LIBERATION. Karsh Kale with his band Realize and special guests Zakir Hussain, Bill Laswell, and the Madras Chamber Orchestra. Six Degrees Records. Available at most record stores and at www.sixdegreesrecords.comMany of us who play instruments, or grew up listening to music played by actual human beings, have trouble accepting the idea that music can be made by sampling and programming. It just seems too easy to “create” music by pushing a button or moving a fader, and it seems unfair to refer to people who do such things as musicians. An analogous comparison can be made in the visual arts between painting and collage. Do we really want to say that someone who cuts out somebody else’s picture and pastes it on a canvas is as much an artist as someone who paints the picture herself? The answer to that question is actually “Yes, but … “ for both music and the visual arts.First of all, it depends on how may cuts and pastes you make, and how skillfully you make them. Some DJs only decide which song should follow what for an evening’s party, and that requires only sensitivity, not artistry. And there are far too many techno-albums where the DJs/engineers only choose their favorite presets in their synthesizers, and then mixed in a few crowd noises from whereever they took their last exotic vacation.
But even the courts have ruled that if you use enough different sources in a Photoshop collage, and change the originals significantly, you have created and not plagiarized. There are literally billions of combinations of presets, samples, and processors that can be assembled from what is currently available on the market. Anyone who finds one of the few combinations that genuinely works is an artist who makes music. It takes time and patience to find out what each of these machines can do, and artistic creativity to decide what it is they should do.
Secondly, musical and visual collages can also supplement, rather than substitute for, mastery of brush or instrument. Picasso, Braque, and Matisse all made collages, which included pieces of wall paper and cloth in their paintings. These were great works of art, for they show the painting skill of their creators, and then extend beyond what a paintbrush could ever do. Are there DJs with a similar dual mastery of instruments and electronics? Not many, for although it does take time to make a first-rate techno album, twiddling a knob still gets a more impressive sound with less practice than running scales and rudiments, and the temptation of all that musical power is hard to resist. But Karsh Kale, who is both a techno DJ and a tabla player, has managed to create two albums in which musicianship and electronics are in nearly perfect balance.
Kale’s newest album Liberation builds on the success of its predecessor Realize, but shows even more mastery of both electronics and musicianship. The first impression it gives is one of sumptuous richness mercifully free of anything resembling cliche. For those of us with an analytical turn of mind, this leads naturally to an endless stream of questions of the form “how in the world did he do THAT?” Fortunately, I was able to contact Kale and ask him some of those questions, and the answers were usually as intriguing as the sounds themselves.
One song had a Zakir Hussain tabla solo accompanied by a strange drone I could only describe as a “strummed marimba.” That turned out to be a synthesizer sample of a Brazilian birimbao, with each key of the keyboard tuned to a different note. By rolling his hands across the notes of an open chord Kale created a completely new sound that combined the supportive qualities of a tanpura and a folk rhythm guitar. Another track featured percussion which sounded like an amplifier blowing up, but with rhythmic precision and fast trills. There was something undeniably satisfying about hearing a sound that ordinarily signifies destruction, but which had been completely harnessed for a positive musical effect. This turned out to be Kale’s “tablatronics” amplification system, which superimposed distortion on the signal produced by his tabla-playing. It was hard to tell whether the sound was made by man or machine, because of the precision of Kale’s playing, but no one could say this was a case of human musicians being replaced by machines.
The sheer variety of instruments and electronics used on this album is staggering: among many other things, there is sitar, sarod, bansuri, guitar, bass, Eastern and Western vocals, and every kind of electronic and acoustic percussion. The most impressive use of live musicians, however, is Kale’s audacious decision to travel to India to record the Madras Chamber Orchestra for string tracks. Every synthesizer has several settings labeled “strings,” and most pop musicians figure that the difference between the synthesizer and the live strings would not be worth the expense. Most people, however, apparently can’t tell the difference between margarine and butter, or cheese and the appropriately named “cheese whiz(R)” and our culture is much the poorer for it. The Madras Chamber Orchestra creates sounds that no European classical string section could ever emulate. But they do it with musicianship, not electronics, and no synthesized or sampled strings could ever have the same impact.
A unique style of string ensemble playing has evolved to serve the South Indian film industry centered in Madras (now Chennai). The musicians that work in these ensembles have studied Bach and Mozart, can read Western music notation, and hold their instruments in standard Western fashion. But they have also studied Karnatik violin, and can play Indian microtonal ornaments in tight unisons and octaves. Kale prepared his scores for this ensemble using the same method as the Madras film composers. He wrote out the main parts in Western notation, and sang all the microtonal phrases directly to the players in the studio. The 30 musicians then multi-tracked themselves to create a string section that covered the whole tonal range with the sound of hundreds of strings.
“It was worth the whole trip to see the musicians’ smiling faces as they played their parts to my music while wearing headphones,” said Kale. “These guys have played with every kind of musician and electronic device you could imagine. But this music seemed to really reach them. And I think it’s going to reach a lot of other people as well.”
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.