September 05, 2011

Reviewed by Michael Quinn for The Classical Review


NIGEL OSBORNE The Birth of Naciketas
Simon Thacker (classical guitar), The Nava Rasa Ensemble.
Slap The Moon Records STMRCD01


The Nava Rasa Ensemble is one of the more eclectic propositions to have emerged on the British contemporary music scene in recent years. Formed in 2007 by classical guitarist Simon Thacker, it cross-fertilizes Western classical music with the venerable, three millennia-old classical traditions of India, blending the two together with accents and idioms borrowed from American jazz.

Its debut CD offers an enthralling précis of the nine-piece outfit’s progress to date in finding a modern amalgam of all three styles, and offers first recordings of two new works commissioned by Thacker for the group.

Title track Nada-Ananda is a three-movement concerto for guitar that takes the literal translation from Sanskrit – ‘The Joy of Sound’ – at face value, serving to set out the ensemble’s genre-splicing aspirations with almost gleeful exuberance. Currently on the teaching staff at Worcester, MA’s College of the Holy Cross, composer Shirish Korde roots his 19-minute-long piece in a finely-spun amalgam of Hindustani classical music, Western contemporary sounds, and the innovations that marked John McLaughlin’s dazzling Indo-jazz experiment, Shakti, in the 1970s.

With instrumental voices divided into three groups – solo guitar; Indian classical violin (Jyotsna Srikanth) and tabla (Sarvar Sabri), occasionally augmented by double bass (Mario Caribé); and string quintet (The Edinburgh Quartet standing alongside Thacker) with percussion (Iain Sandilands) – Korde remains true to one of the essential components of jazz and Indian classical music with an emphasis on improvisation that compels the guitar to act as de facto mediator between the other sparring instrumental permutations.

It begins in meditative mood, the first movement based on the early morning North Indian Lalit Rāga to follow what Korde describes as “a gradually unfolding melodic arch,” in which Thacker’s elaborate guitar nimbly mimics a sitar to pick its way through a musical accompaniment largely formed and framed by Srikanth’s improvised responses on violin as the whole comes slowly into waking focus

By contrast, the medium tempo middle movement is a more intense affair, driven along by scorching interplay between solo guitar, tabla and string quartet. The tabla, owing much to the influence of a master of the instrument, Zakir Hussain (himself a notable contributor to McLaughlin’s Shakti), features prominently in the fast and feisty finale, too. Essentially a complex triple cadenza for guitar, solo violin and tabla, it revels in a fiercely intricate rhythmic interplay that is realised with obvious relish by all concerned.

Inspired by an episiode in the Upanishads, a seminal Hindu philosophical text, Nigel Osborne’s The Birth of Naciketas began life as an “investigative” piece for an opera the British composer is currently writing with the Chilean-American novelist Ariel Dorfman.

Based on the 10 thaats (scale patterns) regarded as the forerunners of the building-block rāgas of Indian classical music, its 10 movements take the listener on a 24-hour journey from ‘late night’ to ‘midnight’ the following day (and from ‘Love’ to ‘Dance [and] Malestrom’), with Osborne’s various rhythmic patterns referencing both Carnatic and Hindusatni traditions.

Textures are more finely spun than in Korde’s piece and Western idioms more obviously superimposed on Indian traditional foundations, but there is much here – not least in Osborne’s exemplary writing for Indian classical violin and tabla – to make one eager to hear the finished opera.

Underpinned by the osmotic progress from one tāla to the next, it’s a piece that moves organically through a succession of evocative moods and meditations while deftly managing to make the whole (and each of the compoent elements) sound altogether authentic.

As thinking aloud goes, it’s a work brimming over with imaginative and innovative ideas, naturally exploiting individual instrumental voices while simultaneously tasking them to forge new relationships that cut across geographic borders, inherited traditions and genre assumptions with engaging aplomb.

We’ve been here before, of course, albeit in markedly different guises – most notably the celebrity collaborations between sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the 1960s (the most peculiar outcome of which was surely Alan Hovahness’s curiously compelling concerto Shambala, a recording of which is available on OgreOgress Productions) – but seldom with the idiomatic flair on offer here.

What particularly impresses is the sheer cohesion of the playing, with Thacker proving an acutely stylish and sensitive fulcrum for an often mesmerising melding of old and new, Indian and Western.

Calum Malcolm’s impeccable production and Stuart Hamilton’s adroit engineeing moves seamlessly between spotlit details and the larger picture to create a pleasing sense of immediacy. Plaudits, too, for the informative and well-produced full-color booklet.