Sitarist and composer Jasdeep Singh Degun‘s concerto for sitar and orchestra, Arya, was commissioned by Opera North and premiered at Huddersfield Town Hall in February, before touring to Durham Cathedral and the RNCM in Manchester.
Our last concert, due to take place at the CBSO in Birmingham, was cancelled because of the national lockdown. Jasdeep has compiled this Spotify playlist based on his formative influences, and his experience of working on the project.
1. Kaushiki Chakrabarty: Raga Madhuvanti
I was born in North Leeds and was first formally introduced to music in primary school, which offered extra-curricular classes in Indian singing. I continued training as a vocalist for many years – joining the school choir, orchestra, and singing classes at my local Sikh Temple.
This track represents my roots and training in Indian classical vocal music, a solo tradition that emphasises improvisation within the intricate structures of raag (melodic framework) and taal (the rhythmic time cycle). The soloist is almost always accompanied by a tabla player.
This composition, in Raag Madhuvanti, is sung by one of my favourite vocalists. You’ll hear the raag sung by Kaushiki ji (and accompanied on harmonium by her father Pt Ajoy Chakrabarty), the taal kept by the tabla, and the underlying drone played on the stringed instrument called tanpura.
2. Vilayat Khan: Raga Des
I began learning the sitar at the relatively late age of 15, studying under Ustad Dharambir Singh MBE, one of the UK’s foremost Indian classical musicians and educators. Dharambir ji is a direct student and disciple of the legendary sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan, so consequently I trained in the Imdadkhani Gharana (‘Gharana’ – meaning stylistic school) of sitar playing. The late Vilayat Khan (or ‘Abba’, meaning father or grandfather, as we lovingly refer to him) is considered to be one of the greatest sitar players the world has ever seen and is credited with the creation and development of the ‘gayaki ang’ or ‘singing style’ of sitar playing.
Here Khan plays a short rendition of Raag Desh. He starts the piece with an alaap – a free introduction to the notes of the raag – before starting the composition in a 16-beat taal called teental. Through the bending of the main playing string, Khan expertly mimics the vocal embellishments inherent to Indian classical music. For me, Ustad Vilayat Khan is the ideal, the godfather, the unmatched genius of Indian classical sitar music.
3. Nishat Khan: Raga Gaoti
Another traditional performance, this time by the nephew of Ustad Vilayat Khan. Also from the Imdadkhani Gharana, he is one of the world’s leading sitar virtuosos and his performance here is nothing short of inspirational.
I was lucky enough to have attended the premiere of Nishat Khan’s sitar concerto, Gate of the Moon, at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013. It was at around this time that I was working on my first concerto for sitar and string quartet, titled The Bridge. I remember dreaming that one day I would have the opportunity to write a concerto for sitar and orchestra – and that dream has now been realised thanks to Opera North!
4. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.4 in G
As a child, I had heard western classical orchestral music in some shape or form through television, radio and film, but my interest really began when I studied music at GSCE and A-Level. Mahler 4 was on the curriculum and I remember being fascinated with the intricate harmonic work and the different colours and textures a classical orchestra could conjure up. Having attended a concert by the Hallé Orchestra at around 17, I was struck by the level of the musicianship – how could so many musicians work together as a cohesive whole and sound like a living, breathing unit? Even though Mahler was worlds away from Indian classical music – which is soloistic in nature and driven by on-the-spot improvisation – western classical orchestral music had somehow always felt familiar and dear to me.
5. Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin: Shankar: Raga Piloo
I couldn’t talk about Indian classical music without mentioning the legendary sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ravi ji’s influence in the west is simply unparalleled, as he worked tirelessly to propagate the artform to non-Indian listeners. Rubbing shoulders with global musical royalty, Ravi ji instigated and inspired many collaborations and musical dialogues throughout his lifetime. From the album West meets East, Vol 2. this is one of, if not the first instances of Indian classical music and Western classical music coming together.
More conservative Indian classical music connoisseurs may have looked down upon this particular meeting, as Indian classical music finds in beauty in the ‘on-the-spot’ improvisations. As Yehudi Menuhin was not a trained Indian classical musician, Ravi ji had to have ‘fixed’ the entire composition – even the bits which sounded improvised had actually been pre-composed! As this composition is wholly based on Indian classical music (this was Yehudi Menuhin fully embracing the style), I am still in awe of Menuhin’s skill and precision in executing such a fine performance – a truly world class musician. A pioneering and totally unprecedented recording, Shankar: Raga Piloo marked the beginning of a musical and cultural dialogue that would inform and influence musicians and composers right up to the present.
