Ever wondered what a thousand veenas sound like? Jump to the 55:00 minute mark for the answer. The start is plain weird and it is a mess if you compare it to a violin ensemble, but I liked it anyway:
This performance reveals the fundamental difference between western classical music and any form of Indian classical music: The staff.
There is no standard method to read Indian classical music. In Western classical music, you can create and write a piece of music on a staff. A thousand years later when a violinist picks up the notation, he/she can play your piece exactly like the original, perfect to a fraction of a second.
To do the same in Indian classical music, you will need a continuous line of violinists with this piece being transferred from guru to shishya to his/her shishya. (Or you could record it and ‘store it in the cloud’ but let’s not go there.)
In the above video, you can tell that the performers are playing from memory. The veenas are not all perfectly tuned. They are not in sync while playing. A connoisseur of Western classical music might call it a mess.
To me, what’s amazing is not the logistics of bringing together 1008 veena players or making them play in sync, but the effort of informing everyone what to play.
An interesting aside: the same asynchronicity that makes the above video a mess is required in a violin ensemble. This is induced by the conductor. Each violinist reads the hand movements of the conductor and responds at slightly different times due to human error. If every violinist played exactly like everyone else upto a microsecond you would get the sound of a louder violin, not a string section.
While both the veena and violin are string instruments, one produces a continuous sound (violin) while the other produces a discrete sound (veena). Therefore, a veena ensemble will fundamentally never sound as pleasing as a violin ensemble.
That’s not to say it won’t be exhilarating to listen to.
Some of the players–kids, I noted–didn’t even play throughout the performance. In an ideal world, their names wouldn’t enter the record books.