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Interviews

Prasanna's Carnatic Convergence Concept Produces Potent Panethnic Potion

By Published: October 6, 2003

AAJ: Tell us about the special relationship you and a co-guitarist in that group, David Gilmore , share.

P: David is always a joy to listen to and even more a joy to play with, and chill out with. We stay in touch quite often and I look forward to roping David into some of my other projects in the future.

AAJ: Tell us about the Aka Moon touring that was done before and after the recording.

P: We played the Middelheim Jazz Festival in Belgium before the recording. Guitars was released in April 2002. We toured Europe that same month to promote the CD, and had a blast playing some great venues in Belgium, Holland and France.

AAJ: Will you be gigging with the band on this recording in the future? Is this an ongoing project?

P: I will be performing with Aka Moon and Joe Lovano in North Sea Jazz Festival this year. It will be a sextet with myself, the Aka Moon trio, Fabian Fiorini on Piano, Geoffrey De Masur on Trombone and our very special guest will be saxophonist Joe Lovano.

As far as I know, Aka Moon and I should be working together on an on-going basis. We have several projects in mind. I plan to take Aka Moon Guitars to India sometime when the right situation comes about. It would be great to also have Aka Moon play my compositions in some project. We'll see what the future has in store for collaborations.

AAJ: Tell us about your gigs in India with Alphonso Johnson and Kenwood Dennard and also your work with Alphonso and Airto Moreira.

P: I invited Alphonso and Kenwood to join me for a concert in Chennai, India in Jan 2000. It was at the Open Air Theatre in IIT (my alma mater). We had a great time playing together for the first time to an audience of almost 6000 people at the stadium. The material is usually mine and they sound great on it.

I met Airto Moreira in LA, where Alphonso and I suggested we do some jamming. There was enough chemistry there, so we went out on the road as 'Quantum', doing two sold out nights at the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton, Canada in May 2002. We recorded the shows on multi-track to see if there's some magic somewhere that can be put out, but we had some technical problems with the recording. Since then, we have been finding a way to tour again, but each of us have so many other projects going on at the same time. We hope it will happen soon.

AAJ: Will you work with these guys in the future?

P: Of course! I am right now in a state of flux as far as getting any one band together since all these great musicians add so much to my music but at the same time, everybody is busy. In the last year or so, I have had so many great musicians like Alphonso, Airto, Kenwood, Larry Coryell, Steve Smith, Kai Eckhardt, Ralph Humphrey and many others play my material with me and they all put a different spin on it, which is really cool. I plan to start recording some of my material in this genre, and I think that will suggest some options to work on a good touring band for longer tours and other things.

AAJ: How many US dates have you played with these guys?

P: A few concerts here and there in different places in North America, but more importantly, they've been at good venues and with great audiences, so the vibe has been very good in every sense.

AAJ: Did you play anywhere else in Europe as a unit with Alphonso and /or Airto and Kenwood?

P: Not yet! Hopefully soon!

AAJ: How do you split your personality with bands internationally? Do you try to coordinate it so that you can do a Carnatic gig along with the fusion, or do you even think in those terms?

P: My life in Carnatic music goes on a parallel but integrated track. I do lots of tours- notably in the US, Canada, Europe and of course India, playing Carnatic concerts. I just got back from a tour of the Middle East playing in Qatar. I've gotten to play prestigious venues and festivals many times and the audiences have been great everywhere. There are many 'two-set' concerts I have done and will continue to do - a traditional carnatic first set and a Jazz/Fusion band as second set. People love this and its also very stimulating for me to do these kinds of concerts. I also like to do duo concerts. I did one with Larry Coryell last year. I'll be doing one with Victor Wooten in California this September and one with Steve Smith in Spokane in Sept.

AAJ: Please tell us about some of the incredible classical Indian musicians you have worked with and will continue to work with.

P: I have enjoyed working with several top level carnatic musicians ranging from my guru, A. Kanyakumari, a great Carnatic violinist, to people like violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam to mridangam masters like Dr. T. K. Murthy, Prof. Trichy Sankaran, to thavil maestro Haridwaramangalam A.K.Palanivel etc, to Ghatam master 'Vikku' Vinayakram, and a host of others. I have also worked with accomplished Hindustani musicians like flautist HariPrasad Chaurasia, vocalist Shubha Mudgal, tabla players like Fazal Qureshi, Aneesh Pradhan and many others.

AAJ: Tell us how the explosion in worldwide awareness of Indian musical culture has affected your thing. Do you get any more or less attention for tour of festival appearances?

