Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The London Philharmonic Orchestra Tackle Ravi Shankar’s Groundbreaking Opera

Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from  the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.

This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.

The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell  takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.

The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.

January 11, 2021 Posted by | Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: V.M. Bhatt & Matt Malley – Sleepless Nights

Irony of ironies – this is what we use at naptime at Lucid Culture HQ. Hypnotic but often blisteringly intense, it’s equal parts fret-burning power and soothing ambience, and completely psychedelic either way. It’s like what you might hear in the NYC subway, an innovative, Grammy-awardwinning Indian musician who’s modified his guitar to sound like a sitar, and his younger protege on an old vintage synthesizer. Only in New York – except that this was recorded in India. Like most South Indian music, the new album by V.M. Bhatt and Matt Malley is pretty much sans chord changes – it’s all in the dynamics and the sometimes subtle, sometimes striking melodic embellishments, more innovative than you would think after hearing this once. Remember – that’s not a sitar. That’s a guitar, “furnished with 14 additional strings and calling for perfect assimilation of sitar, sarod and veena techniques” as Bhatt’s label explains.

Count this as Matt Malley’s great shining moment, atoning for any association with 90s frat-rock atrocity Counting Crows. Malley plays keys; he pretty much stays out of the way. Bhatt, a Ravi Shankar disciple, is a fiery and virtuosic player who plays sitar lines on an open-tuned guitar he designed himself, which he calls a mohan veena (to distinguish itself from the Indian veena). His 1994 album with Ry Cooder, A Meeting by the River, made some waves internationally and won the two a Grammy. Imagine the great Indian guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya fingerpicking instead of playing with a slide and you’re on the right track.

The album opens with what sounds like an Indian rewrite of Church in the Wildwood, a swinging bluegrass tune but with South Asian flourishes. It’s the only moment of Americana on the album. The aptly titled second track, Sleepless Nights could be the frenetic, concluding section to a sitar raga but with a sharper sonic focus, Bhatt’s incisive fingerwork taking the place of a sitar’s dense, twangy layers of overtones. Slow and swooping, The Eternal Wait is a study in tension-building, fading majestically rather than taking any kind of crescendo over the top. The most rock-inflected piece here is The Scalding Rain (a song for the global warming era if there ever was one), alluding masterfully to a catchy central hook that teases the listener but never quite coalesces.

Another aptly titled composition, Languid with Longing has Malley’s electric piano following Bhatt’s first movement, ghostly and otherworldly – the juxtaposition between the guitar’s rustic tone and the creepy techno feel of the synthesizer might sound jarring but it works, in a horror-movie soundtrack kind of way. Ditto the concluding track, Silent Footsteps, a mini-suite that ranges from plaintive to eerie to frenetic. You can get completely lost in this. It’s out now on World Village Music.

May 27, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Raghunath Manet – Veena Dreams

Raghunath Manet seems to be the world’s only performer equally skilled in classical Indian dance and as a virtuoso of the veena (a smaller version of the sitar). This is one of the most extraordinary instrumental albums of the year – if you can call it an instrumental album. Like George Benson on the guitar, on a few of the songs here Manet will occasionally vocalize while he plays, forcefully. The album appears to be devotional, an attempt to fuse with the divine: for a western listener without any liner notes or knowledge of Indian languages, it’s unclear if these are liturgical chants or if Manet’s simply scatting along with the beat. Whatever the case, it’s a bit distracting, but when the veena, tampura (lute) and percussion in Manet’s ensemble are going full force, the effect is deliriously intense and absolutely mesmerizing. This is a suite of original compositions, a theme and variations that blend devices from western classical music and jazz as well as elements of the blues with Manet’s south Indian classical stylings; to say that it bears comparison alongside such south Indian masters as Debashish Bhattacharya or Ravi Shankar would not be an overstatement.

The central theme is an exquisitely beautiful, clanging and oscillating eight-bar phrase which coalesces and rings out ecstatically on the album’s third track. Before that, there’s a long, almost seventeen-minute introductory section which hints marvelously at the fireworks to come and also makes it clear how fond Manet is of blues phrases. After a brief segment for solo voice and percussion, there’s the central fireworks, followed by the first set of variations, picking up slowly and building with a terse minimalism. The fifth track here, at least during the first minute or so, is practically indistinguishable from the ambient, drony Mississippi delta acoustic blues of Robert Belfour or Will Scott before returning to harmonium-drenched, warm ambience.

After that, there’s a slow tone poem with more harmonium and then the resolutely galloping, eventually fierily chordal title track which finally brings in the main theme with all its glory before a surprisingly ominous, low-key outro. The suite concludes on a surprisingly stately, understated note that finally, after about six minutes, brings in half of the central theme, gently before two brief bars of tabla and then silence. Maybe this was designed to help the listener wind down from the thrill ride of of the previous fifty minute or so. Check your favorite world music retailer, amazon, emusic or mp3.com.

August 18, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment