Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Vivace': Between the beat and the ensemble

At around 175 beats per minute, vivace brims with vivacity: a tempo that’s at once lively and fast, at once vigorous and energetic. It thrives on ecstasy, on movement, the sort that doesn’t subsist on ensembles but rather on the passionate intensity of the few who take part in it. There’s a thin line between individuality and togetherness, a line which is superfluous in large orchestras but one that is significant, to an extent even essential, for the evolution from those orchestras to contemporary music.

On December 23, 2017, at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, a school western music society will, for the third consecutive time, take us through that evolution. Before getting to that school and that society, though, I believe that a few preliminary reflections are called for.

I am at best a spectator and not a connoisseur when it comes to music, Western or Eastern. The only thing I know is that, unlike words and images, tones and rhythms are self-referential and can only be accounted for with reference to their own terms. Part of the pleasure of listening to a band, an orchestra, a solo artiste, is the rift this opens us to, between the world they inhabit and the larger world they play to. The Western conception of music is largely self-liberating, which at one level adds to that rift: the aesthetics of Western music are predicated on the separation of the artiste from his or her world, a form of separation that entreats us to forget the many other separations we operate on. Propaganda in music, therefore, is at best inflammatory, unlike propaganda in the cinema or in literature: as Sanchitha Wickremesooriya once informed me, “For me, music, especially Western music, can be propagandist only if someone is forcing you to listen to a song or a piece by pointing a gun at your head.”

Now musically we are individualists and pacifists, since we don’t hold guns at each other.

But then there’s a curious contradiction when it comes to Western music in this country. There’s a division between the young and the old, and the young, because they purvey a culture that pits them against the old, listen to either the songs of today or the symphonies of yesterday. It’s a strange dichotomy, between Kanye West and Mozart. What lies between, i.e. the vocalists and the composers and the lyricists who came to us between 19th century Europe and 21st century America, has badly escaped us, if at all because we equate the popular with the individual and the classical with the collective. To get out of this artificial dichotomy, to ensnare oneself from this conundrum, is the correct task of a school or any institutional society that has at its aim the enrichment of our tastes. To enrich those tastes, however, one must evolve from the collective to the individual, from the ensemble to the band, because we no longer live in a world of artists who depend on a conductor and a writer: we live in a world of technology, of minimalism, where that artist can be his or her own conductor and writer and even promoter. That is where Vivace comes in.

It all began in 2004 when a Western Music Society was formed at Ananda College, Colombo. Until then two other (broadly defined) music societies operated at Ananda: the Music Circle, a mishmash of the Western and the Eastern which would in later years culminate annually with Rhythm of the Maroons, and the Brass Brand, which would culminate annually with Prashasthi. The WMS was different in that respect, because while the Music Circle and the Brass Brand was premised largely on orchestral performances at large venues, it sought to privilege the individual performance by promoting what was then a late, fresh trend: the emergence of school beat bands which were mobile, didn’t depend on those large venues for their reception by audiences, and didn’t play out with very many instruments. Limited largely to the guitar and the saxophone, the beat band was at its inception minimalistic. That was something that expansive, multifarious orchestra ensembles could never match.

In 2005 the WMS staged its first showcase event, Maroons in Harmony. While ambitious in its scope it was, nevertheless, inhibited by a rather insular outlook, since it was primarily aimed at school members as opposed to general outside audiences. So it didn’t come to much of a surprise that after 2005 nothing new transpired: the WMS itself was shut down, stunted and dead in all but name, with no other events except for the occasional skit at the occasional concert. While Rhythm of the Maroons, with its oriental background (the Music Circle was historically an offshoot of the school’s first Music Society, inaugurated in 1975 under the guidance of Bandula Kodikara and, later, Lionel Ranwala, exponents respectively of the Indian raag and the jana gee), would begin an year after Maroons in Harmony, and Prashasthi would pick up a while later, the WMS suffered. In silence. That is, until 2014, when the culture of beat bands picked up exponentially and compelled a new show, a new showcase item. Vivace.

With its first instalment the organisers of Vivace were adamant that it include a special segment for those beat bands. The following year, however, they emphasised even more on that segment by holding a separate competition for beat bands in September, a trend that intensified in 2016 when the number of the bands that participated doubled, from the previous year, from six to 12. To ascertain the evolution this compelled, I spoke with the current President of the Society, Shamal Dimantha, who was, in those first two years, engaged with his Ordinary Level Exams. To start things off therefore I asked him to comment on how the WMS picked up, with respect to its membership and the responses to Vivace from outside institutions.

He obliged. “Firstly, we didn’t have a membership that could help us, as a team, reckon with other clubs and societies. From one batch there would have been no more than 10 or 15 members, a problem that was compounded by the fact that unlike many other societies at Ananda we invite members to join only from Grade 10. We have for obvious reasons improved now, with an average of 30 per batch joining the Society as members or members of the board. Yes, to be sure we did run into some problems, for the most logistical, in those first few years, with budgets that ran up to five million rupees and with venues that called for even bigger budgets. But then we moved from Nelum Pokuna to Sugathadasa Stadium in only one year. Naturally that had to do with the responses we got from the schools we invited to perform as beat bands and general audiences.” He then adds (to my dismay) that this Saturday, they will return to Nelum Pokuna, commenting rather wryly, “We had to face a letdown this time.”

The letdown as such had been the outcome of a general circular issued to government schools prohibiting competitions of any sort being held during the third term. “The only option we had was to move the Beat Band Competition to December. The problem was that this wasn’t feasible, since not many schools were willing to come forward in a month filled and packed from beginning to end with exams and festivities. So we downgraded a little this time, with respect to the venue and to the number of the skits that you will see. Instead of the 6 and 12 bands we had in the last two years, you will come across three invited school bands: Lyceum International Nugegoda, D. S. Senanayake College, and Visakha Vidyalaya.” The letdown reflects certain realities that are patently outside the control of the organisers, and hence don’t represent a letdown for the concept behind the show, or for that matter the show itself.

Shamal takes me back to that point I raised earlier, i.e. the way our youngsters and elders have misconceived music as either Mozart or Kanye West, and points out, correctly I believe, that the flowering of a beat band culture in Sri Lanka is an act of demolishing that misconception. “We basically have missed out on the seventies and the eighties, because we are fixated absolutely on either the classical or the popular.” What Shamal means there, of course, is that we have broken this entire field between the lavish shows which orchestras deliver and the cheap music videos that ambitious iconoclasts and broken lovers parading as vocalists deliver. Between the two there is a fine line, occupied by those who tilt to neither extreme but borrow from both. These borrowers are the exponents of school beat bands. I firmly believe that behind their emergence and empowerment lies the emergence and empowerment of a new generation of vocalists and composers, who can’t be considered as cheap and iconoclastic. One can think of Sanuka Wickramasinghe, more than anyone else, here.

Malinda Seneviratne once penned down the following words: “As people get older their favourite songs get played less and less or else they are forced to listen to stations dedicated to ‘oldies’ or wait for those special programs where yesterday’s favourites are played. It is natural for older people to find new music crude. Perhaps it is less a matter of crudeness than something to do with technological revolutions that make for more experimentation and easier broadcast, resulting naturally in cacophony.” Now there’s a difference between cacophony and polyphony, and the organisers behind Vivace, in the Western Music Society at Ananda, would benefit if they realise that difference. This Saturday.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 19 2017