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Duck Tale

Vic | 22.02.2005 10:55 | Free Spaces | Technology | Sheffield

Concert acoustics can be managed excellently using low power wireless to deliver signals around the listening area - but most countries blindly ban or license to death the technology. This is a description of a live concert held recently in Mumbai, India. Free the airwaves, reclaim the streets!

The Banganga - Pt Shivkumar Sharma plays on 6 Feb, 2005
The Banganga - Pt Shivkumar Sharma plays on 6 Feb, 2005

The Banganga temple tank complex is an unique and little known part of the city of Mumbai, tucked into the western slopes of Malabar Hill in the southern part of the city. The area around it is made up of tiny brick houses bordering equally tiny, winding lanes, and a plethora - 360, according to my guide - of temples, large and small.

There were originally four such tanks in the city, but the others have fallen prey to the inexorable ball and hammer form of development, stone and water replaced by concrete and paving. The Banganga was also headed the same way a dozen years back, when some public minded citizens decided to put sinew to alarm and put together a fund-raiser, an annual classical music concert called the Banganga Music Festival.

Initiated in 1992, the Festival has attracted major music talent, both vocal and instrumental. One reason is that the setting is idyllic - a largish body of fresh water, fed from a perennial spring, with stone steps rising from it to create a natural amphitheater. With subdued lighting and a stage erected into the water (resting on submerged steps), the balmy air of a pair of January or February evenings, cool and inviting, the venue is a delight to both musicians and audience.

Alas, in 2004, the concert could not be held, as hard work by city environmentalists combatting the onslaught of ear-shattering dances and concerts at street corners finally found High Court support with a landmark ruling baning the use of loudspeakers within 100 meters of certain designated locations - hospitals, courts, schools and religious places. Unfortunately, the rule also hit two beloved venues - the Rang Bhavan amphitheater and the Banganga - resulting in the cessation of a clutch of classical, jazz and rock concerts that had begun to acquire global fame.

Most concert organisers look fruitlessly for ways to approach the court for relief, but on my advice, the Indian Heritage Society decided to explore the demonstration of an innovative way to carry on holding the concert. Traditional music systems for open areas use very large banks of speakers fed by powerful amplifiers, in order to deliver as wide a range of frequencies and amplitudes of sound to the
furthest member of the audience. Naturally, this translates into an overly loud sound for the audience sitting near the speakers, and also unacceptably high sound levels outside the venue.

Conceptually, it is far more efficient to distribute audio through electromagnetic emission rather than directly through the air. Using about a hundred commercial devices (made by Philips India, and donated for the purpose) placed much nearer to the audience, sound levels similar to the usual loudness, but much lower in absolute terms, created a total surround effect as good if not superior to traditional open air audio handling systems. We did a technical demonstration for the authorities - the police commissioner of Mumbai and various directly concerned echelons, together with the main concert sponsors, HSBC and Citigroup, last April.

I also ensured that the main petitioner - Sumaira Abdulali, a grandniece of famed birdman Salim Ali's - before the High Court was present, together with technical representatives of a Pune based company that sells noise measuring equipment. The commissioner, for whom the new rules have been a considerable headache (since many concert organisers have significant social standing and exert a lot of influence), was delighted to find that the petitioners openly stated that they had absolutely no objection to a concert held this way, and would definitely not file a contempt petition if the concert took place using a similar system.

Basically, putting the units near the audience ensures that the points of sound emission are very close (no more than 5-6 meters away) from any audience member. Since sound, like any other wave, obeys the inverse square law (intensity varies inversely - decreases - with the square of the distance), the sound level measured at the speaker will be much lower to deliver the same perception of loudness. It also means that further away, the sound will drop off faster and thus rapidly become inaudible enough not to matter, since noise pollution is a matter of making more sound than the ambient levels.

As a serendipitous benefit, the total amount of energy needed for a concert of this nature is just a fraction of the normal approach. The sound technicians who handled the concert in previous years told me that they normally use a set of amplifiers totalling 5,000 watts, while in this system, the net output could not have exceeded 30 watts in all. I have to estimate this, because the units had a maximum output each of half a watt, and I had set the volume control to just above the halfway mark.

The test last year had been conducted with a smaller number in only one corner of the tank complex, so Friday, the 4th of February, was the very first time I (or anyone else, for that matter) had actually experienced a full scale test of this concept, delivering sound to a potential audience of over 4,000 that would fill the steps around 10-15,000 square meters of the tank.

Pt Shivkumar Sharma, who is a Mumbai resident, and has the reputation of being an exceptionally finicky person about sound, sent two of his closest associates for the sound check. He had already spent a long time on the phone with me, warning me that the santoor is a difficult instrument with a very wide dynamic range. Having personally rescued this instrument and restored it to the world of Indian classical music, he was anxious that the concert do justice to his virtuosity. Not calculated to ease my mind, but then the prospect of having a live demonstration of a totally new concept in sound delivery in front of thousands of music aficionados was not all that calming either.

As it was, the musicians, Dr Bhalchander Phadnis and Dr Anish Pradhan on santoor and tabla respectively, were kindness itself, playing for about two hours while I directed the placement of radios, clambering up and down steps and attempting to determine whether any region of the setting would be shortchanged.

