28. September 2022

To Sharpen a knife

As part of the NOW! Festival in Essen, Ensemble Musikfabrik will perform a world premiere by Riccardo Nova together with Varijashree Venugopal, Guru Prasanna and B.C. Manjunath on October 29. Intendant Thomas Fichter interviewed the three Carnatic musicians beforehand:

Thomas Fichter: Varijashree, Guru Prasanna and Manjunath, I have been following all three of you on the Internet. Every time you record something, it shows up in my social media feeds and I greatly enjoy that. Thank you very much! Varijashree, the first thing I saw of you was singing in unison with John Coltrane’s saxophone solo over his 1960 recording of “Giant Steps”, which I thought was amazing. Similarly, you sang with videos of Chick Corea and others, and you did songs where you accompany yourself. You also play live with top musicians: I remember seeing a video of a concert in Milano with the Wooten Brothers, with Victor Wooten on electric bass. Obviously, all three of you are trained in Carnatic music, but you also go into different directions, you do different collaborations. Varijashree, what is it you are doing and what are your plans? 

Varijashree Venugopal: My entire day is pretty much music. And like you said, we are trained in Carnatic music; training, learning and all that has been one of the greatest strengths and the reason or portal for us to go explore. It has personally helped me to perceive, understand, appreciate, and play any form of music that I get to listen to – and probably also to cross over when it comes to a project which involves a confluence of two or more styles. I would say that my entire life has been pretty much listening and trying to understand, feel, and experience the music culture from different parts, try and apply the fundamentals of whatever I have been practicing for so many years. In turn now for the past 10 or more years, I have been exposed to many more kinds of music because of the internet, of course. And that is how the Coltrane video came about. That is part of my exercise, experimentation, I should say, because there are so many things that are new, fundamentally, when it comes to phrasing or improvising or boundaries or freedom in improvisation. Those things from other genres of music have always inspired me to try something different, but still have a connection to the roots from where I come from. And my plans are, of course, trying to bend more into my root art form or my mother art form of music, which is Carnatic music, singing and flute playing. And I have started writing my own music and working on an album right now. It has been a few years since I started; hopefully, if Covid allows it I will be able to complete it.  

And now I am really excited about the project that we all are part of, with Musikfabrik and Riccardo Nova’s music. I think you have these things to sharpen a knife. So, this project is like that for us. It is what makes us aware and makes us view things in a very microscopic format. It has been a great learning experience.

Varijashree Venugopal

Thomas Fichter: Guru Prasanna, I have seen you play Carnatic music drums (khanjira), demonstrations and festivals for example. So, what is your main activity right now? 

Guru Prasanna: As Varijashree mentioned, we all come from base Carnatic. I think one of the most important things which Carnatic music has helped all of us is with is understanding everything which is there, any kind of music, and try to relate it to Carnatic music and see how it fits into it. We are blessed by having the knowledge of Carnatic music to understand various art forms and try to adapt and apply those things in our music. And try to bring in the new freshness into other genres of music and collaborate with other art forms, from a Carnatic music perspective. I also juggle with an IT profession, but along with that, I think Manju keeps telling me that Guru Prasanna is a musician first and an IT professional next, and this is how I am. So, most of the things keep revolving around music, visualizing sometimes IT also through music. Because there is a lot of mapping which happens in the brain with respect to it. And of course, I do enjoy performing Carnatic music and other genres. The best part of my instrument, the khanjira, is that it is very small, and at the same time it has a wide range of sound, and it can match up to any kind of drumming and any genre of music very easily, it can gel very well with it. I am trying to explore boundaries beyond Carnatic music with this instrument, a frame drum. As an instrument, you look at a lot of frame drums across the globe. How do I bring in the thought process of whatever knowledge I have concerning Carnatic music and try to have some uniqueness with respect to what we can do, and find and explore a lot of things on those fronts, having those classical concepts intact and trying to investigate boundaries beyond Carnatic? That is one thing that I have been working on for some time now. Talking about the collaboration with Musikfabrik and Riccardo’s music – I think, like Varijashree said, sharpening your skills is extremely challenging, it is extremely exciting. Different layers of music are coming in here and we need to see all these layers together. We should probably have six eyes looking at it together and not two eyes looking at it. We will be seeing through the eyes of Varijashree, through the eyes of Manju and the same for all of us. And we will also have to listen through each of those ears. It is an extremely interesting project ahead of us and I am really looking forward to it.

