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Sandeep Bhagwati, An Interview: "The Future of Music is Global"


"The Future of Music is Global "

An interview with Sandeep Bhagwati

Sandeep Bhagwati spoke to Gabriele Stiller-Kern. The interview was translated from the original in German.

Sandeep Bhagwati is an Indo-German composer/performer/writer/ conductor/curator, of stage,chamber and multimedia works that have been performed in Asia and Europe.

Sandeep Bhagwati studied composition with Edison Denisov and Boguslaw Schäffer and conducting with Kurt Prestel at the Salzburg Mozarteum from 1984-87 and composition with Wilhelm Killmayer at the Musikhochschule Munich 1987 –1990,where he graduated with distinction in 1990.

A resident of Europe since 1968,he now divides his time between Germany,France,India and Switzerland.


Many Europeans are fascinated by Indian classical music, but Indians are not normally interested in either classical or contemporary western music. Why?

India has no infrastructure for western music: there are no orchestras, and there is also no regular concert activity. And even when western music is performed the programme is very conservative, much more so than here – even Brahms may be considered as daring..

Of course, western music came to India with British colonial power and there used to be regular concerts back then; Mumbai even had an opera house. Nowadays, western classical music in India survives in a kind of diasporic existence maintained exclusively for Parsis, for some well-off Indian circles -or for western diplomats. As far as popular music is concerned, things do not appear to be much different, either.

For example, Indians are also interested in the group "Shakti ", but only because Zakir Hussein is so well-known in the West and John McLaughlin is a jazz legend. And the audience consists mainly of wealthy Indians who have studied in the United States.

How does it look on the other side ? How open are western musicians to the classical music of non-European cultures?

From a global point of view, composers trained in the West are those most open to other Cultures. Today it goes without saying that every composer – at least in avant--garde music – knows something about Balinese, Indian or Japanese classical music. They know quite a lot about structural techniques and aesthetic concepts even if they still tend to bungle on practical issues. It is easy for western musicians to find out about non European music: there are a great number of very well-informed books on the subject. But things are much more difficult vice versa. Nonetheless, one should also bear in mind that even musicians such as Ravi Shankar who is widely recognised as an intermediary in the West still fail to convince the Indian public of the necessity for any musical encounter with the West. In his experiments with Yehudi Menuhin and his sitar concertos with Zubin Mehta Shankar ’s sitar playing is not inventive enough for his Indian listeners -whereas to western ears,the orchestration sounds crude.

When Charlie Mariano plays with the Karnataka College of Percussion, the Karnataka College of Percussion plays exactly what it always does – but only at half throttle, so that Charlie can follow. This is the pattern I want to break. For once, I wanted to prevent Indian musicians from doing what they always do and instead force them to address western culture face-to-face.

They need to do that if they want to compose for western musicians -without necessarily being able to play themselves.That,then,is my main challenge – the gauntlet I am throwing at the "East-meets-West " problem. In my view, up to now there has been no exchange of which I could say," here all the potential of western musical culture and all the potential of Indian musical culture is fully explored." In my project, this happens. EVERYONE is extending his or her personal limit. That was what interested me.

You are the artistic director of the project. What motivated you to take it on?

The impetus for this project came from the House of World Cultures. I was asked whether Contemporary Music existed in India. India does not have avant-garde music as we understand it in the West. Also, Contemporary Music always implies a break with tradition - a break that has certainly not occurred in India. As a composer who grew up with both Indian and European classical music, I was always troubled by this great discrepancy between arrogant ignorance (on the Indian side)-and uncritical curiosity (on the western side). This project gave me an opportunity to build bridges. It took me quite some time until I found musicians in India who were interested in this sort of dialogue. In the end, I unexpectedly found a couple of musicians who are very well-known in India -and who had already moved several steps away from their tradition. That was what I wanted: artists with an urge to re-interpret their tradition. For me, it was possible to do what I envisaged only with such first-class musicians. For they were able to see beyond the tradition because they were well aware of its strengths -and its weaknesses.

The enthusiasm and openness of the reaction of these Indian musicians to the Ensemble Modern was already apparent during the first phase of our work together, during our first workshop in Mumbai. I suppose it would not have worked so well with other Indian musicians, and it would not have worked at all with a different ensemble. All the musicians involved on both sides have shown great curiosity and absolute professionalism. I am certain that this was the only way for the great mutual respect that was so tangible during our workshops to evolve.

For me, one of this project ’s great strengths is that it gives the musicians the time they need to really learn from and work with each other. We have now been working together for two years. My first extensive discussions with the Indian musicians started in January 2001, our first workshop took place in 2002, they then all came to Frankfurt in May of this year. A final workshop will take place in Frankfurt and Berlin in October 2003.The periods in between were filled with hundreds of telephone calls, e-mails and a week-long workshop full of compositional theory and precise aesthetic deliberations.


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