rn in Tamil Nadu in 1925, Mali was a true original whose musicality revolutionized Indian flute playing, elevating the instrument from its folk origins to the heights of art music, imbued with spirituality, without losing vitality or succumbing to the blandishments of fame. Mali was a beguiling combination of virtuosity, spirituality and rebelliousness, and his music reflects this, and much more. He was a legend and a master.
Mali's virtuosity was innate; he picked up the flute, against his father's wishes, at the age of five, and gave his first performance at seven, to great acclaim, eventually playing with other legendary musicians including the revered violinist Palghat Mani Iyer. Mahalingam developed tremendous control of the instrument, able to sustain single notes for over forty seconds, able to play any music after hearing it only once, but he used his virtuosity to serve the music, pursuing the Carnatic ideal of the voice as the purest form of music. He sang with the flute.
In contrast with the mechanically-keyed Western flute, the Indian bamboo flute allows the player to directly touch the finger holes, allowing access to a wider range of tones and contributing to this vocal quality. Mali added an extra hole to his flutes, increasing his expressivity, and performed other modifications to bring him closer to the ideal of the human voice. Mali's technical innovations also included the development of new fingering techniques and the introduction of a unique hand positioning, the "parrot clutch". This relentless search allowed the flute, for the first time, to be elevated to the highest ranks of Carnatic music.
But this was not mere empty virtuosity. Mali was spiritually driven. He had a life-changing religious experience at the age of sixteen, lending a sense of depth and introversion to his music. He claimed to have seen god many times while playing, and was known to cut concert appearances short in such instances. "Mali says he sees god within five minutes of playing - he thinks it is meaningless to continue playing after that and he stops." He was also said to have been able to communicate with birds through his music.
This spirituality seemed to manifest itself at times in a sense of rebelliousness. He disliked idolatry, and turned down a prestigious music award from the Indian government. His sense of time was not that of the majority; he did not adhere to schedules, cutting performances short as noted above, but also playing hours beyond his allotted time. The clock was not his lord.
Legendary in India, Mahalingam was very influential in Europe and North America also, especially among composers including La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Olivier Messiaen, another bird lover, was keenly interested in Mali's music, and one may hear this influence in a number of Messiaen's pieces. So, a legend. A master. And beyond words. Please listen to Mali.
(added: 2011-12-07 10:13:45 )