READING MUSIC/EXPERIENCING SOUND
In 1983 a New Delhi based foundation called the International Society for Traditional Arts Research met Dr. Jamshed J. Bhabha, founder of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Bombay, to undertake a rather novel dream – documenting Indian music in notation form. Working with the tools of the time, the project relied on developing an automated software. Dr. Bhabha had always wanted to translate a “Hindustani” musical piece into a written code that could communicate the vigour and improvisational nature of the style. An avid aficionado of Western Classical music he was conscious of, what he felt to be, a lack of recognition of the colloquial art in the global arena. A musical script dedicated to the form, he thought, would help address this neglect.
That music is a ‘universal language’ is a romantic notion that has endured the test of time. The over-arching belief is that music transcends linguistic barriers and can thus communicate across cultures. Yet, music is often defined by various cultural genres, each with its own unique structure and grammar. The sound created by a Violinist trained in classical European traditions is different from that of a Violinist trained in Karnatak (or ‘Carnatic’) music. An alaap is difficult to compare with a Coloratura soprano. In a discourse as vast as “Music” it is important to outline what is being included (and thus excluded) under the title of universal and just how “language” is being defined.
If the act of listening to music is comparable to listening to spoken language then perhaps musical notations maybe considered its written equivalent. In western classical traditions the aural script was created as a means of preserving and communicating how a piece sounded, pictorially. The system of notation which was eventually developed could be compared to a cipher, which gives musicians concise information about how the composer intended for a piece of music to be played. This was of course much before audio recording and playback.
In 1983 a New Delhi based foundation called the International Society for Traditional Arts Research (ISTAR) met Dr. Jamshed J. Bhabha, founder of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Bombay, to help actualize a novel dream – documenting Indian music in notation form. Working with the tools of the time, the project relied on developing an automated software. Dr. Bhabha had always wanted to translate a “Hindustani” musical piece into a written code that could communicate the vigour and improvisational nature of the style. An avid aficionado of Western Classical music he was conscious of, what he felt to be, a lack of recognition of the ‘colloquial arts’ in the global arena. A musical script dedicated to the form, he thought, would help address this neglect.
The project which resulted out of this collaboration between ISTAR and the NCPA studied and charted raga’s (raaga), the base framework for improvisation in Indian classical music. When attempting to translate a raga for a musician trained in European classical music a raga can be held similar to a melodic mode, I discover in the course of research. Even so, it is not an express translation, which would explain why the ISTAR NCPA project took close to two decades to be realized. Intending to document Indian music Bernard Bel, James Arnold and Joep Bor, initiated the project. Through the years Dr Suvarnalata Rao and Wim van der Meer joined the team. Together they tried to give a defined framework to the archival project now called the Automated Transcription for Indian Music (AUTRIM).
At its core the AUTRIM is a manifestation of a group of people trying to understand sound via the sense of sight. Fundamentally the software extracts pitches and plots a graphic line.Thanks to digital music-player displays sound-waves have now becomes a recognizable visual to indicate sound. But are such displays helpful for a musician to read music? During a chat Dr. Rao, Research Scientist and Indian Music Programming head at the NCPA, reminds me that that music is an acoustic signal. “But when you are trying to transform it into a visual form, especially using a computer, it often gives you too much information. In a sense, things that we are not able to perceive aurally are still picked up by the machine.”
AUTRIM is not an app that can automatically transcribe music. While there is a base software that one feeds the sound into, a great amount of work went into decluttering the graphics and mediating the collated information. Consider the movie below, for instance. The human voice is depicted by a single line set against a graph which indicates scale, as opposed to a complete sound wave. While the software was able to pick out the reverb converting this into a written form involved a process similar to the auditory breakdown a dictionary explanation of how a word must be pronounced describes. A supercalifragilisticexpialidocious into suːpəkalɪfradʒɪlɪstɪkˌɛkspɪalɪˈdəʊʃəs
Besides serving as a means of translating music the AUTRIM was also imagined as a means of communication. Music is an abstract entity, Dr. Rao points out “when you are not trained and some notes are sung to you, you cannot identify the note.” As a musician however it is important to understand how notes are connected and why the connection is a characteristic of the note. A musician may also need to identify one raga from another, understand how each note is played. It however takes a trained ear to understand how notes ought to be played, says Dr. Rao. Above all the purpose behind the creation of AUTRIM was to aid the untrained ear to read music. In the absence of training it acts as a bridge, helps communicate. It does this not only by representing the sound of music as a visual, but also by attempting to get across ragas– the base framework of auditory Indian music- in a written language understood by those acquainted with classical western notations.
Wim van der Meer, Chief Editor of the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, emphasized the importance of this bridge AUTRIM offers. “Indian Music is now taught in universities and music schools around the world. Since I have been involved in the development of such programs I personally know many of the teachers and they often use AUTRIM as a basic reference for their knowledge and teaching of ragas”. It is the Music in Motion, the visual representation of the melodic movement, which is an enormous help in understanding the fine details of music, he says.
AUTRIM hinges its existence on technological development and it would be a folly to ignore how technology has impacted musical education. DR. Rao indicates that, though accessible across the world, the AUTRIM website sees a higher traffic from outside of India. Van der Meer, on the other hand, emphasized on the growing interest in Hindustani classical music in the subcontinent. It may be argued that musical writing in general has become easier since the 80’s. Even Google doc now has add-on’s such as VexTab Music Notation to help write a musical score, albeit in European scale.
Perhaps this is what marks AUTRIM’s limitation too. Its readability makes it beneficial for western theorist and musicologists, but comparatively less accessible to curious ears, looking simply to explore new sounds and forms of music. The nature of the archival project poses fundamental questions about the audience it is catering to. Would a classical Indian musician- a practitioner of the forms AUTRIM attempts to document- be able to read these scores? Even though the core discourse the AUTRIM experiment hinges on is technology its pedagogic role is undeniable. Besides converting music into image it’s significance lies also in attempting to convert a sensorial experience into a tool of learning. There are colloquial interpretations that drive certain ragas to have multiple versions. Yet, in it’s description of the Asavari, for instance, the text on the website says, “To avoid any confusion the type of Asavari – which is nowadays by far the most common…”. Perhaps a small but crucial part of the story is lost in the formalization AUTRIM effects.
With video and audio recording becoming easier to store and access online and in digital archives, why do we still need musical notions? For one, it allows orchestral symphonies, that is over a 100 instruments to play in synchronicity. But how does this translate to Indian classical performances? Perhaps it can facilitate more collaborations across musical traditions like the Cross Currents Trio- featuring Dave Holland with double bass, Zakir Hussain on the tabla and Chris Potter on a saxophone.
Or perhaps it caters simply to established norms of human communication, which requires a more tangible form of ‘reading’ to communicate.
Devanshi Shah is an architect and a writer with a Master’s degree in History and Critical Thinking from the Architectural Association, London and a Bachelor’s in Architecture from Mumbai. She has writen for Architectural Digest India (Digital), On Stage and the co-author and Deputy Editor of the recent architectural publication N.A.S.I.K. Project. In September 2016 she was a participant at The Utopia School, Copenhagen. She facilitated classes and working groups on architecture around the theme of Utopia’s built or imagined. She authored a mini-zine, in collaboration with the School for the ALT CHP art festival. In 2017 she partook in the Goa-based festival Story of Space. She was the Set Designer for an experiential theater production titled ‘The Floating Market’ in Delhi, a volunteer at The Goa Project 2016 and 2017, and a Curatorial Associate at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.