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Collaborations good for music: L. Subramaniam

The violin maestro talks about collaborations and the state of Carnatic music, among other topics.

(This interview was originally published on the International Business Times website on March 8, 2011) 

By Asif Ismail

WASHINGTON D.C.: "Each time I listen to him, I am carried away in wonderment," the legendary Yehudi Menuhin once said of L. Subramaniam. Since his first public performance at the age of six, the 63-year-old Indian violin maestro and composer has been enthralling audiences all over the world. He has released over 200 recordings and collaborated with some of the best musicians of the era, including Menuhin, compatriot Zubin Mehta and French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, to name a few.

Subramaniam, who is married to popular singer Kavita Krishnamurti, is also the founder and director of the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, named after his father and guru. Just hours before his masterful performance with his son Ambi Subramaniam, on Sunday, he spoke to Global India Newswire. Here are excerpts:

Q: Let's start with Maximum India, which is what brings you to Washington. As an artist, what is the importance of being part of such festivals?

A: The Maximum India festival gives a great opportunity for people who have not had the chance to come and really feel our culture, or hear our culture, or see our cultural expressions. Here, not only do the artists get to perform, to give their perspective of our culture, but also the local audiences-those who belong to this country and also our own people who migrated over a period [of time to the United States] who have not listened to these kind of things-get a great opportunity to listen to Indian music. It spreads the culture, spreads the message, spreads the understanding between the two countries, India and the United States.

Q: You have been performing in the United States since the early '70s. Do you think anything has changed in terms of the appreciation of Indian performing arts in this country over the past three or four decades?

A: I have been here performing since the '70s, as you said. In the early years, the awareness of Indian music was basically in relation to, say George Harrison, or the Beatles. [Harrison]

introduced sitar, so people got an exposure to Indian music. People also got some exposure to yoga, meditation and all these things, which the Beatles were getting involved in because they were such powerful cult figures-the most successful group at that time. Whatever they did was the "in thing." But subsequently the interests have become deeper. People who want to know about Indian culture or Indian music or India as such, many of them have started coming regularly to India; started studying about Indian culture, Indian music, Indian dance. And many of them come back and try to write books or talk to people. [Many U.S.] universities have opened Indian chairs-it has thus become a much more serious affair. Many great composers and artists in the west have started seriously collaborating [with Indian musicians]. They use a lot of our rhythmic structure, melodic structure, or our theme. And they have created major compositions.

Q: Speaking of collaborations, you have worked with some of the greatest musicians in the west. Could you talk about your experience in collaborative works?

I have had great pleasure in working with some of the greatest artists of our time. I played and recorded with Yehudi Menuhin, quite a few times. We performed together at the United Nations for the 40th year of India's independence. I have collaborated with Stephane Grappelli, the great jazz violinist. We did an album called Conversation. We did a major tour in India. In fact, when we started the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival in 1992, both Menuhin and Grappelli were the honorary patrons. Both of them have come to India and performed. We have done a lot of collaborative works. Here, in the U.S., I have worked with some of the greatest jazz artists like Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Jean Luc Ponty, Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham, among others. I have had the opportunity to collaborate, write compositions and record with them over a period of time. In the latest collaborative project, we had violinists from different parts of the world, playing in tribute to my father. We did a six-city tour in India. We had a violinist from Algeria-they play the violin upside down-we had a fantastic gypsy band from Russia, Loyko, and the country fiddler Mark O'Connor from New York, and then we had a brilliant Norwegian folk fiddler playing Hardanger fiddle. I have always had great happiness doing these things. Because when I came here to do my Master's in western classical music [in the 1970s], my focus was composition in western classical music. Using that knowledge, I have had an opportunity to write for New York Philharmonic when maestro Mehta asked me to write a composition for the India festival in 1985. We did four nights' concerts, Fantasy on Vedic Chants. I have also written a number of full symphony works, which have been performed/recorded by some of the most prominent orchestras in the world, including the London Philharmonic, Moscow Symphony, Swiss Romande, among others. Collaborative work has thus happened in different ways.

Q: When someone like you, who's grounded in Carnatic, collaborate with western and other composers and musicians, what is the process like?

A: Whenever you do a collaborative work, for its success, it is very, very important that you study the other system also. Otherwise, if two people just play together-however great they are- it will be like a jam session. When you really want to do a collaborative work, if you study their music and then write the composition knowing their forte, and try to push their boundary and push your boundary, and thereby create a new direction, it becomes intellectually much more challenging and rewarding.

Q: Violin is one of the most popular instruments in the world. How do Indian violinists measure against violinists from other parts of the world?

A: Violin is probably the most played instrument in the world, and the most popular instrument. Every city in the U.S. and Europe has an orchestra, sometimes more than one orchestra. In an orchestra, majority of the instruments are violins. Violin being a western instrument, technically there are very advanced compositions written by European composers like [the nineteenth century Italian violinist Niccolò] Paganini, [Belgian violinist Eugene] Ysaye and [Spaniard Pablo de] Sarasate. They have pushed their boundaries really because the composers were violinists themselves.

