Why Indian Classical Music is Superior to Western Classical Music

I’ve been half-watching this atrocious movie called “Thank You“. Rather, the wife has been watching and I’ve been eavesdropping once in a while. Apart from the odd lame joke, it’s a horrible movie, so I wouldn’t recommend you to watch it.

But there’s one scene in that that illustrates that Indian Classical Music is superior to Western Classical Music. So the plot of the movie is that there are three stupid guys who are trying to find a conman who has been messing with them. Despite mostly obvious clues, they fail to identify him.

Until this day when they are all in his office, and one of them finds some sheet music and starts playing the notes on a conveniently located keyboard. This piece of music is something associated with the conman through the movie, and the three stupid guys immediately figure the identity of the conman.

So what does this have to do with Western Classical music? One of the key differences between Indian and Western Classical music is that in the former the performers mug up the notes of the songs – at least the parts where they don’t have to improvise. Once you know a song, you can dispense with the book. It is almost unknown for professionals to look at notes while performing.

Western Classical, on the other hand, spares performers of using up valuable memory space in their heads from remembering music, and has performers read the music from a sheet as they play it. While this has its advantages – notes are never “forgotten”, and all performers are easily in sync, and valuable memory space in the brain is not wasted – there are disadvantages as well.

Like if you have a signature tune, and if you play it often, you are likely to leave the sheet music of the tune lying around in a convenient location – which can then be found by your pursuers who can then identify you. If Akshay Kumar’s signature tune in the movie was Indian classical, he is unlikely to have had sheet music lying around in his office, and thus not got caught!

Now, if this is the way that stupid guys identify a conman, you can imagine how bad the rest of the movie might be. As if it wasn’t absurd enough, they’ve even tried to shoehorn some senti-max social messaging into the movie, making it utterly bizarre.

And once again I must point out that I didn’t really watch the movie – I just occasionally  eavesdropped as the wife watched it!

Why I don’t like standup comedy

The other day, the wife was watching some standup comedy on Netflix when I walked by, and she asked me to stop and watch for a couple of minutes. Apparently the joke was funny.  Maybe it was, but those two minutes also taught me why I don’t like the genre. It’s the low “bit rate”.

Recently I read this book called The Design of Everyday Things. Among other things, it talked about why most people prefer reading to listening – because reading is much faster. We read at approximately 300 words per minute, while we can listen to a maximum of 50 words per minute. So minute-for-minute, you get a lot more information (in terms of words) from reading.

Which is why podcasts are hard to listen to unless you’re combining them with another activity, such as driving or commuting or exercising. If you’re only listening to a podcast and doing nothing else, you’ll get bored. Because the rate of information flow is low. In that sense, a good podcast offers much more than words – there will be information embedded in the voices, tones, any accompanying music, etc. so that more information can be transmitted to compensate for the low bit rate.

The same thing applies to video as well – the rate of flow of words is much lower than text, but the visuals more than compensate for it. In fact, good movies and shows (in my view) are those that overwhelm your senses with a high rate of flow of information that they keep you engrossed and occupied, and deliver “high information”.

So coming to standup comedy – the reason I don’t like it is because of its low bit rate. Most standup comics speak at a rate slower than Atal Behari Vajpayee, possibly because they want (canned) laughter during each of their pauses. So standup usually goes at well under 50 words per minute.

And there is nothing to compensate for this low bit rate. Visuals are flat – just a person standing on a stage and talking. There is very little action. In the samples that I’ve sampled, the jokes are nice but nothing extraordinary. And there is no information content – it’s just jokes for the sake of it. Finally, you are expecting to be told jokes all the time, and so there is no surprise in the timing of jokes.

So if it were up to me (I’m no standup comic, so it would be never up to me), how would I change it to make it more interesting? The first thing would be to convey additional information through the visual. The low verbal bit rate seems to be endemic to the genre, so that might be hard to change. So adding further information through better visuals can help.

Props might be a good first addition (from my experience with NED Talks, lecture demonstrations were very very well received). Better sets, maybe. Maybe some music (Shekhar Suman already had this with the “rubber band” on Movers and Shakers all those years ago). Anyway, I’m least qualified to comment on this except as a non-customer!

There’s one thing I’ve never understood about standup comics, though – why do they never use collar mikes?

Songs for sleeping

As I write this, Berry is fast asleep next to me. It took a long time, and a fair amount of effort, to get her to sleep, as has become the routine everyday. Finally, she fell asleep as Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb was playing. This was no coincidence. This is part of a careful sleeping routine I’ve developed over the last month.

It started with a bit of what I can describe as “reinforcement learning”. We were on the way to the airport sometime last month and Berry was getting cranky in the cab, so I started singing to her. On a whim I started singing Pink Floyd songs (maybe because I know the lyrics of a lot of them). She passed out halfway through Wish You Were Here. A couple of hours later on the flight, she felt drowsy during the same song, and then slept when I started singing Comfortably Numb.

