26 June 2011

Seeing Music

Decent venues for musical performances may be thin on the ground in India, but that seems to present no obstacle when it comes to putting on a show, and while the hotel I’m staying in at Pune (we used to call it Poona in the Good Old Days) – the Vivanta Blue Diamond – is very much a business hotel with small meeting rooms, plenty of bars and restaurants and the ubiquitous business centre, they managed to accommodate a live jazz performance last night.  True, it took place in what seemed like a long, thin corridor with seats arranged 10-abreast in the manner of the upper deck of an old London Routemaster bus, and the musicians were put on a fairly low stage at the far end, but the amplification was comfortable and even stuck at the very back I was able to hear well enough.
There was a very good singer indeed by the name of Shefali Alvarez.  Unfortunately she only sung a couple of numbers before calling her father – Joe Alvarez – up on stage to do most of the show.  This was particularly unfortunate not only because papa Joe had none of the vocal presence of his daughter, but insisted on performing a couple of his own compositions which were as embarrassing musically as they were vocally.  He also donned a pair of dark sunglasses halfway through his first number and kept having to put them up on his forehead while he tried to read the music in the rather dark and eccentric stage lighting the hotel had rigged up.  He is, however, regarded as something of a legend in musical circles here, so perhaps I was catching him on an off day.  The rest of the band, described as “New York based drummer Adrian, Indus Creed bassist Rushad and London based piano genius Karim Ellaboudi”, did not seem ever to have played together before, but despite taking a long time to warm up between numbers, they did very well indeed, quite spectacularly so given the paucity of material papa Joe seemed keen for them to play.
Karim certainly lived up to the promise of being a keyboard genius, and in places he was little short of dazzling, doing things with the two chords on which one of Joe Alvarez’s songs was based, which defied imagination.  Unfortunately he was playing a small electronic keyboard.  I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting and it looked for all the world as if he was just hunched over a laptop computer.  He had to be playing, no computer programme could have been so immediately responsive to the ensemble, but we had to take it on trust.  We could neither see him physically playing nor could we see an actual living musical instrument. 
Of course, in jazz as in many other musical performances, electronic instruments are the norm, and the benefits of the electronic keyboard with its myriad different voices cannot be ignored.  Somehow, though, even when you can see it, it looks wrong; and when, as last night, you couldn’t even see it, it just looked silly.  How much better it would have been if, even at the back of the long room, we could have seen a propped up lid of a grand piano, and how much more we would have subconsciously recognised the “piano genius” for what he undoubtedly was.
Which brings me to the issue of the visual element of a musical performance.  There are those who think that there is no real benefit in attending a live performance when there are so many extraordinarily brilliant performances available on disc.  I know of people who only listen to recorded music, finding either the visual element or the inevitable flaws of a live performance distracting.  Of course, much as I relish recorded performances, I can never accept that a live performance is not infinitely preferable, no matter how bad it is.  After all, without a live performance, recorded music could never exist and for me, although I do spend an awful lot of my time in a live performance with my eyes shut, the visual element is essential.  I actually like to see musicians working.  I appreciate their results better when I can see them doing it; just as there are those who like to dine in restaurants where they can see the chef at work (hence the obsession with cookery programmes on TV I assume) and those who like to watch football, cricket or tennis matches unfolding before their eyes rather than merely read the results in the next day’s papers.
Football, cricket and tennis all have their own purpose-built stadia where the focus is on seeing the action.  Somehow music gets pushed aside, and it is desperately sad that while, wherever you go in India, there seems to have been no expense spared on building sports stadia (although in most cases no expense whatsoever has been devoted to their upkeep, and they all seem to be crumbling away) everyone seems to think that music can be shoved into a back room or corridor.  After all, the thinking goes, we can stick a few microphones and loudspeakers about the place and people will be able to hear it. 
That’s an attitude which must change.  Music needs an environment which not only enhances the aural experience, but the visual one too.  Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur is one of the great concerts halls of the world because of its ability to achieve these two goals with almost complete perfection.  And, while elsewhere in Malaysia, there are still occasions where musical performances take place in hotel ballrooms and dingy school halls, it is plain that people are increasingly aware of the importance the environment is to a musical performance. 
We can’t expect great concert halls or musical venues to crop up overnight in India – after all there is so much money to be spent on nuclear weaponry, state-of-the-art fighter jets, advertising budgets for luxury goods and politicians’ kick-backs – but someone ought to take the trouble to hire in a proper piano when hosting a “piano genius”.  It may not make a world of difference to the sound, but it will certainly look more professional and give out the impression that the country is serious about music.

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