The sitar concerto has had something of an emblematic status in the area of East-West ‘fusion’ music, ever since Ravi Shankar first showcased the form in his Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra of 1971. Nonetheless, there has always been ambiguity about just how the potential in such an interaction could best be exploited. In restricting himself largely to an instrumental dialogue-based idiom, Shankar both extended to the orchestra the sawal-jawab (question-and-answer) technique that he used so frequently on Western stages with his tabla partner Alla Rakha, and acknowledged the dramatic and conversational elements inherent in the Western concerto form itself. The overlap in musical conception almost comes ready-made rather than requiring deliberate ‘fusion’ (a word that Shankar in fact rejected in interviews with Peter Lavezzoli). Yet a certain unevenness in the details of execution cannot quite be overlooked either: the soloists in André Previn’s orchestra often sound rigid and flat; less equal partners with Shankar in command of the work’s idiom and more like cogs in an orchestral machine.
In a packed concert auditorium at the LCM on Wednesday, 7 December, Jasdeep Singh Degun’s newly-commissioned three-movement sitar concerto The Bridge took a different and in many ways more ambitious and creative approach, despite drawing on a string quartet rather than a full orchestra. There were nods to Shankar’s work at a few points – the familiar sound of unison strings swiftly trading phrases with the sitar, the choice of Raag Charukeshi for the final movement, or alternating viola dyads and gently cycling minimalist textures à la Philip Glass (think of his work with Shankar on the 1990 Passages) in the middle of the work. But many ideas here were strikingly independent – notably the opening, with the quartet playing sustained, slowly-shifting chords in a high register, the calm increasingly ruffled by patches of tremolo, before the arresting (and superbly-timed) introduction of the sitar playing a quiet tanpura-like figure in harmonics. The section that followed addressed the challenge of a confrontation between Western harmony and Indian melody head-on, with a technically well-handled contrapuntal interweaving of the sitar first with the cello and then the violin. Most of the work was, however, based less on such note-to-note correspondences between the instruments and instead kept more of a distance between the sitar and the quartet, allowing the solo instrument melodic space to move by adopting a more ambiguous and modernist harmonic idiom (with vague reminiscences of the mid-twentieth-century quartet styles of Barber, Shostakovich or Britten).
Though the ending of the first movement slipped away unacknowledged by the audience, a greater emphasis on rhythm and the play of chanda (rhythm play based on unusual syncopation) in the central part of the work produced more intensity and more dynamic interplay between the performers. We heard some well-constructed tihais (short phrases repeated three times), including a particularly effective large-scale chakradar tihai (a tihai of tihais) to close one of the sections, and at one point Degun took off on his own in a solo whose placement felt in some ways almost like a Western concerto cadenza but whose structure was thoroughly Indian: increasing jhala-dominated rhythmic intensity (fast-paced alternating of melody and drone strings) and a passage darting backwards and forwards between the flat and natural third degree (shuddh and komal Ga) in two different octaves. After a more subdued third movement, the concerto ended with a daring yet satisfying formal reminiscence – the return of the sitar’s opening tanpura figure, a reabsorption of the work’s accumulated complexity into the pure intervals that form the Hindustani tradition’s constant points of reference.
The work’s title seemed to acknowledge the patient work and careful balance of forces required to create a ‘bridge’ between two complex and contrasting traditions of classical music. Many elements needed to fall into place for a concert like this to be possible – a central composer-performer figure who must be able to operate both with the tacit, accumulated knowledge of Indian tradition and with the medium of Western notation, an engaged ensemble of Western classical instrumentalists (Preetha Narayanan and Fuensanta Zambrana Ruiz on violin, Salomé Rateau on viola and cellist Tara Franks, all with experience of playing outside the classical ‘box’), from composer Richard Melkonian, Degun’s guru Dharambir Singh, and funding and support from zer0classikal and SAA-uk respectively, in order to create an informed space within which the difficult work of stylistic negotiation can proceed. That such negotiation should be initiated from the Asian side and not just by Western composers also seems to this reviewer a necessity. The post-concert question-and-answer session showed Degun’s cheerful awareness that the shape of a work such as The Bridge, unlike a conventional Western classical opus, can always be given further development and revision in subsequent performance – and the Leeds audience were thoroughly convinced that the piece merited it.
Matt Pritchard is a lecturer in Musical Aesthetics, School of Music, University of Leeds.