Kolmogorov Complexity of Tabla Performances

I attended Pandit Divyang Vakil’s Tabla performance yesterday. It was a part of Spring Fest 2009. The show was unique in the sense that there were actually four tablas kept on the stage, which were to be played by four different people. I had not seen this happening before. Generally there is either just one person doing a solo or there are two doing a jugalbandi. But four looked exciting. Four different people playing simultaneously is equivalent to one super-human with eight hands playing alone, and this super-human seemed to have a lot of potential. However, when the show started, it wasn’t very clear whether they were really achieving anything by having four different people. Or in other words, would it be possible for less than four people to produce the same effect as them? This kept me occupied for the rest of the show.

The whole performance could be divided into two different modes – one, in which one of them was playing something alone and two, in which more than one people were playing but they were playing the exact same thing, that is, hitting the instrument at the exact same moments at the exact same points. Now the times they were in mode one, could be easily replaced by just one player. I was a little doubtful about mode two. Isn’t four people playing the same thing simultaneously, the same as one person playing it four times louder?

Although it seemed to be true, it did not sound true. I mean, it was very easy to close your eyes and figure out the number of people who were playing simultaneously just from the sound. However, I later realized that it was happening just because of the fact that the sounds coming from two different tablas cannot be the same even though the two players are trying to play the same thing. There has to be some difference, in the exact times at which they are hit, and even in the sound quality. And this difference between the two sounds is what makes four players playing simultaneously different from one player playing alone.

But anyway, that’s not a very big problem. We can still replace such a group of four by just one person if we have some elecronic circuitry at our disposal. All we have to do is receive the sound produced by this one person at one end and then make four copies of it and add some small and random differences in the copies. The result, I think, should sound exactly the same to the audience as yesterday’s show.

So in effect, it seems that three of the tabla players were pretty redundant. A better thing to do for them would be to have the four people playing different things on their respective tablas. That would be something that just cannot be achieved by one player. For example, one single player can never play, let’s say, a Tin and a Na at the exact same moment, even if he makes use of extremely complicated electronic circuitry, because (most probably) both the sounds require the same fingers. But, two different people can do this.