The Prom concert on Saturday night, August 11, featured the music of Nitin Sawhney exclusively. I have to confess that I did not know who Sawhney was, which is an big oversight obviously, since his website says that he is “widely regarded as one of the most influential and versatile creative talents alive today.” Had I been more observant, however, I would have realized that I had heard some of his work previously, though, since he is the composer of the music for the recent movie, The Namesake. Although he apparently does not like for his music to be described as fusion, in fact the two or three people I asked about him all used exactly that term in telling me about it.
Although his description of the Proms in his program notes (“…a slightly antiquarian and jingoistic institution…exuberant flag-waving [which] seemed unnervingly imperious and superfluous to the enjoyment of some breathtaking music…”) strictly speaking only applies to the Last Night (all the rest of the time one sees not a single flag of any kind, let alone seeing it waved), the fact of the program on the Proms once again raises (however tacitly) the question of how ‘universal’ (for lack of a better word) western classical music is: whether it speaks, or can speak, to the conditions of all people of all conditions, or is only the artifact of a specific society and can only be meaningful to those who are members of that one group (i.e. “dead white men”), and whether people of non-European origin are not only simply, as it were, locked out of an undertaking like the Proms, but are, in fact, discriminated against by not being by not having their own particular music included. In any case, the fact that one entire evening of the Proms was devoted to the music of a (native-born) British composer of south Asian origin was a significant event, and it was certainly seen as such by the many more than usual people of south Asian origin who were there. There were, in fact, plenty of people there–the place was completely packed–, reflecting, apparently (judging by sight), all kinds of other ethnic origins as well. Sawhney himself is certainly trained in western classical music and values it (“I liked playing Bach for control, Debussy for the emotion, Mozart for melodic ideas, and Chopin for the pyrotechnics,” he is quoted as saying in the program notes.), but he also casts a wide net of other interests and influences, including flamenco guitar, Punjabi folk music, tabla rhythms, and jazz. Each of these various interests was amply represented at some point in the thirty pieces on the program, performed by Mr. Sawhney, along with seventeen of his closest friends and the sixty-strong London Undersound Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Hussey.
The program included selections from his seven studio albums, along with music from a number of theatrical productions and movie soundtracks, and two works in progress. For this listener the most appealing music was found in the second half of the program, which included music from The Namesake, flowing seamlessly into The Boatman, both ‘inspired’ in ways not specified by Tagore, Nadia (meaning ‘the river’), all of those featuring the singing of Reena Bhardwaj, and Charukeshi Rain, a collaboration with Anoushka Shankar. The Conference, in which a considerable number of the performers participated vocally, is a fiercely difficult bit of “tabla pyrotechnics,” and was perhaps the most impressive number of the evening. Perhaps the least personal music was contained in the two battle scenes from ‘the forthcoming and highly anticipated’ video game Heavenly Sword. A long stretch of the second part of the first half, comprising Noches en vela, Part I, Sandesa, Journey, Breathing Light, A Throw of the Dice, and Koyal seemed to have been produced in reference to the same polling which produced Dave Soldier’s Most Wanted Song, since they shared a certain mid-tempo blandness and easy listening scoring with it and with each other. Excerpts from Zero Degrees, a theatrical work written by Sawhney with choreographers Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley about a trip from Bangladesh to Calcutta, in which a man harassed by border guards finds himself sharing a carriage with a corpse, were threaded through the whole evening; they were performed in a lazer speed unison speech by Khan and Cherkaoui with passion and humor, and they were mesmerizing.
Throughout the concert it was very hard to make out words. The acoustics in the Albert Hall can be difficult, but the high degree of amplification not only didn’t help things, it seemed to be a positive hindrance. In Dead Man, at the end of the first half, which traces two parallel lives in India and America, and in which it is apparently important that there is ‘a sardonic English refrain and fateful Bengali verse’, it was simply impossible to tell that the performers were singing in any language at all. There is also some irony in the fact that each of the members of the London Undersound Symphony Orchestra, ‘painstakingly selected’ by Sawhney himself, was closely miked and mixed into a homogenous whole where it was impossible to hear how good any of them might be or what any of them might be doing, the goal seeming to be to produce a sound exactly like a highly produced recording with no perceptible qualities of a live performance at all.
Whatever reservations I might have had, though, it was manifestly clear that all of the performers involved were wonderful musicians playing with great intelligence and absolute dedication, and their performances were being received with great enthusiasm by a packed out Albert Hall, none of whose members had any reservations at all.
This concert, along with all the others, is available for listening online for one week after the actual performance at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.