DESH derives from a Bengali word with a few translation possibilities and semantic associations. For their 2011 dance project musician-composer Jocelyn Pook and Akram Khan settled on homeland as their preferred translation. Scoring music for dance and choreography creates different demands and challenges to scoring music for cinema. We are all too accustomed to music directors compiling what amount to Hollywood mix-tapes. Not every soundtrack of that kind can be a Forrest Gump. DESH is a soundtrack of quite another stripe.
Jocelyn Pook is someone who has worked in both film and dance. To leapfrog nimbly from one side of her curriculum vitae to the other, she first came to international attention with her biggie: the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the one starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Like DESH, it had only limited subcontinental musical content – in its case Tamil rather than Bangla. But that proved problematical. What happened was the film’s first North American release inadvertently slipped in a mismatch of music and audio-visual screen action. It got it mired in controversy. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation got me to write and present an item about the cultural implications, once an off-the-peg recording of Jocelyn Pook’s with Manickam Yogeswaran singing a Tamil devotional lyric got inserted into what can only be called Kama Sutra-esquely as the film’s orgy scene. The first they knew about this was when the shit hit the fan. Yogeswaran rush-composed more suitable Tamil lyrics along the lines of ‘Is this heaven?/Is this hell?’ to fit the scene and saved the day. No whiff of scandal accompanies DESH, Pulse’s crack team of legal eagles wish to make clear.
Once divorced from its three-dimensional context, a dance piece’s music, like DESH’s, enters another realm of experience: the auditory. Other rules may apply. What might have worked or built on stage with the dancers has another life to live. This auditory counterpart of the visual experience is something audiences that caught the production in, say, Leicester, London or Bruges can comment more authoritatively upon. Ones in St. Pölten and Brest are imminent, while there is some trailer material from Brugge (Bruges) on YouTube.
DESH the Music has to stand on its own two figurative feet. Frankly, shorn of their unseen stage elements and dance dimension, how much or how accurate a picture does somebody who never saw the performance grasp from Akram Khan’s Bengali spiritual forebears like Uday Shankar’s dance programme recording from 1937? Or similarly the music from Ravi Shankar’s preachy (‘drugs are bad’) 1989 dance drama Ghanashyam (A Broken Branch) without the film footage? That also applies to the concluding ‘Storm Engine’ here – in its case because it is not different enough tonally or structurally to separate it from, for example, ‘Honey Bee Story’ on DESH. It feels too generic.
DESH opens with ‘Hallelujah’, a liturgical-lite piece fronted by the vocalists Melanie Pappenheim, Jeremy Schonfield and Tanja Tzarovska. Cold and silvery and removed from its stage environment, it lacks life. Put it this way, it won’t supplant the Slovak composer Vladimír Godár’s harrowing ‘Stabat Mater’ (‘Mother Stood’) on Mater (2006) as a liturgical discovery. Now to the second track – and this review will not detail them all – the percussive, industrial clang and sweep of ‘Metallic Sonata’. With its car horns, found sounds, bells, strings and things, it works in a between-world of modern-day Bangladeshi urban actuality. Better still is ‘Remembering Noor’ with its crowd hubbub, Labik Kamal’s dotara (one of the defining stringed instruments of Baul accompaniment) and Dragan Aleksic’s percussive punch and rhythmicality. Both tracks capture another meaning of desh – that of country in all of Bangladesh’s industrialised, exhaust-fumingest citification.
The languorous, string-driven ‘Honey Bee Story’ is reminiscent of cyclical phrase evolution and is perhaps more Michael Nyman than Philip Glass. It adds a peaceful phase to DESH that, rightly or wrongly, creates strong imaginary visual elements. Cleaving to the Bengali rock, there is the ‘Ami Opar Hoye’ by the mystic Baul sage-poet-composer Fakir Lalon Shah (whose life straddled the late 1770s into well into the 1800s). The British Bangladeshi vocalist Sohini Alam, of the bands Khiyo and Lokkhi Terra, sings it beautifully – solo and unaccompanied – before keyboard washes well up under her voice. Favourite of the pieces is ‘Ave Maria’, sung by Natacha Atlas, with its Bulgarian orchestra and a sample in the Persian avaz style from an unspecified recording made by the French musicologist Jean During. Here as elsewhere, more detailed information would have helped.