|Gabriele Stiller-Kern: Many Europeans are fascinated by Indian classical music, but Indians are not normally interested in either classical or contemporary western music. Why?
Sandeep Bhagwati: India has no infrastructure for western music: there are no orchestras, and there is also no regular concert activity. And even when western music is performed the programme is very conservative, much more so than here - even Brahms may be considered as daring.
Of course, western music came to India with British colonial power and there used to be
regular concerts series back then; Mumbai even had an opera house. Nowadays, western
classical music in India survives in a kind of diasporic existence maintained exclusively for Parsis, for some well-off Indian circles - or for western diplomats.
As far as popular music is concerned, things do not appear to be much different, either.
For example, Indians are also interested in the group "Shakti", but only because Zakir
Hussein is so well-known in the West and John McLaughlin is a jazz legend. And the
audience consists of mainly wealthy Indians who have studied in the United States.
G. S.: How does it look on the other side? How open are western musicians to the classical music of non-European cultures?
S. B.: From a global point of view, composers trained in the West are those most open to other cultures. Today it goes without saying that every composer - at least in avant-garde music - knows something about Balinese, Indian or Japanese classical music. They know quite a lot about structural techniques and aesthetic concepts even if they still tend to bungle on practical issues. It is easy for western musicians to find out about non-European music: there are a great number of very well-informed books on the subject. But things are much more difficult vice versa.
Nonetheless, one should also bear in mind that even musicians such as Ravi Shankar who
is widely recognised as an intermediary in the West still fail to convince the Indian public of the necessity for any musical encounter with the West. In his experiments with Yehudi Menuhin and his sitar concertos with Zubin Mehta Shankar's sitar playing is not inventive enough for his Indian listeners - whereas to western ears, the orchestration sounds crude.
When Charlie Mariano plays with the Karnataka College of Percussion, the Karnataka College of Percussion plays exactly what it always does - but only at half throttle, so that poor Charlie can follow. This is the pattern I want to break. For once, I wanted to prevent Indian musicians from doing what they always do and instead force them to address western culture face-to-face.
They need to do that if they want to compose for western musicians - without necessarily
being able to play themselves. That, then, is my main challenge - the gauntlet I am throwing at the "East-meets-West" problem. In my view, up to now there has been no exchange of which I could say, "here all the potential of western musical culture and all the potential of Indian musical culture is fully explored." In my project, this happens. EVERYONE is extending their personal limit. That was what interested me.
G. S.: You are the artistic director of the project. What motivated you to take it on?
S. B.: The impetus for this project came from the House of World Cultures. I was asked whether Contemporary Music existed in India. India does not have avant-garde music as we understand it in the West. Also, Contemporary Music always implies a break with tradition - a break that has certainly not occurred in India. As a composer who grew up with both Indian and European classical music, I was always troubled by this great discrepancy between arrogant ignorance (on the Indian side) - and uncritical curiosity (on the western
side). This project gave me an opportunity to build bridges. It took me quite some time until I found musicians in India who were interested in this sort of dialogue. In the end, I unexpectedly found a couple of musicians who are very well-known in India - and who had already moved several steps away from their tradition. That was what I wanted: artists with an urge to re-interpret their tradition. For me, it was possible to do what I envisaged only with such first-class musicians. For they were able to see beyond the tradition because they were well aware of its strengths - and its weaknesses.
The enthusiasm and openness of the reaction of these Indian musicians to the Ensemble
Modern was already apparent during the first phase of our work together, during our first
workshop in Mumbai. I suppose it would not have worked so well with other Indian
musicians, and it would not have worked at all with a different ensemble. All the musicians involved on both sides have shown great curiosity and absolute professionalism. I am certain that this was the only way for the great mutual respect that was so tangible during our workshops to evolve.
For me, one of this project's great strengths is that it gives the musicians the time they need to really learn from and work with each other. We have now been working together for two years. My first extensive discussions with the Indian musicians started in January 2001, our first workshop took place in 2002, they then all came to Frankfurt in May of this year. A final workshop will take place in Frankfurt and Berlin in October 2003. The periods
in between were filled with hundreds of telephone calls, e-mails and a week-long workshop full of compositional theory and precise aesthetic deliberations.
G. S.: In your first workshop, members of Ensemble Modern played the Indian musicians examples of Contemporary Music. How did they react?
S. B.: Everyone was amazed that the Indian musicians were completely comfortable with things an European audience would normally find disconcerting: for instance, dissonances did not irritate them at all - because they do not think in terms of harmonies, anyway. And they were not puzzled by unconventional playing techniques, either. On the other hand, what really upset the Indian musicians was that the pieces were always so short. "What are five or ten minutes for so many great ideas," one of the artists said to me after a piece by Webern.
G. S.: Where were the points of contact for the Indian musicians?
S. B.: Their involvement in areas where they are strong, namely melody and rhythm, was very good. And they immediately took to experimental techniques on the instruments - a really important issue in avant-garde music. They immediately recognised that it was a totally different way of handling tonal colour - in comparison to what they already knew from western classical music, where a violin sounds more or less like a violin and nothing more. This aspect was a particular inspiration for them.
