Carnatic Music

If you’ve been following along, you might have already seen the two posts about Hindustani music a few posts ago. As mentioned in that post, Hindustani music is Indian Classical music native to the northern part of the country, whereas Carnatic music is that to the southern part of the country, and this week we were lucky enough to learn about Carnatic music from multiple sources.

The first was actually N. Scott Robinson and his wife K.S. Resmi, who visited our World Music Pedagogy class and did a guest recital as part of a graduate colloquium. K.S. Resmi, an India native, demonstrated much of the vocal techniques explained in the Hindustani lesson a few weeks prior (and challenged us to pull back out some of what we had learned) while Scott was able to talk more on behalf of the rhythmic structure of Carnatic music, which is where many of the main differences between it and Hindustani music tend to lie.

The most fascinating part of watching the two of them present together was watching two people who were passionate about the same music explain and reiterate the ways in which they gained their knowledge and understanding of Carnatic music. K.S. Resmi grew up with Carnatic music as most native musicians do, studying with a guru starting at age 4 and attending lessons every single day until she was twelve, at which point she continued lessons but also started teaching students of her own. To this day, she still has something like 40-50 students spread in different areas of the world who she teaches via Skype. Most importantly, she has learned and teaches everything by rote.

N. Scott Robinson, on the other hand, has gained much of his musical knowledge through American academia, though he also spent significant time in India studying Carnatic music, which is actually where he met K.S. Resmi. Regardless, his background is significantly more academic, and therefore his understanding and presentation of information falls much more into this category as well. In particular, the way he explained rhythms, especially in odd meters, was extremely mathematical and worked out in a notation that could be easily read and understood by just about everyone in the classroom at the time. Additionally, he has used his knowledge to create many non-traditional pieces such as his piece “Walk of Doum,” which he actually did teach by rote (pretty insistently, I might add) and had a small group of us perform at their guest recital. I’ve included a video below – remember, these are not traditional rhythms, but more or less traditional techniques/sounds for these drums that have been appropriated into something unique.

In our actual Analytical Techniques of World Music class, however, (the one this blog is intended for, for those who have not been following since the beginning) we welcomed Dr. Vijay, a Marketing professor here at Northern Illinois University, who has had Carnatic music at the center of his life since the beginning.

Now, the fact that he is a Marketing professor should say quite a bit on its own. This should not imply that he lacks any amount of musical talent whatsoever, but rather goes to show how much this is traditionally considered an aspect of life rather than a profession. Dr. Vijay was so extremely knowledgable in his presentation of Carnatic music, and even though much of the basic information was repeated from N. Scott Robinson and K.S. Resmi’s presentation/performance, everyone felt like we learned so much just by the way he taught the information versus the way it was taught before. Even something as simple as him being impressed with how quickly we caught on to certain things as simple as matching his pitch – this goes to show that he is not used to working with people that have had any significant amount of ear training, which again does not reflect the quality of his abilities whatsoever, but rather reflects the difference in musical culture.

While the theoretical knowledge I gained from both presentations was fantastic, what was even more valuable to me was experiencing the different ways the same information was presented and how much I was able to learn from all three approaches. Culture has such a heavy impact on how we present anything, let alone traditional music within that culture, and having this invaluable experience will undoubtedly affect the way I teach anything from this point forward in my life.