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Articles on Carnatic Music

Art Review From the Point of Systems Theory
by Ganapathi Narsimhan

A store of knowledge is termed memory and this store is built up over a time as an organized form of information. A continual process of learning through comprehension continually updates such a knowledge base, termed the cognitive structure of the mind, the seat of intelligence and discrimination. While comprehension can be defined as "grasping mentally," a psychological conceptualisation, learning is something more than comprehension. It involves changing or elaborating on what is known already. As more and more is known, more and more remains unknown. The boundaries of knowledge are thus divergent. The index of experience is then directly related to the extent of cognate knowledge applied over the problems of everyday life. When knowledge springs forth into affirmative and ethical action it is consumed into wisdom. Learning is timeless, knowledge is infinite and dawning of wisdom rare!

The theory of the musical world, which each one of us develops functions in exactly the same way that a theory of science functions for the scientist. The scientific theory is a summary of experience on the evidence of which the scientist tries to interpret new events and evidence. It is thus the foundation of learning. The theory of music that is developed in the mind has a cognative structure that is at once analytical and synthetic. While examining the parts it strives to synthesise a whole. For a connoisseur of music, the language of this art is a blend of poetry and mathematics, the one on the level of wholesome synthesis and the other on that of inquiry and analysis. The emerging musical environment can thus be perceived and interpreted in the light of the totality of the cognitive structure and this could make sense. Anything that cannot be related thus becomes nonsense no matter how meaningful it might appear to anyone else. This is perhaps the reason why there exists a substantial divergence of opinion on aesthetic perceptions experienced by many in the field of art. The nature of the cognitive structure of the mind varies widely depending upon whether the aesthete is a dilettante, connoisseur, critc or performer. When a musician performs it represents his knowledge in action honed by the skills he has developed over the years. Thus its appeal to the heterogeneous audience is necessarily non-uniform.

Music critics as reviewers of concerts form a necessary component in contemporary mix of audiences. Under ideal conditions an informed and impartial critic presents his impressions without bias or predisposition. In such cases the impressions have a direct bearing on the performer and the audience alike. The performer while appreciating the favourable comments would also benefit by his critical assessment which would appropriately temper his future performances either in form, content or quality. As regards the bulk of the audience such impressions in written and published form would act an an educational aid so that they can improve their musical knowledge and in due course would come to appreciate the art at hightened aesthetic and intellectual levels. In fact one of the primary responsibilities of the performer and the critic is to elevate the sensibility of the lay audience to a degree that would reflect on their cultural ethos. There exists a third kind of music lovers to whom the published reviews are also directed. These are the ones who missed the concert. In this exercise the reviews reflecting the critic’s musical knowledge and his verbal skills impinge on the absentee music lovers’ own musical knowledge and literary skills and create some degree of vicarious sensations. The question is how far could these sensations be a substitute to those that would have been experienced had they been present for the concert? The answer is a very poor substitute indeed!. For one thing reading a review and experiencing the real thing are events at substantially different levels of sensory experiences, exactly similar to eating a recipe instead of the dinner! The second effect is that the impressions put down by the critic eventually reach the absentee aesthete through two sets of attenuation levels, in respect of language and musical knowledge. Even if the degree of authenticity is high at each stage, at 0.8 for example, the final signal strength drops to 0.4 ! Such a result is but a blurred shadow of the original. Art reviews have thus a three-fold impact, on the performer, the listener and the absentee aesthete. Let us now discuss a very realistic situation that exists in contemporary art world when an unhealthy nexus exists between the performer and the critic. This can be seen when both the performer and the critic often meet socially before the concert and a tacit agreement reached under which the reviews almost always tend to be couched in cloying adulatory passages. The artist thus suffers from an illusion that his concerts need not undergo change of form or content. This has also a detrimental effect on the pedagogic nature of the reviews which the lay audience often use to update their musical knowledge. Thus such reviews neither benefit the performer nor the audience. Critical reviews must be like a sharp, gleaming knife, able to cut off diseased parts and brighten the healthy ones. The following analysis is an attempt to apply some form of systems theory to underlie the aforementioned features.

An artist requires an incentive to perform. This might take the form of a request from a cultural organization trying to raise funds for a charitable cause. If X represents this incentive the performer allows his knowledge skills base G1 to operate on this to provide the music flow Y1. Such a sirtuation may be represented as:

Y1 = G1. X ..1

and G1 = f(G11, G12, G13 ) ..1A

where G11, G12 and G13 represent the performer’s knowledge base and skills. These represent attributes which are intellectual, aesthetic and physiological(vocal cords) respectively.

