Debate: Meta Tuning of Tanpura

By Martin Spaink


There have been a few reactions to my initial sruti-box posting 'Use Real Tanpura' in Sruti 243. Having read Mr. Ramanathan's response, in which he mentions defects found through scientific research in the sound of the tanpura, I can only ask: Who tuned the tanpura for the test-session? Who had (or had not) taken care of the instrument before? Let any true master of sruti and svara tune a good tanpura and the resultant sound will be absolutely stable without any of the mentioned defects.

The other important issue raised by Mr. Ramanathan: it is possible to meta-tune a good jivari which projects mostly Pa and Sa harmonics for komal svara raga's,  thus suppressing the shuddh Ga nr. 10 harmonic from the karaj as the tuning focuses on its nr. 12 instead. Which I agree totally, is not easily achieved.

In my opinion, the heart of the matter may be formulated in the following question:

Why will both musicians and the perceptive members of the audience tolerate artificial synthesized sound on stage instead of real, live tanpura's? In Western Classical Music tradition (excluding contemporary), no musician worth his salt would even think of performing on stage with some electronic gadget to replace a real instrument, played by a fellow-musician. Not just because of rule of etiquette but for a far more important practically musical and esthetic reason: it just sounds bad. Any model electronic tanpura produces a sound that is necessarily artificial, which is the opposite of Artistic. The electronic substitute has no Artistic value and has nothing to teach us but repetetive unnatural boredom. And this should be the source of inspiration for musicians?

The main need in which this high-tech synthesizer fullfills is that of practical banality: it will always play on and on. This unnatural repetition, and its synthetic nature, have taken away its artistic value: it is readily available at the flick of a switch, at no other effort than buying one. The implicate message here is that it is thus dispensable as well. When we take the continuous drone for granted, we do no longer really listen or care. 

These may seem harsh words but I think they are realistic and not even half of what should be spoken. In my humble opinion, there is no doubt in my mind that the continuous overusage of synthesized 'tanpura' will ruin the true artistic nature of Music just as it spoils our sense of hearing and perception.

Given the true nature of Sound, Nada Brahma, will we just as happily eat synthesized  food as we feed our senses on artificial, anorganical sound? 

As far as matters of tuning are concerned, the sound of a good male tanpura is so rich in svara (natural sustained harmonics) through the Jivari that it perhaps we should think of it as 'meta-tuning' . This decidedly requires more effort and character, and time, certainly. But this time will never be wasted as one always can learn more from in-depth listenig / tuning to finer natural resonances. Ultimately, the acquired ability to perceive these very nuances are the core of the esthetic perception of raga. Bearing all this in mind, the acceptance of synthesized sound is like reeling in the Trojan Horse, a Virus Infection to true Art. It's called Indifference.


More thoughts: Radel boxes...


Martin's Website

Article on Tanpura fine-tuning

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Indeed I did receive a message from Mr. Raj Narayan of Radel who assured me that Radel's products do not manifest bad behaviour such as going out of tune during a concert and are otherwise topnotch. So I must have heard only the cheap imitations that did go out of tune, made by other brands, so why do I write bad things that can not apply to Radel? Let me assure you, I have heard Radel's black boxes and have no complaint. Among the virtual instruments, they may be top of the line. But in the end it is still virtual sound. For several reasons, the eager acceptance of virtual sound bothers me a lot, in the sense that it I think on the whole it is not possible to make shortcuts in Art. Many people seem to agree on the up-side of using the synthboxes, but do people ever wonder about long-term effects?

As I wrote in my first letter to Sruti, even if Radel could work out a fullly selftuneable device with pre-set meta-tunings to provide the proper shade of resonance for all the ragas, which is what we call advancement, is that good for Music in the largest sense? I feel this should be the focus. There is something inherently Reductionistic to accept a very sophisticated electronic device as a virtual replacement for a subtle way of handling a real instrument. In the very large sense, this shift towards virtual sound, and therefore artificially bypassing the experience needed to play, tune and maintain tanpuras, fits in with the general trend of translating natural acquired human functions to mechanics governed by digital micro-processors. For instance, many guitars are made these days with built-in electronic fine tuning so that one relies on eyes rather than ears. A great many variety of tuners exist for various functions (very good for piano tuning) but those who only learn to rely on visual feedback from green or red LED's do not develop those finer levels of hearing and tonal distinction that give a good musician that extra depth and personal authenticity. As the music I have come to cherish and love depends largely on subtle shadings of tone and timbre, which are best supported by proper live tanpuras, I feel it is important to keep this traditional knowledge alive where it belongs, in the minds and fingers of musicians in stead of on micro-chips. So while I wish Radel all the success and endorse the quality of their products, I will remain very sceptic about using virtual sound in Indian classical music in the larger sense.

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Recently I reread large parts of the online ITC-SRA 1997 workshop on Tanpura ( which gave rise to some thoughts that might be relevant in the debate on the issue. In all fairness, we should not forget that it was written 11 years ago and available technology then has been superseeded today and so it goes. Time flies..

