Prasanna's Carnatic Convergence Concept Produces Potent Panethnic Potion
An interesting attribute of the world of Indian classical music is that it actually has a system, like professional golf or tennis, where players are grouped into levels and ranked. At 32, Prasanna is the only musician who performs the classical music of India on electric guitar at the highest professional level. Prasanna enjoys the benefit of parallel, sometimes intertwining career tracks; that is, some concerts feature him performing solely Indian classical music, some only jazz and for others, a repertoire drawn from both. Regarding the classical, he performs Carnatic music, or the classical music of southern India, which is differentiated from the classical music of northern India (the kind popularized by Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan) by the fact that the pieces are composed, analogous to western classical music, like cello suites or string quartets. The thing that differentiates Carnatic music from western classical music is the element that drew Prasanna to jazz-and that in turn, will draw jazz listeners to him - improvisation.
Prasanna plays guitar, quite simply like nobody on the planet. Talk about being able to identify a guy in three notes! Prasanna extrudes incredible fretless and sitar sounds from his array of electric axes- the fact that the fret is there as some sort of guideline or boundary ceases to matter due to his transparently fluid technique. He consciously executes quarter flat, quarter sharp or whatever else microtones, frequently incorporating slurring techniques rendering his left hand a wide ranging blur, all while incorporating western ideas into eastern virtuosity- all on a conventional fretted Les Paul. 'Alternate' tunings seem equally effortless for him, probably because such tunings are recognized as different 'classical' tunings in India. Such are the trappings of western musical thinking. These techniques lend newfound improvisational validity to and bend the ear toward even 'staple' rock phrases, let alone the sophisticated jazz phraseology he's capable of tossing off.
What's most important about all this technique is that it lends the playing, let alone the writing, a transporting quality- rare is the player on any instrument that can so change your headspace and your heart rate in two bars. Once familiar with his playing, you'll be able to identify it within a bar or two of music. If you haven't heard him yet, this interview should foster your curiosity. If you have, it'll certainly shed light on just how it's all happening.
Allaboutjazz: If you don't mind, please tell us how old you are, and where you are from. It adds perspective to your bio
Prasanna: I am 32, from Chennai, India.
AAJ: Who were your first influences, as a musician, and more specifically, on guitar?
P: The great Tamil film composer Illayaraja was my first influence as a musician.
AAJ: Was there an evolution in influences, or was there a point when you feel individual influences stopped?
P: Until around age 13, I was primarily listening to, and playing Tamil film music. By around 1983 or so, due to TV broadcasts of the Grammys etc, there was Michael Jackson- Thriller was a big influence at that time), Donna Summer, Tina Turner and a lot more pop music all around. So, I started playing all that stuff by ear along with film music.
AAJ: Can you explain how you started?
P: After playing a lot of film music and western pop, I wanted to get into more 'guitar' oriented music - 60's and 70's rock basically! I started performing in many cover bands in South India - played lots and lots of Deep Purple, Dire Straits, Santana, Scorpions, Led Zeppelin and started winning several semi-professional rock competitions all over India with my band. I was about 15 when all this was starting to 'snowball'. On a parallel track, I was studying Carnatic classical music on the guitar,which was hardly considered to be the 'right' instrument for this thousands-of-years-old traditional music, but I kept going at it. If I have to point one big influence at that time, it was Carlos Santana.
AAJ: As you went on, what else were you into?
P: I got into more progressive rock music like Rush, Jethro Tull, ELP and stuff and started playing those, finally leading into Steely Dan. That music sort of changed my life. I was now getting into something which was a lot of fun harmonically. I couldn't understand conceptually what was happening in all those incredible guitar solos of everyone from Denny Dias to Elliot Randall to Larry Carlton to other Dan guitarists, and in the horn arrangements etcetera, but was trying to play them note for note. I started to really hear and understand at some level, chord substitutions, and of course this new-found harmonic curiosity was eventually going to lead me into jazz in a big way.
AAJ: Explain what fostered your love for jazz and fusion also during this period.
P: Steely Dan, Weather Report, and Chick Corea's fusion works sort of laid the foundation for me to get into straight ahead jazz, though I must admit that it took a little while for me to get into the real trip of jazz.
AAJ: Can you expand on the period before coming to the US and the whole IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) experience?
