Asian Music and Dance

When Two Halves Make a Whole… Soumik Datta and Bernhard Schimpelsberger

Soumik Datta and Bernhard Schimpelsberger are causing quite a stir on the international music scene; from country to country they go, spreading their new and innovative sounds far and wide. Jahnavi Harrison catches up with the pair as they get ready to launch their latest collaborative project. 

I ’m sitting in a cafe with Bernhard Schimpelsberger, one half of the creative duo that wowed audiences last summer with the premiere of Circle of Sound. The other half, Soumik Datta, is thousands of miles away in Kolkata, touring another project. Bernhard has been unexpectedly grounded for a week as a run of Akram Khan shows in the US have been cancelled due to injury. These are musicians in demand.

“…their output is arguably a true picture of the musical fabric of our generation” 

I have a list of questions ready, first up – “How do you think you are pushing the boundaries of Indian classical music?” A pause, then we both cringe. The idea that a production like Circle of Sound should fit into the narrow parameters of ‘Indian classical music’ or even that it is setting out to redefine them in some way, has never felt so dated. As with so many young musicians today, their output is a unique mix of what they love – sometimes jumbled to the ear of a purist, but arguably a true picture of the musical fabric of our generation.

Both musicians took unexpected journeys into the world of Indian classical music. As a teenager, Bernhard arrived late to an Indian music workshop in his native Austria. Already a drum fanatic, he instantly hit it off with the teacher, the well-known tabla master Pt Suresh Talwalkar. “After two hours of playing together, he asked to meet my parents,” he laughs. “He asked my mum seriously if I could drop out of school and come to India for five years.” It didn’t work out at the time, but almost a decade and many visits later, he is one of the few people in the world playing the drum kit and cajon with such an in-depth knowledge of classical tabla technique.

Soumik had a similarly late start to sarod, an instrument he knew nothing about until his stray cricket ball hit the case of his grandmother’s old one in the garden shed. After coming to England from India at a young age, an all-boys boarding school was a quick, intense immersion into an alien culture. His stowaway sarod kept him company – “I used to sleep with it actually – quite a lot,” he reminisces. “I got in a lot of trouble with my matron, but it kept a link alive to my Indian roots.” This first experience of integrating two cultures was a powerful one, and sparked a fascination. Not long after, he was studying for three weeks a year with Pt. Buddhadev Das Gupta, one of the most renowned sarod masters in the world. 

It seems natural, then, for the two to have connected so easily and created a show that is already making waves, both in the Indian music and mainstream arts worlds. “When I met Bernhard, he really related with my experiences,” says Soumik. “He’s this Austrian guy who speaks Marathi, playing Indian music on his Western drum kit, and I wanted to play all the guitar licks my friends were playing, so I customised my instrument – now I can play chords and all kinds of things that have not been tried before on sarod.”

“Soumik is such a good musician – for me that’s the most important thing,” says Bernhard. “Technique and structure should never be felt – they should always take a back seat. I also enjoy Soumik’s approach to rhythm – he always takes me out of my comfort zone.”

The feeling is mutual from Soumik. “I paid him to say that,” he jokes, “but really, I’m constantly amazed by his playing, and that is the driving force of this collaboration. There is a mutual respect and communication – we’re always finishing each other’s sentences now. I also love not always taking the front line – it’s an unusual position in the context of a classical soloist.”

“I could feel that in the lines I was playing, there is so much movement…”

Both too, have done more than just “play our instruments in a different way”, as Soumik simply puts it. He studied a Masters in Western Composition at Trinity College while they began to collaborate, and contributed film and animation sequences to the production. Bernhard has delved further into sound design. Both have worked extensively with dancers, most notably Akram Khan, and the inspiration is clear in their work. “I saw him moving and I wanted to stand up and play,” says Soumik. “I could feel that in the lines I was playing, there is so much movement – an infinitely free source of power, bouncing off the walls, but in Indian classical music normally the person playing it is just sitting on the floor.” Hollowing out chunks of heavy wood from his instrument and adding a strap made this possible. 

Bernhard, too, plays a customised drum set – an armoury of rhythmic tools that enable him to create rich soundscapes. But he equally expresses the complexity of Indian rhythm on more simple drums. “I believe that it’s not so much about playing an instrument,” he says. “The instrument is like the car – you can drive any car. The tabla is like the Mercedes – you have all the lights and the leather seats, but the cajon is like the Fiat, or a Tata Nano! I just worry about the music.”

That said, both the album and the live show use technology like loopstations, delay pedals and distortion pedals. Despite retaining elements of the classical structure, Soumik says, “We wanted to move away from the typical sound and bring in a more raw element. Technology has helped us discover new sounds from our instruments that are risky, unorthodox, cutting-edge and more representative of the age in which we live.” This unorthodox sound extends to the rhythmic forms and treatment of raga too. 

