Opera: 18th Century Entertainment still enthralls

Opera. A dramatic work, where music is the medium of expressing oneself. Where the composer, is the main man, the director if opera were a movie, the author if opera were a book, and choreographer if opera were a dance. But an opera combines these art forms and uses Music to convey dialogue, to tell the story and even for dance. Thus, an opera was always a fascination for me, more so after watching “Amadeus” , a brilliant movie based on the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of FigaroDon Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute, a landmark in the German tradition.

On a trip to Prague, I was lucky enough to see “Die Mutter aller Opern” (The mother of all Operas), “Don Giovanni”. I watched this in the Estates theatre, the only standing theatre today in which Mozart performed, and also the location for the premiere of this Opera way back in 1787. So apart from my clothes, one can say I was more or less back in the 18th century, once inside this splendid auditorium.

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I must admit, I was a bit wary. I’ve heard a lot of classical music over the years, and some of it does put me to sleep, even if some revered court composer of a Bavarian Monarch composed the piece in a castle especially built for him (Wagner).

However, once the opera began, I was enchanted. The first overtures of Don Giovanni set up quite a somber mood (being in a D Minor), but they immediately change to comic and chirpy tunes as the actors take the stage, maybe to reflect on the dual nature of the opera.

Music, being Mozart, was of course amazing, but I’d heard these overtures before without the scene panning out in front of me. Now, however, with the actors on stage, I could find a meaning to the music. I was able to understand the subtle changes in the moods of the music, and thus grasp the purpose of said music. It was so amazing, to sit in that legendary theatre, with the high and mighty of Prague and witness a full orchestra playing Mozart’s music to perfection while the scene he wrote was acted out in front of me.

Don Giovanni is about a Casanova, or playboy, who woos women and then abandons them in favour of new opportunities. The play revolves around Giovanni’s spurned lover Donna Elvira, his repeated attempts to seduce a commoner’s beautiful bride to be, Zerlina, and the sin committed by Giovanni when he seduces the Commendatore’s daughter and kills the Commendatore while fleeing. Giovanni is brought to justice, however, when the dead Commendatore’s statue appears and drags him to hell to pay for his sins. The moral of the play being,  “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life”.

There is nothing very complex or overly eccentric about opera. This was written for the public of the 18th Century to entertain, and thus every moment of the opera is understandable. Being a Mozart opera, it had it’s fair share of comic moments too, like when Giovanni’s servant Loporello sings “Madamina, il catalogo è questo“, telling Elvira how many ladies his master has seduced and how he, as the servant keeps record. Mozart’s tunes also move the soul, when Donno Anna assures her real lover that she loves him but will only marry him when her father is avenged in “Non mi dir”.

The most impressive scene of the opera, however is saved for the end, when Il Commendatore’s ghost enters Giovanni’s house. The terrifying D minor notes from the overture accompanying the ghost’s baritone, every one in the hall was in awe of the spectacle they were witnessing as Giovanni was taken to hell for his sins.

Don Giovanni  received a 30 minute standing ovation when it was premiered on that October night in 1787. 225 years later, in the same hall but a different era, the opera received a 15 minute standing ovation, as the actors came to the proscenium again and again to bow and curtsy. I applauded the cast and composer with enthusiasm, having witnessed a different art form in one of it’s most authentic settings, and loving every moment of it.

I suggest everyone watches an opera once, for when you understand it, when opera is no more a Fat Lady singing, you realise the beauty and depth of this art form.

Howard Shore – The music of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Peter Jackson. We all know who he is. He’s the guy who used to make slapstick horror comedies till he read Lord of the Rings. Some say that if justice was ever done to a book, it was Peter Jackson and Francis Ford Coppola who did it, the latter for the Godfather. Well, when Lord of the Rings had hit the cinemas, all I knew about those films was the number of Oscars they were winning.

But then I read the book, and having created an image, an environment and a certain feel about  Middle Earth, I watched the three movies on my home theater. Never before had my father sat through 4 hours of movie without moving, but here was a film that astounded all, and with every passing moment, we were debating whether the book was better or the movie. And in a house of ardent book enthusiasts as mine, that debate does not start on a daily basis.

But what I noticed, was the music of the Lord of the Rings. This was not some background score created to support the movie. It was created to give the world of  Middle Earth shape, and that certain feel that is created by the book. This was music composed by a man who felt Lord of the Rings as much as every fan of the text would. Let’s take this for example:

The Shire. Hmm, ok if you say so.

