Tambura - role and status

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Sweep1
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Tambura - role and status

Postby Sweep1 » Thu Feb 16, 2017 5:00 pm

This is a subject I've found myself thinking about a lot, and I'd be interested to know what people who have a lot more knowledge and experience think about it. I play sitar a little, but not tambura, though that's what my question's about.

I'm troubled by the status of the tambura, and, related to that, its role in Indian music, particularly Indian Classical.

The general attitude to the tambura player seems to relegate them to a very low status, and I wonder if this has any wider significance for attitudes to how Indian music is played and experienced. On one occasion (at least - there may be many others) I recall Ravi Shankar commenting on Western audiences including the tambura player in their applause, which he said was like applauding the page turner at a Western concert. That seems to be a general attitude, and considering the growing use of electronic substitutes for the tambura as well, I wonder what this indicates?

To me it seems the tambura is an essential part of the entire fabric of the music, but the focus seems to be on the relative ease of playing compared with sitar, tabla or whatever. Surely the point of the tambura isn't whether it's easy or difficult, but how it contributes to the music as a whole? This is why I wonder if the low status of the tambura player (which seems to me to get lower almost every time I look at Indian music resources online) is related to a tendency towards over-balance in the music in favour of virtuosity for its own sake? Maybe we're in a particularly competitive (ego-driven?) phase, with the valuation of difficulty for its own sake causing a consequent devaluation of overall harmony and musical relevance?

I realise this is a long-term issue. For as long as I can remember it's been going on in some form or other, and I can recall a tambura player's comment a few decades ago that they, and not the tabla player, are really the sitarist's true accompanist, as they blend with the sitar and add to it - a comment aimed at countering the low status attitude of the time. That comment makes a lot of sense to me, but it seems to be increasingly a minority view.

In a wider context, I play several instruments, and I think one of the most important things I've learned over the years is that what's musically right isn't always what's difficult or impressive. Ability is of course very important, but there's a balance to be found.

So, I'd be very interested to hear other people's views on this.

David Russell Watson
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby David Russell Watson » Fri Feb 17, 2017 3:39 am

Do you know how a tambura is played?

Sweep1
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby Sweep1 » Fri Feb 17, 2017 5:31 am

Yes. I haven't played one, but I've seen and heard it in concerts, watched demonstration videos, etc etc.

profpandit
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby profpandit » Fri Feb 17, 2017 6:34 am

Sweep1 wrote:Yes. I haven't played one, but I've seen and heard it in concerts, watched demonstration videos, etc etc.


The tanpura's role is to provide a tonal reference for the main performance.
It's a drone that contains several tones that the performer connects with when they perform.
The main factor in the playing of the tanpura is therefore its tuning.
This is typically done or at least supervised by the main performer.
The tanpura player is therefore typically one of the main performer's junior disciples
who is just being given some stage exposure.
So, the instrument has a major role to play, but not its player.

David Russell Watson
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby David Russell Watson » Fri Feb 17, 2017 7:27 am

Sweep1 wrote:I'm troubled by the status of the tambura, and, related to that, its role in Indian music, particularly Indian Classical.

The general attitude to the tambura player seems to relegate them to a very low status,

I don't think that true, though. No stigma is attached to playing the tambura. Often the job is given to a student, to acclimate them to being on stage, or as an honor to an acquaintance, friend, or relative, thereby giving them the best possible seat for the performance available.

Sweep1 wrote:I recall Ravi Shankar commenting on Western audiences including the tambura player in their applause, which he said was like applauding the page turner at a Western concert.

Because it is like applauding the page turner. Do you applaud the page turner at a Western concert? If not, is it because you think that person's status is low? Probably not.

Sweep1 wrote:To me it seems the tambura is an essential part of the entire fabric of the music,

It's not entirely essential, at least not to accompany instruments that have their own drone strings, but most audiences will expect a tambura or two, yes. However, there are many elements essential to a performance, like a stage to perform on, seating for the audience, a sound setup, etc., but none of these items, nor the individuals who provide them, is normally applauded.

Sweep1 wrote:but the focus seems to be on the relative ease of playing compared with sitar, tabla or whatever.

"Relative ease" is rather an understatement. A reasonably intelligent person can learn to play a tambura in a day, or a few days at most, whereas sitar and tabla players require many years of training before they're normally thought ready to perform as soloists.

The maintenance, tuning, and juvari adjustment of the tambura require more training than that, but are often taken care of by the soloist in any case.

Sweep1 wrote: Surely the point of the tambura isn't whether it's easy or difficult, but how it contributes to the music as a whole? This is why I wonder if the low status of the tambura player (which seems to me to get lower almost every time I look at Indian music resources online) is related to a tendency towards over-balance in the music in favour of virtuosity for its own sake?

But the tambura player has no scope for virtuosity or personal interpretation of any sort. You simply can't tell one tambura player from another from a recording, nor any human player from a machine. The tambura player isn't acting in the role of an artist when on stage, isn't interpreting a piece, but is merely performing a task involved with the performance. The tambura player plays in exactly the same way for every performance he or she accompanies. In the tambura player's normal role, he or she simple isn't involved with, nor responsible for, any of the features of a performance that make us particular about which performers we're going to see, so then why should we pretend that they are? That's not meant to belittle or lower the status of those individuals in any way, any more than we would belittle page turners or the fellows who set up the stage.