One fantastic side benefit of this acoustic solution is that it really makes no difference where the seating is placed, since everyone gets effectively the same sound - and at exactly the same time, no latency. At the end of this check, as dusk was falling, the musicians pronounced themselves satisfied and left, leaving me to dismantle the setup (since the tank is in use daily, we had to dismantle each day and start up again the next) and prepare myself for the public concert over the next two days. I had around twenty volunteers from Mumbai University, SNDT University (Event Management diploma students) and St Xavier's Indian Music Group to help with the logistics. And two friends roped in at the last minute as panic about the scale of the show began to rise.

The 5th had a vocal recital by Pts Rajan-Sajan Misra, exponents of the Benares school (the Varanasi gharana). The concert was preceded by brief addresses from the state governor, SM Krishna (Governor of the State of Maharashtra), and the organisers. What followed was incredible, brilliant performances. The vocal range and subtlety of expression was really thrilling. Equally comforting, to me, was the fact that people on leaving at the end expressed a lot of satisfaction, not only in the fact that the concert was held at all, but that it was pulled off so successfully from the perspective of music.

A very few suggested that the tabla could have been louder, but frankly, I am not sure this is objectively correct. The fact is that the deepest notes could be heard through the tank area directly from the instrument, while the higher tones were delivered through the radios. Not all that many people at the concert may have experienced this anywhere, but it is the principle behind some modern home music systems, that employ subwoofers for bass and satellite speakers for mid-range and treble. I am reasonably certain that boosting the bass would have caused little change, while raising the overall sound level, perhaps to the point where the police - who were monitoring the concert with decibel meters - would have been forced to act.

Sunday, the 6th, had the eagerly awaited Pt Shivkumar Sharma, accompanied by Dr Phadnis on tanpura and Dr Pradhan on tabla. He played the alap as the sun went down and darkness gradually filled the sky from behind the audience, till finally the temples behind the stage were etched against the sky. As the sky darkened, the stage lighting came up, and the perimeter of the tank was gently lit by a string of fairy lights. Only the stage itself was spotlit, and the wider western side of the tank was in darkness.

The tank itself hosts families of ducks and geese and a single swan, which seems to be under the impression it is either a very large duck or a goose. As the notes of the santoor filled the air, the birds swam around excitedly, gracefully paddling round the stage and then about the tank. At one point, a family of five ducks came out of the water near some chairs and proceeded to groom themselves endlessly, before settling down for a little snooze. This was a meter or two from where I was sitting at the time, and I wish I had had a camera.

Watching the ducks busily grooming themselves was both amusing and astounding, since they seem to have complete flexibility, their beaks busily fluffing their feathers around their legs, shoulders, wings, tail and back, then all over again. The capon di capon tutti duck - doubtless the original Don Ald' - plonked himself up on the platform, leaving the lesser ducks on the next step, just above the water, and now and then they would spread their wings and flap them wildly. When they finally settled down for a snooze, I noticed that they had delicately tucked one leg each right under a wing, with a dexterity that aircraft designers would quite possibly like to emulate, and slept sitting up on one leg only.

Pt Shivkumar Sharma has a mastery over his instrument that far exceeds anything I have heard on his recordings. He can play it expertly with the very barest of a whispery soft sound, and I honestly doubt that any traditional concert system used in the open can reproduce that incredible dynamic range, while staying soft enough during the loudest passages to deliver a very stress free musical listening experience. The notes just hung in the air, with the chirrups of the little bats wheeling through the air over the water distinctly louder. When he played a little more fortissimo, the ducks and geese would swim round faster and arrange themselves in lines to approach the stage.

Around 8:00 or so, the temple bells began pealing with the blowing of conch shells, and for the next ten minutes the musicians and the bells played in perfect synchronicity. It was just unforgettable, with the bells ringing faster and faster and the musicians building up to a crescendo that ended with the audience in a frenzy of applause.

Towards the end of the concert, an hour and a half later, Sharma slowed down to adjust his tuning. This did not suit the birds at all. They circled the stage, quacking and hooting loudly, egging him to get on with it and start playing music again.

Needless to say, he obliged, playing a duet with the quacking that was nothing short of hilarious. I must mention Dr Pradhan's [incidentally, while Dr Pradhan's degree is in musicology, Dr Phadnis is not just a stunningly good santoor player, but a practising surgeon!] brilliant tabla accompaniment, that complemented Pt Sharma's playing so beautifully.

I don't know how the birds caught on that the concert was ending, but they lined up and approached the stage in single file, all the ducks, geese and the swan in that one line, then swung around and crossed the tank to the other side to line up at the edge. Almost spooky.

What is unnervingly far spookier is the fact that the technology demonstrated here is banned for public use - the spectrum being treated as the private preserve of the Indian government bureaucracy.

Originally - almost since the discovery of electromagnetic
telecommunication - restricted (The Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 codified the restrictions) to keep it in the hands of the colonial rulers, this husbanding of a public resource has continued far beyond belief and any rational understanding.

The same technology, used in local community owned FM stations, could provide the beginnings of local self help organisations, armed with information to beat the dread twins of poverty and joblessness. This is something that all the world's most focused trickle-down economy enthusiasts have not been able to achieve in nearly 60 years since the country - the entire region, actually - became independent, but not free.

Far from such elite events as the Banganga, the technology can also be used for street plays and impromptu music concerts in village across the country, helping to knit together the wounds caused by centuries of ignorance and separatism, without inflicting new divisions nurtured by noise and confusion.

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