Musical Experimentation in ‘Back to the Blues’

Standing ovation for Back to the Blues

We were frankly overwhelmed by last week’s extraordinary evening of musical experimentation that took place on 15 March 2018: Back to the Blues.

A beautiful baroque church in Westminster, at which one might usually attend classical music concerts and recitals, St John’s Smith Square that evening was host to a myriad of colours and sounds from North Indian music, South Indian music, the Blues, and contemporary jazz, all of which hold experiment and improvisation at their core. The performance brought together five exceptional musicians – Aruna Sairam, Soumik Datta, Pirashanna Thevarajah, Cormac Byrne and Al MacSween.

Lead singer of the Carnatic tradition Aruna Sairam, gave a hypnotic performance with her deep, richly textured voice. Soumik Datta, artistic director of the concert, composer and sarod player, led the improvised accompaniment which sought to draw out, emphasise and illuminate interesting commonalities of rhythmic and formal structures between the different musical influences and cultures.

Al MacSween (piano), Cormac Byrne (bodhrán and bells), and Pirashanna Thevarajah (mridangam, ghatam and morsing), filled the hall with a level of enthusiasm, openmindedness to experimentation, outstanding talent and, most of all, genuine joy, which will be hard to forget…

Among the riveted audience members it was agreed that one of the great successes of the evening was the electrifying collective energy of the quintet, how the musicians fed off and responded to one another, fuelling fiery conversations of instrumental sound. This was only enhanced by the fascinating and very unusual mixture of instrumentation, all of which produce both highly percussive and melodious tones.

The 19-stringed sarod from North India, with its extraordinary license for microtonality due to a fretless fingerboard, casts a signature piercing, nasal, resonant tone, and propels the beat forward with energetic rhythmic plucking.

The piano accompaniment both filled out the harmony with interestingly unexpected note choices within its chords, but also held its own with improvised solo sections in which you could hear the attack of every note running up and down the scales, and cutting through the percussion.

The two sets of percussion (mridangam, ghatam and morsing from South India; bodhrán and bells from Ireland), not only drove forward the rhythmic structure, but also, having enormous ranges in pitch, added to the rich and tuneful harmonic canopy.

Another highlight from the concert included a bodhrán  solo, followed by a mridangam solo, culminating in an ensuing dialogue between the instruments that had the audience utterly mesmerised.

Singing from the Carnatic tradition is inherently percussive, with whole sections containing the chanting of syllables that generate a hypnotising trance-like state. The half-sung, half-spoken sections in Aruna’s final piece, Kalinga Narthana Tillana (Krishna’s Serpent Dance) in particular engaged with the audience, inspiring an applaud mid-song.

The quintet’s exceptional performance led to FOUR standing ovations with a rousing encore!

Here is a playlist of five HQ videos from the concert. Please note that the title “UTSAV” (translated in Hindi, as festival and celebration), was born from the concert entitled ‘Back to the Blues’.

You should also check out the musicians: here’s a starting point!

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