David

Sweep1
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby Sweep1 » Fri Feb 17, 2017 11:20 am

Thanks, both of you, for taking the time to reply. But everything you've said about how the tambura is played and what its function is simply tells me what I already know, and I thought that should have been clear from what I've written.

I'm not saying the tambura player's skills or role are anything equal to those of the main players. All I'm saying is the tambura player is actively involved in a part of the music, straightforward and routine though that may be. And this is the point where I question what's been said. A page turner is not involved in the actual creation of the sound. Secondly, however rote and fixed the tambura's role is, I question whether it's totally mechanical and can be adequately replaced by a box that has no organic relation to the music. The box is going to be pretty close in most respects, and in most cases it may be indistinguishable, especially in fast and loud passages in the music. But as a human being the tambura player is going to have slight `imperfections' in their playing, mostly not conscious. Their role is to strive for a fixed set of parameters, and the instrument is designed to achieve that. But a box that has those parameters pre-programmed is always going to be more precise. The differences may be so subtle that they're not consciously noticeable, but having been involved in electronic music for many years I know from experience that there's a real difference between a fully automatic process and a human being approximating one, however closely.

It might be interesting, in fact, to measure the precision of a human tambura player against the precision of the box. The human player will, I'm sure, show a close approximation to the box but with very tiny anomalies. One school of thought says those anomalies are human failure, but my experience tells me otherwise. Within the tiny scope of fluctuation possible for a tambura player, there will be `imperfections' that arise not from lack of ability but from the experience of shared music making - tiny, fractional imperfections not consciously produced, but part of the entire process of a human being making sound in context with others. That can be dismissed as human failing, but I'd much prefer those imperfections from a human being involved in the actual process of making the sound, rather than the precision of a pre-programmed box that has no organic relation with what's being played.

All this being the case, I continue to believe the tambura player deserves at least a nod of approval after a concert.

profpandit
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby profpandit » Fri Feb 17, 2017 4:09 pm

The tanpura has a critical role to play in the performance
because it has four strings, each of which has to be individually tuned.
The quality of this tuning effects the entire performance.
The performer listens to this drone and at times makes a mid-performance adjustment.
I have never seen a box being used in a performance.
That is only for convenience.
The tanpura player does learn how to hold the tanpura
how to strum it correctly and what tempo to strum it at.
They can also tune it pretty well.
So, not just anyeone can play a tanpura, but it's easy to learn to play
but very difficult to develop the ability to tune.
It will definitely never be replaced by a box.
Drone playing boxes are either electronic or digital
in both cases loads inferior to sounds produced by mechanical vibrating strings.

Sweep1
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Joined: Thu Feb 16, 2017 4:39 pm

Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby Sweep1 » Fri Feb 17, 2017 4:44 pm

Thanks - I certainly agree about the inferior sound quality.

I hope I'm wrong, but I can imagine a future state of development when someone argues that boxes have improved in quality to such a degree that the sound is very close to that of an acoustic instrument. If and when that happens, I can see debate about just how the `imperfections' of a human player compare with the absolute precision possible with a box. For the reasons I gave in my earlier post about human `imperfection,' I hope that day and that debate are a long way into the future, or preferably, never.

profpandit
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby profpandit » Fri Feb 17, 2017 6:52 pm

A box will always rely on synthesis.
So you can absolutely control the pitch of all four strings.
But you're lost on the timbre, since that has to be sampled.
If you sample the sound of a high quality real tanpura for that,
that is always going to sound inferior to a live instrument
due to limitations imposed by the mics and playback speakers
in the sampling, synthesis and playback process.
So, even theoretically, you will never be able to get there with a box.
Besides, it is only the relative tuning of the strings that has to be perfect
as far as the quality of the performance is concerned
so, the absolute tuning advantage of the box
may not be as great as you would have hoped it to be in the first place.
Given a tonal reference for the first string, the base saa,
you can either pitch shift that sample to an exact tuning
in which case you'll lose out on timbral accuracy
or you can sample all four strings of a well tuned instrument
in which case your reltive tonality will only be as good as the quality of that particular tuning
so you lose that absolute tuning advantage

Djinn Fizz
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Re: Tambura - role and status

Postby Djinn Fizz » Thu Mar 23, 2017 2:49 pm

Bottom line is - the tanpura player can easily be replaced by a digital box - and nobody in the audience would notice. David's right. I've done workshops and taught people to play. Some were quite smart and some were dumb as a box of rocks - and yet they played as well as the smart students. A monkey can fulfill this position. I've attended dozens of concerts where a Raagini Digital was used and there was no appreciable difference.

If you go to a concert - and you're actually paying attention... you will note, that the only time you hear the tanpura player - is before the beginning of the alap and maybe faintly during.

For the remaining 999% of the program - you can't hear the tanpura. Only the soloist hears it. It's not there for the audience. It's as said before - merely a tonal reference. The tone generator on a $15.00 guitar tuner would serve the purpose just as well, if not as elegantly.

I suspect you are a Westerner. As such I would mention that the tanpura has figured in many movie soundtracks and world music recordings for the purpose of creating atmosphere or making an otherwise banal composition sound "exotic" and in said recordings - the tanpura is pumped up high in the mix - hence Westerners assigning a higher value on this part of the soundtrack. I know from experience that Westerners seem to go into a kind of sound trance when listening to a good tanpura - in a way that my Indian friends do not.


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