Yes, the image above might evoke some memories of the Shire, that happy land aloof from the travails of Gondor and Mordor full of merry hobbits who just care about the weed in their pipes. But now listen to this:

Now, I can see the Shire if I close my eyes. I can hear the words of Gandalf as they pass by the green fields of Hobbitton. I can imagine a cheerful place, preparing for Bilbo’s birthday, and a sleepy but happy town. And when you combine the two, THAT is what gives the Lord of the Rings its epic touch.

How about this:

Nazgul!! Creeeeeeepy.

However, you get to the middle of THIS:

The dread comes now. The fear, the wrath of the Nazgul, the Black Riders is upon us with this music, and THIS, combined with the sight of the Nazgul galloping down the road instills a fear in the movie watcher, in much the same manner as the book.

It;s not just here, it’s everywhere in the movies. Scene after scene, the feelings in the human body are stirred with the chords that are struck. “Hope is kindled” says Gandalf. As every successive beacon lights in this scene, the violins in the background build up the music, picking up our spirits, which had fallen after Denethor’s apocalyptic talk, and bring the scene to Rohan, where hope, in the form of the heir of Gondor and the riders of the Rohirrim is still there.

What is unique about the Lord of the Rings music, is the fact that it did not have a culture, or a tribe to fall back upon. when we talk of other epic soundtracks, such as that of Amelie, or August Rush or the much-loved Pirates of the Caribbean, Last Samurai or even Titanic,  the composers always had a culture, an era and a certain musical idea to adhere to. Like Last Samurai uses Japanese instruments, and the soundtrack of Black Hawk Down was composed using traditional African instruments and contains tribal influences.

Howard Shore, on the other hand, had to describe a world alien to him, which was only described in the book. The happiness of the Shire, the wrath of the Nazgul, the meaning of the Fellowship, the Hobbits’ feelings as they pass through different kingdoms, the companionship of Sam and Frodo,  the mystery of the Elves, the charm of Rivendell, the fall of Gandalf, the hopelessness and death of Mordor, the industry of Isengard, the hope offered by the Rohirrim, the last ride of King Theoden, the Return of the King, the destruction of the Ring, the celebrations and the journey into the West, these moments of the movies would have never been the same without Howard Shore’s music. And in creating the music of the Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore became responsible for doing justice to the book in much the same way as Peter Jackson, or Francis Ford Coppola.

There are many great tracks in these three albums, but the most notable would be:

  • Concerning Hobbits
  • The Ring Goes South
  • The Bridge of Khazad Dum
  • The Breaking of the Fellowship – The best in album one (for me)
  • May it Be – composed by Enya
  • The King of the Golden Hall
  • The Hornburg
  • Forth Eorlingas
  • Gollum’s Song – The best in album two
  • Minas Tirith
  • The White Tree
  • Minas  Morgul
  • The Fields of the Pelennor
  • Into The West

Howard Shore - I share my Birthday with him!!

Through this post, I pay my respect to the man and his team that gave a voice to one of the greatest stories that English literature has ever seen. I thank him for giving me three albums that are as close to my heart as the book that they were based upon. Rarely are such feats achieved.

Howard Shore has also composed the music of Departed, Silence of the Lambs, Striptease and his music will next be seen in Hugo. Now, I know trailer music is not composed usually by the same person, but if one judges by it, we are in for another treat, and hopefully another album that is a cherished part of our music collections.

The muchachos from Mallorca


I saw this video on the Mood Indigo thread that organizers use to decide which artists to invite to Mood Indigo. I was so bowled over by this music, that I told my Core Group member to put me in charge of this event. And as I stood there at the airport, waving to two guys with guitars (Ok, one had a ukele, sorry Miquel!!) I had not imagined that the next two days would make Mood Indigo 2010 unforgettable.

The Muchachos, Miquel on Ukele and Joan on guitar

They settled on to their amplifiers in the middle of the academic area, with only me and a curious passerby wondering what was going on. And then, flamenco came to India. As they played the first of their songs, which I think was “Tamacun”, I , coordinator of said event forgot the damned world around me, forgot how many people were gathering around Joan and Miquel as they played their native music. But when the music stopped, the roar and applause that greeted them was deafening.

