The Sage Gateshead
Thursday, 6th December 2012
Simon Thacker, guitar
Sarvar Sabri, tabla
Jacqueline Shave, violin
Japjit Kaur, voice
Osbourne: The Five Elements
Mustana and Kaur, arr. Thacker: Main tenu yaad aavanga
Korde: Anusvara 6th Prism
Biba, arr. Thacker: Khanu Marda Chandariya Chamka
Surinder Kaur, arr. Thacker: Sava Ghund Chuk Ke
Review by Hedd Thomas
Simon Thacker returned to the Sage Gateshead on this icy winter evening to perform an eclectic mix of new compositions. Many were original compositions by Thacker himself or his arrangement of traditional and popular Punjabi songs, while compositions by three other professional composers also featured, including one by the father of minimalism, Terry Riley. The electric tenpura drone was switched on and the performers tuned their instruments as a steady flow of latecomers dripped into the hall. Then the magic began.
Simon Thacker struck a string and a single note, pure and steady, resonated around the room. Another strike: the same note, turning into a two-note trill. A third strike: the same note, the same trill, then a flurry down and up the scale and back to the start. A fourth strike: the same note followed by an even more embellished flurry that landed back at the start. Each strike went on its own bluesy exploration, yet each strike started and finished on the same note, its tonal centre, its home. Suddenly, a riff was established in the guitar that saw it leap from string to string. Sarvar Sabri entered with strikes and explorations of his own on the tabla, shortly followed by Jacqueline Shave entering on the violin. Somehow the violin and guitar enter into a conversation. They united in tone and rhythm. But it didn’t last, for something caused an argument! The violin raced up and down full of raw emotion while the guitar futilely tried to reason with her in a composed voice. It was a battle between two minds, two ways of seeing, and in the middle was the tabla playing the flurry of extra thoughts that in these situations are never said but are simply lots in the ether. Finally, there was calm between the opposing forces. Just the tabla remained, the eternal mediator. It was called Dhumaketu, which Thacker translated as ‘Great Comet’, and ideas of a cosmic proportion could certainly be heard and felt.
A new commission written by the Edinburgh-based composer Nigel Osbourne appeared next. Titled Five Elements, it was a five-movement song-cycle based on the mysteries of ether, air, water, fire and earth respectively, with the text taken from ancient Hindu tales. Thacker explained that a quirk of the composition is that the tempo mark of the first movement has one crotched equalling 68.82, which is the frequency in hertz of a low D in a particular temperament. Singer Japjit Kaur entered the stage and took her place in the centre. She sang into a microphone and read from notation on a stand, both of which caused an unfortunate barrier between her and the audience, which meant that from the stalls only her eyes and forehead were visible. The first and second movements were a mixture of steady drones and exploratory melismas – pleasant but perhaps a little unoriginal. It was the third movement, however, that grabbed the attention of the audience. Sabri picked up his waterphone and bowed a few eerie, transparent shrills, which seemed to dance around the hall as he spun the instrument in circles with his wrist. Japjit Kaur’s voice cut across, its quality pure and almost childlike in its narrowness and lack of vibrato, as if the tone was all made in the mouth, bypassing the lungs, chest and throat altogether. The combination was both haunting and lulling and was unlike anything I had ever heard before. “Wow,” whispered Sabri as he bowed one final icy beam of sound before gently placing the waterphone back on the ground.
Terry Riley’s SwarAmant closed the half. Another piece commissioned especially for Simon Thacker, he explained that its name means ‘Lover of Sounds’ and that, unusually, every single strike for the tabla is notated as opposed to merely guidelined with lots of space for improvisation. On first impression SwarAmant sounded less Indian in its tonality and more Hispanic, though the rhythms and the use of the tabla weaved into it unmistakable strands of the Subcontinent. The melodies that each instrument played seemed unrelated, though each was hypnotic in its own way, and there were numerous cadenze for all providing each a chance to display some virtuosic flair.
The second half was going to be devoted almost entirely to Thacker’s own compositions and arrangements, which I was pleased about as it seemed to me that Dhumaketu had been the more successful and more engaging work of the three performed up until now. The first of these next ones was Svaranjali, a duet for guitar and tabla – two instruments, reckoned Thacker in his spoken introduction, that have a number of similarities, including the fact that they are both played by striking it with the flesh and both have a lot of virtuoso solo repertoire. A number of arranged Punjabi songs also featured, which provided an opportunity for Japjit Kaur to show off the many different qualities to her voice. In Main tenu yaad aavanga she sang beautifully, the notes being pure but each phrase starting and ending ever so softly and hushed on a breath, giving the whole song an honest, human feel. Her masterful slurs made me feel the same sense of warm nostalgia that I get while listening to song recordings from India’s early, sunny days of decolonisation. The final piece of the concert proper (a standing ovation and an encore followed) was another song arranged by Thacker, Khanu Marda Chandariya Chamka. The lyrics warn men to be kind to women, and this could be felt in Kaur’s stronger voice, less like a child’s this time and more like a young lady’s. The accompaniment was idyllic, with the guitar playing a low bass line while the violin played flowing phrases that could have been written by Vaughan-Williams or one of his fellow English pastoralist composers.
My admiration for Thacker the composer increased throughout the evening.“It isn’t overtly Indian,” he said while introducing Svaranjali, “but takes elements of Indian music to make a new sound.” It was refreshing to hear these words actually reflected in the music, showing an understanding of what ‘fusion’ music can be: not merely a sticking together of bits from here and bits from there, but a boiling down of their essential elements to make something new from scratch, to make something truly new. It seemed that Thacker has powerful ideas of what he wants his music to be and, after a number of years of studying and experimenting in his field, now has the musical expertise to realise them. The pieces of his that I heard were intelligently constructed and the relationships and interactivity between the different instruments had been considered far more carefully and sympathetically than most contemporary classical composers or world fusion artists working today would care to do, and this, in short, breathes life and joy into Thacker’s music.