G1 is called the ‘transfer function’ for the artist. For a vocalist at the commencement of the concert, there could exist temporary physiological and psychological impediments like a recalcitrant voice and changing moods. Thus Y1 tends to be ‘corrupted’ by these temporary ‘noise’. However the system corrects itself eventually. Thereafter the music flow provides information to the critic and the audience alike. Information can be conceived as an integrated form of signals that reach the brain from the outside world in the form of neural impulses from the receptor organs such as the ears and the eyes. The impulses are the brain’s only contact points with the outside world. The brain manipulates the stream of impulses to synthesise information which answers cognitive questions to enhance clarity. A useful signal or message becomes information if it removes uncertainty. Often the messages remain in garbled form in the sense that part of the signals conveys no information. It is then called ‘noise’. For the critic and the audience alike, the exercise of information quest takes place below the level of conscious awareness. If the nature of the musical output were to lie within the range of their expectations which vary widely, nothing that has occurred would have been memorable. It is not the expected that demands attention and kindles curiosity but the unpredictable. A critic in his role as a reviewer passes his information downstream but the limitations imposed by an inadequate or imperfect use of the language coupled to his limited music knowledge base introduces ‘noise’ in the information conveyed. With the limitation imposed on its comprehension by a reader, further corruption of the signals occur. Further the inadequacy in the knowledge base for the reader renders the final assessment nearly meaningless. For the uninitiated, listening to music or reading its review by a critic can be complete noise. The utter futility of musical or any art review as it attempts to provide vicarious pleasure for the absentee aesthete can be seen from the following analysis.

When an unbiased critic endeavours to translate his impression of a musical concert into verbal form for publication in a newspaper, the relationship between the review and his original impressions that had undergone a time delay is colored by his own limited knowledge base coupled to the limitations on the use of the language for verbal expression. If these transfer functions are G21 and G22 then the review of the musical concert Y1 published in the journal translates as Y2. The relationship between Y1 and Y2 is:

Y2 = G21. G22. Y1 ..2

= G2 Y1 .. 2A

When an absentee aesthete reads this review Y2 the final sensations that he experiences is Y3 which he thinks substitutes for the sensations provided by the live concert. Y3 again depends on his own music knowledge base and limtations imposed by inadequate language facility in comprehending the review. If these are the transfer functions: G31 and G32 then the relationship between Y2 and Y3 is:

Y3 = G31. G32. Y2 ..3

= G3 . Y2 ..3A

Substituting for Y2 from eqn,2 we get a final expression relating Y3 and Y1:

Y3 = G2. G3 Y1= G Y1 ..4

The overall transfer function is G and is given by:

G = G21.G22.G31.G32 ..5

The final “sensations” that the absentee aesthete receives after reading the review of the critic have undergone successive superpositions of “noise” from the real sensations experienced by the critic through four stages. Thus even if the fidelity coefficient is high at every stage at 0.8 the final signal to noise ratio is (0.8) 4 = 0.41, a very low value. If the music lover had been present for the concert the degree of fidelity of the real sensations would have been 0.8 as this is Y4/Y1=G31. Thus the penalty that he pays for reading the review instead is [ (0.41 )/ 0.8 ]-2 = 4, a very high figure indeed. The -ve squaring of the term arises because of the existence of the nature of sensations, the real one being auditory and the vicarious one being visual! As a matter of fact one cannot substitute the latter for the former and the ‘vicarious’ index ‘n’ could be much higher than 2. But a rough analysis indicates the utter futility of reading music reviews as no benefit whatsoever emerges from them. The feed-back effect of the reviews from an ethical critic goes to improve the knowledge base of the music lover. It also helps the performer to hone up his skills. On the other hand the reviews from a biased critic have a negative and even detrimental effect as has been mentioned earlier.

In general therefore music reviews serve a very limited purpose even when properly undertaken. Dance is a visual and auditory art form and a verbal or published review is therefore a worthless exercise!


To quote Oscar Wilde: “ To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The highest,as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography”


Ganapathi Narsimhan is a Professor (Article contributed by Srini Ramachandran) and composer of Tamil and Sanskrit kritis. He lives in Melbourne.



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updated on 07/15/2007