Australians engaged with India – The Evolving Art of Konnakkol


The art of Konnakkol, where percussionists vocalise rhythmic syllables, is fading in Carnatic music – even as Western musicians are taking to it with gusto for everything from learning rhythm to mastering and controlling complex rhythmic structures in playing their own instruments.

For over 20 years Australian vocalist Lisa Young has been dedicated to konnakkol artistry.  As a jazz singer who loves rhythmic expression, she has integrated konnakkol into her contemporary vocal style and compositions. A long time student of gurus Kaaraikkudi Mani (Chennai) and M. Ravichandhira (Melbourne), Lisa shares with us a unique take on what she believes to be a highly creative, and continually evolving art form..

Dr Lisa Young

Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University, Australia, a Jazz singer and a disciple of Karaikudi Mani Iyer, says Konnakkol has a broad range of practical and creative functions for musicians of any genre. “Konnakkol is maybe our default system for rhythmic comprehension and our intuitive starting point for composition and improvisation. This wonderful rhythmic language provides a systematic approach to rhythmic materials, generally absent in Western music pedagogy. It provides a conceptual framework for metred numerical calculations, improvisation, composition, rhythmic comprehension and analysis, transference of musical ideas, and expression of musical pulse,” says Young

Many of her compositions and collaborative works are performed by vocal group Coco’s Lunch, and her jazz/world music group Lisa Young Quartet.  She also has a keen interest in choral music, composing works that combine Western and Carnatic techniques, which are performed by a variety of choirs worldwide.

Lisa began studying konnakkol in Melbourne in 1994 with mridangist M. Ravichandhira and through him became a student of Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani, founder of the Sruthi Laya Kendra School in Chennai.  From 1997 to the present day she has visited India for intensive study periods with Mani, and been “inspired by this sophisticated, expressive, rhythmic vocal language and its complex systems of musical metreand subdivision.” 

In Lisa’s Own Words:

“Over many years I have integrated konnakkol language and Carnatic techniques in my creative practice, for example; laya ratna akin to metric modulation and yati a rhythmic calculation designed to represent geometric shape.  I often combine Western and Carnatic concepts, including ragaand solkattu, as the foundation for melodic composition and improvisation.  I continue tocompose original konnakkol structures and also to integrate and adapt those composed by Mani, in a variety of ensemble settings.  Over time, the solkattu language has become an integral part of my vocal performance, providing an additional rhythmic-based language that augments the melodic jazz-vocal ‘scat’ language, the wordless lingual syllables used for vocal improvising in the jazz tradition. 


Whilst musicians use konnakkol initially to learn the Carnatic rhythmic system and materials, konnakkol is itself a language.  Once a musician has grasped the fullness of this language including the groupings, the phrases, structures and techniques of numerical calculation, metric modulation, expansion and reduction, it becomes the backbone of one’s deep rhythmic knowing and conceptualising.  The artists’ thoughts are regularly occupied by solkattu phrases and structures.  Konnakkol is their default system for rhythmic comprehension and their intuitive starting point for composition and improvisation.

Do you incorporate a lot of Indian sounds in your playing and vice versa do you find Indian musicians learning from you?

It’s not just about sounds.  It is about the whole musical system.  Once you learn the Indian way of developing the rhythmic timeline then your approach to rhythm is expanded exponentially. There is so much to help expand your musical horizons.  Of course, this works both ways.  Composing and improvisation have very different approaches as you travel across the world.  Sharing in each other’s musical systems is one of the most magical things you can imagine.  There are so many treasure troves uncovered when you explore each other’s musical worlds.  Most of the Indian musicians I have worked with are as excited to explore this as me.

In Lisa’s Own Words:

“Over many years I have integrated konnakkol language and Carnatic techniques in my creative practice, for example; laya ratna akin to metric modulation and yati a rhythmic calculation designed to represent geometric shape.  I often combine Western and Carnatic concepts, including ragaand solkattu, as the foundation for melodic composition and improvisation.  I continue tocompose original konnakkol structures and also to integrate and adapt those composed by Mani, in a variety of ensemble settings.  Over time, the solkattu language has become an integral part of my vocal performance, providing an additional rhythmic-based language that augments the melodic jazz-vocal ‘scat’ language, the wordless lingual syllables used for vocal improvising in the jazz tradition. 

Whilst musicians use konnakkol initially to learn the Carnatic rhythmic system and materials, konnakkol is itself a language.  Once a musician has grasped the fullness of this language including the groupings, the phrases, structures and techniques of numerical calculation, metric modulation, expansion and reduction, it becomes the backbone of one’s deep rhythmic knowing and conceptualising.  The artists’ thoughts are regularly occupied by solkattu phrases and structures.  Konnakkol is their default system for rhythmic comprehension and their intuitive starting point for composition and improvisation.



