musings on music and life

October 15, 2014

Agilent shuts down NMR division

Filed under: Chemistry — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 11:50 am

Agilent Technologies made a rather disturbing announcement yesterday stating that they are going to shut down their NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) division at the end of this month. Agilent acquired NMR capabilities through its purchase of Varian Technologies in 2010. Varian was one of the pioneers in the production of NMR instruments, and as an American company, played a large role in getting them into almost all chemical instrumentation labs across the US. Varian produced the first commercial CW NMR instruments in the 50’s, and in the 60’s/70’s, introduced the first commerical FT-NMR instruments to the market. It should also be noted that Richard R. Ernst recieved the Nobel Prize in 1991 for work he did at Varian toward the development of FT-NMR and multidimensional NMR techniques.

There are other manufacturers of NMR instruments, such as Bruker (Europe) and JEOL (Japan). However, Varian, being an American company, has >95% market share in the US (my estimate). A major concern on most of our minds is the servicing and maintenance of these instruments. NMRs are notoriously finicky, and if Agilent is no longer producing them, then replacement parts are going to be difficult to come by. Agilent did mention they will meet “ongoing support contracts” and that they “will continue to provide service on all installed NMR systems”; but who knows how long this will last?

Within the last 2 years, benchtop miniaturized NMRs have become commercially available. However, these are still not as useful as full-size NMRs, as they usually only operate at low field strengths, so only 30-75 MHz (1H frequency) is available right now. Also, many of these instruments cannot do mutinuclear or multidimensional NMR, which is something very routine on regular instruments. The shutdown by Agilent therefore leaves a hole in the NMR market, but this is allegedly not very big or very profitable.

It is very sad to hear about this, as it is particularly symbolic of what is wrong with the current American business model of acquisitions and mergers. A successful R+D unit, along with many talented, exceptional scientists and engineers, gets shut down due to insufficient profit margins. I hope the ex-Varian employees will be OK, and hope that they will be able to successfully get back on their feet setting up independent servicing outfits for the various NMR instruments across the country. My sincere best wishes are with all of them.


October 6, 2014

Random thought

Filed under: Carnatic Music, Uncategorized — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 9:09 pm

I was just thinking about this while listening to a recording of a Classical Carnatic concert I had attended in Chennai years ago:

The way most mrudangam vidwans are trained, and the way most mrudangam vidwans become popular as accompanists, is by anticipating and reproducing the structure of the song (as performed by the main artist) on the mrudangam as closely as possible. What that means is that as much as we give primacy to sarvalaghu as a mode of accompaniment, closely matching the sangathis, swaram, and niraval is what really scores points. Of course, the logical conclusion from this is that the most successful concerts are those in which the mrudangam vidwan has frequently performed with the main artist. For most serious Carnatic rasikas, this is so obvious that it does not even bear mentioning. GNB-Palghat Raghu, KVN-Palghat Raghu, SSI-UKS, U. Srinivas-Thanjavur Upendran, and even Sowmya-Neyveli Narayanan sir are some of the most enduring combinations in Carnatic music history.

So while this is all fine and dandy, the thought on my mind was specifically this: “If we are specifically trained to accompany only Carnatic pieces, how then can you fit the mrudangam into the wider scope of international music?”. Granted, even in a traditional Carnatic concert you always have to be prepared to play for pieces you have not heard before, but whenever that happens, the overall impact will never be the same as if you were accompanying a piece you are familiar with. Most mrudangam artists would not feel comfortable playing for jazz pieces without extensive and thorough rehearsals, but can play at ease for Carnatic concerts impromptu. I feel like whenever you play for a piece with extensive rehearsal, the charm of what makes the mrudangam unique as an instrument is lost; this is primarily because in a Carnatic concert, almost 90% of the concert is unrehearsed. The krithis may be familiar, but the improvisational aspects (such as raga alapana, kalpana swara, niraval, thani, Ragam Thanam Pallavi) are more or less on the spot.

I remember showing my friend (who had no background in Indian music) a recording of Karaikudi Mani’s Sruthi Laya as a way of easing him into Carnatic Music, and after listening to it for a few minutes, he immediately IM’ed me and remarked “this is way too rehearsed…is real Carnatic Music like this?”.

Maybe I am just spoiled after hearing too many live Carnatic concerts and directly experiencing the raw, unfiltered creativity of the world’s top percussionists firsthand…

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