The dazzling technique and breadth of musicianship displayed by violinist L. Subramaniam have deeply impressed American listeners since his arrival in this country more than a decade ago.
At that time an established classical musician in his native India, Subramaniam was also widely known for his work in popularizing South Indian music throughout Europe and the Far East. What lay ahead for him in the United States were collaborations with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar (with whom he toured the U.S. and Canada), as well as recorded encounters with top jazz artists such as Herbie Hancock, Joe Sample, John Handy, George Cables, and Stephane Grappelli. His new Milestone album, Mani & Co., features special guests Larry Coryell, Maynard Ferguson, Bud Shank, and Tony Williams.
Subramaniam ("Mani” to his friends) produced this all-star date and composed the LP’s seven selections with these specific musicians in mind. The fiery lead track "Super Instinct,” a showcase for trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, is dedicated to the Indian saint Sai Baba, with whose teachings both Ferguson and Subramaniam are involved.
On "Voices in Heaven,” a very strong Indian flavor is created by the use of the microtone scale, as heard in the haunting vocals of Subramaniam’s wife Viji. "In producing the effect of a multitude of voices,” says Mani, "I used voice and violin, which is close to the human voice. It would be very difficult to get the inflections and nuances you hear in this song with any Western melodic instrument.”
"Let’s Talk” climaxes in a dynamic conversation between Mani’s violin and Tony Williams’s drums, a dialogue between melody and rhythm. "Motherland” is also rhythmically intriguing, with its use of the traditional classical South Indian drum, mirdangam. "Whatever is played on the instrument,” Mani explains, "must be learned vocally first. There is a fast tradeoff within the melodic Indian vocalization of rhythmic syllables.”
The melody theme of "Vision in White,” which Subramaniam wrote in memory of his mother, was later expanded as the main theme of the second movement of the "Fantasy on Vedic Chants,” which the violinist wrote for the New York Philharmonic (and which was premiered with Zubin Mehta in September 1985).
"Memories of Jaffna” calls forth Mani’s experiences of living in Ceylon as a child. "Although I was born in India,” he says, "I spent quite a number of years in Ceylon, particularly Jaffna where the Tamil-speaking people live. It’s a very beautiful, culturally-oriented place, and it’s where I began my musical career. My earliest memories are of the long evening concerts in the temples, playing with my father and brothers and sister.”
Subramaniam was born July 23, 1947 in Madras, India’s fourth largest city (after Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi). When he was very young, the family moved to Ceylon, where Mani took up music studies before the age of five.
His father, V. Lakshminarayana, one of India’s master violinists and teachers, was of course the first to guide the youngster; his mother, L. Seethalakshmi, who sang and played the vina (a four-stringed instrument with a long bamboo fingerboard), also was a powerful influence.
As a result of political upheavals in Ceylon, the family returned to India in 1958. Mani, a prodigy within a couple of years after his first lessons, had already established himself as a concert artist, but his father had other plans for him: medical studies.
"I actually graduated and registered as a general practitioner, but I never practiced medicine professionally. My brothers and I had played as a violin trio; also I was working with musicians twice my age and winning many awards.”
His brothers in the trio were L. Vaidyanathan, three years his senior, and L. Shankar, three years younger. Among the honors accorded Subramaniam were that of "Violin Chakravarti,” Emperor of Violinists, awarded by the Governor of Madras, and the President of India award.
While still in his late twenties, Subramaniam had many radio and TV programs to his credit, as well as several recorded solos with the legendary drummer Palghat Mani Iyer. In 1976 he was the featured soloist performing in the world premiere of "Carnatic Violin Concerto,” written for him to perform with a Western chamber orchestra, setting something of a precedent.
Sometimes he internationalized his reputation by traveling, though there were many occasions when his fame, through records or word of mouth or both, preceded him. "I had recorded some classical albums in India, of course, but the first important fusion album was Garland. I recorded it in Copenhagen in 1978 with Svend Asmussen, the great Danish violinist.”
Though still traveling extensively, by the late 1970s Dr. Subramaniam had settled in the Los Angeles area, where he’d been offered a full scholarship at the California Institute of the Arts. "I had the opportunity not only to study,” says Mani, "but also to teach South Indian music.”
Dick Bock, one-time head of World Pacific Records and a veteran student of Indian music, introduced Subramaniam to Albert Marx, head of Discovery and Trend Records. The result was the violinist’s Fantasy Without Limits, which he characterizes as "my first American fusion album.”
Word of this stunningly virtuosic talent reached the Crusaders, who wanted Subramaniam as the first artist on their newly established record label. In addition to recording Blossom, he made a guest appearance on an album with Crusader Joe Sample, and appeared in person with the Crusaders at the Hollywood Bowl.
Last year, Maui worked as musical advisor for Peter Brook’s production of Mahabharatha. He completed a chamber orchestra piece for strings and two harps that had been commissioned by the New England Conservatory of Music and was premiered there in February.
Subramaniam performed his "Fantasy on Vedic Chants” earlier this year with the Cannes Festival Orchestra at the MIDEM conference. He’s now in the midst of a series of European and Indian dates with frequent associate Larry Coryell. May will find Mani in Chicago, giving an India Festival concert, and in Grenoble, France, premiering a new commissioned work with the Grenoble Orchestra.
Needless to say, Subramaniam’s neo--fusion music, as he refers to his non--classical, improvisational output, holds a prominent place in his heart, and he intends to feature this body of work in live performance throughout 1986.