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A musical night in silence

I had the good fortune to enjoy a musical night in silence, in a calm and serene corner of Battaramulla. For a tone deaf person like me to enjoy a musical night, it has to be something out of the ordinary. At least it was, to me, even though for music lovers in our country it could be a familiar event happening regularly.

This was the 24th consecutive year of a 'Night of Music', from dusk to dawn, at the residence of Pandit Somasiri Illesinghe. There is a Zen koan about the 'sound of one hand clapping', and another of 'listening to a stone growing'. Listening to music in silence is something close to that. Watching little children and youngsters, seated cross-legged, listening to fellow students playing a violin, singing the various raga, is an enjoyment by itself. Watching the face of a young engineer keeping time to the solo player on the stage could be a moment of pure delight to their teacher. Listening to the master and student playing together, I tried to imagine the story of Guttila and Musila. I wondered if it was based on a true incident and what would have really happened so long ago. Did the Sakra come down to help Guttila, or was it the master's own self-confidence, that enabled him to beat Musila?

It is an age old custom for masters to arrange an annual event where their students could display their skills acquired through the year, the master would always be happy and proud when his student out-performs him.

There are many eminent disciples of Pandit Illesinghe carrying on the tradition of developing their own disciples. Pandith Illesinghe had himself being a disciple of Prof. G. N. Goswamy at the Bhatkande University, Lucknow. He has served at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation for 16 years, and then at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation for another 17 years, till he retired as the Director of Music in 1999.

On November 19th, 2010, the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation "trilingual newscast opened to a recomposition of the age old theme music composed by Somasiri Illesinghe", (CDN 2010/11/24)

The violin has been traced back 600 years to Italy, but musical instruments have been used in Sri Lanka for several thousand years. Among the Yaksha race musical instruments known as 'Anthara, Kopotha and Utumbava' are mentioned by Rev. Manave Wimalarathne himi. We are bound to find such ancients instruments some day among the human settlements discovered in Ranchamadama and Haldummulla, and other settlements in our country,

We can try to picture a scene 3500 years ago, musicians and singers, playing on the front porch of the house discovered at Uda Ranchamadama. A leading musician with his or her pupils, pleasing the audience of the elite family who lived in this house, and the other village folk. Among the gathering would have been the parents, grandparents and siblings of the young musicians. If it had been after the harvest, when most families enjoyed a respite from work, on a full moon day, the music would have continued till morning.

In 'The Reed Cutter', Junichiro Tanizaki describes a night of music, 'Tsukimi' (post-harvest moon-viewing festival), where the string instrument 'kokyu' was played.

To imagine the future of music and the teaching of music is somewhat difficult, due to the very rapid development of technology, the very rapid phase of cultural changes and the commercialization of all art forms.

The gloomier view could be if electronic technology takes over the synthesis and performance of all types of music. The electronic organ is already with us. Playing pre-recorded music even at "live" musical performances is becoming a common phenomenon. It could spread till the complete take over by synthetic music, both because of man's greed for filthy lucre, and because of man's laziness.

Sometimes mechanization develops out of necessity, as one kovil in Jaffna is using a motor driven mechanical contraption, with mechanical hands beating the drums to provide the music during the puja ceremonies, because during the recent dark age, it was not easy to gather musicians for every puja.

Man's laziness will continue to deter him from going to attend a musical evening, when he can relax in the comfort of his home and listen to whatever music he wants to, either on mp3, using his earphones, or surrounded by the latest and highest quality sound systems.

Music education is also changing, not gradually, but very fast. On-line learning could be the future for music too, and then the teacher becomes a remote idea, a non-person, and someday could be replaced totally by a machine. With the changing social and cultural styles, may be it is better, because the respect that pupils had for teachers has been fast eroding, and would soon disappear totally. Then, rather than treating a human being, a teacher and a fatherly figure with disregard, sometimes with disrespect, it would be better to transfer such emotions to a non-feeling machine.

The brighter view is that because of all new technology man will have more time for leisure, to enjoy aesthetic pleasures. The re-discovery by the West of the physiological and psychological effects of music on our body and our mind, that music is a healing force would also benefit mankind. Though it was known for a very long time that music has an incredible power for healing, it was not made use of in the modern health care practices till recently. Today it is claimed that music provides calmer and safer surgery, requiring less anesthesia and pain medication.

Most important, let us use music to calm our nerves, to ease present day conflicts among us, to be more peaceful and more humane.

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