When Simon Thacker, a classical guitarist of considerable repute and even more immense ability and talent, has a gig at the Southbank Centre, you naturally jump at the opportunity. With as ambitious sounding a programme such as last night's at the Purcell Room, of music from the Indian classical traditions, the folk traditions, as well as Bollywood, in an East-Meets-West kind of encounter, naturally, a great amount of intrigue drives you even further.
So what was Simon Thacker's latest East-Meets-West offering, Svara-Kanti - Music For The Mind And Soul? Was it the usual classically-orientated kind of thing that has been done to death from the start more or less, or was it something more, something new? One would have to find out, with an open and hopeful mind.
The line-up sounded impressive. In addition to Thacker himself on guitar, this consisted of the most impressive Dr. Jyotsna Srikanth on Indian violin and extraordinary and inventive tabla player Sarvar Sabri, both previous associates of Thacker. An unknown factor, at least for me, was vocalist Japjit Kaur, but in such a line-up you expect nothing but the best.
Thus, I could not have been more excited to witness this very intriguing and highly promising performance.
Throughout, the performances of Thacker, Srikanth and Sabri could not be faulted if you tried. Sadly though, the moment Ms. Kaur started singing, a sinking feeling manifested itself for me. Throughout, I really could not help wondering why Thacker could not have found a better quality vocalist for his otherwise excellent Svara-Kanti ensemble. To put it bluntly but honestly, I perceived Kaur's extremely nasal voice as little short of, sorry, just awful. One just could not help being somewhat distracted by wondering how and why on earth Thacker picked this vocalist. For me, she spoiled an otherwise technically flawless performance by Thacker, Dr. Srikanth, and Sabri in all the songs.
The highlight of the first half of Simon Thacker's Svara-Kanti - Music For The Mind And Soul came with the World Premiere of Thacker's own composition for guitar and tabla, Svaranjali. Yes, this was exciting and did go beyond the usual classically orientated East-Meets-West thing, well beyond actually! Both melodically and harmonically this offered excitement and interest, in its unusual use of an octatonic scale (using the Indian sargam or tonic solfa, Sa, Re, komal Ga, Ma, tivra Ma, Pa, komal Dha, komal Ni, Sa, or, tonic, second, minor third, natural fourth, augmented fourth, fifth, minor sixth, minor seventh, tonic) that not only could imply several Hindustani Ragas but also implied the 'blues scale' as well as the Western - altered - Aeolian church mode. This combination certainly implied some exciting harmonies, and sometimes touched upon them.
But there also was a certain polyrhythmic interest in the interaction between guitar and tabla in this piece that created an immense tension and excitement, based on much syncopation. Overall, this lends this piece a tremendous upbeat.
Svaranjali alone would have been worth the price of admission, if for nothing else than being something original in the realm of classical East/West musical interaction!
The second half opened with Nada Ananda, Shirish Korde's concerto for guitar (and chamber ensemble). What immediately drew the attention here - coming as something of a surprise, actually - in the first movement, Alap (as well as in the second movement), was the composer's use of a not so common variant of the Hindustani Rag Lalit. (Bhatkande, the 19th century father of modern Hindustani musicology, lists only the common version of Lalit, using a scale of tonic, minor second, major third, perfect fourth, augmented fourth - which stands in for a diminished fifth which Hindustani music does not permit as such - major sixth, major seventh, tonic. This variant used here, probably only a second half of the 20th century introduction, substitutes the major sixth with a minor one.)
This use of the variant Rag Lalit was somehow endearing, especially as it has always been a particular favourite of mine; I always perceived it to convey much stronger and deeper flavours and colours than the standard version. However, brilliant though both Thacker's and Srikanth's playing was, there were already two problems here for me; the combination of an obviously composed line with an improvised one. An Alap is, by definition, a completely freeform improvised piece, not unlike the Middle Eastern Taqsim, which highlights important phrases and combinations of phrases in the Rag being played or sung and develops these. This combination of composed and improvised lines somehow just did not work for me, and one or the other might have been preferable.
The second problem for me was the excessively sitar-like writing for the guitar. It just didn't make sense, nor did it work somehow. If you want sitar, fine, then write for sitar (although goodness knows that has been done to death decades ago!) But why try and make one instrument sound like another, for the hell of it or just because it can be done?
The second and third movements, with the addition of tabla (and voice in the second - why? - upon which further comment is hardly necessary I think), did not improve these matters much, although Thacker's performance was a veritable tour de force that took the breath away. The allusions to John McLaughlin and Zakir Husssain's Indo-Jazz fusion of yesteryear in the third movement though really seemed superfluous and irrelevant, too. Why not just stick with Thacker being the brilliant Thacker that he is, and ditto Sabri.
However, the real show stopper and show stealer had to be the closing Sa Ni Pa Ma Ni by the brilliant but sadly short-lived (Carnatic) Indo-Flamenco fusion group Amalgama of the 1990s, in an excellent arrangement by Shirish Korde and Svara-Kanti. Again, this piece would have been worth - no, more than worth - the price of admission! The exuberance and high energy, not to mention of course the immense virtuosity of the players literally took the breath away and left one feeling exhausted just listening and watching. And completely exulted! Yes, this too pushed the envelope of East-West encounter music, and very nicely too.
All in all, Svaranjali and Sa Ni Pa Ma Ni guaranteed that this was a fascinating performance and compensated for the vocal performance. One can only wonder what the songs would have been like with a better singer. Certainly though, Simon Thacker's Svara-Kanti - Music For The Mind And Soul was something more than the usual classically-orientated East-Meets-West musical encounter, and had something original to offer. And phenomenally brilliant guitar into the bargain!