Flamenco is a genre of music, song and dance from the Spanish region of Andalusia, noted for its energetic, staccato style. It grew from Andalusian music, song and dance styles and the song and dance of the local Romani people. [Wikipedia]

Staccato means that every note is played with a string plucked, as opposed to legato, where guitarists use the sustain of the amplifier to play many notes while picking a string just ones. Flamenco guitarists’ tunes are intricate, and the genre is hardly always energetic as said by Wikipedia. In fact, Flamenco expresses many emotions, from joy and party, to sorrow and loss. The two videos below might better illustrate said fact.

Now, the Muntaner Duo, are flamenco too, but they specialize in street music, and as the name suggests, their music makes the passerby tap his foot in beat. They certainly fit the energetic bill, as most of their music made it difficult for students to sit in their seats in our auditorium. Miquel plays the lead, on his four stringed Hawaiian ukele, while Joan’s hand is a blur playing the extremely fast rhythms of their songs. Joan does not use his guitar only as  a string instrument, but as a percussion instrument too, using the hollow body and even the neck (!!) to give beats to the song. He also sings. And when you see his hands move up and down the guitar, giving chord, voice, rhythm and beat together, you can’t help cheering, and wishing that the two muchachos never stopped.

Their music is here. Listen to, enjoy, be over – awed, and amazed by the Muntaner Duo.

http://in.myspace.com/muntanerduo

Music from the Silk Road

The Silk Road Ensemble is a musical collective and a part of the Silk Road Project. The ensemble is not a fixed group of musicians, but rather a loose collective of as many as 60 musicians, composers, arrangers, visual artists and storytellers from various Eurasian cultures interested in maintaining the authenticity of their own cultural heritage and, at the same time, exchanging ideas across ostensibly dissimilar cultures. Initiated by Yo-Yo Ma, acclaimed virtuoso American cellist in 1998,  the Project promotes collaboration among artists and institutions, promoting multicultural artistic exchange, and studying the ebb and flow of ideas among different cultures along the Silk Road.

Mountains Are Far Away

If the Dewarists was a music show that did justice to the beauty and diversity of Indian music, The Silk Road Ensemble is a collaboration of ancient and medieval cultures connected by the Silk Route, a 4000 mile network of trade routes that gave Europe the zero and Indian armies cannons. And here I describe one of the albums, Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon.

Imagine a caravan travelling with the freshly cultivated Kesar from the valleys of Kashmir stopping at a caravanserai in Georgia. As the evening draws near, and the traders gather around the fire, chords are struck and the Akhalkalaki dance, endemic to their Georgian town is performed, much to the delight of the weary traders. Imagine the emotions that a trader experiences upon looking down on Constantinople, or the beautiful green valley of Kashmir after months of an arduous journey. Imagine the breathtaking scenery of a Chinese countryside, or the sight of thousands of horses galloping in a remote mountain country in North Asia.

Caravans on the Silk Road

The album uses a variety of instruments and artists, with the cello and/or violin being a base for many of the songs. So the piano plays with the tabla, and kamancha, to create music that touches the soul. Many endemic percussion and string instruments are fused with the cello, and Chinese lutes are used extensively, while vocals are featured on a couple of tracks. I cannot comment more on the instruments used, as the variety of tones and beats is massive.

Kayhan Kalhor playing the Kamancha

“Good” is too small a word for the music in this album. This music does not soothe, it does not make one feel good. This music moves people. It moves some to tears. It makes you want to escape the daily routine of life, and join that caravan of medieval times. It makes you long for the peace and solitude of places you haven’t ever seen. It makes you a king in his court, a traveler scaling a mountain pass or a shepherd in his home valley. It transports you to the realm of old times, when barter trade existed, when harams existed and were part of culture, and when Europe was seen as a distant and mystic land, far way, only seen by the long-haired wizened old man who had traveled the Silk Road.

This music makes us Imagine.

I take leave with this track posted below, and I hope it touches your heart as it did mine.

The Dewarists : An Unprecedented TV Series

The last time I watched a channel other than ESPN was NDTV, to tune into the daily news. TV held no meaning, as the programs on regular channels, such as Star Plus and Colors are unbearable, and HBO never plays a movie I haven’t seen. And then, came along the Dewarists.

“To discover the passion behind these musicians, watch them collaborate and create a song. Because some things are just worth doing. Welcome to the Dewarists. ” And with Monica Dogra’s voice begins one of the best TV shows I have ever seen. The mission of the show – to travel to exotic locations, to bring together musicians who rebelled against the norms of Indian society and discovered their own paths, created their own identities and are living the Rockstar dream today – is an idea that has not only revived the popularity of erstwhile rockstars of India; the show has also exposed us, the viewers to some new fantastic musicians within our country and abroad. It’s not coincidence that the fusion night of Mood Indigo saw Agnee and The Raghu Dixit Project perform this year.

