Asian Music and Dance

Circle of Sound

The UK-based duo of Soumik Datta and Bernhard Schimpelsberger is an electro-acoustic hybrid with varying currents flowing through their music. In addition to Datta’s sarod, the short-necked, steel-clad fretboard lute of Hindustani art music, and Schimpelsberger’s arsenal of percussion, what further colours their musical outcomes is their use and exploitation of laptop-fed visual and electronic elements.

“The first thing you notice is the air,” intoned a male voice with a Scots accent. ‘Vibration talk,’ I thought. ‘This sounds promising.’ But any imagined Nada Brahma line of development swiftly vaporised. What happened next (as in, rolled across the screen) proved to be like a non-musical overture with a visual muesli mixture of polar and Alpine images. The snowscape and mountain sequence over, both musicians took the stage.

For the opening ‘Quest’ from their recent debut release Circle of Sound – indeed for the whole concert – Datta stood while playing sarod. Sarod, it turned out, functioned like some species of exotic guitar. Schimpelsberger sat behind a minimalist drum kit. To his left, he had a Hang – a UFO-shaped idiophone. To his right was a post-Airto Moriera-style percussion Toytown – rattles, shakers and dinky percussive things. For ‘Quest’ he began by creating metallic air sounds with cymbals and Hang.

This was their sixth gig, Datta announced early on. Not having seen any earlier performances, my only comparison available was their CD, though this particular evening they also performed unreleased material – most promisingly ‘Zero Gravity’. Live, what they delivered was terser and shorn of overdubs – a worry, given the possibilities of laptop triggers, banished. In ‘Air India’, another new piece, Schimpelsberger used brushes, foot cymbal and bass drum to create far many more Western accents than anywhere else. ‘Air India’ resolved itself into a call-and-response item in what felt like a 16-beat cycle. (Afterwards it occurred to me that I had written teentāl without counting it off.) The encore ‘Orion’ from the album summed up much of what they are about – groove stretching into bols rhythm syllables like the Grateful Dead were doing in 1969.

The screened visual images throughout the show – and ‘show’ is a better descriptor than recital for what they did – never acted as anything more than light relief. Their performance, it soon became apparent, was clearly never going to be a Dose Hermanos-style real-time improvisation affair where keyboardists Bob Bralove and Tom Constanten simultaneously extemporise musically and visually. Mind you, the fact that any act is making forays into mixed-media deliveries is delicious.

Any genuinely challenging music has to be a tightrope walk between artifice and honesty. In the case of Datta & Schimpelsberger – that ‘&’ conveys the ampersand’s strict typographical sense of equality – what they do means that over the course of a gig, concert, show, call it what you will, they will be walking backwards and forwards over an artistic tightrope. That is not an easy walk. Visual presets make a rod for their own back, allowing a technological artifice to intrude. The best of the old light shows, especially in the 1960s, were a visual artist’s real-time responses to what was happening musically on stage. Theirs is static. It became apparent from the second number – ‘Footprints’ – precisely because of the new technology and them reeling off ways to connect – a blur of Skype, Tweet, WhatsApp Messenger and more – on stage, supposedly allowing people on their phone- and computer-mabobs to feed into the evening. As a theatrical device, it worked brilliantly, temporarily, for example, when their regular caller from Merthyr phoned in. Long term, it could look like a gimmick. This tour, it was too new to be classed as such.

The concert delivered much ‘what if?’ food for thought. For example, during Datta’s solo piece ‘Meditation’, an idle thought breezed in along the lines of, what would his exotic guitar – an old joke but a good ’un – sound like if sarod received the steel slide or bottleneck touch? A really thought-provoking evening, judged as much on its visual as musical deliveries.



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