Several years ago, when the great Indian sarodist Amjad Ali Khan played at my university, everything seemed music-as-usual on stage. The maestro was flanked by his two sons—both sarod players—and by an extraordinary tabla player. But something was missing. There was no tanpura player providing the droning backdrop behind the principals.
In her place—tanpura players are often women acolytes of the master’s school (garana)—were two diminutive white boxes serving up digitized drones.
Invented in 1979, the tanpura-in-a-box came into its own in the late 1990s, when it incorporated sampled tanpura recordings on a chip. Early on, it was meant for practice, but improved resolution has recently brought it into the concert hall. (If it’s good enough for Amjad, it’s good enough for me.)
By downsizing his tanpura player, Amjad is reducing his costs and improving his margins, especially on extended international concert tours. That, in fact, might be no great loss for out-of-work tanpura players, who invariably aspire to more complex, challenging musical roles.
Plucking a droning octave and second note for two or more hours in concert may be an honor, but it is a nonstop exercise in musical repetition and repetitive motion. (The etymology of drone is connected with the male honey bee and monotonous [monotonic] humming or buzzing, as with bees and bagpipes.)
|The world we have lost?|
Digitization and Disruption
The accelerating ousting of human beings by digitized devices—now increasingly in skilled activities and the professions—is a paramount issue of the day. It’s a nonlinear incursion that is driving productivity alongside increasing human disruption. Among a spate of recent books on the subject, The Second Machine Age offers guarded optimism, emphasizing the value of human beings and digitized machines working in partnership. That tandem, note the authors, will ultimately spur entrepreneurship, a driver of job creation. The data-driven Rise of the Robots is less hopeful, blaming digitization for increasing polarization between the haves and the have-nots; the employed and the jobless.
(My own recommendations: Emphasize job creation via entrepreneurship and invest strategically in agile, creative public sector interventions that depart from big, clunky bureaucracies, to soften digitization’s inevitable disruptions.)
A Digitized Tabla Machine?
You can buy one from DMS in New Delhi here. It may be a godsend for practice, but for recitals, I want more. Give me, if you please, those old-time polyrhythmic interactions and improvisations (as Hank Kingsley once mused about conjugal bliss) between two or more human beings.