P: The worldwide awareness of Indian musical culture tends to be restricted to Hindustani music mostly. Carnatic music is still a relatively unknown form of music. Most people tend to associate Indian music with Sitar and Tabla. While I am quite proud of the fact that these two beautiful instruments and the tradition they represent- Hindustani music has become universal- I can't help feeling that Carnatic music never got and may never ever get that kind of recognition. I can definitely understand the various dynamics that shape this scenario and I am only concerned about providing access to Carnatic music to as many people as possible and leaving it to them to embrace it or not.

So, in all fairness, I have had to really struggle to explain what I do, where I come from, why I am not playing the Sitar etc. Adding to the list of perceived paradoxes', I play Carnatic music on the electric guitar and I also play Jazz, which are rather unusual among Indian classical artists. In the last few years, I have been fortunate to see a growing following of people all over the world for my music, including my traditional Carnatic music, and this gives me so much encouragement to pursue the path of excellence to the best of my abilities.

AAJ: Changing the discussion to your technique, please tell us about what goes into it- especially your incredible fretless, or fretless- sounding anyway, technique -how that started and how it continues into today, with now what sounds to be a technically transparent facility. In short, how do make it sound like there are no frets on the instrument even though there are? Also, tell us about the quarter-tones/half-tones/microtonal aspect of your playing and how you make it fit/not fit with western harmonic concepts-and then jazz concepts.

P: Interestingly, I would be able to play most of the gamakas only on a fretted guitar and not on a fretless guitar. The other day, I tried David Fuiczynski 's fretless-by the way, he has just started studying with me-and I found that the Carnatic gamakas were not really coming out that precisely on a fretless.

I would look at what I play more as a vocabulary rather than technique. Carnatic music is sophisticated and complex melodically, because of the gamakas that give life to the ragas and compositions. I prefer to call it just gamakas, as it should be called. Microtones, quarter-tones etcetera is terminology that tends to sound very Eurocentric, and doesn't really apply to Carnatic music.

The octave is divided into 16 pitches, unlike the 12 in western music. There are 72 parent ragas in Carnatic music which are seven note scales in the ascent and descent. 36 of them are with the natural 4th and 36 with the #4th. The various permutations and combinations of scale design possibilities out of this gives rise to more than 22,000 different ragas. Since several of these ragas can be very similar except for minute differences, the single most important distinguishing factor is the gamakas. These become the all-important and distinctive 'phraseology' for each of these ragas. Therefore the gamakas are very highly developed and with very precise, minute color shadings, and are essential to bring out the character of each raga.

So, whiIe I improvise on a particular scale-for example a Lydian flat 7 scale over a dominant seventh chord, I use the corresponding raga and play with the gamakas of the raga. That brings out a completely different color(Note: the Lydian Flat 7 is the same scale as Vachaspati raga), in contrast to playing Lydian flat 7 as a 'scale'. I also constantly change between ragas to suit the chord changes and many times, constantly shift between playing carnatic ragas and other jazz phraseology, like bebop vocabulary, to make it even less literal and more fun for me.

AAJ: What aspects of your compositional style would you point listeners to? How would you attempt describing your own compositional style?

P: I try to find a balance between meticulous written parts and interpretative sections in most of my compositions. Many of them take Carnatic ragas as source material melodically and harmonically, and Carnatic tala calculations, which are the mathematical groupings/sub-divisions etcetera, as rhythmic material. They are also in varied time cycles. Again, I hate to use the term 'odd-time' because these are very natural from the culture I am coming from. I also enjoy writing counterpoint. Chord changes are also staple stuff in my music, but then it all depends on the genre I am writing for.

AAJ: Now tell us about your latest conceptual focus. What events transpired that have brought it into focus.

P: Of late, I am very heavily influenced by African music and an off-shoot of that is my interest in the concept of creating separation between the various parts rhythmically. The result of it is that much of my new compositions seem to have very specific and lyrical bass lines, which are quite displaced from the downbeat of the drums. I love bass lines, by the way. To me, a great bass line makes a song so much fun! I am also having fun writing music that has only a pulse and no time signature. Lots of new music like drum n' bass, trance etc seem to influence my writing and thinking too.

AAJ: In terms of harmonic territory, are there particular sources that you would point interested people towards? What books or recordings would you particularly advise students of harmony, improvisation and time concepts to seek out?