Monica Dogra is on a Mission

The show basically takes two artists of similar genres, though not necessarily, and travels to the home town of one of these artists for a collaboration. It describes the journey of each of these artists, and how they broke free of social stigmas and archetypes of their times to pursue their one passion – music. While some of these artists chose to follow their Western heroes, others stuck to their roots, and fused them with contemporary music styles to expose the world to their culture.  As the Dewarists tell their story, breathtaking camera angles capture the environment and set the tone for the song to follow. It must be one of the first TV shows to be shot in HD, and the difference is evident. Coupled with the brilliance of the cameraman, and mind-blowing editing, we are treated to an hour of TV that pleases the eyes, ears, mind and soul.

Such scenes are Daily fare in the Dewarists

While each artist tells his/her story, their music plays in the background. I remember Nitin Malik wondering what parents would do to their kids if they told them they wanted ot be in a Rock Band in the 80s, and how Indian Ocean started from a two man experiment to become one of the greatest bands in India. When Harigovindan explains the discrimination he faced, and how he built his temple brick by brick and rock by rock, you are inspired to forgo boundaries and innovate. When Rabbi tells us of his joy at reaching the top of the Indian charts, you share his joy, because the show makes you BELIEVE in Rabbi’s journey and you are genuinely happy that his music is popular today.

The Champion of the Dewarists' ideology

The artists meet, get familiar, and then one of them proposes a base tune or beat to start with. Like in “Changing World”, Sri comes in with a bass riff in mind, and the words and transitions are built around this riff. Sometimes, people have lyrics beforehand, like Mohan in “I Believe” and they compose their song keeping in mind these words. Other times, like in “Masti ki Basti” playing a standard piece and some impromptu fun leads to evolution of the basic riff of the song. What is the most amazing thing about the show however, is the spontaneity that it captures on camera. We can see for ourselves,  how Aditya Bhasin fills in Sri’s bass riff, how Sonam Sherpa takes the Yaman Raga to compose a slide solo, and how Raghu Dixit sings some tunes just for the heck of it, and they put it into the song. After all, “Sweet Child of Mine”, the famous GnR number was a result of a warm-up session and some goofing around. The show also gives glimpses of the mixing and recording bits of a song, laying bare the very LIFE of a musician for the viewer.

Jammin' And Recording

As far as the music is concerned, every episode of the Dewarists is fusion of different genres, and each episode brings the flavour of a different Indian culture to us. While “Minds Without Fear” brings Bollywood and English electronica together with the native instruments and sounds of Rajasthan, the penultimate episode “Sacred Science” takes Karsh Kale’s unique percussion beat and combines it with the Metallish yet Carnatic tones of Baiju’s guitar while the base of the song is a folk tune of the Kerala temples, Harigovindan’s music. From Rajsthani and electronic to Sufi Jazz and Bollywood to Folk Rock to Pure Indie Rock to Traditional Rajasthani and trance to Carnatic and Desi tunes to Electronic and Dance Music to temple music to Blues Rock and Naga Folk. Phew. so many genres, and yet EACH song, manages to capture the flavour of the location, and the character of each artist in beautifully composed pieces. It’s taken a lot of thinking, and the hard work is evident on screen.

Ho Pi Pi, Le Ho Le, Hopi Hopi, Le Ho Le

Another facet of the songs that is worth mention is the lyrics. The evolution of lyrics is shown to us, and we get an idea of WHY the song is being written, and what is the message of this song. We know, that “Maaya” is about the worldly possessions that men adore, “Khule Da Rabb” is a unique worship  of the god of “Openness” and “Masti ki Basti” is a song that urges the listeners to tap a foot in tandem, and live life to the fullest.

And then, the show also introduces us to locations and practices that I and most of my friends have never seen before. A temple that worships musical instruments, a bridge that is formed by the roots of a tree, one of the oldest Irani cafes in Mumbai and elephants basking in Kaziranga National Park, with breath-taking camera angles capturing the beauty of these scenes to create a spectacular series.

Nature is an architect

With one season and ten episodes done, the Dewarists should be a series more famous than MTV Coke Studios in the times to come (Hopefully) and we eagerly await the next season. Till then, here’s the link to my out and out favourite of this series, “I Believe.”

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