Ravi Shankar: Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra
Following the success of his work with Yehudi Menuhin, Pandit Ravi Shankar was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970 to write the world’s first concerto for sitar and orchestra, which premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971. I believe that this work is a major milestone for classical music in the UK, kick-starting the serious exploration of cross-genre collaboration.
In technical terms, the bringing together of Indian and European classical music was, and is, no easy feat. On the one hand you have a tradition that is improvisatory and soloistic in nature and which has no real need for a notation system, as it is wholly based on an oral system passed down from teacher to student, and on the other you have a system that is wholly based on written notation and fixed composition. The beauty of Indian classical music lies in its highly stylised exploration of raag and taal with comparatively less of a focus on harmony, whereas the beauty of Western classical music lies within its harmonic development and structure. How do you represent and give meaning to each tradition without compromising its own internal nuance and integrity? Ravi ji’s concerto tackled these challenges head on and its results showcased innovative music that had not yet been heard before. I feel great pride in the fact that this ‘first of its kind’ concerto was commissioned and premiered in the UK.
7. Philip Glass: Violin Concerto No.2
The influence of Indian music on western classical composers has been profound. A self-professed student of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. I find his Violin Concerto particularly beautiful, and as an Indian classical musician, I find the central concepts and trends within minimalism very palatable. The circular rhythmic organisation, the harmonic progressions which place an emphasis on consonance, and the overarching use of melody within Glass’ brand of minimalism are key concepts that are parallel to Indian classical music. Funnily enough, I wasn’t familiar with Philip Glass and minimalism until a review of my first concerto, The Bridge, described parts of it as ‘Philip Glass-esque’. As both are driven by concepts inherent to Indian classical music, I can see how that could have happened!
8. Nitin Sawhney, Anoushka Shankar: Charu Keshi Rain
This track represents the successive generation of cross-genre musicians in the UK. Anoushka Shankar, the talented daughter of Pandit Ravi Shankar, is at the forefront of sitar music in the west and here features on a short piece for sitar, piano, and string ensemble written by the acclaimed British-Asian composer and multi-instrumentalist Nitin Sawhney.
In a way this piece reflects how much music of this nature has progressed. Where before we had representatives from quite disparate traditions sharing their expertise in their own particular artform, here we have a generation that is arguably more ‘bi-musically aware’, i.e. trained and grounded in more than one particular style or genre. Sawhney’s pioneering work as a musician and composer has earned him an international reputation as one of the most distinctive and versatile artistic voices.
9. Roopa Panesar: Musings in Malkauns
The UK also boasts a steady stream of British-born Indian classical musicians solely dedicated to the tradition. Roopa Panesar is widely considered as the one of the finest sitar players in the whole of Europe. Roopa trains under the guidance of Ustad Dharambir Singh and not only represents a living, breathing tradition of Indian classical music in the UK, but also a heritage of highly trained and respected Indian classical musicians who are not born and raised on the Indian subcontinent. Here she plays Raag Malkauns accompanied on tabla by the ever dynamic Kousic Sen.
10. Ravi Shankar: Symphony: I. Allegro, Kafi Zila
The recording I’ll leave you with is the first movement of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Third Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, written in 2009 and played beautifully here by Anoushka Shankar and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Murphy, who is also credited with additional orchestration. I feel that this concerto – written almost 40 years after the first one – exemplifies the power and universality of music regardless of style, genre, and tradition.
Growing up in the UK I have had the opportunity to study and play alongside a wide variety of different musicians, and although I wasn’t born into a musical family, I have always been naturally drawn to music for as long as I can remember. In the context of the wider industry there is little infrastructure for Indian classical music and its musicians in the UK, so having the opportunity to work on Arya with the Orchestra of Opera North has been a truly wonderful experience.
As a classical musician who was born and brought up in this country, I’m a product of my surroundings as well as my training, so I believe that the premise of ‘East meets West’ is no longer relevant. The idea behind Arya was never a coming together of classical traditions but rather a way of expressing the music that comes naturally to me; it was quite simply music I wanted to present to the world.