P: My harmonic approach is something that I have been consciously working very hard over the last few years to make it more of a system. In short, much of my harmonic vocabulary is based out of carnatic ragas and even mathematical ideas. I sometimes use extreme dissonances and bi-tonality but compensate for it melodically and vice-versa. I also use pandiatonicism a lot to create an illusion of harmonic movement, particularly when the melodic material is in a major raga. I think its very important to get one's hear honed to modern harmony in terms of colors - bright, dark and the varying shades among them, rather than function. In modern music, it really doesn't matter what chord follows what as long as one is able to perceive a coloristic movement.

AAJ: : Are there some elements of improvisation that are particularly fruitful for you, concepts that you keep revisiting and/or reinventing that keep your playing and your lines cutting edge and fresh?

P: When I improvise, I mix and match between very linear and very angular phrasings. The linear part is coming out of Carnatic music consciousness and the angular part, with wider intervals, comes out of a jazz sensibility. One thing I consciously did was to not memorize any licks, even if they're my own. I kind of really like to get into pure improvisation and let the moment dictate what's going on. Even if I succeed rarely, it's worth it. Of course, I practice scales, arpeggios and other stuff to keep my fingers in good shape and keep learning the fingerboard. But going beyond that, I think improvisation stems more from life than technique.

AAJ: Any sideman work you'd like to hip the audience to? Or perhaps coming down the road?

P: I love to do sideman work. To me, the best way to learn about myself is to play other artists' music. It's a lot of fun. I do some sideman work here and there but I'd like to do a lot more.

AAJ: What aspects of your own playing style would you point listeners to? How would you attempt describing your own playing style?

P: My playing style is a result of what I would like to communicate to the listener through my music. I don't know how else to really describe my style.

AAJ: Do you have other concepts for other solo projects? Tell us about how the compositional approach will vary between them.

P: From time to time, I get some commissions to write for a more classical ensemble and when that happens, I get into a more rigorous compositional routine. One thing feeds the other and a musician, to me, is always in a constant state of artistic torment, I guess!

AAJ: Do you have any kind of a long-term musical career plan?

P: Sure, I do. But the main long-term plan I have is to continue to enjoy making music and make a conscious effort to involve people - listeners, musicians etcetera, into my world! People are precious to my aesthetic of music making and I owe it to them to let keep pushing.

AAJ: How do you feel about the effects of the internet on the music scene?

P: It's the greatest thing to have happened to music in a long time.

AAJ: With all you've got going on, how do you decide on which project to do next? Is there a lot of work you decline?

P: Interestingly, I don't decline that many projects. I usually get projects which I really enjoy. I am in a great situation right now, where I am very busy doing several projects around the year and yet am able to spend quite a bit of time at home and practice, or write and do other things away from music, like spending time with my wife.

AAJ: What do you think needs to happen for you and you projects to gain a bit more recognition?

P: If I knew that answer, you wouldn't be asking me this question today!

AAJ: How much unreleased music do you have written or demoed that you'd want to release?

P: Enough to fill up half a dozen CDs, I guess!

AAJ: What music holds your most extreme interest these days, and what of it may influence your next project or recording?

P: Well, I don't listen to music 24/7/365, so anything I listen to seems to have an effect on me. I am trying to listen to more African music and also Reggae at this point. I guess music which has great bass lines like Reggae, Funk, and Disco appeal to me instantly, at this present time, since my compositions tend to be quite bass line-oriented of late. Electronica has also been of interest. In fact, my new CD that's just been recorded is primarily that. Carnatic music, Jazz and Classical music are, of course, staples.

AAJ: What's in your cd case at the moment?

P: A few. Salif Keita, the Wassolou women of Africa, Bach's Goldberg Variations, Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard, Dolphy's Out to Lunch are a few of the things I've been listening to in the last few days.

AAJ: Any other musicians you'd like to comment on, or whose playing you particularly respect?

P: Too many to list, I guess. I grow everyday in my music only because there are so many great musicians in this world that I am lucky to hear and enjoy everyday.

AAJ: Any musicians you would particularly like to work with that you have not?

P: Again, too many to list. Wayne Shorter, for sure. Steely Dan, for sure. The Jenda drummers from Kerala, Roy Haynes, folk musicians from Tamil Nadu, Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin, Scofield, Singers from Mali, the Emerson String Quartet ... if only I had my way.

AAJ: Do you have any desire to work in more of a prog or pop vein?

P: Sure! Pop music is infinitely malleable and ductile. There's always room for good music.

AAJ: To wrap up, please tell us your musical plans, or projects in the pipeline, for 2003 and beyond.



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