Asian Music and Dance

Orchestrating Sukanya

Ravi Shankar’s regular collaborator David Murphy had tea with May Robertson and a fascinating conversation ensued about catching the guru’s ideas, the violin as a bridge across cultures, what Western musicians can take from learning about Indian music… and how to function on two hours’ sleep at night.


or David Murphy, working with the music of his Guruji every day, it feels as though Ravi Shankar is still here.

Murphy came to conducting as a violinist; the versatile instrument led him to Shankar. Murphy remembers meeting, and being ‘fascinated’ by, Yehudi Menuhin. He ‘devoured’ Menuhin’s recordings with Shankar. Indian music has this connection with his ‘own artistic roots’; ‘it has never felt like something “different”’. 

Murphy was already working with Wajahat Khan when he met Shankar. I detect some resolve on Shankar’s part: “he decided that we should get together.” Murphy remembers their fast-paced first project, a collaboration between Dartington and the Bhavan Centre, which began with meeting Shankar and his musicians in a West End hotel. “He would have an idea, he would play it on the sitar, and they would copy that idea, and then he would spread that musical idea amongst the musicians… orchestrating the idea with maybe two or three people. They had to be on the ball because that idea itself could change all the time. It might start off with one particular shape but it could go in any direction.” That project was “an incredibly intense, but wonderful experience.” David was “absolutely exhausted, running on adrenalin”, but it was a success; they started working together regularly. He elaborates on the process they developed: his orchestration of the previous day’s work, done overnight, “would be the starting point for a fascinating discussion regarding how Western instruments could be used to bring out the character of the raga. We would then keep refining the orchestration until the raga’s character was being clearly revealed.” David is basing his orchestration of Sukanya on the “thousands of hours” the two spent together.

In transcribing, “there are so many possibilities, all of them wonderful options, and the process of deciding which one is going to be in the final piece is the huge challenge.” But it enables musical cultures to meet. In Sukanya, Murphy wants the singers to inhabit the spirit of the raga, to internalise the way in which the drama of the music comes from the relationship between each note and the Sa drone. They are to keep their own vocal timbre: “Raviji wanted them to bring their own natural vocal expression to the work.” Unusually, the music came before the libretto: “Amit Chaudhuri knows Raviji’s music very well. But he wasn’t constrained by it. He listened to it and he went away and he wrote, and magically, a huge amount of it fitted like a hand in a glove.”

I ask how Murphy goes about notating raga music. Logically, but unusually, he combines Western notation with sargam notation, placing one above the other on the page. Then “both sets of musicians know exactly what you’re talking about”. The Western-notated music “communicates the way the notes slide and glide into one another” but “still looks logical so that a Western musician can grasp it immediately”. Still, in a “complicated but slow alap”, a live interpretation is necessary because truly accurate notation is impossible. The same is true of Western music; “it’s just more obvious with Indian music because there’s such a wide range of interpretations.”

We discuss Shankar and his long experience of working in the West. His brother Uday made their performance material “short, concise and immediately appealing”, knowing what Western listeners needed “to grab their attention.” This “permeated through to Ravi’s approach”. Performing Indian classical music in the West, he “would start off with very concise examples” but would gradually bring “the full force of the tradition” – what a wonderful phrase – “as people began to accept it, began to understand it more and more.” Shankar the ‘trailblazer’ was “incredibly helpful for Indian music as a whole…he understood the new audience and what they needed… Without him, it’s quite likely that Indian music would still be something that we didn’t really experience very much.”

I ask David about his other projects and his work in Kadam’s hometown. “Luton is a great place to explore the meeting of different cultures – especially musically.” He has big plans post-opera. “There are so many experiments, performance opportunities, workshops that we can do.” He has also taken his orchestra to Goa; he happily describes schoolchildren’s fascination with the sound of the bassoon as well as the way his musicians are now “totally hooked” on Indian music. They worked on fitting Indian rhythm-cycles and Western harmony. It’s about “finding the meeting point”, he says. “Go with that and you have a really good start to your musical journey.” Evidently the journeys that Shankar began will continue long into the future.

David Murphy and the Sukanya team are grateful for the support of the Bagri Foundation.



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