripps Florida, but success has largely been very limited.

Even though we always hear about continuously rising CO2 levels, we have to keep in mind that CO2 is still a trace gas in our atmosphere! 400 ppm is only 0.04%, after all. For those who don’t know, Dry air contains roughly (by volume) 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.039% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of water vapor, on average around 1% (credit to wikipedia). The cheap, large-scale separation of carbon dioxide, a trace gas in the atmosphere, is still a major challenge. Currently, CO2 is separated from air through cryogenic means, although this is still rather expensive if one wants to consider CO2 as a starting material for chemical synthesis. Some people in our group have made promising steps in this direction, coming up with cheaper adsorbents for the selective separation of carbon dioxide from air – see this paper.

This is just a small overview of the methanol economy. I’m not an expert in this area, but I have some knowledge of this field since I have read a lot about it and work with people who are doing research in this area. Those who are interested and wish to read more should first check out this paper, and if they have further interest, this book.

June 4, 2012

its playoffs time!

Filed under: Uncategorized — sankirnam @ 10:36 am

It’s that time of year again… unfortunately both the Lakers and Clippers were eliminated earlier in the playoffs, leaving OKC, San Antonio, Boston, and Miami in the conference finals. I have my reasons why each of the aforementioned teams should not get a ring:

OKC – They’re just too damn young! I could consider Durant getting a ring in 2 years or so.

San Antonio – Do I really want Duncan to get 5 rings? That’s how many Kobe has… (granted, I will admit that Duncan is probably the greatest power forward of all time in the NBA)

Miami – LeBron. ‘Nuff said.

Boston – As a Laker fan, I am obliged to hate on them.

Another reason why Miami should not win is that it will set an unhealthy precedent for other teams – they will also start trying to buy their way to a championship by signing superstars rather than trying to develop actual team chemistry (anyone remember how the Lakers spectacularly imploded in ’03-’04?).

Anyway, may the best team win! 

June 1, 2012

Nee Dayaradha…

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 9:33 am

This clipping has been making the rounds on the internet, so I thought I would post it here:

It’s a clipping of the song Nee Dayaradha (Vasanthabhairavi ragam, Rupaka thalam, composed by Thyagaraja). This is from Abhishek Raghuram’s 2011 Music Academy concert, accompanied by Akkarai Subbhalakshmi (violin), my guru Neyveli Narayanan (mrudangam), and Guruprasanna (kanjira). In fact, you can see me sitting right behind my guru in this photo:Image

To my left is Delhi Rajasubramaniam, another senior student of my guru, and behind me is my friend Krishna, who also learns mrudangam from him. You can also see Trivandrum Balaji and Anantha Krishnan (Abhishek’s cousin) sitting on the opposite side. This audio clip seems to be a “thirutu recording” (stolen recording) by someone in the audience; nonetheless, I am grateful that it is there at all, since the quality of the music in this concert was so amazing and unfortunately legal, professional recordings are unavailable. Abhishek’s music reminds me of GNB or a very young TNS – the brighas at lightning speed, the creativity with ragam and layam, and the tightness of his grip on thalam. In fact my guru keeps telling me how much he enjoys playing for Abhishek for this reason! It should be mentioned at the outset here that Abhishek (and his cousin Anantha Krishnan) are the grandsons of the legendary mrudangam vidwan the late Shri Palghat R. Raghu (I had mentioned a little about him in an older post on Palghat Mani Iyer). Thus, laya, and music in general, is in their blood.

In this clip, Abhishek experiments with different theermanams (endings) and similar patterns. That is what makes this round of swarams so appealing; the variation between fast sarvalaghu swarams, a crisp ending, and judicious use of silence for contrast. Of course, this is extremely difficult to accompany (on violin or mrudangam) since you need incredibly good anticipation skills. My guru honed his skills at this by playing hundreds of concerts for T. N. Seshagopalan when he was my age (or even younger). Thinking about this really puts things in perspective about what little I have accomplished in life so far…

Recently, one of my friends was listening to this clip and claimed that he could hear me in the silence at 2:20 – one of the people saying “ah!”. I honestly don’t remember if I did that at this point.

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