Visual music

December 20, 2020

A primary reason behind Coke Studio’s success has been its visual opulence

Coke Studio has released its latest season. It has based its programming on providing a different, or for that matter, a contemporary sonic touch to old compositions that have been popular. In other words, there was in the beginning hardly any pretention about the compositions being original or new. Primarily they were famous numbers which had been redone or reworked.

In most cases, more instruments have been added for giving it a contemporary touch. The instruments that are now seen more and probably heard even more have found their place in these very traditional compositions. The drums have been a definite presence and so have been other instruments like the guitars, the keyboards, and the synthesizers which have replaced the ubiquitous harmonium. At the same time, the very traditional sarangi, tanpura, sarod and the tabla have a presence that is optional.

This trend was started by a movement labelled World Music where the melodies from various cultures with their distinct sonic presence were lifted through the wringer of contemporary instrumentation and other post production processes to create a sonic pattern that had a great deal of similarity and yet stayed a little different. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was one of the leading exponents of this trend. He took local melodies and compositions to lands that could relate to it through contemporary instrumentation. The post production processes, too, add a great deal of sameness to music these days. The total natural sound has become a thing of the past and even in live performances the sound systems with their digital add-on make the sound pattern familiar. The exact foreignness of a sound or a composition is now not seen to be a saleable proposition.

Rubab has been an instrument that has found a near permanent presence. The rubab, due to the conditions in Afghanistan and the difficulties involved in performances and playing, has been exported to the West along with some of its practitioners. Playing the rubab has been presented as an act of defiance against a more orthodox political and religious regime or order.

The refugee was rediscovered with his instrument and this reverberated back home. The rubab suddenly became more visible and was heard much more. Given the cultural and political connotations, it became an instrument that was not only acceptable but highly valued.

A primary reason behind Coke Studio’s success has been its visual opulence. The presentation of the music numbers has been of very high quality. Music initially was only heard, but then through the films, it was presented on screen as a visual form of art. This can be called an allied form where the situation, the lyrics and the composition all seem to work in unison with the plot and characters. However, it took an independent flight with the discovery of the music videos. The music video was then not totally in alliance with the lyrics and the composition, rather it focused more on the images, which could also be of human beings, their movement and their actions. However, their presence is not always in synch with the music. The connection had to be stretched to be understood if it were so. And the focus shifted away from the connection of the music and its visual presence, from interpretation to the two being independent, running side by side, coexisting and no attempt was made to create a connection no matter how obscure. The visual presence then took over and the music that stayed was somehow subservient or an ally to the visual opulence.

Coke Studio has reignited the visual opulence of the number – it is music but it is a visual treat as well and that has been the singular contribution of Coke Studio. This time round, Coke Studio has adapted to the conditions of social distancing that the coronavirus pandemic has imposed upon the world. It is clear from the presentation that the recordings have been done individually and then a digital coming together has been arranged. Music is per se a group act and no music can be created through the performance of an isolated individual. The accompaniment means that the potential of music is being creatively tapped. Sangeet means the coming together in unison, in some pleasant arrangement in some harmonic togetherness, in some tonal unison that seems pleasant to the ear.

The coming together managed digitally must have been some feat and some of it may have happened for the first time. This first time might have resulted from some creativity on the digital map, a digital potential being tapped musically or it may be that the coming together arranged matters differently to be exploited creatively or that some accident may have happened. This situation has led to a lot of experimentation and this edition of Coke Studio might be the first in this instance. It has made a virtue of a necessity.

Coke Studio has also made many non-singers or half-baked ones complete music stars. At times it was baffling to see a very reputable vocalist struggling with the format and being pitched with another not really known for his or her music prowess. The visual opulence, the ability to look pleasant often was ranked higher than pure musicality that rested with a reputable vocalist.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Visual music