I must say that even for an interested person with an overaverage familiarity with technical terms such as myself, the technical articles are a tough read and are probably wasted on most musicians. I am reminded of another discipline of technological investigation into the world of sound which is called 'Cymatics ' and was developed by a Swiss Engineer, Hans Jenny. I will not go in to all the details here but basically he went on where Chladni left off (copper plate, fine sand, violin bow) and researched the relations between sound and the visual wave-patterns it induces in liquids or other forms of matter and produced incredible results, which are all documented a long time ago. At some point, the sound of Tibetan monks chanting was input, and the visual output is unmistakably a close reminiscence of the Shri-Yantra which is for centuries of Buddhist lore the visual counterpart of the corresponding mantra that had been chanted. I think this discovery carries many meaningful implications. Let me follow some of them. In said experiments, East and West for a moment eye-balled each other from the opposing ends of a microscope. Opposition exists in methods also, if I may boil it down for clarity, to one developing techniques to explore the world within, the other developing technology to explore the world without. For the West, it seems incredible that the East should have somehow worked out the apparent relation between sound and its morphing qualities as was shown by the Lama's chant producing an image of Shri-Yantra. At the end of the line, the West can not fail to be amazed at the realization that only by way of state of the art technology it can have a glimpse of another level of realizations based on spiritual insight but at the same time having no part in the experience of it, but scientifically witnessing the phenomenon from the outside. In the same manner the technological visualizations, such as spectrographic research as can be found in the ITC-SRA articles, seem relatively crude when compared with my own mind's prismatic perception of tanpura tone. My own experience is that a keen sense of hearing can clearly perceive infinite detail and beats technology on this account. In my own article on tanpura tuning I present my insights based on my own experience, perception and some thought and back-ground knowledge of akouphenomena, but specifically not based on feeding digitized tanpura sound to computer analysis. Nevertheless, based on the art of listening, I relate to what I hear in a very direct way and am able to make my choices from many possibilities when tuning. One big point I'm trying to get across is that given the dynamic plenitude of sonic energy and resonance going on in those 4 strings allow for more variety of tuning than is commonly realized. Also the ITC-SRA technical articles do not specify their one way of tuning PssS or MssS (NssS) as if only one proper way of tuning exists for PssS - without any mention of what I am forced to differentiate as 'Meta-tuning' because it is not about tuning fundamentals but about creating a particular shade of dynamic resonance pattern, one out of many options that enhances the character of the chosen raga.

Apart from all this talk about details, it is my conviction that if some time and energy was devoted to raise the level of maintenance of tanpura's and their tuning and how they're played, the muscians and the audience alike will find a more sustaining musical satisfaction. As said elsewhere, it requires effort and devotion but it pays back double. When in expert hands, it should not be a problem to keep a stable pitch in very long performances of one raga if stage-conditions are stable. If it was not for occasional interference from other sources that can create disturbances (mechanical or electronic humming sounds and their relative harmonics can really mess things up), I never had any trouble with any instrument keeping the most demanding musicians happy during their concerts. One needs to have qualified players, who if they can not do the tuning independantly, at least will maintain the tuning as it was set by the soloist. When these practical matters are all taken care of it will certainly enhance the quality of the performances and help maintaining high levels of musicianship and artistic integrity.

To remind myself and others, why do I insist in this matter? As it seems to me that raga-based Indian music is not only form in the sense of melody and rhythm, it finds its vital substance in a mastery over svara and sruti that allow the musician to surpass the mundane and attune to the inner world of Nada. Especially in alapas one needs this in-depth control over svara and sruti to paint the raga in slow phrases and capture the imagination.

And please, nobody shouldn't ever bring in even the slightest reference to Nazi's in this discussion which is totally out of order and of poor taste. A large number of brand-X tanpura-boxes are being used today and some musicians, alas!, use even bad tanpura-boxes, that's a sad fact as it is. As Radel has solved the acute problem of pitch-stability it has ceased it now remains up to the musicians to be more critical and we should get on to more vital points. May I remark that Mr. Raj Narayan has only reacted to the going-out-of -tune bit and probably read no further than that in my article as he does not go into the many other points I brought forward, which is why I did not see much sense in repying at the time. I think I forwarded many relevant arguments why even the perfect dream-machine will not be a panacea. However putting our hopes in the advancement of technology creates what I believe is a false sense of progress in a wrong direction. Willfull application of technological progress in musical praxis will bring about an alienation from traditional hands-on guided experience, for having used an artificial shortcut that ultimately leaves you emptyhanded.

While I agree with Prof. Sanjoy Bandopadhyay that some instrumental soloists are able to create a halo of resonance from their sitars, sarods and sarangi's, I don't agree that this would necessarily be a reason to exclude a tanpura, as the said effect can actually be enhanced by discriminative use of tanpura or tanpuri, the smaller 5-string instrument. I used to pracftice sarangi this way but whenever I had strung up my large old Miraj for E I would ask a friend to play her for me and every time I was amazed how the smallest musical gesture of the sarangi is supported and enhanced through the resonance. The effect is like dancing on the moon with effortless jumps and seemingly floating movements. But this does not come at the cheap or as easily as flicking a few switches. And what it takes to get there is, as I believe, the hard-won experience of expert musicians with a heightened sense of hearing, which is at the core of the esthetic perception. This is a cultural heritage worthy to be cherished and protected from the fleeting fads of the day.

Another point is sound looping to create continuous but repetitive sound. When I or someone else needs a tanpura recording, I sit and play for an hour. Listening back, having used it for my own practice, I noticed that even when played on its own with no other sounds joining it, the sound is stable and continuous but very much alive. A very gradual and subtle opening up of the resonance can be heard, as small changes of tone-colour in the very high spectrum. This sameness slowly shifting shade of tone is why a properly tuned tanpura is always inspiring to listen to. When played in a concert, the tanpura is sensitive and responsive to its sonic surrounding. When joined in careful tuning, the solo-instrument and the tanpura fuse together in what is a kind of entrainment, which is Christiaan Huygens' observation of the phenomenon that several pendulae in proximity to each other will end up swinging isochronously. Just as a pendulum clock and a digital watch have nothing in common except that they keep count of the passing of time, you would not expect them to entrain. Tanpuraboxes, even the best of the best, can not behave as a real live instrument might do in expert hands. Probably a good tanpurabox is less disturbing than a badly sounding tanpura (player), I will agree to that. Having made my points clear, I now cede the podium for the next person. Thank you for your attention.

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