Monday 2 September 2013

Fascinating synthesis - Rakasha

Simon Thacker's Svara-Kanti: Rakshasa
Edinburgh based guitarist Simon Thacker is classically trained but his performance interest lies in the edge between Western classical music and Indian classical music. On this new disc, Rakasha, he performs with his ensemble Simon Thacker's Svara Kanti, in which he collaborates with Japjit Kaur (a singer from North India), the violinist Jacqueline Shave (leader of the Britten Sinfonia) and tabla master Sarvar Sabri. The material on the disc is a similar mixture with pieces by Thacker himself, Nigel Osborne, Terry Riley and Shirish Korde

Dhumaketu is the Sanskrit word for 'great comet' or 'falling star'. Simon Thacker's Dhumaketu is written for classical guitar, violin and tabla. It opens with a guitar solo which fulfills the function of the atap in North Indian classical music by introducing and exploring the tonality. The piece is based on an eight-note Western scale (the white notes of the keyboard) which corresponds to Raag Bhairavi in Hindustani music.  The opening guitar improvisation to my ears has rather a Spanish sound, but when all three instruments join the results have a catchy rhythmic impetus and an interesting interaction develops between the three.

Nigel Osborne's music featured on Simon Thacker's previous disc, and he wrote The Five Elements for the ensemble on this disc. Each of the five movements is based on on of the five elements of Ancient Indian philosophy with Sanskrit texts drawn from references to the five elements in the Katha Upanishad. Each movement is a complex structure and in the notes Nigel Osborne describes the amazing fine details which have gone into them.

The first movement Ether - Akasha makes use of Hindustani and Carnatic ragas associated with the ether. It combines the rather contemplative tradition style vocalism from Japjit Kaur with rather more Western but very evocative rhythmic accompaniment. The second movement Air - Vayu is based on ragas related to the air. It opens with a fascinating violin solo which takes Jacqueline Shave's technique to the very edge (and she is magnificent), but then Kaur's vocals start they are fast and exciting and the whole movement takes on a rhythmic impetus.

The third movement Water - Jal describes the presence of purifying water at Naciketa's entry to the house of death and makes use of water related ragas. This combines Kaur's traditional style with a more Western accompaniment in the guitar, plus a selection of what sounds like electronics which get the piece some aetherial moments (in fact this is from a waterphone). The fourth movement Fire - Agni is based on fire ragas. It opens with another virtuoso violin solo, then joined by tabla and guitar, and finally Kaur's catchy vocals. The fifth and final movement Earth - Prithvi makes use of earth based ragas. It is a slow piece with a rhythmically hypnotic accompaniement.

Terry Riley became interested in Indian classical music after a 1964 concert given by Ravi Shankar and All Rahka and he went on to study with Pran Nath. His work SwarAmant for guitar, violin and tabla was written specially for the ensemble on the disc. It is a haunted, slightly disjointed piece, long and complex which builds slowly. Along the way, the combination of guitar, violin and rhythmic tabla rather reminded me of Stefan Grapelli's performances with the Hot Club of France (not a reference I would quite have expected) though there are also hints of Astor Piazolla. A fascinating piece, but not one I would quite have expected from Terry Riley.

Shirish Korde is an Indian composer who spent his early years in East Africa, arriving in the USA in 1965 he studied jazz, composition, analysis and ethnomusicology. The title of his piece Anusvara - 6th Prism is related to the Sanskrit word for 'after-sound', a concept associated with Yogic traditions of meditation. Written for guitar, Indian singer, violin and tabla, the piece is described as a sonic-meditation and the composer had the Yogic notions of sacred-sound in mind. It opens with intensely soulful vocals and throughout the piece moves between soulful and more intense rhythmic sections. It is a varied and rather intense piece.

Simon Thacker's Svaranjali (Sanskrit for 'tonal offerings') for guitar and tabla explores a hybrid scale which implies several Hindustani ragas (if you want further information I refer you to Simon Thacker's excellent booklet notes). For me the interest in the piece was rhythmic and the way Thacker combines the different rhythmic textures of the two instruments, though there is rather catchy melodic interest too.

Raag Multani is a widely played afternoon raga. Simon Thacker's Multani is inspired by a 1957 performance by the Hindustani vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Thacker's work is written for guitar, violin and tabla. The result is all based on a rather fascinating melodic germ which generates the whole work.

Thacker has arranged three Punjabi folksongs for the ensemble. Kahnu Marda Chandariya Chamka (originally sing by Narinder Biba), Main tenu yaad aavanga (originally sung by Asa Singh Mastana/ Surinder Kaur), Shava Gund Chuk Ke (originally sung by Surinder Kaur) Surinder Kaur (1929 - 2006) 'the nightingale of Punjab' was one of the most famous Punjabi singers of the 20th century,

The first opens with a soulful violin solo before the rather catch vocals come in accompanied by some rather lively and distinctly folk-y guitar and violin. The second is slower tempo and Thacker's arrangement veers towards the more Celtic elements. Finally another soulful number, which turns up-tempo and Thacker creates some lovely textures to accompany the voice.

Finally something completely different. Simon Thacker's Rakshasa for multi-tracked forwards and backwards guitars, tabla waterphone and  Tibetan singing bowls. This is like nothing else on the disc, Thacker uses guitars recorded backwards (so that a sharp initial note and long delay turn into a gradual build up to climax). The technique was used by Jimi Hendrix but here technology makes things easier. The backwards guitar gives the piece an otherworldly electronic sound, with some stunning tabla playing and the odd Flamenco flurry. You can hear Thacker's compositional voice from the other works on the disc, but here in a seductive and different dialect.

The CD has a glorious cover which makes it almost worth buying for that alone. The CD booklet is full of information about the pieces, with notes by Thacker and the composers involved. Unfortunately the designers thought it would be good to print the text in the same colour way as the cover, which makes some of it a bit difficult to decipher, but it is well worth persevering.

Now, I have to admit that I know next to nothing about Indian classical music so this disc was very much an exercise in an innocent ear. Each piece takes different elements from Western and Indian classical musics and combines them in different ways. But the results are not as disparate as might appear at first sight, thanks partly to the stunning solo and ensemble contributions. The four performers clearly developed a strong feeling for their material and the way they collaborated.

If you have an open mind about music then do give this a try. As a preview you can catch them playing Dhumaketu on YouTube.


Simon Thacker - Dhumaketu [6.37]
Nigel Osborne - The Five Elements [12.27]
Terry Riley - SwarAmant [14.17]
Shirish Korde - Anusvara - 6th Prism [9.55]
Simon Thacker - Svaranjali [4.05]
Simon Thacker - Multani [4.34]
Simon Thacker - Three Punjabi Folksongs [11.46]
Simon Thacker - Rakshasa [8.33]
Simon Thacker's Svara Kanti
Simon Thacker - classical guitar
Japjit Kaur - voice
Jacqueline Shave - violin
Sarvar Sabri - tabla
Recorded at Castlesound Studios, Pencaitland, November 2012 and January 2013

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