“There is Nowhere Else in the World You Can Beat This Level of Complexity in Music”

Alice Barron and Will Roberts are in Mysore to learn the violin and Indian percussion respectively. They spend time with the family of Mysore based Indian violinist Dr Manjunath, from whom Alice is learning Carnatic violin techniques. Will is learning Indian percussion on the Kanjira which he wants to adapt to the Spanish Cajon.

As part of a practice-led PhD at the University of Oxford, Alice is currently working on a series of collaborations creating new cross-cultural works for the violin that draw on her experiences studying in South India. Her thesis examines violin techniques that emerge through cross-cultural collaborative practice in contemporary music in London.

Will has studied percussion and drum kit at York University and Instituto Superior Des Artes in Havana, Cuba. He has also studied music in Brazil and India. His love of collaborating has found him supporting exciting artists and co-creating in original cross cultural and cross genre projects. At Mysore he is learning rhythm (basics and muktayas) from TT Swamy at Mysore University.

Alice and Will played at the recently concluded Heritage-CSP concert along with violinist Sumant Manjunath and mridangist Sunaad Anoor at the Gudiya Sambhrama temple festival in Bangalore. The interview was conducted at the temple premises.

How is music a carrier of emotions for you? In India, we have the rasa theory and since you are learning Indian music are you familiar with it?

Alice Baron: There is a huge amount of emotion and a connect between the two in Western music but it is not written out and theorised like it is in India. Put simply, we have major and minor notes, major is happy and minor sad, but when you learn more and develop more techniques with harmony, melody and rhythm, there are all these different emotions. But we don’t specify that this key is this emotion. It is left to the individual.

Will Roberts: Sometimes when composers write music, they will put it on top of their score (on the notation), write a word suggesting a mood in which the performer has to get himself into. Sometimes they are Italian words or German words, it could be ‘Sombre’ or ‘Hopeful’ or ‘Expressive’. Those are just leads that the performer can take, but they can also have their own emotion. It is not something that is often spoken about amongst performers. However, most often it transcends the words.

Do you take into account the time of day to decide on the music?

Alice: it depends on what the music is. If it is a set classical piece of music like a Beethoven Symphony, the orchestra will play the symphony at whatever time of the day. We also improvise and do lots of types of music and then we take it into account a little more but we don’t have a concept of different ragas for different times of the day.

How has your musicality changed after you started learning from Dr Manjunath?

Alice: I was drawn to Carnatic music, because of the violin, since he played the same instrument. It’s like I have a much bigger pallet of paints because of the Gamakas and left hand techniques. That has given me more expression in how I play.

How does that go down with Western audiences? Do they see these influences as being ‘exotic’ or as pushing musical boundaries?

Alice: I usually use it when I am working on new music collaborations, so I am expanding what the instrument can do and that is something that is happening in Europe now in very experimental ways. In some ways this is another way of doing that, expanding what the instrument can do. My wish is for it to be not just exotic, but because you can do all these different amazing things with the violin. And that may be putting the bow on the wooden peg at the end and have a piece made with the sounds out of that.

In Western classical music you have different style of music, and now contemporary music is breaking down all the barriers, all the rules of harmony and experimenting in different ways. We are not going to go to London and perform traditional Carnatic music but it is excellent for training the ear and training our sense of rhythm. It really develops you as a musician in any tradition.

Alice Barron and Will Roberts with CSP Director Vijayalakshmi Vijayakumar at the art exhibition at Gudiya Sambhrama 2020

Will: this is just another way of experimenting - coming to India and learning a different way of playing an instrument and it is so creative. It is very inspiring for the audiences back home when they realise how many new sounds violin can make. For me coming here has been a treasure chest of rhythms. The level of musicianship of the percussionists here is just amazing.  I have studied rhythm from around the world and here there is a very different kind of complexity. The difference is that it is an extremely well thought out system.

The  level of complexity that can be played on the instrument is mind blowing. It has influenced and raised my playing. The system is so accurate and disciplined. There is such discipline in this music that is really inspiring. I am learning the Kanjira as well but I don’t perform that. I am trying to adapt the techniques to the Cajon, a traditional Spanish percussion instrument and to the drum kit. There is nowhere else in the world you can beat this.

Does the devotional aspect of Indian music move you. Most of the music originated in temples like this one, so it is filled with devotion. Have you felt that connect?

Will: We have been here for the last four months and we have spent a lot of time with Dr Manjunath’s family. He takes us to the temples and has introduced us to lots of Swamis. It is wonderful engaging with this music in its real environment.

Alice, you are also an academician at Oxford. Do you follow strictly what is in the rule books while playing?

Alice: It depends on what I am playing. If I am playing with an orchestra, the programme is set. You can’t break the rules. Even the direction of the bow has to match. It is very strict. But when we are creating new music, which not everybody does (some people just play the traditional stuff), that is when we break all the rules. Now in 2020, we don’t feel we need to stick to any boundaries at all.

In my thesis, using my own practice involving South Indian violin techniques alongside my work as a Western classical violinist, I will present an ethnographic perspective of collaborative processes. The research will explore the ways in which collaborative practice can become a platform for finding new ways of playing an instrument, and simultaneously, how the process of developing new techniques can form creative stimuli in collaborative exchange.

What other aspects of Indian culture appeal to you?

(In unison): Food.

Alice: We are vegetarians. India is the best place for vegetarian food. We love dosas. We cook Indian food in London. We do Yoga and meditation every day. Yoga and meditation have become very popular in Europe. But it’s very nice to be doing it here in Mysore. And it really helps the music.

Something I find interesting is that there are some words in Sanskrit which don’t translate into English like Raga and Gamaka. There is no direct translation. We are beginning to understand more about those words.