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Sa Re Ga in the land of Do Re Mi
Lyudmila is a research scholar in information sciences. Her friend Joakim is a student of global music and takes, among others, lessons in Indian classical music, which includes an occasional brush with visiting stars from Chennai. The duo experimented in composing an Indian varnam using known phrase patterns and algorithms to generate a piece of sixteen lines of swara combinations. The text interludes were taken from an existing Telugu number. The output was rather interesting: When played to six different people with a quiz to identify the raga, four different names came up. no, none was a repeat call, as two drew blank. Unfazed, the friends adjourned the effort, setting out to acquire more knowledge to get it right the next time. Thus began the journey to Salzburg Sommerzene 09.

To Salzburg, the Mecca of western classical music, to explore Indian Carnatic music? Oh yes, Sommerzene let the culturally curious to do exactly that! This is a month-long precursor to the famed Salzburg festival. Originally intended as a platform for local artistes, the Szene grew to become an international avant-garde festival during the 70s and 80s, now focusing on the contemporary world of dance, theatre, music, film and visual arts. The festival transcends boundaries, celebrating artistic freedom, showcasing new presentation formats, aiming at superior quality year after year.

What was unique this time was the introduction of classical Indian fare. Never before has Austria experienced the genre of classical Indian music. Artistes of repute from the north Indian Hindustani tradition and eminent vocalists of the south Indian Carnatic music were visiting Europe just for this event. Concerts supported by films and discussions as well as authentic Indian food conjured up the perfect setting for exposure to the peculiarities of these highly developed musical forms.


Mozarts Birthplace
There was a sunrise concert, literally, believe me, at 5 am Sunday morning! With her soulful singing, Ashwini Bhide made this a very special experience, improvising, as is her wont, with rich imagination. Raga unveiled, Gita Desai's film was presented in two parts, providing a panoramic view of classical Indian music. Yet another screening was Music of the Ganges, the documentary on the doyen Bismillah Khan, shot in holy Varnasi on the banks of the Ganges. And at the Indian film dinner there was Ravi Shankar: Between Two Worlds, shot tirelessly by an accompanying camera crew as the genius traversed India and America.

Following the festival inaugural, Aruna Sairam opened the music programme. Her dynamic singing set a high tempo right from the start, her enthusiasm infectious, as she made instant rapport with the audience. The festival organizers' promise of a spiritual music experience came alive in Bombay Jayashri's performance as the audiences dipped into it 'to get a perception of classical Indian music as a holistic system which combines composition and playing technique with the philosophy of life and spirituality.'

And then Krishna came. Billed as captivating and charismatic, in whose concerts the transcendental power of Carnatic music can be felt, T.M. Krishna was the last of the Carnatic performers on stage at Sommerzene 09. Krishna's concert was dedicated to D.K. Pattammal, the grand old lady of Carnatic music, whose demise the music world was then mourning. "It was a touching gesture," says Krishna who felt extremely gratified to be paying a musical tribute to the veteran in distant Austria. "By now we began seeing how an artiste can make a difference with variations in interpretation of the same musical genre," said Jo. "The timbre-power of Aruna, elegance in Jayashri and brilliance of Krishna were the core that lent character to their trademark singing, and distinguished their respective styles." Not only did the three vocalists from Chennai bring in refreshingly different styles; even within the same concert, the artiste reflected different moods and shades.


View of old city from the Hilltop Castle
How did the artiste plan the meeting of minds - with a mixed or uninitiated audience? "Since it would be an aesthetically mysterious experience, we played on the curiosity to make it even more curious. Made sure there were representative compositions and different types of improvisations to provide glimpses of different facets of the music." There were little pieces of announcements, stating the composer name, raga as the melodic idea and tala, the beat cycle; some explanation of improvisations and what it means to compose in the Carnatic context. The connect was complete, as the sensitive audience intuitively picked up the feel of pure classicism, and genuinely enjoyed the concert. Interestingly it lasted over two hours, without a break, unusual by their standards, closing at 11:15 in the night with a tumultuous standing ovation.

The venue was packed to full house, as over 200 people listened, willing to participate in a very different experience. The audience was nearly completely European, but still heterogeneous. There were many with varying degrees of familiarity with Indian music, and to whom 'listening to the master performers was awe-inspiring'. To some, it was a totally new experience, a first real plunge into a music system that accommodated the contemplative and the torrential; combined abstract emotion with the arithmetic of rhythm: allowed the pre-written script to be complemented by on-stage instant creativity. "This was musical sophistication beyond our boundaries," said a local connoisseur.

Republic, the venue, is literally a stone's throw from the birthplace of Mozart. To our musicians it was a pilgrimage to a town that compared to our own Tiruvaiyaru. And the parallel does not end there. It is striking that the trinity of Carnatic music were contemporaries of the trinity of the western classical. Amazingly, Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, and Shyama Sastry lived in the same age as Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. As if it was a magic era when the Gods specially blessed the Musical Angel to sprinkle the seeds of its genius across distant lands.

Sommerzene could not have been at a better place. A quaint sleepy old salt town, with salt mines and no industry, rustic palaces and old world charm, it is straight out of a fairy tale book. There is Alps at touching distance. And of course if it is Salzburg, it must be the Sound of Music. Do re mi or Sa re ga.