Amplification is killing live music
- Bruno Kavanagh

August 19, 2008
The eighteenth century philosopher Denis Diderot famously quipped that mankind would be free only when 'the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest'. When it comes to Indian classical music, I sometimes wish I could throttle the last incompetent sound engineer with the power cable of the last loudspeaker.

I write this in a state of disappointment and frustration, having returned yesterday from a recital given here in New York by the pre-eminent Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam. Ms. Sairam is a wonderful musician, but I was unable to remain at the concert for more than about 20 excruciating minutes. The friends I had brought with me including a distinguished composer of Western music who was eager to experience the Carnatic form in concert were equally disappointed and appalled. Why? Because the quality of the sound mix was simply dreadful. As seems to be so often the case with concerts of Indian music, the sound engineer was out of his depth and his response to his own incompetence was simply to turn the volume up to ear-splitting levels.

I judge Aruna Sairam on the quality of her recordings, which reveal a musician of subtlety and brilliance. I am no expert in Carnatic music, but a listener schooled in any tradition can recognize her remarkable vocal control and the emotional range she brings to her music. What is more (again, to judge purely on the basis of her recordings) she draws exceptional performances from the musicians who accompany her, resulting in ensemble playing of rare sensitivity, complexity and good taste.

So how is it possible that an artist of this calibre can tolerate producing such a truly ugly sound? I should note that she did acknowledge, in a pause between items, that there had been problems with the sound check and PA system. But instead of the obvious and tasteful response turning the microphones off and giving us (Heaven be praised!) an acoustic performance, she chose to soldier gamely on, through a sonic fog of feedback and blare.

I do not want to pick unfairly on Aruna Sairam, for she is not alone: this failure seems endemic to Indian classical music performances (including dance performances) even at the highest levels. But why should this be? To me, it is utterly baffling not least because I fail to see why this historically acoustic form should be amplified at all (when presented indoors, at least). London's Wigmore Hall holds 540 and a solo violin, or voice, can perform with no amplification whatsoever. The singers at New York's Metropolitan Opera have to contend, unaided, with a full orchestra and a hall large enough to hold 4,000. And while it is true that some Western opera companies (provoking much controversy it should be said) have begun to use 'sound enhancement' techniques in larger venues, this is amplification so subtle as to be barely noticeable. Ambient microphones pick up the mix in the hall, and provide a boost to certain frequencies, relaying the enhanced sound through discreetly positioned speakers.

The problem of poor amplification now seems deeply rooted in the Indian classical music scene. In Chennai, the music at the venerable Krishna Gana Sabha, scarcely a large auditorium, blasts at you from a wall of speakers that would not disgrace an outdoor stadium appearance by The Rolling Stones. In a presentation of Bharatanatyam, I ask you, how is it possible to hear the rhythms of dancer's feet on the stage when the accompanying music is so punishingly loud? What has happened to the subtle dialogue between the performer's ankle bells and the mrdangam, when the drummer insists on a microphone at each end of his instrument?

It's clear that, in many cases, Indian musicians have lost the ability, or desire, to listen deeply to each other as they perform together. Worse, it seems they no longer listen to themselves. A few minutes into yesterday's concert, the mrdangist started gesturing angrily at the boy behind the sound desk: he wanted a monitor amplifier moved closer to his position on stage. He motioned at the hapless young man to slide it closer and closer until it was only a matter of inches away from his instrument. To me, this is evidence that he is not listening to the sound of his drum rather, he is listening only to his own amplified sound through the monitor. Aruna Sairam herself sang for much of the time with the palm of her hand pressed flat over one ear. Is this what she needs to do in order to hear herself sing?

A musician must, first and foremost, listen to the sound coming from his or her own instrument, or voice. If this sound is drowned in a general wash of undifferentiated, over-amplified noise then it is impossible even for a highly talented player to produce a sound with any level of delicacy let alone achieve the subtle dialogue between players and vocalist that is necessary for ensemble playing of genuine artistic merit. Perhaps the performance sounds great to the musicians themselves through their monitors. But that's no good to the audience, if what we get is artless audio-soup through the PA system.

As for vocalists, it seems to me that if microphones must be used, then at least singers should learn how to use them properly. The use of a microphone is an art in itself. In the West, it's only singers of hard rock, for whom the production of raw noise is an intrinsic part of their performance, who sing with their lips almost touching the device. Earlier and more subtle popular artists true masters of the vocal art such as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald would sing at a distance of two or three feet from the microphone. This allows for subtlety and nuance to come through in performance, even when the sound is amplified. Ms. Sairam, by contrast, placed her mouth so close to the microphone that her sound while loud in the extreme also became muffled and poorly articulated. In her case, it is inexplicable her voice is powerful and she has the technique to project her sound, comfortably and without help, to fill a much larger hall than the one in which she performed yesterday. And yet she prefers to hide her artistry behind a thick veil of noise. Baffling, and frustrating.

For the sake of the future of Indian classical music, something needs to be done about this depressing state of affairs. If Aruna Sairam a globally renowned artist, scholar, and great soul cannot lead the way towards a more sophisticated embrace of amplification, then who can? Indian classical music, like its Western counterpart, is an acoustic art form. Crass and unnecessary amplification is deafening audiences to the nuance of live performance. Would you want to deny your children the opportunity to thrill at the beauty of a naked voice?