P: I graduated from IIT with a degree in Naval Architecture in 1992. IIT is one of the world's top engineering schools. For the record, around 250,000 people take the entrance test every year to get into one of only 3500 seats or so in all. IIT graduates almost always end up getting very good scholarships to get advanced degrees at major prestigious schools in the US, etcetera. So, at some level, constantly being exposed to the highest levels of merit-based competition definitely helped build my character and resolve. Interestingly, that resolve turned out to be to opt for a life in music. Incidentally, I don't like the word 'career' so much when it comes to music.
AAJ: What musical experiences in India precipitated your attendance at Berklee?
P: By the time I chose to come to Berklee, I was quite well established as a carnatic musician and was performing at the top level in India. From a jazz standpoint, I wanted to get a lot deeper into the art form and Berklee was an obvious choice.
AAJ: When did you attend Berklee? Why did you pick it?
P: I first came to Berklee in 1994. I picked it because a lot of my 'heroes' went there. I looked at Berklee as a place for me to be immersed in music amidst people from all over the world, which I was sure would such an enjoyable learning experience.
AAJ: Was that your time of most intense growth period as a musician? If not what was?
P: To a large extent, yes! Going to Berklee was a life-changing experience for me, not only because of the wealth of music knowledge I gained, but also because I was now beginning to realize what my musical karma was emerging out to be. I was starting to realize that Carnatic music is virtually unknown among even the most advanced and well-exposed musicians, let alone listeners. I guess improvising on Charlie Parker standards using Carnatic ragas was interesting for me but I also got some strange vibes from certain jazz musicians that probably thought I was off the latch! In fact, that inspired me to get deeper and deeper into Jazz and Classical music, while at the same time get deeper and deeper into Carnatic music. I had to really believe in my mission and hone my own style of composition and guitar playing, not mindful of all the deterrents, and eventually it just became a journey of discovery and great fun. Along the way, I was able to carry a lot of good musicians with me and was able to be myself increasingly.
AAJ: You seem quite comfortable with the intricacies of music theory and its application to improvisation and composition. How much of that element do you bring into the compositional process?
P: Quite a bit, actually. Composition is a very integral part of my musical existence. The immortal compositions of great Carnatic composers like Tyagaraja, Dikshitar , Syama Sastri and others are great models in structural design, motivic development etc. This helped me relate to and understand at some level, the compositional process of the great composers of western classical music, particularly in the larger works. Similarly, the depth of improvisational potential in carnatic music and jazz are equally inspiring. Having also come from a very math and science-oriented background, the intellect, rigor and application of mind, to me are very essential in music making along with passion and heart - Mind, Body, Soul continuum, I guess!
AAJ: Does the amount of theory used vary based on the composition and the goals of the composition?
P: May be or maybe not. To me, there is really no such thing as 'theory'. Great music is both an art and science in equal measure. I sincerely believe that a musician has to know exactly what he's doing, in clear terms first, to be able to eventually transcend that state and go the next and more 'cosmic' state of just 'hearing' what he does, by which time the knowledge is truly internalized. Coltrane, Bartok, Stravinsky are all great examples of twentieth century masters in this regard!
AAJ: How heavily have you studied classical music?
P: Since I studied Composition in Berklee, I got a chance to get into classical music in-depth to some extent. I learned a lot when I had to analyze Beethoven and Bartok String Quartets, for example. I had an inspiring teacher in John Bavicchi, among many other great teachers at Berklee. Classical music is a huge ocean and I am just starting to drink a few sips here and there, and it is rich in all the musical nutrients I would constantly need in my musical life.
AAJ: How heavily have you studied applications of exotic vocabularies, such as so-called exotic scales and alternate tunings,in your music?
P: I personally feel that 'exotic', is in several ways, a Euro or American-centric term. To me, 'Jazz' or Classical music is as exotic or unexotic as Carnatic music or Zulu music or anything else, depending on which side of the street you're on. To me, Carnatic music, Classical music and Jazz are like the primordial Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva triangle in terms of architectural design, and so many kinds of great music, from many cultures around the world, constantly converge and diverge into and out of this, and the equilibrium itself is in a constant state of flux. So, I try my best to absorb the macros or the spirit of the music, as well as the micros, the scales, rhythms and other structural components, of all good music that I come across.
AAJ: What were the earliest recording projects you did?
P: My earliest recordings were my traditional solo Carnatic albums - the first called Guitar Goes Classical was recorded in 1993. In fact, 1993 was the year when four different Carnatic albums of mine were released in India. Other early recording projects were session work on movie soundtracks with the well-known Indian film composer A.R.Rahman.
