My recent post about a concert in Madurai and some comments encouraged me to write this. The topic of mic vs no mic is an age old topic ever since the introduction of microphones in carnatic music concerts. Some twenty or so years back, I have heard old timers remarking “In those days they never sang with mic. They could sing so loudly that you could hear them a mile away (Really????) These days you all use the mic and sing in false voice modulating everything like light music. This is not true classical music etc etc etc” I never had an answer to these things back then. And you were not suppose to answer your elders you see. Just listen to their rants. Today I definitely have some views on this and thought I could post and elicit a discussion.
Firslty times have changed. Technology has moved into our lives so quickly that we are learning to do a number of things very differently to what we were used to. Let us take the case of microphones. Electronic audio has taken over music performance in a very big way and there is no way it can be avoided. Musicians in the early twentieth century were used to singing without the mic. These concerts were held in a temple atmosphere in one of those thousand pillared halls where even the echo of a snap of your fingers in amplified very well. Singers sang at a high pitch and continued to do so even after their voice broke. My personal theory is that if their voices broke they may have even been discarded as voices unsuitable for singing and asked to take up an instrument! This is not the case with musicians of a later generation. A number of musicians like Musiri, Ariyakudi, Semmangudi, GNB etc all started out at the end of the non-mic era with higher srutis and gradually as mics entered, they lowered their sruti.
The succeeding generations grew up completely with the mic. Classic case is a musician like Dr BMK, who born in 1930, made a highly successful, original and revolutionary style of singing, modulating his voice using the mic intelligently. Coming to our own generation we automatically grew up singing with the mic. Even a couple of songs at a Tyagaraja aradhana was sung with a mic. So can a concert take place in the modern era without mic and what are the challenges.
Firstly the auditorium must be acoustically designed to not have mics. If this is not so the sound will not carry and reach people, unless the audience is 3 people and the place is the drawing room of your house! Secondly, accompanists especially the mrudangam, will have to restraint hemselves completely to avoid dominating the voice. This is again difficult for them because they are not used to it, and their enthusiasm will definitely get the better of them in a concert atmosphere in front of a receptive audience. When this happens, the singer not used to this will have to shout more. It is like two people having a conversation in a marriage hall with noise all round. Each will try to be louder than the other without knowing if they can be audible or not! When singing with mic, the feedback that one gets helps musicians to judge the amount of volume of the voice as well.
In my personal experience I have given several non-mic concerts. The most recent being one in Europe. The best part was that they provided mics with monitor speakers just for feedback, whilst the audience listened to the true sound as they would like to call it. Since we had feedback we never bothered about the volume and the experience was very good for us. The audience also enjoyed themselves and the excellently designed auditorium was one of the main reasons for this. Sometime in the seventies Palghat Mani Iyer started a campaign to revive non-mic concerts. A senior musician once remarked “Malleswaram Sangeetha Sabha had a micless Vina concert by Mysore Doreswamy Iyengar with Mani Iyer. We all heard a three hour Tani Avartanam!”