From the sensitive brushwork of Bernhard emerges a furious drum and bass bandish that perfectly maintains the ten-beat time cycle of jhaptal. Other elements like alap and jod were similarly incorporated in unconventional ways. “There are passages of alap in the album but they are scattered through the playlist and offer the listener a sense of contemplation and calm before they launch into another rhythmic number. This is a very different approach to the way alap is traditionally used – a slow, one-time-only unravelling of the raga. Jod is also used but it is usually only played by the melody instrument. Here, there is a to and fro-ing between the melodic jod and a rhythmic jod. These start as small solos and over time the two slowly begin to converge before intertwining and becoming one. The piece is called Quest and is one of our favourite tracks on the album.”

Ragas like Ahir Bhairav, Basant Mukhari and Kirwani were chosen for their broad accessibility and ability to capture flavours of everything from Rajasthani folk to flamenco. “They kept their sonic identity as ragas but also allowed for distorting and manipulating,” says Soumik. “Switching seamlessly like that between classical material and contemporary is exactly what we had aimed for.”

Interestingly, though the music uses Western compositional elements like harmony and counterpoint, the duo didn’t notate any of it during composition. Perhaps this is why even the studio album feels alive and spontaneous, despite being made up of set pieces. Like the Shakti albums, the music manages to incorporate Western and Indian forms without losing or heavily compromising the appeal of either. Bernhard explains: “Technology such as loop pedals allows us to create harmony within the Indian melodic framework. The way we interact as a duo is also based on a counterpointal approach. Melodies and rhythms counter-quote each other constantly and are treated as equals – that is the way of harmonic music-making.”

Circle of Sound is clearly more than a concert, and reaches beyond the primary art forms that it features. It also aims to communicate a deeper message. For Soumik it’s clearly about overcoming obstacles in life – specifically those mental blocks that can weaken us so severely. This is expressed both in the show’s narrative asides and film sequences, though often obliquely. But Bernhard is less quick to define the show’s message. “The artist needs to have a strong idea, otherwise it’s all abstract. I am not a fan of concepts – alone they are not enough. A concept is a grid, but not the food. But everyone hears and sees something different, and we don’t want to define it for people.” 

“…you don’t have to adjust the content, but you can adjust the dose…”

This less than literal approach seems to simply define it as ‘contemporary music’, but he is also quick to underline that whether presenting a traditional format or otherwise, “as an artist it’s our responsibility to be humble. You can’t just say either you get it or you don’t get it. If you want to appeal to more people, you don’t have to adjust the content, but you can adjust the dose – just play less of something that may be more difficult to appreciate, like a complex 45-minute drum solo.”

It seems that audiences get it – message or not. After the fantastic response from the Southbank’s Alchemy festival and the Songlines festival, the duo are looking to take Circle of Sound all over the world. They couldn’t have had much better luck. “It’s very unusual that a band comes together and immediately has so much support,” says Soumik, “we feel incredibly grateful for the older generation of musicians who are giving us so much goodwill.” Nitin Sawhney has supported the project, promoting it on his new BBC radio show and MCing their debut event. Talvin Singh played tabla on the studio album and live for some shows. The show and album will have their official launches in the UK at the end of April. “The album marks the first recording of hang drum, sarod and drum kit together. I’m not one to say first means good,” says Bernhard, “but in this case I think we have really created something very special.”

They are already booked for arts festivals in Singapore, Austria and Slovenia, and the British Council is helping to organise events in other parts of Asia. They also plan to tour the US, focusing on universities in an effort to connect with younger audiences. “You can expand your audience from 50–5,000 by simplifying your sound, but I think that if music connects to something bigger, automatically, everyone will want to hear it,” says Bernhard. It’s clearly equally meaningful to Soumik, who used to “feel so disappointed that it would just be older aunties and uncles at my classical shows. It’s not the music that drives young people away – I think it’s a static nature of presentation which can create a mental taboo. We’d even like to try schools and test whether what we think is really true. The kids might be like – get off stage!”

Wherever they tour, they plan to work with local musicians, and even with dancers in the future. “The nature of the show is quite malleable,” says Soumik. “That’s exciting to me. When you work as a freelancer you learn on the job that venues want two words describing the genre – with a show like this, you could say it’s contemporary Indian music, but there’s a lot more to it. With different guests we could even bring it to dance festivals or other types of experimental events.”

The future is bright too for their work elsewhere. Bernhard continues to tour with Akram Khan’s Gnosis and Anoushka Shankar’s Traveller tour. Soumik’s soundtrack for the British film Tooting Broadway – an intense melding of South Indian, hip-hop and rap that accompanies a story of contemporary London gang wars – is due for release this year. 



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