Simon Thacker's Svara-Kanti:

Sage Gateshead, 06/12/12

Review by Hedd Thomas for United World Radio


Simon Thacker returned to the Sage Gateshead on this icy winter evening to perform an
eclectic mix of new compositions. Many were original compositions by Thacker himself or
his arrangement of traditional and popular Punjabi songs, while compositions by three other
professional composers also featured, including one by the father of minimalism, Terry Riley.
The electric tenpura drone was switched on and the performers tuned their instruments as a
steady flow of latecomers dripped into the hall. Then the magic began.
Simon Thacker struck a string and a single note, pure and steady, resonated around the room.
Another strike: the same note, turning into a two-note trill. A third strike: the same note, the
same trill, then a flurry down and up the scale and back to the start. A fourth strike: the same
note followed by an even more embellished flurry that landed back at the start. Each strike
went on its own bluesy exploration, yet each strike started and finished on the same note, its
tonal centre, its home. Suddenly, a riff was established in the guitar that saw it leap from
string to string. Sarvar Sabri entered with strikes and explorations of his own on the tabla,
shortly followed by Jacqueline Shave entering on the violin. Somehow the violin and guitar
enter into a conversation. They united in tone and rhythm. But it didn’t last, for something
caused an argument! The violin raced up and down full of raw emotion while the guitar
futilely tried to reason with her in a composed voice. It was a battle between two minds, two
ways of seeing, and in the middle was the tabla playing the flurry of extra thoughts that in
these situations are never said but are simply lots in the ether. Finally, there was calm
between the opposing forces. Just the tabla remained, the eternal mediator. It was called
Dhumaketu, which Thacker translated as ‘Great Comet’, and ideas of a cosmic proportion
could certainly be heard and felt.
A new commission written by the Edinburgh-based composer Nigel Osbourne appeared next.
Titled Five Elements, it was a five-movement song-cycle based on the mysteries of ether, air,
water, fire and earth respectively, with the text taken from ancient Hindu tales. Thacker
explained that a quirk of the composition is that the tempo mark of the first movement has
one crotched equalling 68.82, which is the frequency in hertz of a low D in a particular
temperament. Singer Japjit Kaur entered the stage and took her place in the centre. She sang
into a microphone and read from notation on a stand, both of which caused an unfortunate
barrier between her and the audience, which meant that from the stalls only her eyes and
forehead were visible. The first and second movements were a mixture of steady drones and
exploratory melismas – pleasant but perhaps a little unoriginal. It was the third movement,
however, that grabbed the attention of the audience. Sabri picked up his waterphone and
bowed a few eerie, transparent shrills, which seemed to dance around the hall as he spun the
instrument in circles with his wrist. Japjit Kaur’s voice cut across, its quality pure and almost
childlike in its narrowness and lack of vibrato, as if the tone was all made in the mouth,
bypassing the lungs, chest and throat altogether. The combination was both haunting and
lulling and was unlike anything I had ever heard before. “Wow,” whispered Sabri as he
bowed one final icy beam of sound before gently placing the waterphone back on the ground.
Terry Riley’s SwarAmant closed the half. Another piece commissioned especially for Simon
Thacker, he explained that its name means ‘Lover of Sounds’ and that, unusually, every
single strike for the tabla is notated as opposed to merely guidelined with lots of space for
improvisation. On first impression SwarAmant sounded less Indian in its tonality and more
Hispanic, though the rhythms and the use of the tabla weaved into it unmistakable strands of
the Subcontinent. The melodies that each instrument played seemed unrelated, though each
was hypnotic in its own way, and there were numerous cadenze for all providing each a
chance to display some virtuosic flair.
The second half was going to be devoted almost entirely to Thacker’s own compositions and
arrangements, which I was pleased about as it seemed to me that Dhumaketu had been the
more successful and more engaging work of the three performed up until now. The first of
these next ones was Svaranjali, a duet for guitar and tabla – two instruments, reckoned
Thacker in his spoken introduction, that have a number of similarities, including the fact that
they are both played by striking it with the flesh and both have a lot of virtuoso solo
repertoire. A number of arranged Punjabi songs also featured, which provided an opportunity
for Japjit Kaur to show off the many different qualities to her voice. In Main tenu yaad
aavanga she sang beautifully, the notes being pure but each phrase starting and ending ever
so softly and hushed on a breath, giving the whole song an honest, human feel. Her masterful
slurs made me feel the same sense of warm nostalgia that I get while listening to song
recordings from India’s early, sunny days of decolonisation. The final piece of the concert
proper (a standing ovation and an encore followed) was another song arranged by Thacker,
Khanu Marda Chandariya Chamka. The lyrics warn men to be kind to women, and this could
be felt in Kaur’s stronger voice, less like a child’s this time and more like a young lady’s. The
accompaniment was idyllic, with the guitar playing a low bass line while the violin played
flowing phrases that could have been written by Vaughan-Williams or one of his fellow
English pastoralist composers.
My admiration for Thacker the composer increased throughout the evening. “It isn’t overtly
Indian,” he said while introducing Svaranjali, “but takes elements of Indian music to make a
new sound.” It was refreshing to hear these words actually reflected in the music, showing an
understanding of what ‘fusion’ music can be: not merely a sticking together of bits from here
and bits from there, but a boiling down of their essential elements to make something new
from scratch, to make something truly new. It seemed that Thacker has powerful ideas of
what he wants his music to be and, after a number of years of studying and experimenting in
his field, now has the musical expertise to realise them. The pieces of his that I heard were
intelligently constructed and the relationships and interactivity between the different
instruments had been considered far more carefully and sympathetically than most
contemporary classical composers or world fusion artists working today would care to do,
and this, in short, breathes life and joy into Thacker’s music.