AAJ: Tell us about your Peaceful cd and what circumstances came together to facilitate the writing and recording of your fist foray into the jazz world.
P: My first real 'solo record' outside of traditional Carnatic music was Peaceful in 2001. I wouldn't call it a jazz record, although there are a couple of solo jazz guitar pieces in it. In fact, looking back, I am unable to put a finger on what this record is all about since its very diverse. The only thing I know is that I had great fun doing this.
AAJ: How much of the record is composed and how much improvised, other than the obvious parts? By this I mean, do any of the tunes come out of jams? Or are they all written out?
P: Some of the tracks on the record are solo guitar improvised spontaneously with no written sketches at all. There are three carnatic compositions - one, I rearranged incorporating elements of Calypso/Salsa and the other in a jazz/rock vein and one played in a pure traditional form, unaccompanied. The title track is the only elaborate composition of mine in this record, which is fully arranged and produced. There is one song called 'The Nightsky', sung in English, that I wrote and sang. The rest of the record is unaccompanied solo guitar.
AAJ: Tell us about some of the musicians you used for those sessions.
P: I had some of my friends in India, like bassist Keith Peters, mridangam player J. Vaidhyanathan and ghatam player Karthick record with me on some tracks. I played all guitars, keyboards, and did the synth and drum programming on some tracks. I also sang on one tune.
AAJ: Please tell us what you hoped to get across with your debut.
P: To communicate what I'd call my musical present, and make a personal statement in some way, as a human being, artist, guitarist and composer.
AAJ: How was that first project done? By this I mean, was it independently produced and financed? Was it a studio or home project?
P: Yes. I put it out on my own label and financed it myself. I used a recording studio.
AAJ: Please tell us your take on your work on the Aka Moon Guitars project and the whole Aka Moon experience?
P: Playing with Aka Moon is both a joy and a great learning experience. Aka Moon's music is yet more proof of what I have always been saying and doing in my music - Carnatic music is a treasure house for those who seek its wealth.
AAJ: Who are these guys?
P: Aka Moon is basically a trio with Fabrizio Cassol on alto sax, who is also the composer, Michel Hatzigeorgiu on electric bass and Stephane Galland on drums. They work with a lot of other musicians from all over the world and bring them into their Aka Moon family, so to speak.
AAJ: Why do you think so few people know about them?
P: It is actually not fully true. From what I have seen, Aka Moon is quite big in Belgium and is also quite well known in other western European countries.
AAJ: How did they find out about you?
P: The Carnatic connection, I guess. But when I first met Fabrizio, we hit home at many levels since we were taking about Webern and Carnatic rhythms and Coltrane and I could see a personal synergy developing.
AAJ: Tell us about Fabrizio Cassol's special compositional methodologies and how you fit into that process. Also tell us about what you see are some of the commonalities between Aka Moon's compositional process and Carnatic music.
P: Fabrizio's larger compositional design is certainly coming out of Carnatic music. But the interlocking and vertical build-up of the parts is quite African, the harmonic language/ improvisational style is clearly Jazz, but the architecture to me, is also very Classically oriented. Counterpoint and orchestration are very central to Fabrizio's approach. All these things that I said about Fabrizio's style are part of my approach to composition too, so I can relate to his compositions at many levels and understand and approach it from different resource points.
Fabrizio also takes melodic design elements from Carnatic ragas, though in a less rigorous way than in the rhythmic treatment. The idea of using long cycles to convey the full phrasing potential of a melody is very clearly coming from carnatic music. Time cycles of Carnatic compositions, for example could be as long as 64/4. Rhythmic subdivisions like 5 over 4, or 3 over 5, in 4 speeds over an 18 beat cycle played at a slow tempo, like a quarter note = 40 are not rare at all in Carnatic music. Aka Moon uses many of these concepts in their music. Aka Moon's music gives me a vehicle to bring in other extremely sophisticated concepts of Carnatic music like the concepts of 'Sruti Bedham' (tonic shift or ragas) and 'Graha Bedham' (time shifts) into its fold and they are very appreciative when I do this.
AAJ: Tell us what Stephane Galland brings to the table at the drum set.
P: Lots of fun, mischief and incredible musicianship! Stephane is one of the most special drummers in the world. One has to play with him to realize how great he is! Michel, the bassist is in a league of his own. Frankly, all three members of Aka Moon are in an elite class of their own.