4 – Kannakku

*Kannakku was commissioned by Jazz Queensland with financial support from the Queensland Government under the Q150 Community Funding Program

4.1     Structure and Melody

I decided that as Kannakku was a commissioned piece I would write ‘a substantial work’, both in duration and conception. Because of the amount of research I had done, I already had several ideas for the composition before I had started:

> Use musical analogues of kriya. (Hand gestures that keep the thalam are common in Carnatic performance and show where each rhythmic cycle begins. In the absence of a thalam-keeper, I wanted to show thalam aurally using ostinati).
> Plan a form that integrates the tani avartanam into the flow of the composition
> Plan a form that includes an alap at a compositionally useful spot, but not at the start.
> Develop a harmonic system that is based on the drone (rather than designing a harmony that has to fit in with a drone).
> Write some interesting kannakkus (calculations) that are extensions of Carnatic rhythmic structures.

Kannakku went through multiple drafts and rewrites (and may yet go through more). The main theme came from an earlier composition exercise, which had not made it to performance, but which contained rhythmic tensions that made it worth revisiting:

Figure 6. Kannakku ‘A’ theme, b. 19-22.

kannakku a theme

The ragam is my own invention based on principles of Carnatic ragams. The scale is D, E, F#, A, Bb, C#, with some symmetrical phrases that can be played that introduced a C natural.

This melody contains some features which I will use to illuminate the Carnatic rhythmic approach. Carnatic percussionists, beginning with Palghat Mani Iyer (1912-1981) will often follow the melodic rhythm of a piece rather than simply provide the beat or groove (personal communication, Palghat Raghu, December 16, 2008). In this respect, Carnatic music is unique. For example, the second two bars would seem an obvious place for a percussionist to double the melodic rhythm. A first examination could label the groups of quavers as 4 (2) 3 (2) 5 (irregular phrase lengths). But the phrase could also be considered as a rendering of the mathematically regular mora: (1) 5 5 5, In this reading, the first two groups of 5 are articulated as 3+2, and the last as 2+3. This approach is further reinforced by the note choices – the F# has already been established as a strong note in the previous bar, which can be exploited to give the impression that the ‘E’ at the start of the third bar is an upbeat. The regularity of the 52525 mora would be preferred in Carnatic music to the irregular 42325. When teaching this piece to the percussionists Eshwar and Tunji, I did not need to point this out. As a result of their training, they were able to pick up on the implied grouping of notes.

The first two bars of the melody could also be treated in a similar fashion, although this did not occur in our performance, it shows another example of a Carnatic approach. The F# in bar 2 could be treated as a false downbeat, creating the feeling of 5/4 followed by 3/4 in the first two bars. An appropriate rhythmic accompaniment pattern for this idea could be:

Dha , ki ta Dhi , ki ta Dhom ,
Dhi , ki ta Dhom ,
(Each syllable and comma is equal to a quaver or eighth note. I have offset the second line to demonstrate the reduction of the first phrase.

While this simple regrouping seems like it would not be particularly disorienting, it is often the case that unusual phrasing of larger units is more disorienting than smaller units because they play with the listeners perception of the strong beats. Coupled with the treatment of the second 2 bars we now have an interesting rhythmic phrase:

Dha , ki ta Dhi , ki ta Dhom ,
Dhi , ki ta Dhom ,
Dhom  Tha , ka dhom , Ta , ka dhom , Tha , ka dhom ,  :||

[4 4 2
4 2
(1) 5 5 5]

Different Carnatic percussionists will accent a melody to varying degrees. Often senior players walk a fine line between maintaining the thalam and following the melodic rhythm of the composition. One of my favourite examples of this is on the recording Bhavalu/Impressions (Palghat Raghu, 1970). I have also heard some remarkable accompaniment by Sri Umayalpuram K Sivaraman in concert in Chennai with Neyvali Santhanagopalan, the Malladi Brothers and Sikkil Gurucharan (Chennai music season, 2008). The approach of Carnatic percussionists to accompaniment has had an influence on my own approach to accompaniment on the guitar. Shadowing the melodic line, can be problematic in jazz because of liberty taken by some singers with the composed material but is possible in certain places in the composition especially when closely observing the singer (as Carnatic accompanists do). Leaving silences and accompanying with a minimum of material, which distinguishes the accompaniment of Umayalpuram Sivaraman, has also been influential on my accompanying style.

