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MUSICSCAN

Manodharma in jazz

M.V. RAMAKRISHNAN

In true improvisation, the heart and the mind must be focussed on the omnipresent, without distraction or self-consciousness.


The magic of music is that it is the language of memory. There are several moments in time that stand frozen in my memory... This is where my soul begins to dance... I do not think of these moments as anything other than a tryst with the divine...” That’s what Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam said while recalling her thrilling experience at the Sawai Gandharva music festival in Pune, where she sang in Sanskrit, Tamil and Marathi in front of a large audience consisting mostly of lovers of Hindustani music.

Such sublime moments can materialise only when a performance transcends the mere grammar of the music and flows freely from what we call the artist’s ‘manodharma’ in classical music. Of course, it’s impossible to translate this Sanskrit term perfectly into English, and the best expression I can find is ‘mind’s vision.’

In the normal course, I would have taken for granted such a sentiment expressed by Aruna, for I know all about the soulful and memorable quality of her music, and have myself described it admiringly in these pages. But on this occasion, her comment made a special impression on me because it came just when I was reading a book about jazz which had set me thinking about the relevance and importance of ‘manodharma’ in jazz.

The book ‘Souljazz: The Heart of the Music’, by Michael Brewin, an American jazz guitarist, composer and scholar, contains the following insightful remarks on improvisation which can be equally and eloquently true of Carnatic and Hindustani music:

Simple and memorable

While jazz musicians need a solid foundation of technique and musical theory in order to improvise successfully, they must also utilise intangible features which transcend the physical mechanics and mental physics of music...

Some of the most memorable improvisations in jazz history have been over simple progressions... Most listeners, too, find simpler forms more accessible than cerebral explorations... Simple or sparse arrangements often free musicians to use their entire consciousness to express themselves more purely and clearly, without focussing attention unduly on form...

The more complicated the arrangement... the more mental energy a musician will have to devote to the technical aspects of improvising. Therefore only highly accomplished virtuosos of improvisation are able to spontaneously fuse emotion and creativity in the course of soloing over difficult and complex forms at fast tempos...

An improvisation too preoccupied with theoretical concepts, form or technique will be experienced by an audience as an academic exercise, whereas the most simple cry of the heart... is easily recognised by the sympathetic vibrations within the hearts of its audience. Moreover, the heartfelt note radiates a sincerity that a flurry of carefully contrived phrases can never emulate...

Call of the heart

In fact, the very act of conceptualisation (‘thinking’ as opposed to ‘awareness’) removes one’s consciousness from the here and now of the moment, creating a duality of consciousness and an alienation from the heart (‘feeling’)... In true improvisation, the heart and mind must be singly focussed on the omnipresent, without distraction or self-consciousness. The key to this feat is to always subordinate everything to the call of the heart — the rest will follow, provided one is already amply prepared, technically speaking...

Most jazz musicians have expended considerable energy practising over different forms, methodically applying a variety of theoretical tools. Sometimes musicians will practise a composition until they feel so comfortable and familiar with it that they can then improvise more freely...

The highest kind of improvisation happens when a musician becomes so technically disciplined, so immersed in the call of the heart (‘feeling’), and so absolutely single-pointed in concentration that every note combination and nuance unfolds into a new magical excursion, developing into a sublime, cohesive pattern and culminating into its most supreme expression.

Musicians who attain this level with regularity are undoubtedly the musical masters of jazz.

(For more reflections on the concordance between Carnatic music and jazz, please read Musicscan at www.thehindu.com, Friday Review, Chennai edition, Nov. 14, 2008; also June 22, July 6/20, and Aug. 3, 2007)

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