Landscape and memory in
The violin maestro L.Subramaniam’s genius is to be located in his ability to take musical registers of landscape and memory to the world of jazz-fusion music. ‘Motherland’ and ‘Memories of Jaffna’ are the two compositions that reveal his typical patterns.
‘Motherland’ starts off with the exuberance of an atmospheric violin after a brief introductory passage of morsing and drums. The conversation and trade off continues between the saxophone, guitar and violin and the texture dramatically changes with Larry Coryell’s intricate guitar the twangs of which are an invitation and a teaser. Subramaniam responds with a heartbreaking melodic plea that overwhelms the Coryell’s teaser, and establishes the emotional superiority over a suave mastery. Relieving off its emotional mooring when Subramaniam’s violin rediscovers its cheerfulness and climbs on a fast crescendo it approximates a human voice. Breaking off appropriately with the theme notes an extraordinary human voice solkattu intervenes. A dynamic dialogue between the solkattu and the violin ensues and climaxes with the theme note. ‘Motherland’ could be rhythmically intriguing for those who would not know solkattu, the melodic Indian vocalization of rhythmic syllables used in South Indian classical music and dance.
‘Memories of Jaffna’ calls forth his Subaramiam’s experiences of living in Srilanka as a child. He said in an interview, “Although I was born in India, I spent a number of years in Ceylon, particularly Jaffna where the Tamil speaking people live. It is very beautiful, culturally oriented place, and it’s where I began my musical career. My earliest memories are of the long evening concerts in the temples, playing with my father and brothers and sister”. Like all memories Subramaniam’s ‘Memories of Jaffna’ has a complex texture. The theme note is one of majestic walk where the eloquence of a saxophone and tingling of a keyboard dominates along with the drums. Subramaniam seems to be finding himself inside the complex web of musical dominance and through his intense melody that alternates between screeching appeals and grim complaints he pulls himself back into a fast rhythm. By the time he joins the magnificent walk of the main note, the composition fades into silence. ‘Vision in White’, which Subramainam wrote in memory of his mother, is both haunting and meditative as memories tend to be. Against the joyous dancing of the piano’s single keys Subramaniam’s melancholic melody intensifies endlessly.
An energetic theme note, an intense melody, fast violin rhythm that approximates solkattu and surprise returns to the theme notes are the four signature components of Subramaniam’s compositions with which he establishes his landscape, memories, emotions, and self while conversing with other jazz musicians of the world. Incidentally ancient Tamil grammar and poetics classified music in terms of landscapes as it did for poetry. Subramaniam seems to have carved out a unique Tamil musical space for himself in the world of jazz that accommodates artistic expressions of multicultural identities and integrities. Subramaniam’s two albums, ‘Spanish Waves’ and ‘Conversations’ amply demonstrate how these complex negotiations can be undertaken with élan.
In the live performance video of ‘Conversations’ the French jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty, and Subramaniam opens the theme note with grand unabashed lyricism that paves way for Luc Ponty’s incredible solo of melody and intricate beauty. Subramaniam begins his response with recognizable Carnatic melody, accentuates its intensity, climbs on a solkattu resembling rhythm, and invites Billy Cobham on the drums for a dialogue. Billy Cobham’s eyes pop up many times at the intensity of Subrmaniam’s edgy melody as he struggles to keep pace with the rising solkattu tempo. While the climax leaves Cobham exhausted, Subramaniam returns to the main theme note with ease and without a pause. It is very similar to that of a Carnatic vocalist returning to his song after the solo feats of his instrumental accompanists. Climaxing on a tempo is not a destination of a musical journey but it is only way station, is another characteristic of Subramaniam’s compositions that gives his music a non-linear quality. For the listener the pleasure is endless and it comes in surprising cycles.
In ‘Spanish Waves’ one notices Tom Scott’s work on the lyricon (wind operated synthesizer), which sounds, like a keyboard but on closer listening one can tell the difference. Subramaniam has collaborated with musician playing rare and foreign instruments ranging from lyricon to Koto. Not all collaborations are spectacular and rewarding like the ‘Spanish Waves’ or the ‘Conversations’. But the fact remains that Subramainam, the musician par excellence, has always engaged in a profound conversation that refined a civilization. What makes a composer’s work so rewarding is the clarity of texture and the purposefulness of direction. Subramaniam’s oeuvre exhibits both the qualities. The landscape is distinct from mere geography; it implies the inclusion and the active agency of humans in its appreciation and interpretation. Art therefore becomes an interaction of the human population and the geography it occupies. By creating reverberating and recognizable musical registers of Tamil landscape in his art L.Subramaniam has immortalized himself.