The harmonies in Kannakku were developed from the same invented ragam used for the melody. The harmonies tend to be tertial and quartal. The ragam can be considered as a harmonic major scale without a 4th degree, but is also contains five notes from a whole-tone scale when including the additional pitch ‘C’ (D, E, F#, Bb, C). It contains a major tonic triad and, because of the harmonic minor quality of the upper tetrachord, an implied 1/2 diminished ii and V7b9 dominant chord. The most effective treatment of the harmonies in Kannakku is when they are explored rather than used in a quasi-functional way, in the same way a Carnatic melody explores all of the expressive potential of a ragam. In the introduction, slow-moving harmonies are treated as colours based on the tensions they produce and the changing densities from one chord to the next, creating the impression that they are emerging from and sinking back into the drone.

Figure 7. Kannakku. b. 1-4.

kannakku intro chords

A subsequent development of the idea sees the chords move in parallel harmonies (a technique prevalent in Debussy and Messiaen):

Figure 8. Kannakku. b. 9-15.

kannakku intor pllel chords

The feeling of this introduction recalls the earlier work Prologue (Carnatic Jazz Experiment concert one, CD Audio Track 7) which itself is influenced by the steadily building percussion in Siddhivanayakam (U. Srinivas, 1995).

This chordal introduction can be heard in Audio Track 3 of the accompanying CD. An arguably less effective use of harmonies occurs as the guitar and double-bass trade solos. In this section, triadic harmonies are used in imitation of a jazz chord progression. It may be that harmonies in this style of music are better ‘explored’ rather than used in a quasi-functional way, or it may be that the association with mainstream jazz is too strong at this point to allow the section to sit comfortably within the larger structure:

Figure 9. Kannakku. b. 142-145.

gtr-bass trade kannakku

The harmony is one way in which the basic materials of the ‘A’ theme are developed. The overall effect was supposed to be that the composer and improvisers were exploring the ragam in various ways, but this was only partially successful, the effect at times (especially in Figure 9 above) more closely representing collage.

The ‘B’ theme for Kannakku also came from an earlier composition exercise, which was an exploration of the raga Hamsadhwani that I learnt from U. Srinivas in 2006. ‘D’ was used as a tonic for the second concert giving the notes D, E, F#, A, C# for raga Hamsadhwani. Western musicologists will note that this as a subset of the raga used for the rest of the composition (D, E, F#, A, Bb, C#). Carnatic musicians would refer to the smaller ragam as a janya (child) of the larger ragam, but would still consider that we have changed ragams at this point, especially because Hamsadhwani is considered to be a janya of raga Shankarabharanam (like the western major scale) and not of my invented ragam. While my idea of using a subset is influenced by western compositional practice, I also consciously chose to create a different mood in this section which is consistent with the way ragas are understood in Indian classical music.

Figure 10. Kannakku. b. 162-173.

kannakku b theme

In the figure above, the first stave introduces a new theme that climbs toward the upper tonic. All of the note durations in the first 3 bars are 3 quavers long. Because patterns of 3+3+2 are prevalent in western and Indian classical music, on first listening, the example seems to be falling into this common pattern – the repetition of the F# at the end of bar 2 even reaffirms this idea, until it appears to go on for too long, finally breaking the ties between the melody and the pulse. When a reference point is finally provided in bar 4 (leading tone resolving to tonic), it too is a deception, based on the tendency for the ear to hear the tonic as indicative of a strong beat in the melody. The overwhelming impression is that we have lost a beat somewhere. This is due to a technique that I have noted in many Carnatic krithis, where the listener is deceived into thinking the beat is somewhere else, because a progression from leading note to tonic, or from the 5th degree to the tonic, has occurred at a place other than ‘samam’ (beat one). For example, in Maha Ganapathim (Dikshitar), the tonic is consistently played on the offbeat to beat 5 (the ‘&’ of beat 5). The effect can be enhanced further by the percussionists using the methods I discussed earlier.

These 2 sections form the basic construction of the piece. The two sections are developed in uneven proportions – the first section becomes the basis for improvisation of various kinds, which takes up the majority of the work before the ‘B’ section concludes the piece. [This idea comes from my experience with Sth Mada St(Carnatic Jazz Experiment concert 1) wherein Rajyashree introduced me to the idea that Carnatic improvisation could occur after any of the three sections of a krithi.]