So every time I found that she would sleep to a particular song, I started singing that the next time I was putting her to sleep. Obviously it didn’t work like that – her falling asleep was a random event, which I chose to infer was a cause of my singing. And I’m someone who gives lectures on not mistaking correlation for causation.

Singing got tiring, so soon enough I had created a playlist. The playlist to which she invariably falls asleep every day nowadays is called “lullabies“.

Here is what it looks like.

Now, you might just think that it’s a random list of Pink Floyd songs, with one LedZep song thrown in. It’s not. The songs have all been carefully selected.

The first set of songs have been chosen because they are heavy on lyrics, don’t have long instrumentals and are easy to sing along to. These are songs that play when Berry is about to fall asleep, and I sing them while patting her. And invariably she falls asleep during this time.

The next few songs are long soothing songs, that will keep her asleep until she gets into deep sleep. As I write this, Atom Heart Mother is playing.

But getting Berry to sleep is not easy. I don’t start the evening with these lullabies – they come in only when I know that Berry is sufficiently sleepy and will sleep in the next 10-15 minutes (like the closer in Baseball). When she comes into the bedroom, I start with this playlist that I created a couple of months back, and which I had then named as “Berry’s Education“. 

As you can see, Black Sabbath’s Iron Man heads this list. It is Berry’s favourite song. In fact, when she gets on to the bed, she says “has he lost his mind, appa”.

This playlist is not intended for sleeping, and I randomly choose a few songs to play. When Berry gets into the next stage of her slumber, where she is now ready to sleep, but not sleepy enough, she needs some lullabies. And it’s the time for Iron Man again, except this time it’s the version by RockaBye Baby.

This is the song she used to fall asleep to when she was a baby, from the time when she was barely a couple of days old. And from there I let the album play for a while until she is really ready to sleep. Which is when the lullabies playlist takes over.

As you might imagine, having multiple playlists is a pain. I normally use the kinda old iPad4 to play, and changing playlists means entering my passcode, going up one folder and then going into another playlist. You might wonder why I haven’t created one integrated playlist.

The reason is randomness, on two counts. The amount of time Berry takes to pass each stage of sleepiness is variable. So I don’t know how long I will have to play each kind of music. Also, she is moody and the way she reacts to each kind of music is a bit random. So I need to switch back and forth between the kinds of music, and so having multiple playlists is better.

On good days, I will have my phone with me, which makes it easier to switch playlists (one hand operation, touch ID to login etc) – though it’s invariably the iPad that plays the music.

So as you might have figured out, putting babies to sleep is not an easy task, which is why I’m sharing my method with you, in the hope that it might help you. What do you do to make your baby sleep?

 

Bollywood movies and Rajputs

Bollywood movies and rajputs are in the news because of the recent stalling of this movie called “padmavati” thanks to threats of violence from goons who claim to represent Rajputs. This blog post is not about that, though, for there are better things to talk about, such as one Rajput movie from Bollywood that did see light of day, and become a huge hit.

I’m talking about the Imran Khan and Genelia D’Souza starrer Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. This released back in 2008, when I used to actually watch movies, and go to theatres to watch them (this one was at Inox Lido in Bangalore, and I even wrote what now appears to be an atrocious blog post about the experience).

Most of the story doesn’t matter here, except that the protagonist (Jai, played by Imran Khan) is a Rajput. And he’s no ordinary Rajput – he’s a Ranjhor ka Rathore. If you insist, he’s an excellent review of the movie by Baradwaj Rangan, and he’s a fascinating post about the geopolitical implications of the movie by Dr. Boris Bhartiraj Pandey.

So the main character in the movie (the way I saw it) is played by Naseeruddin Shah, and he appears as a portrait. For he is dead. But he comes alive to talk to his wife Savitri (played by his real-life wife Ratna Pathak Shah) at strategic times, offering advice which she is usually dismissive of.

There’s one scene in the movie that I still remember (as I commented a few months later, Bollywood movies can indeed by thought provoking). In that, Savitri chides her husband (in portrait mode, of course) for exhibiting the kind of false bravado that got him killed.

His reply (from the portrait), in my mind, encapsulates everything that I’ve read and seen about Rajputs in life. He starts off by saying that he’s a real Ranjhor ka Rathore who died an honourable death. And then goes on to say (ok I’m paraphrasing here) that it might be true that he got killed in the fight, but that before he got killed, he managed to slap each and every one of the opponents who killed him (exact context of the fight I’m not sure of – not even sure the movie dwells over that).

