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The raga, reloaded


EAST MEETS WEST: (Right) Samuel Jean conducts the Khan trio, the Avignon Provence Symphony Orchestra and Kords

What happens when you fuse a symphony, a sarod and electronica? Surprisingly good things, as the sarod concerto Ananta Opus 195 proved

To fuse two different streams of classical music that are like chalk and cheese in their structure sounds like a scary proposition. There is every danger the fusion will end up like some sort of an oil-and-water musical mix: that the two will stick to their own orbits, nervously making occasional contact, only to spring back to their home bases to everybody's relief. 

There have been some really stunning works of fusion, like Ravi Shankar's collaboration with Andre Previn, and later, with Philip Glass, where both genres managed to retain their souls, augment each other, and create something beautiful together. But the raga universe in untameable and it needs a lot of creative courage and talent to fuse it with symphonic music. 

On Tuesday evening, French composer Pierre Thilloy, took on an even bigger challenge at a concert hosted by Bonjour India, the festival of France organised by Alliance Francaise. He brought together western classical music and electronic music for a sarod concerto. The venture, Ananta Opus 195, which had its global premiere in Delhi, featured the Avignon Provence Symphonic Orchestra, Kords Collective and sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Ayaan and Amaan and was conducted by Samuel Jean. It was a brave effort with a few raw edges (See interview), which Khan with his absolute mastery managed to smooth over. 

Thilloy says his idea is not to orchestrate ragas as Shankar and Previn had done, but to create something fresh. "The raga culture - the protracted alap, the Indian concept of time - works very differently from western classical music, " he says. "I didn't fight that difference. In fact I protracted the alap and stretched it to suspend it in time. " 

A concerto is a composition where an orchestra frames the music of a soloist (in this case, the Khan trio along with tabla player Tanmoy Bose). In Ananta, there were pure sarod and a symphonic work as well as fused music. Interestingly, the electronica was like the musical glue that connected western and Indian classical to tide over awkward moments of interchange. 

The work is the result of a two-year residency during which Thilloy travelled across India exploring music and musicians to find something that would work for an experimental canvas. He met musicians such as pianist Anil Srinivasan and V S Narasimhan of the Madras String Quartet in Chennai and Hariprasad Chaurasia in Mumbai. "Each experience with these wonderful musicians altered me as a musician, " he recalls. Then he met Khan in Delhi and the creative connect was instant. "I realise that he is something of a demigod here but he was so enthusiastic and modest about the whole effort, " says Thilloy. 

The composer is no stranger to collaboration. Barely a week before the Delhi concert, Thilloy's new work Khojaly Massacre had premiered in Paris, featuring the music of Azerbaijan. A tribute to the 613 civilians who were killed in a conflict caused by Armenian occupation, the music was a confluence of styles and sound effects. 

Ananta Opus 195 travels to Ahmedabad on March 3, 8. 30pm and Mumbai on March 5, 7pm 

I see this as another chapter in my journey : Amjad Ali Khan

Did you have any anxieties about this collaboration? 

I was very worried about realising the composer's vision. I have composed Samagam with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra but that was much easier because I knew where I was headed. But working to his thinking - the electronica, the harmonisation - turned out to be a great experience. Which ragas to play where and how long to add the right colours and create the beauty he was looking for, it was a very interesting experience. Tempo is a huge issue in any music. If you play the alap too long, duniya so jayegi (the world will fall asleep); too little and you can't create a picture. A sense of proportion is all in music and we managed that in this concert. 

Western and Indian classical music are like two worlds. Was there any awkwardness in the give and take? 

My father used to say that it is important to be a complete musician and it took me years to understand the idea of musicmanship - it is the ability to appreciate other cultures. I have always admired beauty of the collective music of the symphonies. Here, if 150 of us have to work under one conductor, we will break each other's heads. We would find it humiliating to be dictated to by one man. But to understand another musician's mind is to subjugate ego and what can make better music than that? I see it as another chapter in my musical journey. 

As you take this concerto ahead, will you be polishing it? 

Oh yes, certainly. We haven't had much rehearsal time because of tight schedules. In fact, we had only one runthrough rehearsal before the concert. Indian classical musicians are like free birds, so it was a test for us to adhere to the discipline of a western orchestra. But as we play more, we will certainly get better.


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