4.3    Improvisations

The alap, an unmeasured and unaccompanied exploration of the ragam, is placed at the approximate 1/3 point of Kannakku. In Carnatic music, the alap is used to introduce the key phrases and pitches of a ragam before the composition begins, and therefore always occurs before a composition. For some time, I had considered the idea of putting the alap at a different point in a composition and during the composition of Kannakku this point suggested itself. It occurs after a composed chordal introduction, a statement of the ‘A’ section melody (Figure 6) and a violin solo. The momentum is built through these sections and then there is a release when the alap begins, and measured time is temporarily suspended. The alap itself also shows another interesting contrast between jazz and Carnatic approaches, and becomes a point at which the traditions can blend seamlessly. There was a simple instruction for the alap: the guitar begins by playing a quasi-Carnatic alap; then the other melody instruments join in until it develops into ‘free’ improvisation. The instruction points out a difference in the Carnatic and jazz understanding of what ‘free improvisation’ is: the Carnatic interpretation being: ‘without rhythm’; the jazz interpretation being: ‘without rhythm or tonality’. In the resulting improvisation, you can hear the gradual shift from a Carnatic exploration of ‘swaras’ to a more textural, gestural approach (CD Audio Track 4).

4.4    Rhythm

There were several rhythmic ideas that I wanted to incorporate in Kannakku:

> korvais that are played in two speeds (ie, in quavers then in triplets),
> a korvai that included ‘yatis’on several different organisational levels,
> a ‘tani avartanam’ that is built into the structure of the work.

Korvais that are played in several speeds require a number of calculations. If we wish to design a normal, single-speed korvai we simply need to make sure the number of ‘matras’ (subdivisions) in the korvai is equal to the number of matras in the thalam (rhythmic cycle). For example, if we are in Adi thalam (8 beats), ‘chatusra nadai’ (semiquaver subdivision) we should compose a korvai with 32 matras to take up one cycle of the thalam. A simple 32-matra korvai could be

3 3 3 3 3
5 (1) 5 (1) 5

If we wish to design a korvai that lasts for more than one cycle of Adi thalam we need to write to multiples of 32 matras. A korvai of 64, 96, or 128 matras will last 2, 3 or 4 cycles.

If we wish to design a korvai that can be played in two speeds (‘nadais’ or subdivisions) we need to compose a korvai that has a total number of matras that will suit both nadais. For example, if we wish to play a korvai in chatusra and tisra nadai (semiquavers and triplets) in Adi thalam, we need to consider the total number of matras for each subdivision.

In Chatusram (4 notes per beat), the number of matras in a cycle or cycles is: 32, 64, 96, 128, 160, 192, 224, 256, 288,   etc.
In Tisram (3 notes per beat), the number of matras in a cycle or cycles is: 24, 48, 72, 96, 120, 144, 168, 192, 216, 240, etc.
In Khandam (5 notes per beat), the number of matras in a cycle or cycles is: 40, 80, 120, 160, 200, 240, 280, etc.

From this, we can see that korvais of 96, 120, and 160 and 240 matras will fit more than one subdivision. For example, if we write a korvai that has 96 matras it will fit into 3 cycles of Adi thalam at chatusra nadai and 4 cycles of Adi thalam in tisra nadai. There are actually many korvais that are 96 matras long, reflecting the economy of Carnatic learning: korvais of 96 matras can be used in many different situations: as chatusra and tisra nadai korvais in Adi thalam; or, as a chatusra nadai korvai in Rupaka thalam (3/4).

In the preparation for Kannakku, a calculation was done for a korvai that could be played in tisram, chatusram and khandam (quintuplets) but this was found to be too long to fit comfortably in the composition. A korvai that can be played in chatusra-, tisra- and khanda-nadai must be 480 matras long (taking up 15 cycles at chatusram, 20 cycles at tisram, and 12 cycles at khandam). If you do the same calculation for a bar of 4/4 (rather than 8/4) then a more manageable korvai of 240 matras can be played in chatusram, tisram or khandam. Here is one example:

10 10 10 (8) 7
2 10 10 10 (8) 7 7
2 2 10 10 10 (8) 7 7 7
7 7 7  (3)  8 8 8  (3)  9 9 9

Below is an example of a korvai in two speeds from Kannakku (violin, bb. 73-95):

Figure 11. Kannakku. bb. 73-95.

2 speed korvai kannakku

The above example can be heard in Audio Track 5 on the accompanying CD. This korvai can be expressed numerically:

4(2)4(2)4(2)  5  3(2)3(2)3(2)  5  2(2)2(2)2(2)  5  1(2)1(2)1(2)
9 9 9

The korvai is 96 matras long, making it playable in chatusram and tisram. However, in this instance, when the korvai is played in tisram (b. 13-22) it is not repeated exactly. A 12-matra fragment of the ‘A’ section melody is inserted between the final groups of 9:

4(2)4(2)4(2)  5  3(2)3(2)3(2)  5  2(2)2(2)2(2)  5  1(2)1(2)1(2)
9 (12) 9 (12) 9

Figure 12. The tisram section of the korvai with the ‘A’ melody highlighted.

