Carnatic music is traditional devotional music from South India. With its origins in ceremonial temple music, Carnatic music has flourished in recent centuries as an independent artistic tradition, especially in the hands of a trinity of composers centered around the temple city of Tanjore, South India. These composers are today revered as saints, and their compositions, transmitted in an unbroken oral tradition, form the majority of the modern Carnatic repertoire.
These compositions, largely written in the krithi song form (an elegant and sophisticated structure incorporating a succession of increasingly complex movements, each with nested variations called sangati-s), are devotional, but also address social issues. Usually improvised on-site during the travels of their itinerant-scholar composers, the songs at once celebrate the local ishta-devam, or "preferred divinity", and sthala-puranam, or "story of the place", meanwhile elaborating the personal philosophical views of the composer, typically with a focus on renunciation of material desires, piety, and simplicity. Even the pen-name of the most revered composer in Carnatic music, Tyagaraja, literally means "king of renunciation".
In this context, any "New Directions" can seem pretentious, as if there can possibly be some unprecedented depth of feeling compared with past masters, whose own creative travails are the very tradition in the first place. Surely we are all standing on the shoulders of giants like Tyagaraja.
Carnatic music is also highly theoretical, with a thorough native tradition of analysis. The methodical melakartha system of scales, with 72 categories in two parallel frameworks, each with 6 cycles of 6 members each, in an elaborate permutation-and-combination-scheme, is without parallel worldwide as an organizing system for melodic material.
Crucially, Carnatic music is also highly virtuosic and has a pervasive emphasis on ecstatic improvisation, with the result that a true traditional musician is respected as somewhat of a mystic, able to produce dizzyingly complex melodies and rhythms seemingly from the ether.
While the "golden age" of Carnatic music persists in living memory, with perhaps the greatest mridangam drummer in history dominating the scene in the middle of the 20th century, accompanying a constellation of remarkable vocalists, and while Carnatic music continues to enjoy an active listenership worldwide, many feel that the devotional heart of Carnatic music and the purity of intention that characterized the great musicians of the past are rare to be found today.
What originated as a spontaneous musical outpouring of bhakti ("devotion") now typically occurs as a recitation of centuries-old material that may or may not reflect the personal convictions of the musician, and especially may or may not be relevant to a diverse worldwide audience with every capacity to experience the same wonder and awe as Tyagaraja did, but perhaps with little affinity for Lord Rama, his ishta-devam, much less an ability to understand his understated poetry in the Telugu language.
The realities of the new global context for this (and all) traditional music strain the original cultural coherence of artist and audience, with the effect that the central aesthetic value of this music, its subtle expression of universal human sentiment, is difficult for many new listeners to discover within the disorientation of "This is not my music" or "I don't speak that language" - especially in the case of Carnatic music, which has struggled to attain wider appeal with its focus on vocal repertoire in regional languages (even though it's awesome, right?).
On the other hand, the common concerns of contemporary life are community-building rather than alienating, and thus constitute powerful fertile ground for the introduction of a shared new emotional content into Carnatic music, instead of the nostalgia for bygone eras and obsolete cultural contexts which otherwise commonly accompany the music. The true tradition of Carnatic music - true to Tyagaraja - is for the music to speak to the society, and to be as authentic a personal statement by the musician as possible.
The music of "New Directions" removes Carnatic music from the fossilizing influence of the diasporic concert hall and recontextualizes it as inherently relevant to all listeners, not just acculturated onces. "New Directions" is presented without a strong intention to represent a tradition, and yet owes many traditions a huge debt.
It's good, interesting, sincere music. In fact, I'd rather call it "Good, Interesting, Sincere Music", but you can see how that might be even less descriptive than "New Directions". So, I hope you all get a chance soon to hear it for yourselves.