Learning about the ghatam

Bangalore, India, December 2015. A blog by Digital Producer, Marina Vidor.  

Things are not going according to plan. Catastrophic flooding in Chennai forced the change of our destination at the last minute to Bangalore. We’re in a beautiful hotel that has also suffered minor flooding and the conference room they promised us isn’t available. All 10 of us have to pile into a hotel room.

They have moved the king-sized bed out. I’m not sure how they did this, but it’s done. I have just about managed to set up two cameras and some mics without tripping over anyone. We have all left our shoes, bags and other belongings in the small corridor. The elegant Jayanthi Kumaresh, unfazed, has settled comfortably on the floor and is tuning her elaborate stringed instrument, the saraswati veena, while her pupil sits beside her attentively, ready in case she needs anything. Jayanthi is dressed in a stunning sari, the colour of plum, garnet and strawberry, alternating with gold thread that shines. We all group around her in a semi-circle, and so another workshop begins. The crowded, unusual surroundings melt away as the music starts. Everyone plays for each other and Jayanthi teaches the group a composition she and her husband, the violinist, Kumaresh, have written. The tune gets passed around and improvised upon, the musicians becoming more and more fluid on each turn.

I’m here to document (as an equipment-laden fly-on-the-wall) a unique trip for our musicians, a crash course in Indian classical music. Over eight days, Philharmonia members Samantha (Sam) Reagan (2nd Violin) and Samuel (Sam) Burstin (Viola), along with cellist Matthew Barley and composer Fraser Trainer will take part in a series of workshops with a dozen of India’s great classical musicians. We’ll meet flutists, vocalists, percussionists and players of a vast array of stringed instruments.

Conversation ebbs and flows naturally as the session with Jayanthi wears on. Matthew asks her if she ever gets tired when playing long pieces often at a very quick tempo. Tentatively she replies, “Yes… I do,” and she laughs. “That’s the spiritual angle,” she continues, and describes that when she is playing she is actually breathing at a different, slower rate, almost as if she were meditating. It’s a technique she learned so young that she doesn’t remember when it became second nature. “You ask me if my hand hurts. In that statement we made clear that my hand is not me. So my hand may get hurt, but I shouldn’t. Now what is ‘I?’ It’s not my hand, it’s not my body. My mind tells me my hand hurts, it’s distracting me away from the music. But I shouldn’t get distracted, so my mind is not me. And my body is not me. So then what is ‘me?’ That is the supreme consciousness, which is the breath. And that is why we breath slowly when performing, so that supreme consciousness makes sure that it’s all fine.” Discussions like this continue into the night over dinner.

The Philharmonia has partnered with Darbar, the UK’s premier festival of Indian classical music, to make this extraordinary project happen, with funding from Arts Council England and the British Council as part of their Reimagine India fund. Darbar’s director, Sandeep Virdee, is leading our tour of the finest Indian classical music can offer, with stops in Bangalore and Mumbai. Our musicians will learn about the Carnatic tradition from South India and the Hindustani from North India and learn how pieces are constructed and improvised. It will be a lot to absorb and probably quite overwhelming, but this is also a huge privilege and everyone knows it.

The big struggle is of course improvisation. Western classical musicians are not usually encouraged to improvise during their studies, which is why many find it difficult and even terrifying to try it. Sam and Sam have come on board because they want to challenge themselves to work outside their normal comfort zone of the daily orchestra rehearsal and concert. They’re highly experienced musicians, but neither has pushed themselves this way before, especially not in front of a steady stream of virtuosic musicians from a tradition where improvisation is central. Matthew Barley, a cello soloist who has worked quite a bit in India and well beyond the normal remit of Western classical music, will help our musicians navigate this new path, sharing his knowledge and tips and acting as a bridge between the two traditions. Composer Fraser Trainer, who has worked closely with Matthew for years, will gather material on the trip, eventually putting together a piece that will be premiered at the 2016 Darbar Festival in September at Southbank Centre. They are hoping to create a new style of music that doesn’t compromise the strengths of Western and Indian classical music. It’s a goal to move away from jam sessions and fusion styles and really push to create something fresh and meaningful. I admire this courage and I feel privileged to be on this journey with such an ambitious team.

30 August 2016

As we approach the Darbar Festival, which our Universal Notes ensemble will open in a few weeks, I relish looking back to our trip to India. The colours, traffic, noise, food, music and amazing musicians we met stand out vividly in my memory and are being brought back to life as I trawl through hours of footage. (Keep your eyes peeled for a short film on our trip coming out in early September.) As I watch, it’s clear that everyone understands each other on a deep, musical level, but there is also a real appreciation among the group that they come from distinct musical worlds and traditions. I see furrowed brows as our musicians struggle to remember a melody they just learned, and laughs of surprise and relief when a group improvisation comes together beautifully as people start finding their musical voice. In one session sitar player Niladri Kumar nods in approval as Sam Burstin plays a Bach extract on his viola, deeply moved. Everyone gets it, and they are working hard to meet somewhere in the middle, to find those universal notes.

For the final performance we have added two more Philharmonia musicians: Michael Fuller, bass, and Jennifer McLaren, clarinet. Coming over from India for more workshops ahead of the concert are three musicians we met back in December: Rakesh Chaurasia, bansuri, Niladri Kumar, sitar, and Jayanthi Kumaresh, saraswati veena. Workshops in London ahead of the concert will bring this new piece together. We’re all excited to see how the final piece will emerge and hope you will join us on 16 September at Darbar.

Universal Notes, Friday 16 September 2016, 6.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1632

Marina Vidor is the Digital Producer for the Philharmonia Orchestra. She looks after the Orchestra’s prolific film programme. Watch more on our YouTube channel, and subscribe for the latest films: https://www.youtube.com/user/PhilharmoniaLondon