British sitar player and composer, Jasdeep Singh Degun talks to Quays Life about his new sitar concerto, Arya, for the orchestra of Opera North, ahead of its premiere at the Royal Northern College of Music in March.
“Arya is a Sanskrit word meaning noble, or precious – as well as being a girl’s name, which has been popularised now in the west by Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. But I came up with it before that!
“I’d always been interested in writing a concerto for sitar and orchestra. I’ve written for small ensembles and larger Indian classical orchestras, but never for a full symphony orchestra, so Arya has been a steep learning curve for me. Working with the Orchestra of Opera North and their brilliant arranger Danny Saleeb has been a collaborative process, and it’s given me the tools to get my vision across completely.
“As an Indian classical musician who was born and brought up in the UK, I’m a product of my surroundings as well as my training. I think all composers are like sponges, they’ll soak up their environments. So Arya isn’t a western classical concerto, and it’s not an Indian classical piece; it’s simply the music that I want to present to the world.
“In Indian classical music we have a limited concept of harmony and there aren’t any key changes; there’s one drone that doesn’t shift for the whole concert. And ours is an oral tradition, mostly improvised: we don’t have sheets of paper in front of us. We’re trained to listen to and repeat very long phrases, to learn the intricacies of the raag (traditional Indian modes, like western scales) without any notation to help us. Indian classical musicians have very good memories: when I’m driving I’m great with directions. I only need to drive somewhere once, and I can find my way back very easily!
“It’s completely the opposite with a western classical orchestra, which is trained to perform exactly what the composer has written down on the stave. And within a western concerto, harmony is a key feature of creativity. How do you bring these two traditions into balance together without compromising either the spontaneity of the raag or the creative drive of the western orchestra?
“Danny and I have worked hard to give the ensemble what they need in terms of a clearly defined and very detailed score, whilst leaving enough room for the sitarist to feel like they’re not being constricted by a piece of paper. I’ve built in space for some improvisation, but for a sitar player there’s always a lot of scope for that anyway around the given notes. The sitar is all about the melody, these characteristic, voice-like embellishments that you get by bending the strings.
“At the beginning of the piece the sitar is introduced to the Orchestra, and we follow the instrument like a diamond, a shining light, through this new world of western music.
“The second movement is faster, and the orchestra starts to take over: it’s new territory for the sitar. Then in the third movement the two worlds come together and find common ground.
“I really dislike the word fusion. Arya isn’t about defying genres, or breaking out of the shackles of my tradition. I’ve never felt like that: Indian classical music is my first love, and that’s what I want to pass on to new audiences. I care about music and I care about people, and Arya is about coming together and playing, whilst maintaining the integrity and the intensity of both disciplines.
“I’m looking forward to bringing Arya to Manchester – I’ve performed there many times in the past with tabla maestro Kousic Sen, with the Hallé Orchestra, and I’m currently taking part in Psappha’s Composing For… scheme – so it’s a city with very fond associations for me.”
The Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North: Arya is at The Royal Northern College of Music on 11 March 2020. The full programme includes the Orchestra of Opera North joined by the full force of the company’s Chorus for a series of exquisite excerpts from operas including Madama Butterfly, La traviata and The Magic Flute – making for a unique evening of sounds from east and west. Visit the RNCM website for details.