Monday, March 16, 2009

Saxophone Desi Style: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kadri Gopalnath

The saxophone in the opening credits to this Tamil Film ("Duet") is by Kadri Gopalnath; it's unlike any other commercial film opening credits music you've ever heard. Gopalnath has been in the news quite a bit over the past few weeks, following his collaboration with Indian American jazz-maestro Rudresh Mahanthappa, who has a new album out called Apti. I haven't "Itunesed" Mahanthappa's album yet (any reviews? the excerpts played on Rudresh's NPR interview sound great), though I will be, but it prompted me to check out the Indian musician he's talking about. (Incidentally, Kadri Gopalnath has several albums for sale on Itunes as well, at the bargain price of $3.99 each.)

Here is a quote from the New Yorker piece on Mahanthappa that describes what Gopalnath is doing on Sax:

While Mahanthappa was at Berklee, his older brother teasingly gave him an album called “Saxophone Indian Style,” by Kadri Gopalnath. As far as Mahanthappa knew, “Indian saxophonist” was an oxymoron, but the album amazed him. Gopalnath, who was born in 1950, in Karnataka, plays a Western instrument in a non-Western context—the Carnatic music of Southern India (distinct from the Hindustani musical tradition of Northern India). Gopalnath, who generally plays in a yogalike seated position, has perfected something that jazz saxophonists have been attempting for decades: moving beyond the Western chromatic scale into the realm of microtones, a feat harder for wind instruments, whose keys are in fixed positions, than for strings or voice. Jazz players, such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, had gone about it by varying intonation, blowing multiphonics (two or more notes at the same time), or squawking in the upper register, where pitches are imprecisely defined. Gopalnath does none of that. Using alternate fingerings and innovative embouchure techniques, he maintains faultless intonation while sliding in and out of the chromatic scale. (link)

I don't play any wind instruments, and I have no idea technically what "innovative embouchure techniques" might be describing, but it sure sounds hard.

Also check out: Mahanthappa interviewed on NPR.

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Anonymous narayan said...

I thought saxes were reed instruments but Wikipedia suggests they are woodwinds. Embouchure is the way the mouth or lips fit against the instrument's mouthpiece; the great variation in embouchures are evident in close-ups of musicians (think Roland Kirk playing three instruments with his mouth and a nose-flute besides).
Having listened to the sample of Gopalnath's playing I don't hear much of the typical sax sound. He seems to be playing in a register one commonly associates with a nadaswaram. Gary Giddins may not be familiar with the nadaswaram which is the mainstay of Hindu temple and wedding music of the South; he cites the shehnai instead, which has a far less robust sound. The most famous nadaswaram exponent of our times is a Muslim, Sheikh Chinna Maulana - go figure! I have also heard it used in a jazz setting by Charlie Mariano.
I have heard that saxes (and harmoniums) were banned on air by All India Radio till a few decades ago. The Goan musicians you wrote about in an earlier posting may have been the first to exploit saxes in India with the introduction of band music. T.J.S.George in "MS : A Life in Music" claims that the violin was introduced into Carnatic music in the early 1800s by Baluswami Deekshitar at the instance of his famous brother Muthuswami. George credits Muthuswami Deekshitar with "the first excursion into fusion music" with an attempt "to set Sanskrit lines to English tunes"; "in more recent years ... A.K.C.Natarajan of Madurai has adapted the clarionet (as it is invariably called in India), Kamalai Thiagarajan the concert flute with keys, Kadri Gopalnath the saxophone, and U.Srinivas the mandolin to the exactiing demnds of Carnatic ragas."

2:27 PM  
Anonymous murali said...

To add to what narayan said, this post is North Indian Parochial. Very little that happens south of Vindhyas is acknowledged.

Thank god for A R Rahman for breaking the mould.

Have you ever listened to (or heard of Ilayaraja). If you havent he is considered by Southies to be among the best (at par with SD Burman, Madan Mohan or any of the other greats). In the late 70s and early 80s when hindi film music was languishing under the grip of Nadeem-Shravan, Annu Malik and T-Series, Ilayaraja was busy laying a fresh foundation for Indian music. Rahman stood on his shoulders to get to the current state

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Which main? what cross? said...

Imagine Carnatic music without violin! Impossible.

And that fabulous Mandolin Srinivas.

12:41 AM  

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