Imagine, in the course of a week, meeting, say, Colin Currie, Danielle de Niese Hilary Hahn, Piotr Anderszewski, Pekka Kuusisto, Laurence Power, Avi Avital, Mahan Estafani and a handful of others. Not only do you meet them, but you get to hear them all play for you in a private and relaxed setting, and then they talk to you about their musical world, years of training and philosophy of making music, after which you spend a couple of hours making music with them. That is a pretty close parallel for what I recently experienced in India, with 12 of their greatest musicians whose names I think would be unknown to our Western classical audience, but I’ve printed them all below for those interested.
It was breathtaking and inspiring. I met musicians who had experienced waking at 2.30 every morning and practising until 5 am, then from 7 – 10 and once again in the afternoon: this particular musician, Bagauddin Dagar, spoke of only practising slow scales in his early morning stint to such a degree that the conscious mind disappeared and he felt completely at one with his deity – a perfectly Buddhistic meditative experience where he simply disappears and becomes the music. (He also demonstrated flawlessly how he divides a tone into 14 equal parts.) And Kala Ramnath, violinist, who studied with a legendary singer and spent years perfecting every little nuance of his virtuosic shakes and decorations. At one stage she only slept four hours a night and either practised or thought about the music for all the other 20 hours – she even said that she practised in her sleep. And Kaushiki Chakraborty, the singer who developed a 3 octave range without a break in the voice through working 7 – 9 hours a day all through her childhood – something most Western singing teachers would say could only ruin your voice for ever. Then there is Ravikiran, who did his first public performance aged two, and a host of other extraordinary musicians and human beings.
I am reminded that India is the country of the Saddhus who, to take one celebrated example, might hold their arm in the air for two years until it totally atrophied and cannot any longer be lowered, or another who hopped around the coast of India, or one who spent a lifetime up a tree. This is a country of extremes, but – crucially – never gratuitously. There is a purpose to this, in the case of the Saddhus it is to get closer to god, and in the case of some of the musicians it is the same, and even if they wouldn’t put it into the same words, their pursuit of perfection in music feels like the same journey. Jayanthi Kumaresh describes the journey back to the tonic in music being one of return to the supreme consciousness. Giridhar Udupa, master of the Ghatam (a clay pot to the uninitiated) performs complex arithmetical sums at the speed of light to determine which patterns he will play in his oh-so-intricate totally-off-piste solos to arrive back on the first beat at precisely the right point – all with a huge smile on his face.
So what was the point of all this except to make me feel like I’m a complete musical beginner? Well, it’s the first stage of a collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra and UK-based Darbar Festival (the biggest Indian music festival outside India) which will culminate in a performance at the Royal Festival Hall next September 16th to open SouthBankCentre’s classical music season.
I have taken part in many wonderful collaborations over the years, and they usually feel rushed – there is a concert deadline looming and it feels like there is insufficient time to dig in and assimilate a new language, process it, and come up with something that is greater than the sum of its parts: this one is already different. The Arts Council and British Council funded this phase of R&D, so I travelled with a couple of Philharmonia musicians and composer Fraser Trainer, and work will continue over the next 10 months to create the new work. Some of our workshops were attended by journalists, funders and others, and there was a very excited response. Everyone could feel that something special was beginning. (Gulp….hope we can deliver!)
We are aiming to find common ground as well as celebrate differences and Fraser Trainer is one of the keys to how this project will define itself. Usually I would collaborate with other performers without the presence of a composer, but I think the fact that we are bringing together the two most sophisticated classical traditions in the world means that we must represent the compositional side strongly as that has been the heart of our tradition for centuries.
In each session we listened to the Indian musician perform and then played for them before learning something from their world – melody, or rhythmic pattern. Sometimes these were astonishing difficult for our western ears – in certain melodies the level of ornamentation is so, so complex that I could only learn a few notes in, say, 15 minutes. And then would have forgotten it half an hour later! But the satisfaction of getting those few notes was immense and the cello can get very close to some of those sounds – I’m very much looking forward to practising this material. And then we would apply some of our compositional processes to bits of Indian music. This often involved layering different voices on top of each other in a way that Indian music doesn’t – we created some magical textures, and high points included a spontaneously created rendering of a Thumri style of song (with Kaushiki Chakraborty) with harmonic 4-part accompaniment; and listening to Bahauddin Dagar on Rudra Veena improvise over the chords of La Folia. We planted some seeds and time will tell how they germinate, but I learned a wonderful new word, Charhdi Kala, meaning eternal optimism. I’m totally full of Charhdi Kala.
I shall be posting updates over the coming months. Watch this space.
Praveen Godkhindi flute
Shashank Subramaniam Carnatic flute
Anupama Bhagwat sitar
Udupa Giridhar ghatam
N Ravikiran Carnatic chitra veena
Jayanthi Kumaresh saraswati veena
Kala Ramnath violin
Bahauddin Dagar rudra veena
Kaushiki Chakraborty khayal vocal
Niladri Kumar sitar
Rakesh Chaurasia Hindustani flute