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  • Dec. 3, 2018

Jasdeep & Richard on ‘The Bridge’

We finally caught up with Jasdeep Singh Degun and Richard Melkonian who are currently working on the Zeroclassikal commission, 'The Bridge', creating a Sitar Concerto!

 What is a Sitar Concerto?

A Sitar Concerto is a piece which features Sitar as a solo instrument plus an ensemble of other musicians, be it an orchestra or a chamber ensemble.  The Concerto form itself arose in the Baroque era of Western classical music in Italy, it them became an established form with composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms writing for a soloist plus an orchestra.  Typically a concerto shows off the virtuosic capabilities of an instrument.  After the romantic period composers began expanding the idea of a Concerto, writing Percussion Concertos, Concertos for orchestra, and now Concertos for Sitar!

What have been the difficulties or challenges and how have you overcome them?

There have been many many challenges! Both Richard and I are passionate about Western classical and Indian classical music respectively, and we were very keen from the offset that each style was equally represented and remained ‘classically valid’. This often meant that we would have very different ways of approaching musical material and have distinct ideas on how the material should be developed, whether that be structurally, harmonically, melodically or rhythmically. However, by talking through and learning more about each other’s style of music, I feel that we are beginning to find some middle ground between the two traditions. The process itself has helped opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking about and perceiving music. I’m definitely looking forward to what comes next!

What is different about working with Indian Classical Musicians?

One of the main differences is the non-distinction between composer and player.  All players improvise and also compose main melodies.  This means they have an equal investment in the music they play.

Indian classical musicians focus their compositions and improvisations on melodic invention and rhythmic development.  Because their precise system of Raag, rhythmic cycles and Thihayee have developed over possibly thousands of years, their knowledge of rhythm is vast and complex, and their melodic imagination is limitless.

What is different about working with a String Quartet?

I feel really lucky to be working with such talented musicians. At the first rehearsal the string quartet played exactly what was written on the piece of paper with such ease and grace – I was really taken aback. When Indian classical musicians get together, there’s often a lot of kerfuffle and a staggered start while everyone learns the music – things are rarely written down. What was very different for me was the fact that every single note and embellishment (including dynamics, bow technique etc.) is thought about before and prescribed to the musicians in their notation. I could literally sit in my room and write a score and a western orchestra would play it exactly as I have written it – even if it sounded terrible! To be able to read not only the notes, but the articulation, dynamics, technique (and a million other things), and then to play it correctly in an instant is a skill that I still find hard to believe is possible. These guys are seriously on form!

Do you feel that this is broadened your understanding of music, both Indian and Western Classical?

Absolutely.  As a composer, I’m always trying to find new and interesting ways of developing my material, in harmonic terms, rhythmic and melodic.  Just as Western Classical music has traditional ways of developing material for example, canon, fugue and counterpoint, Indian Classical music also has its own ways such as, Alap, Tihayee and Chand. By combining these concepts, you can make some really interesting music.  I’ve been using Tihayee in my own music and I don’t think I’ll stop!

Definitely. My knowledge of Western classical is really limited, and Richard has been a massive help in showing me new and interesting ways of developing harmony – a concept that isn’t really explored in Indian classical music. Western classical music is a whole new world and I’m looking forward to learning more about it.

How do you feel about the upcoming concert?

I’m really excited to present what Jasdeep and I have been working on.  I think we’ve found a new middle ground where Western and Indian classical music can combine on an equal footing to create something fresh, current and ultimately, musical.

The concert is a ‘work-in-progress’ and will showcase all that we have begun exploring in this short period of time. I feel that we have merely scratched the surface and we are now in a position where we can really start pushing the music further.