Guru Prasanna

Thomas Fichter: Manju, you play the mridangam. There was an aspect in your internet videos that was striking to me because it seems like you are putting your pieces out and then somebody adds a keyboard, or even an electric bass. I just saw one piece you were playing and then somebody played on top over it with a jazz piece. Is that your process… did you just put it out and then that person took it and added it? How did that work?

B.C. Manjunath: Well, to be honest with you, I am really happy that people are finding it very interesting what I do and then at the same time I have immense respect for everyone how gives their time to listen to these videos. And then, apart from that, they are also trying to learn it and then play on top of it and then put it out very proudly. So, I am kind of indebted to everyone who does that to the videos that I put across. 99 percent of the videos that are put across by other people, I have not met any one of them. Maybe one or two so far. It has always come as a surprise to me because they send it to me by messenger or by email and then every day, I get about two to three videos of covers for this particular one. But somehow, I find that it is not about me or my videos. I think it is about the whole Carnatic music system. Let us say that most people who get attracted to Carnatic music are probably the ones who study jazz or contemporary classical music, both genres find it pretty fascinating. Jazz is coming from a very improvised culture and then they have a lot of organized improvisation, you know? Very similar to Carnatic music and at the same time, Carnatic music is a combination of improvisation and very precise rhythmic forms, which is also interesting for a lot of contemporary classical musicians. If you want to just play the compositions as they are without improvising, you will find a lot of compositions, classical compositions like that. And then if you want to just improvise, taking a cell, you will find a lot of scope for that too, so I would in fact attribute all the success that I have had to the rich musical background that we all come from, which is Carnatic music and undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated music systems in the world. I would not say I can play whatever I listen to, but I can with a lot of confidence say that I can at least decipher what is happening with other kinds of music. It does not mean that I can play it, but I kind of relate in some way that is happening in all kinds of music. Some things will come naturally to me. Varija or Guru, these two have been my partners in crime because, for Carnatic musicians, we cannot play the same thing two times in a row. We always must improvise, and this is also their forte at the same time – Varija being a session artist as well. She knows how to repeat things and then Guru who has been in his supreme software profession knows how to handle pressure. These two people are unique as musicians. Probably some of the best from our country, I would say. I am very, very happy to be collaborating with them and at the same time with Musikfabrik, which is one of the greatest contemporary music ensembles that I have known. I have been following its music for a long time, and then Riccardo – I know him for 27 years now and I have played a lot of projects of his music – and he still has got some trust in our music… I am very happy to be here.

Thomas Fichter:

That brings us to Riccardo Nova, the composer of “Mahābhārata (mantras, fights and threnody). What is the genesis of this project on your side with Riccardo? How did this all come about? 

B.C. Manjunath: All of us have been involved with Riccardo’s music at least in more than one project. Guru Prasanna and I have played with him with his music in at least two/three projects and Varija and I have also done a lot. And then as three of us, it is the first time with Riccardo’s music. Riccardo was trying to find a combination of Carnatic musicians for many years. There used to be a fantastic singer whose name was Jahnavi Jayaprakash and she was the one who introduced me to Riccardo Nova and she passed away in 2001. Since then, Riccardo and I became closer because I was the strongest Carnatic music contact for him. Ten to fifteen projects come to my mind that I have done with Riccardo. This project is special. In Riccardo’s mind, I think it has been going on for at least six or seven years. It is not just about music; it is about the storytelling through music. This is the strongest element of this project for me because music is music and it is a bunch of notes, a bunch of rhythms… rhythmic notes, you know, and then if you are an expert musician, you can always achieve what you can do. But the most challenging part is of the composer, because for the performers, we just have our part. We go play and only the composer knows the whole music. And he is also trying to tell a story and I believe this project – what we are doing in October 2022 with Musikfabrik – is probably only ten or fifteen percent of the whole project that he has thought of. I think there will be about five to six hours of music to be written. And then it is also something related to theater. We are only doing a tip of the iceberg right now, but that is already one of the most challenging music parts that we have ever played in our lives. It has challenged us and then, at least for me, it has given me a lot of sleepless nights. It is not only very difficult but what is going through Riccardo’s mind was also very difficult for us to understand because it is hard to express one part with the full expression. With contemporary music it is like Lego, you know? You must put everything together to make one complete shape and we are just one part of the whole process. It has been extremely fascinating for us because Carnatic musicians are not well versed in reading music… and then we have been given that task and these guys have been doing that also fantastically.

B.C. Manjunath

Thomas FichterThank you very much. I am very much looking forward to hearing this concert in October.

The interview was held in English in December 2021