An Evening with Nitin Sawhney and Friends

Running Order:

Sunset
Everybody Loves The Sunshine
Zero Degrees [extracts]
Bring It Home [working title]
Letting Go
Hope
The Immigrant
Noches en vela – Part 1
Sandesa
Journey
Breathing Light
A Throw of Dice – Scenes 8 & 42
Koyal
Dead Man
The Namesake – Theme
The Boatman
Herencia Latina
Moonrise
Homelands
Noches en vela
Nadia
Charukeshi Rain [working title]
The Conference
Heavenly Sword – Chapter 1, Combat 3 & Chapter 6, Combat 2
Prophesy

Nitin Sawhney (piano / celesta / guitar)
Natacha Atlas, Reena Bhardwaj, Hazel Fernandes, Fink, Tina Grace, Imogen Heap & Lucita Jules (vocals)
Akram Kahn, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (dancers & choreographers)
Ian Burdge (cello)
Aref Durvesh (tabla)
Karlos Edwards (drums)
Ges-e & Osmani Soundz (ambient effects)
Anoushka Shankar (sitar)
Steve Shehan (percussion)
Jason Singh (beatboxer)
Ashwin Srinivasan (flutes & vocals)

London Undersound Symphony Orchestra
Stephen Hussey


Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 10 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Rather like the short boy sentenced to be sitting permanently cross-legged at the front of the school photograph, or the Swiss tourist standing interminably in the ‘Non EU’ line at passport control, it seems to be the fate of certain types of music to be consigned to late-night Prom concerts. Notably music traditionally, and naturally unfairly, associated with facial hair.

Thus it was that the bust of a possibly-bemused Sir Henry Wood gazed down at the company assembled by the versatile Nitin Sawhney – a gathering that included a swathe of highly respected vocalists, dancers, ethnic instrumentalists and the previously non-existent London Undersound Symphony Orchestra. This, we were informed, comprised players from all the leading London orchestras and, somewhat patronisingly in a certain light, 16 Indian players.

There was certainly no doubting the immense musical talent and performance skills of any of the guests, all of them renowned, respected and revered in their particular fields, and each and every one of them lived up to that reputation. What was more curious, however, was the slightly uncomfortable juxtaposition of the array of musical styles, performance approaches, audience and venue – this was certainly a concert that left the hard-core of fanatical Prommers out of their depth, inviting, naturally, a Socratic dialogue of a review…

The opening numbers landed us firmly in the ethnic domain, from the inaugural bansuri motifs to the laid back grooves of one of the few covers of the set, “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, with confident vocals by Ninja Tune’s Fink. Minimalist tendencies were never far away, used effectively in Tina Grace’s rendition of “Letting Go”, and Natacha Atlas’s moving “Hope”.

But, master, the heavily processed words were swallowed, melodic intervals flattened, and the breathy wooden flute thing barely disguised the repetitive use of material…

The enhanced vocal line was emotionally and evocatively performed, with its poignant character mirrored by the bansuri. The introspectively creative use of material lulled us into a comforting but, given the title, paradoxically false sense of security.

Well, the seriously trendy critic next to me uncapped his board marker and studiously wrote ‘Goldfrapp’ on his notepad. Isn’t that the one with a shot of mocha and frothy milk? And what of the disjointed melody and clichéd harmony of “The Immigrant”?

An exciting melodic journey descriptive of the subject matter, grounded in an evocative tonal harmonic progression.

You’ve used the word ‘evocative’ twice.

Indeed. It was very evocative. As were the Arabic influences introduced by “Noches en vela” and the astonishingly beautiful tones of Reena Bhardwaj in “Sandesa”, with Sawhney on celesta.

Ah. Danny Elfman meets Lawrence of Arabia.

Yes. I’ll give you that one. But it was definitely evocative. And there’s no denying the audience went wild over the bass-led, compulsively rhythmically driven “Journey”, with the subtle but technically impressive human beat-boxing of Jason Singh. As it did over the mellow “Breathing Light”.

But he’s just playing the same four bars over and over again.

Yes. That’s mellow, that is. Anyway, Gavin Bryars does it for 70 minutes in “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”.

True. That’s filling a CD, that is. What about the over-indulgent “Moonrise”, or the direction-less music from “Heavenly Sword”?

Sultry, and “Heavenly Sword” is from a high-octane, violently percussive score for what sounds like a high-octane, violently percussive computer game. But, pausing briefly to applaud the amazing discipline Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan exhibited during their extracts from the highly entertaining “Zero Degrees”, can I just draw your attention to Anoushka Shankar. With “Charukeshi Rain” her sitar-playing brought poise, intensity, concentrated energy and pure joy, beautifully complimented by the luscious orchestral effects of “River Pulse”.

I concur absolutely. But, master, tell me. Why are there always one or two people who start dancing ostentatiously in the middle of the arena the minute anyone thumps a tabla?

Ah. I think these are normally the same people found swaying in the middle of the road near off-licences, with much the same visual impact. An impression of a reanimated corpse doing karate.

And what can we tell Sir Henry we have been doing, oh master?

I think we had better think of something, don’t you? He’s looking slightly disdainfully at that bloke standing under his nose who has just taken time out from bowing a cymbal to ping an eggcup. I think we had better tell him that Sawhney has got a point, even if the slightly forced and studied nature of this seriously good performance belies the truth. That the listener needs to relinquish the concept that on one side of the ring sits the lugubrious body of elitist classical music, warily eyeing the sleek hunk of popular and world music, with Ludovico Einaudi vainly holding the two apart. That the reality is a spectrum of musical styles, all feeding off, imitating, reacting against and occasionally plagiarising each other. Then, and only then, can we dispel the carefully constructed myth that progressive music must be bred rather patronisingly by playing the bongos in a dinner jacket, and that the meeting of East and West is a substitute for musical quality. Which, luckily, in this case it wasn’t.



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