G. S.: At which points did Ensemble Modern's musicians find their way into Indian music?
S. B.: Because Indian music is relatively familiar in the West, I did not put so much emphasis on this aspect. I was mainly concerned with introducing Indian musicians to western music. But there were still some impressive encounters. The musicians from Ensemble Modern were fascinated by the Indian musicians' improvisation techniques. They visited classical concerts in India to experience this sort of live composition in full length as opposed to the mere excerpts we could listen to in the workshop. What also particularly impressed them was the acute way Indians relate to pitch, the nuances of the notes in the octave, and the microtones. They became very interested in the idioms of Indian music: how phrases are constructed and how the transitions between one pitch and the next are formed.
G. S.: The Indian musicians composed for the Ensemble Modern. Now, western composers are
used to writing down their compositions. But this is uncommon in Indian music. How did you
get around this problem?
S. B.: In fact, there is some sort of musical notation in Indian music, but it is more a mnemonic aid than a collection of precise instructions. Nonetheless, we did use it and transferred some of it into western notation. Thus, the Ensemble Modern's musicians could at least reproduce the basic form of a piece.
In addition to that, I introduced the Indian musicians to various models of non-classical
western notation. In Contemporary Music, there are a great number of different musical
notation systems. Musicians adept at Contemporary Music are used to each composer
working with an individual form of notation. I encouraged the Indian musicians to develop
their own forms of notation. The results were absolutely fascinating. Uday Bhawalkar, for example, who up to that point had been the least exposed to western music, immediately recognised the opportunity notation offered. He laboriously devised a system of notation that reflects his music far more precisely than any western notation could.
We also worked a lot with recordings. This may be a technical form of notation, but it is still a valid one.
G. S.: You have not only confronted the Indian and German musicians' points of view in your project, you also have introduced a third perspective: the work of of those composers who may have been trained in the Indian classical tradition but who now work in the western tradition and live either here or in the USA.
Indian music, along with the classical music of the Middle East has for some reason stayed
aloof of the dominant currents of the international Contemporary Music scene so preeminent in the West, Japan, Korea and China. Diaspora composers from every culture ? but especially those from India - always have the same problem: they know that their home countries have strong musical cultures, and that they will have to leave them behind before they can adopt that of the West. But their western audiences will always ask them about the culture of their homelands. They are in limbo between the pain of abandonment and the need for recognition. For in the West they will only find recognition if they represent and
reflect the culture of their origins in a form specially tailored to western audiences. They cannot present their music as authentic, because then they are banished to the World Music corner and not taken seriously by the concert scene for classical and Contemporary Music.
Every composer has to develop his own response to this dichotomy. Some, such as Naresh Sohal, respond with complete conformity to the western ideal - he simply writes postromantic orchestral music. Param Vir, on the other hand, has had success with his way of addressing western culture's philosophical clichés about India without alluding to the musical clichés at all. Although his themes and titles are mainly Indian, his music sounds completely
western. Then there is Clarence Barlow, who adopts a completely different stance: he
pours scorn equally on both western and Indian music and delights in using every cliché for a new piece. His approach to this cultural conflict is satirical. And, finally, there is Shirish Korde, who comes from a totally different background. He was born as an Indian in Africa and lives in the USA. His music effectively seems to say, "As a global composer, I can think music in a Japanese mode just as well as I can in an Indian, African or European one. In my
music, I try to combine everything that seems important to me."
G. S.: In what kind of cultural and social context do you see your project? Is it not a bit elitist?
S. B.: Of course, it is an elitist project. It is an encounter between some of the best musicians from two cultures. They already have an elite status in their own cultures. I do not feel there is a problem here, because the term "elite" does not bother me in the first place. I am convinced that this sort of work is worth doing because it can prepare the ground for a real meeting of the cultures. The crucial difference to all the "East-meets-West" projects I have seen up to now is that here we do not just see a transfer from East to West but also a transfer from West to East. The West usually soaks up a lot and is very open, albeit in a
very aggressive way. Other cultures are defensive and tend to stay closed. But how can they expect to learn anything, then?
G. S.: How great, do you think, are the chances that this exchange will continue to have an effect?
S. B.: The interest amongst Indian musicians is substantial and diverse. I really hope that it will continue. I have just found out that the Indian musicians are telling their colleagues about the project, saying, "There are such interesting ideas in western music, we absolutely need to bring them to India." They are going to the Goethe Institute to borrow CDs that were around there for years and have never been taken out before.
It seems obvious that all this is just a small stone we throw into the ocean of Indian musical culture - in the hope the ripples will spread. I am no nationalist. Whether India or the West, our music is constantly developing and the better we know each other, the better it can be. The future of music is a global one, it cannot come from any one tradition alone. It is about
time for musical cultures from all over the world to plunder the West, so that they can
develop voices rich and strong enough to play their part in this global polyphony.
(The interview was translated from the