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Konnakol rhythms

Published onApr 05, 2024
Konnakol rhythms


Konnakol is a musical practice in South Indian Carnatic music, involving the recitation of non-lexical syllables or vocables. It is an oral tradition, where artists recite or improvise long, complex compositions based on mathematical pattern transformations, rather than by reading notation. While doing so they mark the tala (roughly the metric cycle), through repeating a sequence of claps, waves and finger counts. The resulting rhythms may be extremely complex, heavily syncopated with frequent changes of speeds and addition/subtraction of beats from successive repetitions, but still, somehow, a Konnakol artist is able to bring their rhythm back to perfectly match the end of the tala cycle (and the beginning of the next).

I’m by no means an expert on Konnakol, and unfortunately do not know any Indian languages, but there are a few texts in English on the artform. “The Art of Konnakkol” by is a great practical introduction, which would probably go well with some of the many video tutorials available that you can find online [1]. Lisa Young has made her Masters [2] and PhD [3] theses on the topic available online. Rafael Reina has a book on applying Karnatic rhythmical techniques to Western music [4], and David Nelson has published a Solkattu Manual [5]. There is also software with illuminating documentation, such as the Carnatic Music Typesetter by Arun K. As a British person exploring Karnatic music without having ever travelled to India, I’m mindful that I am missing much of the context of this artform, and feel at the start of a journey in many respects.

Nothing can stand in for actually learning and practicing Konnakol, however. We should be mindful of what Kofi Agawu calls “paper rhythms” [6]; those rhythmic transformations which are apparent on paper, but have no living reality when performed or listened/danced to. I’ve been lucky to have some lessons with B C Manjunath, and although I don’t expect to ever get nearly good enough to perform Konnakkol, gaining perspectives on its rhythms has been a truly mind-expanding experience, with a lot of influence on how I think about and make music (and music software).

So for me, learning these rhythms from a somewhat naive perspective has been about building up a sense of internal pulse within a tala, and feeling how the rhythm moves around within that tala. It feels like learning a rhythm from multiple perspectives; it’s one thing to learn it without clapping, then another to learn it while clapping, and it feels completely different depending on whether I’m attending to the syllables, the rhythmic structure or the tala. It hard to explain in words, but learning a rhythm can feel frustrating as a process of both learning and forgetting as I come at it from different directions.

Anyway, it has been a lot of fun, and as I return to it after some months away, I’ve felt the need to create a log of what I’ve explored so far.

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Learning log

My aim in the following is to share some of the rhythms I’ve explored so far. I’ll mostly use the strudel live coding environment for this, a free/open source project I work on with e.g. Felix Roos and Jade Rose, originally a port of the TidalCycles environment for the web. Arthur Carabott has made an environment specifically for exploring Konnakol, but I wanted to take advantage of the extensive functionality of Strudel, while expanding its features to support Konnakol rhythms.

An early exercise with B C Manjunath was to fit a sequence of phrases to an eight-step Adi Tala. My first attempt was Dim.Dim.Tha Dim.Dim.Tha Dim.Dim.Tha Tha. The . stands for a one-beat gap (or karve), and so Dim.Dim.Tha makes five beats, repeated three times to make fifteen. I added a single Tha to the end, to make 16, fitting the eight-step tala at double speed.

When you click play on the above, it should play the rhythm using sounds of the mridangum drum. Many (but not all) konnakol syllables correspond to this drum.

My teacher/guru prompted me to make this rhythm more interesting, firstly by replacing the ‘tha’ int he repeating phrase with a double speed ‘tha ka’, and secondly by changing the place of the extra ‘Tha’ with each repetition.



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