2 speed korvai kannakku w highlights

While this still causes the korvai to resolve at beat one this sort of variation would generally not be permitted (or desirable) in Carnatic music. The reason for this is that korvais would rarely be discussed and rehearsed before a performance – percussionists would simply figure out what the soloist is doing the first time through the korvai and then play it with them the second and third time (personal communication with Ghatam Suresh, October 17, 2009). Changing the third repetition by inserting another fragment would make it impossible for the accompanists to follow and would be considered unaesthetic, as the rhythmic pattern has been developed in an illogical way. In the context of Kannakku, it works as a compositional device, introducing the melody back into the composition and marking a return to thematic material and reflecting an intention to make rhythmic devices function structurally within the context of the larger composition.

The korvai above emerges out of the alap (free improvisation) and leads in to the first section of tani avartanam in tisra nadai (triplet subdivision). A Carnatic tani avartanam usually features improvisation in several nadais and the second section of this tani is in chatusram (semiquaver subdivision). I composed another korvai that would link the tisram to the chatusram sections of the tani. This section became one of the most important sections of the work, as well as the most difficult section to perform.

The second section of the korvai is a simple mora: 555 4 555 4 555, but the first section contains multiple levels of yati (expanding and contracting phrases). It is an elaborate extension of concepts I had encountered in Carnatic rhythm. Recently I was able to confirm with Karaikkudi R Mani the ‘correctness’ of the korvai (personal communication, October 15, 2009). One could also note the similarity to the reduction exercises in the Prologue to this chapter by Palghat Raghu. The korvai is as follows:

Figure 13. Large korvai from Kannakku.

A section
Tha , , , , , , ki , , , , , , ta , , , , , ,
Tha , , , , , ki , , , , , ta , , , , ,
Tha , , , , ki , , , , ta , , , ,
Tha , , , ki , , , ta , , ,
Tha , , ki , , ta , ,
Dhum ,
Tha , , , , , ka , , , , , di , , , , , mi , , , , ,
Tha , , , , ka , , , , di , , , , mi , , , ,
Tha , , , ka, , , di , , , mi , , ,
Tha , , ka , , di , , mi , ,
Tha , ka , di , mi ,
Dhum ,
Tha , , , , ding , , , , gi , , , , na , , , , thom , , , ,
Tha , , , ding , , , gi , , , na , , , thom , , ,
Tha , , ding , , gi , , na , , thom , ,
Tha , ding , gi , na , thom ,

B section
Tha di gi na thom Tha di gi na thom Tha di gi na thom
Dhaa , ge Dhaa , ge  (3 3)
Tha di gi na thom Tha di gi na thom Tha di gi na thom
Dhaa , ge Dhaa , ge
Tha di gi na thom Tha di gi na thom Tha di gi na thom  ||  (Dha)

The ‘A’ section of the korvai has three parts, the first of which is based on the phrase ‘thakita’ (3 matras), the second on the phrase ‘thakadimi’ (4), and the third on the phrase ‘thadinginathom’ (5). This expansion of phrase length in this manner is called a ‘srothavaya yati’. Each phrase, however, follows a process of contraction – each syllable becoming shorter with each reiteration (in this first line, each syllable of the ‘Tha ki ta’ is 7 matras long, in the second line, each syllable is 6 matras long, and so on). This contracting process is called a ‘cowputcha yati’. Each section moves one step further towards a single-matra-per-syllable iteration, the thakita condensing to 3 matras per syllable, the thakadimi to 2, and the thadiginathom to one matra per syllable whereupon it is elided with the first phrase of the ‘B’ section mora. This blurring of the sections is common in Carnatic practice.

Below is the same korvai expressed numerically:

A section:
777 666 555 444 333 (2)
6666 5555 4444 3333 2222 (2)
55555 44444 33333 22222 [11111]
B section:
5 5 5  (33) 555 (33) 555

Notice the elision between the sections in which the 5×1 at the end of the ‘A’ section becomes the 1×5 at the start of the ‘B’ section. We can see here the difficulty of expressing such a korvai in numbers. While illuminating on a structural level, the numbers do not show the way in which the phrases are articulated. I have attempted to demonstrate that the last phrase is of the ‘A’ section becomes the first phrase of the ‘B’ section with an arrow. This numerical representation however, corresponds closely to the approach taken by Tunji Beier, who can be heard in the performance reciting the solkattu for the phrase (Audio Track 6).