One Tuesday last year, I was fortunate enough to see Sonny Rollins, all of 77, play tenor sax at Carnegie Hall. Fifty years earlier, he’d played a set of three songs at that very location, and he intended, in this concert, to revisit that suite. I’d only ever heard one of the three — the famous Mack the Knife from The Threepenny Opera — and despite knowing fully well otherwise, I somehow subconsciously thought it would be my familiar touchstone for the evening.
Free flowing: Sonny Rollins is famous for his improvisations. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud / AFP
I was wrong, of course. Rollins’ Mack the Knife was Mack the Knife only its barest essence. For the rest of it, Rollins built a monument of improvisation, using the substance of the song only as his foundation and conjuring out of it heady spires and turrets of notes. This is what jazz does best, and it is why I so often find jazz to be Carnatic music’s closest cousin.
Carnatic music’s library of songs is, in a sense, more crucial to its existence than is the case with jazz. The musical phrases of these songs indicate how a raga should be sung, and their text invokes the spiritual, or sometimes amatory, emotion — the bhava — that should underlie every rendition. The libretti define, and are defined by, the metre or the talam of the song. A jazz song can become an endless flight of improvisation, with only fleeting references to the main melody; a Carnatic piece cannot.
But, the acute thrill of both schools of music is their ceaseless variety, and the knowledge that even if Sanjay Subrahmaniam or Sonny Rollins gave back-to-back concerts with identical song lists, the concerts themselves would sound entirely different. There is, in Carnatic music, vast room to improvise with the alapana of a raga. There is the neraval, a series of riffs on a single line of song, the music behind the text bent this way and that without stepping outside the boundaries of raga or metre. There is the kalpanaswaram, individual notes strung together on the spot, sometimes for minutes on end, staying true again to the raga and still conjured up afresh. Even with the core of the song itself, there are little flourishes and tweaks with every performance, according to the muse’s whims on the day.
A friend once questioned whether improvising within the strictures of a raga could ever be called true creativity. But to me, that is both the challenge and the reward. Rampant imagination is often bewildering and chaotic, and to my nose, there is always the faintest whiff of charlatanry; I feel it, personally, with the art of Jackson Pollock, where we are convinced that his energy is everything. But, to improvise and explore within borders, and still to create a new alapana every time, is the severest test of the imagination. That reminds me, in turn, of the art of Vincent van Gogh. The energetic, fiercely individual brushstrokes are still there, but they unfailingly add up, every time, to a cohesive, comprehensible, bigger picture.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org