The Awkward Silence July 9, 2020

In music, we like to call silence ‘rest’, which might give the impression this is when you take a break, a breather, like an athlete pausing for a moment before getting back into the game.  However in reality it is nothing but.  Rests often create tension – leading to the practice of rushing through them.  Frequently the complexity in Carnatic rhythm involves ‘rest’, or what we call Karvai.   Debates over complicated and long rhythmic passages (called Korvais – yes they are very similar sounding words!) are routinely about Karvais, especially if they are from an old, scratchy recording by a percussion maestro.

But silence can be beautiful when embraced with joy at the right moment as Miles Davis aptly pointed out – “it’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play”.  Even the tension created by Karvais can be quite charming in the hands of great composers.  Lalgudi Jayaraman was a master of this, weaving intricate spaces into melodic beauty.  Anyone who has spent time with his Valaji Varnam can attest to this – especially in the second half of the composition.  Another gem of a composition by Lalgudi is the varnamAngayarkanni, that makes use of Karvais eloquantly to fit the lyrics (You can watch one of my students playing this below).

And of course, the pauses can mean a whole lot more when it comes to Indian classical music.  Strictly speaking these are neither silence nor rest since the space available is filled up with many types of Gamakas (ornamentation of the notes).  Gamakas define the Ragam more than the notes themselves.  To paraphrase Mr Davis, “it’s not the notes you play; it’s what you do in between”.  This would be the motto for Indian classical musicians.  That brings me to my current favorite  – the composition by Shyama Shastri in BhairaviRagam called Kamakshi.  The way he melds the first two notes with plenty of space to create the feel of Bhairavi is priceless – nothing awkward here, only bliss.  More on this later…

Jiva Gala

The sixth annual Jiva Gala will be held at the DAG gallery on 14th November at 6.30pm.   Special guests include The film maker Nitin Madan and singer/song writer Apoorva Mudgal.