Michael Nyman

Sangam: Michael Nyman meets Indian Masters

Sangam: Michael Nyman meets Indian Masters

Warner Classics
2003
Length: 59:08

U. Shrinivas mandolin
Rajan Misra voice
Sajan Misra voice
Ritesh and Rajnish Misra voice
Sanju Sahai tabla

Michael Nyman Band:
Gabrielle Lester violin
Catherine Thompson violin
Edward Coxon violin
Catherine Musker viola
Richard Cookson viola
Anthony Hinnigan cello
Nicholas Cooper cello
Mary Scully double bass
Martin Elliott bass guitar
David Roach soprano, alto sax
Simon Haram soprano, alto sax
Andrew Findon baritone sax, flute, piccolo
Steven Sidwell trumpet
David Lee french horn
Nigel Barr trombone
Michael Nyman piano

Conductor: Michael Nyman

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Sangam - a Hindi word meaning ‘a coming together’ or ‘meeting point’ - is the culmination of a two year musical odyssey by Michael Nyman which began with a month-long visit to India at the end of 2000.

Initiated jointly by the Asian Music Circuit and the British Council with support from the Arts Council of England, Nyman?s brief was an exciting but challenging one: to create a ground-breaking collaborative work between a major figure in British contemporary composition and leading Indian musicians, which reflected both the commonalities and the differences between the Western experimental and Indian classical music traditions.

That visit took him all over India - to Mumbai, Delhi, Rajasthan, Benares, Jaipur, Johdupur and Chennai. In the course of his travels he met, talked and listened to many great musicians who represented a vast panoply of Indian classical music schools and styles.

For Nyman it was a voyage of discovery. He had worked with Indian rhythmic systems before, most notably on his String Quartet No.2 composed for the dancework Miniatures, choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh. “But the truth is that when I set out for India on this project I didn’t know what it was I was looking for,” he explains. “I’d read a lot of books about Indian music. But when you see these great musicians playing it gives you an entirely different perspective. I was trying to get a conceptual and historical framework for Indian music out of books, but seeing the music performed live I realised I was going to have to find a different way of working.”

Returning to London shortly before Christmas 2000, he reflected upon what he had heard and learnt. From among the dozens of virtuoso musicians he had met, he eventually decided that there were two potential collaborators who offered the greatest scope for creating something musically valuable, pleasurable and unique - the vocal duo Rajan and Sajan Misra and the mandolinist U. Shrinivas.

The Misra brothers come from a family of great Khayal singers which traces its lineage back many generations. We first encountered them one night in Benares, perhaps the holiest city in all of India. In their home, they entranced us with a spell-binding impromptu concert in which their voices appeared to come from some other plane of existence, far removed from the material concerns of the modern world. It was one of the most soulful performances those of us present had ever heard. I was moved to suggest that among the world’s great vocalists, they deserved to take their place alongside the likes of Otis Redding and Youssou N’Dour. Michael joked that they should be renamed ‘the Indian Soul Brothers’.

The focus for the collaboration with the Misras shifted to Treviso, Italy, where they worked at Fabrica, the arts foundation funded by Benetton, and then to Islington, London, where the three joint compositions, now named Three Ways of Describing Rain took shape in Nyman’s living room. The initial framework created by the Misras was full of improvisation. From there, the compositions evolved as Nyman added a piano accompaniment which then served as the basis for the Michael Nyman Band arrangements which were made in such a way as to preserve the free-flowing spirit of the Misras’ original compositions.

“I didn’t want to intervene too much because their singing is so beautiful, particularly in the slower sections,” Nyman explains. “It was more a case of making a bed for their voices that wasn’t over-elaborate and respected what they did and followed their compositional structure.”

He added a string quintet at the beginning of ‘Sawan’ and the end of ‘Dhyan’ and to accompany the faster passages created a metre which cuts across the recurring rhythmic themes of the singers. The result is to set up a potential conflict that is eventually resolved as the two divergent streams merge together into the same river.Whereas on ?Rang? Nyman created an extended, self-referential series of sustained chords (the timing of which was synchronised to the very free metre of the Misras? song) which at times sound as though
they harmonise the vocal melody, but which in fact float freely, autonomously. It is another telling example of how two radically different structures and musical systems can under empathetic conditions come together and find common ground.

The twin themes of the collaborations with both Misras and Shrinivas are, according to Nyman, ‘collusion’ and ‘collision’, a duality which at one point might have given the album its title. “I didn’t want to take over or translate what they were doing. I was very conscious of not wanting to rip off their culture or to become a musical tourist,” Nyman explains. “It was more a case of presenting it in a different context and creating a pure collaboration where two worlds intersect and where we can collide with each other while supporting each other.”

Compiling the Colours, the translation of Samhitha, the title chosen by Shrinivas, was approached in a somewhat different way. A world famous mandolinist from the southern, Carnatic tradition, Shrinivas had already proved his versatility and open-minded approach through a series of albums for the Real World label, including a notable fusion with the Canadian composer and producer Michael Brook.

Nyman had first encountered him early on his Indian trip when we had seen Shrinivas play as part of John McLaughlin’s fusion ensemble Remember Shakti in Mumbai. They met briefly backstage after the concert but did not discuss collaborating until some time later when Nyman visited Shrinivas at his home in Chennai. “I was charmed by him and he was obviously very open and experienced in different styles of music. It didn’t take us long to figure out we could work together,” he recalls.

Again, their collaboration really began to bear fruit in Treviso. Nyman arrived with a pentatonic bass riff in his head. Shrinivas picked up on it instantly and the initial motif for what was to become Samhitha was in place. Then, like a jazz improvisation, the piece took them off in a variety of different directions, cross-rhythms and melodic sub-divisions.

“It was a dialectical process,” Nyman says. “The piece was structured intuitively and came together very rapidly. Shrinivas contributed both as a co-composer and performer. He could hear a tune of mine and then transform the rhythm. Or it might be the other way around. It’s difficult in places to tell what is me and what is him. He plays very freely, so it’s a genuine exchange of ideas.” The work was given its first public performance in Italy at the RomaEuropa Festival in 2001.

Sangam will, perhaps inevitably, be filed under ‘fusion’. It is one of those terms, like ‘world music’, that nobody much likes but we continue to use as a convenience in the absence of a better alternative. In that Sangam is a work that is both Indian and Western at the same time, then it is a fusion. But it also represents a step-change in our definition of fusion as one of the most intriguing, original and perfectly-balanced musical marriages between East and West yet achieved.

Nigel Williamson

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