But in Indian music, it started as an accompanying instrument. In the west, whenever anybody learns violin, their dream is to become a soloist, whether they play alone or play as a soloist along with an orchestra. The other choices they have are to form a chamber group-like a trio, quartet or quintet; otherwise they become part of a chamber or symphony orchestra. But in Indian music, when it was introduced, one of the earliest exponents was Balaswamy Dikshitar, brother of [the nineteenth century poet and composer] Muthuswami Dikshitar. He introduced violin as an accompanying instrument for the main artist, who would sing or play any other instrument. It slowly became the most important accompanying instrument because it was a fretless and bowed instrument. My father was responsible for shifting the whole paradigm of thought. He wanted to make violin a solo instrument in 1935, or so when he started playing, so that it could be on par with the western violin. In order to achieve that, we had to develop a lot of new techniques. The earlier technique was the accompanying technique, not the solo technique. He pushed the boundaries, expanded the range, introduced using a lot of innovative little-finger techniques, which were not there at all. He formed a violin trio with three of us-three of his sons. Subsequently, I developed a lot of techniques based on his vision and thoughts. As a result, the whole violin scene has changed now. Now a lot of violinists have been courageous enough to follow us and pursue a solo career. A whole generation has shifted from thinking "Oh, I want to be an established accompanist, playing with the famous singers" to "I want to be a soloist." My father was responsible for that shift.

Q: What is the state of Carnatic music today?

A: There was a time when there was 10 or 12 great artists dominating the scene. There were Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Maharajapuram [Santhanam], then we had M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, G.N. Balasubramaniam. On the instrumental side, T.R. Mahalingam, probably the greatest flautist of all time, Palghat Mani Iyer, the greatest mridangam player of all time. It was a golden time. Since then, there have been other artists who started doing a lot of great things. I am really hoping that soon we'll get to a time period where we will have those kinds of stalwarts, many of them at the same time. When that happens, everyone tries to push the boundaries more and more.

What has happened [now] is because of a lot of television programs, it is a fast track to become a celebrity. If you [win] one of those shows, immediately you get a tour, you perform. Immediately, everybody knows you because of television, media and publicity. And after two or three years, the next guy comes, or the next girl comes. So the celebrity life vanishes. Whereas, [in the old days], one became popular because of many years of hard work, many years of putting passionately all your energy and hard work in one direction to master the instrument, or vocal, whatever you were doing. You really wanted to become a true master, then people started listening to you. Slowly by word of mouth, people started saying, "Oh, this is fantastic, this person is great!" So over a period of time, they built a reputation and, a track record. Now, instantly you become known. Some people are very talented, some less talented, but with media and all those things, sometimes the balance is lost.

Q: In your opinion, are the reality shows, even though they increase the mass appeal of music, detrimental to music?

A: Reality shows today are mostly focused on Bollywood. If you want to focus on our traditional classical music, if somebody does something in that direction, it will also attract people.

Now anybody who is learning singing, their parents or people who are around them say, "You go and appear on the reality show, immediately you will become known, you will make money, you will become a celebrity." After two years, you are disappointed, you are out of the limelight and you dropped out of college. Instead of [showering winners with expensive gifts, if the channels] tell the participants that "We will give you a scholarship, you go and learn music, or you go abroad and educate yourself," then that means they are really creating something in the long run. But if every year, you create somebody and after one year they disappear, the show participants get partly ruined.

Q: You have performed with your father, then your brothers L. Vaidyanathan and L. Shankar. What's it like performing with your son Ambi, who is touring with you now?

A: Performing with him gives me a great sense of satisfaction, as he is from the next generation, and is going to continue my father's tradition. I am happy in two-three ways. First of all, violin has established itself as one of the most important solo instruments. [Ambi and I] have been playing violin solos around the world, which was my father's vision. So it is a great reward for me to see my father's dream come true. I am his disciple and his son. Now my disciple and my son joins me to continue the tradition. It's a blessing, and God's wish. And I am very, very happy and grateful for all the blessings we have been getting.

Q: This year you are celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of your father. You have been hosting Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival for nearly two decades now. What are the highlights of the festival in the centennial year?

A: We have had the great pleasure of hosting the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival in over 20 countries so far. This centenary year, we thought we would do something very spectacular. So we started with concerts with violins from different parts of the world. Great violinists from different parts of the world came and paid tribute to my father. We did a six-city tour in India. We finished a U.S. tour of the festival last September-October. We did it in the Middle East. We are going to do it in the Far East now. We are doing a major orchestral piece where a symphony orchestra is going to perform a composition I am specifically writing, dedicated to my father. That will be the closing of the festival this year. Every year, we have been doing different things, visions of India, where we featured different styles of singing. The idea was to visualize different parts of India through the different styles of singing. We had some of the greatest Indian vocalists such as [the late Hindustani vocalist] Gangubai Hangalji, Balamuraliji (Carnatic vocalist), Kavita (Bollywood) Purna Das (Baul of Bengal), Pankaj Udhas (Ghazal vocalist), Wadali Brothers (Punjabi folk), Suresh Wadkar (Marathi Abhangs) and my daughter Bindu (English). We will continue projects of this magnitude throughout the year.

Q: You have done quite a few albums lately. Any new ones in the pipeline?

A: One of the duet albums of Ambi and mine was released in India. It was a live concert in London. It's called The Violin Virtuoso. I did another orchestral album (Live in Leipzig) with Kavita and my daughter Bindu [Subramaniam] and the Leipzig Philharmonic. This album contains two CDs and a DVD. We have finished another project, which is Kavita's album, where she has sung different songs by different Bollywood writers -- Javedji (Javed Akhtar), Ravindra Jain and Sameer, for which I have done the music. There are duets which she has done with [playback singers] like Sonu Nigam, Pandit Jasraj, Hariharan, Lucky Ali and Suresh Wadkar. And my daughter Bindu's album called Surrender came out recently. Our new album, a video album, will be released soon.

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