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East meets West in Northern Lights

Bombay-born Carnatic singer Supriya Nagarajan celebrates the Winter Solstice in the Howard Assembly Room on 21 December, joined by her musical partner Duncan Chapman and musicians from the Orchestra of Opera North in an immersive performance inspired by the Northern Lights.

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As rehearsals began, Supriya explained how the latest collaboration between Opera North and South Asian Arts-uk came about, and described her plans for a unique multi-sensory performance capturing the magic sights, sounds and atmosphere of twilight in the north.

“I’ll be singing a couple of ragas (the Indian equivalent of a scale or mode in Western music) that are meant to be performed at night, in the North Indian Hindustani tradition. In South Asian Carnatic music, though, our ragas are not timebound in that way. The key element is the emotion that you put behind the lyrics, how you perform it, the way it is delivered. I could sing the same raga in the morning and the evening and it’ll be different according to each context.

“I experience a condition called synaesthesia – the merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. It means that I can explore my senses differently all the time, and I create each musical piece with a picture in mind: the setting sun among the trees; the light shining through. The synaesthete in me is always conscious of what the picture is. For example, during a piece about the rain, I can smell the fragrant mud!

“I’m hoping that the audience in the Howard Assembly Room will find this concert an intense sensory experience, too: we have beautiful visuals from the designer Pritpal Ajimal that begin the concert at dusk. When we come to the last piece it’ll be almost night and the Northern Lights visuals will come in.

“Dusk Notes, my 2020 recording with the composer, sound artist and musician Duncan Chapman, was all about being in nature with Carnatic music. I wanted to place South Indian classical music in a completely different space, and the sounds I fell in love with were the sounds of nature at dusk. Our Winter Solstice performance in the Howard Assembly Room will be an expanded, live interpretation of our album.

“You’ll hear an amazing range of field recordings from different parts of the world: the echo-locating frequencies of bats which open the concert were captured by Duncan with a special recorder in a tiny hamlet in Hampshire. We have the sounds of bells from Finland and Iceland; and a lot of material recorded at dusk in Derbyshire, where the project grew out of a commission for Jarvis Cocker and Jeremy Deller’s National Trust art trail in the Peak District.

“For the final section, we’re exploring a raga with two members of the Orchestra of Opera North, Susannah Simmons (violin) and Adam Mackenzie (bassoon). They won’t be doing exactly what Indian musicians would do, because that’s not the point of this collaboration: it’s a meeting of our musical cultures. It’s more about how they feel and how they respond – the most important thing is for them to pick up the mood of the piece, and they’re such accomplished players that they’ve had no trouble with that.

“A tanpura (a stringed instrument that provides the drone that Indian classical music is built on) is part of the electronic soundtrack, but Duncan will add other drones to that: sine waves, drones that sound like rocks and pebbles crashing against each other, or water. We all respond to each other: improvisation is at the heart of the Carnatic tradition, and a live gig is far more spontaneous than a recording”.

Winter Solstice brings South Asian Arts-uk back to the reopened Howard Assembly Room for the first time since their Summer Solstice event there in 2017. Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of South Asian Arts-uk, comments: “This festive concert with a difference brings musicians from two very different traditions together with video projection and lighting design, to create an immersive experience of the Northern Lights in the heart of Leeds”.

“We’re very excited about returning to the Howard Assembly Room for the latest in our long series of collaborations with Opera North, and we’re looking forward to announcing an even larger-scale project in the New Year”.

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