Eternal and Internal Pulse

Alongside my passion for the expression of this sophisticated vocal percussion language, I have been particularly drawn to the Carnatic music systems of tala and nadai where a breadth of attention is given to detailed rhythmic structures and sub-divisions in a wide variety of odd and even metres or metred cycles.  This detailed systematic approach to rhythmic materials is generally absent in western music pedagogy, and thus my Carnatic studies have influenced and enriched my rhythmic knowledge and expression. In pulse-generated music (as opposed to rubato or alapana sections) there is usually an ongoing eternal pulse outlining the given metre.  This is ‘felt’ or experienced in conjunction with at least one internal pulse layer sub-dividing the beats.  In Indian terms this may be thought of as tala and nadai. The internal pulse (nadai) may be altered in certain sections within a composition, or adjusted spontaneously by the improvisor.  Additionally in the Carnatic system, subtly embedded within the internal pulse, is a third rhythmic layer dictated by sub-groupings the solkattu language itself.  The solkattu language places the beats into groups, usually in 2’s, 3’s and 4’s for example as – tha ka | tha ki da | tha ka thi mi adding an independent layer of rhythmic sub-grouping, integral to understanding the Carnatic system.  Thus a subdivision of 7 or 9 is not simply 7 individual septuplets or 9 nonuplets, as the interior language imposes a distinct rhythmic grouping system

Switching the internal pulse of a given metre is used to great effect in Carnatic music.  The technique of laya ratna, which literally means ‘time’ or ‘speed shifting’ in Tamil, is akin to metric modulation in Western music.  When switching the internal pulse of the metre, the tala (or eternal pulse) remains steady, but the nadai (internal pulse) changes speed.  Proficiency with this technique is an important part of a Carnatic musician’s craftA common laya ratna shifts from a subdivision of 4 to 6 to 8Performing these metricshifts is a fundamental element of the Carnatic tradition; it is a tool, which is used to virtuosic effect in performance.   

In most Western jazz music, the metre or eternal pulse is given as a time signature, for example 6/8 or 4/4.  The internal subdivision – if required – is either written descriptively as, for example: ‘swung quavers’ or ‘straight 16ths’, triplets etc, or described as a musical ‘feel’, such as ‘swing’ or ‘shuffle’.  Of course there are many layers of rhythmic complexity that create a sense rhythmic depth in jazz music, including concepts of metric modulation, polyrhythmic structures, rhythmic feel, and groove.  But within the Carnatic pedagogy there is a fundamental relationship between a musician’s instinctive ability to internally subdivide a given metre, and their ability to explore and interpret rhythmic complexity in performance.  

Significantly, solkattu develops a musician’s rhythmic intuition, which can be easily transferred into any musical situation, aiding comprehension and transference of pre-composed ideas and concepts, and engaging the invention of new music with improvisation and composition.

As a musician’s companion, artists (both Indian and Western) fluent in konnakkol move beyond its original pedagogical role to employ its use as a highly creative tool, in which konnakkol provides a conceptual framework for metred numerical calculations, improvisation, composition, rhythmic comprehension and analysis, transference of musical ideas, and expression of musical pulse. 

Along with timbral and pitch variations in contemporary konnakkol delivery, I explore intoned and pitched konnakkol as a fully integrated vocal and musical expression in a Western contemporary vocal or jazz context, embedding konnakkol and wordless lingual sounds within this format to create a unique ‘vocal sound-bank’ as the basis for my vocal expression.  This style of pitched konnakkol is a distinctive feature of my creative practice.  In this process, my compositions integrate konnakkol language and concepts as melodies, riffs and the language for improvised passages.  My recent works for example The Eternal Pulse, Tha Thin Tha and Other Plans, demonstrate the adaptive and evolving use of konnakkol in contemporary performance practice.  In these works I am applying the tools of both the Carnatic and jazz traditions to create a form of musical expression that is not simply an ‘Eastmeets West’graft.  Rather, these processes are a mode of creativity, which involve an understanding of both musical traditions in the development of a performance language and style.     

Conclusion:

As a vocalist embracing two musical cultures, I believe that konnakkol combines an intellectual and intuitive approach to rhythmic comprehension and acts as a faithful companion to my creative musical undertakings.  It is at the foundation of my rhythmic experience and knowledge, assisting my rhythmic analysis and comprehension in both Carnatic and cross-cultural projects.  I enjoy using timbral variations, atypical syllables, applied vocal techniques and personal interpretation in konnakkol recitation, and I hope my creative works that integrate konnakkol demonstrate the way an artists’ aesthetic preferences may influence the evolving adaptations of the konnakkol art form and language.Whilst the role of the solo konnakkol artist may be diminishing in India,certainly many musicians and institutions in the West are investigating and including a core study in konnakkol. I hope that this stunning art form will continue to thrive, evolve and be adapted by both Carnatic and Western musicians.  Again I say, may it be our default system for rhythmic comprehension and our intuitive starting point for composition and improvisation.

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