So people talk about the Rajputs’ culture of honour. One great example of this is the first battle of Tarain in 1191 when Prithviraj Chauhan, in a doubtless honourable gesture, decided to let go of the captured Mohammad Ghori. Ghori duly returned a year later and in the second battle of Tarain in 1192, not only defeated Prithviraj, but also killed him. He (Ghori) was perhaps not as honourable. But this led to the establishment of what we know as the Delhi Sultanate. Prithviraj being an honourable man was in a way responsible for this. But then he was honourable, and went down fighting, so we still revere him.

It is this very kind of honour that is illustrated by Naseeruddin Shah’s character in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. It doesn’t matter that you get killed (going down fighting is honourable, right?). What matters more is that you manage to slap a few people before you got killed.

And in illustrating this so effectively, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na is in my opinion one of the best Bollywood movies about an Indian ethnic group!

 

The high cost of “relaxing” activities

So I have a problem. I can’t seem to enjoy movies any more. I’ve written about this before. My basic problem is that I end up double-guessing the plots of most movies that I watched (how many storylines are there anyways? According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are six story arcs).

So as I watch movies, I know exactly what is going to happen. And just continuing to watch the movie waiting for that to happen is simply a waste of time – it adds no information content to me.

The result is that I’m extremely selective about the kinds of movies I watch. Some genres, such as Westerns, work because even if the stories may be predictable, the execution and the manner of execution are not, and that makes for interesting watching.

Then, of course, there are directors who have built up a reputation of being “offbeat”, where you can expect that their movies don’t follow expected story arcs – their movies have enough information content to make them worth watching.

And most “classic” movies (take any of the IMDB Top 250, for example) have stories that are told in an extremely compelling fashion – sometimes you might know what happens, but the way things are built up implies that you don’t want to miss watching it happening.

Now, all this is fine, and something I’ve written about before. The point of this post is that while I feel this way about movies, my wife doesn’t feel the same way. She watches pretty much anything, even if the stories are utterly predictable.

For example, she’s watched at least a 100 Telugu movies (though, admittedly, during a particularly jobless stretch in her MBA when she was watching loads of movies, even she got bored of the predictability of Telugu movies and switched to Tamil instead!). She likes to watch endless reruns of 90s Kannada movies that now appear rather lame (to me). She especially loves chick flicks, which I think have excess redundancy built into them for a very specific reason.

I don’t have a problem with any of this! In fact, I’m damn happy that she has a single-player hobby that enables her to keep herself busy when she’s bored. The only little problem I have is that she believes it is romantic to watch movies together. She might sell video for Amazon for a living, but she surely is a fan of “netflix and chill” (more the literal meaning than the euphemistic one).

And that is a problem for me, since I find the vast majority of movies boring and predictable, and she thinks the kind of movies I like are “too serious” and “not suitable for watching together” – an assessment I don’t disagree with (though I did make her watch For a Few Dollars More with me a couple of months back).

I’d prefer to spend our time together not spent in talking doing other activities – reading, for example (reading offers significantly higher throughput than movies, and that, I think, is a result of formats of several lengths being prevalent – newspaper articles, longform articles, books, etc.). I’ve offered to watch movies with her on the condition that I read something at the same time – an offer that has been soundly rejected (and I understand her reasons for that).

And so we reach a deadlock, and it repeats every time when we have time and want to chill. She wants to watch movies together. I initially agree, and then back out when presented with a choice of movies to watch. Sometimes I put myself through it, thoroughly not enjoying the process. Other times, much to her disappointment, we end up not watching.

Clearly there are no winners in this game!

 

 

Dreaming on about machine learning

I don’t know if I’ve written about this before (that might explain how I crossed 2000 blogposts last year – multiple posts about the same thing), but anyway – I’m writing this listening to Aerosmith’s Dream On.

I don’t recall when the first time was that I heard the song, but I somehow decided that it sounded like Led Zeppelin. It was before 2006, so I had no access to services such as Shazam to search effectively. So for a long time I continued to believe it was by Led Zep, and kept going through their archives to locate the song.

And then in 2006, Pandora happened. It became my full time work time listening (bless those offshored offices with fast internet and US proxies). I would seed stations with songs I liked (back then there was no option to directly play songs you liked – you could only seed stations). I discovered plenty of awesome music that way.

And then one day I had put on a Led Zeppelin station and started work. The first song was by Led Zeppelin itself. And then came Dream On. And I figured it was a song by Aerosmith. While I chided myself for not having identified the band correctly, I was happy that I hadn’t been that wrong – given that Pandora uses machine learning on song patterns to identify similar songs, that Dream On had appeared in a LedZep playlist meant that I hadn’t been too far off identifying it with that band.

Ten years on, I’m not sure why I thought Dream On was by Led Zeppelin – I don’t see any similarities any more. But maybe the algorithms know better!

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.