Ronan Skillen: Telepathic Euphoria

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: You referenced an Indian ensemble touring South Africa that got things going for you. For many people not familiar with South Africa, that might come as a surprise. Can you talk about the ties between South Africa and India?

RS: India and South Africa have had a history since Ghandi's time. For many political reasons, South Africa has the largest population of Indian people outside of India. More specifically, relating to my first encounter with Akram Khan and the Indian ensemble, this was the beginning of a visionary idea initiated by Nisaar Pangarker. He began with a series of concerts under the name "Inner Circle Entertainment" that would happen once or twice a year to educate Southern African audiences as well as the Indian population of Southern Africa. He wanted to bring Indian classical music of a very high level to South Africa and showcase it in a traditional way. I'm still extremely grateful for his vision and dedication to this world of Indian classical music he has opened.

AAJ: A number of your projects weld together many musical worlds, which seems appropriate given the range of cultures in South Africa. You've spoken about artists like John McLaughlin fusing the East and the West as well as the North and the South, and also spoken of ideas about universal rhythms. How did you begin to navigate bringing the taals [Indian musical meter] into other musical languages?

RS: McLaughlin is an amazing candidate for that kind of work. In fact, he and the kanjira player Selva Ganesh actually released a DVD called The Gateway to Rhythm. It talks about this very thing: a universal rhythm language known as Konnakol. Konnakol is a widely-known rhythmic language that originated in Southern India. It has been applied in India-based rhythmical music right through to jazz and many other genres. For example, Babu (a band I used to play in with Kesivan Naidoo, Shane Cooper, and Reza Khota) used a lot of those ideas. We also use the concept in Ancient Agents, where a rhythmical pattern would be literally rehearsed, with the band getting together to speak the rhythms before it plays them.

It is an amazing tool, a very efficient and incredibly fast way of memorizing rhythm structures. When you learn it that way, you speak the rhythm first, internalizing it in your body, and then you play it. There are all sorts of counting mechanisms that use your hand to mark beats on the nodes of your fingers. A lot of Indian music is based on 16 beats, which is divisible by two, which is eight, which is divisible by two, which is four, et cetera. If you've got a five or seven, you can quickly figure out where it sits. Your hand becomes like a graph, so you can count quickly. With that come the syllables: "Ta, Ta-ka, Ta-ki-ta, Ta-ka-di-mi" and "Da-di-gi-na-dom." Those are the five basic sound patterns used to mix any form of a rhythmical phrase in Konnakol. Then you could put a melody on top, which is really exciting. In fact, I often think of rhythm in melodic form. It's the easiest way to memorize odd meters, I reckon.

AAJ: The compound kit—which you developed to combine the tabla, didgeridoo, and percussion instruments—is another prominent aspect of your performances. How did you assemble it?

RS: I've always been heavily influenced by Trilok Gurtu. He's another one of those unique guys who has always respected the tabla tradition, and has always said something that resonates with me: that everything in his rhythmic concept emerges from and goes back to the tabla. So if Gurtu can't play it on the tabla, then he can't play it. In a way, I feel similar. Not that I'm anywhere near Trilok, that's not what I'm trying say!

In my playing, I wanted to incorporate some kind of what might be called more "normal" or "usual" sounds that I could switch to, so that the music is not entirely tabla-based. The tabla is quite melodic—the actual drum is pitched—and it can be limiting when you've got an ensemble using different harmonies and changes that are shifting to a key that wouldn't fit with the tabla. I was also interested in other contemporary music and wanted to fuse the two in a way I could comfortably interpret.

I designed a lot of my kit from things that were given to me. I sought out particular pieces and made some of it out of aluminum so that I could travel with it. I'd go into industrial areas and find different lengths of pipe to mold something together. Eventually I had designed this 180-degree frame tapestry around me, with all sorts of gongs, bells, cymbals, drums and percussion attached to it. Since I was sitting cross-legged, I didn't have my feet, which is a problem for any normal drummer. I initially used a frame drum but now I use this old roto tom, which I tune down and put a thick suede skin over. With the right microphone, it gives me this incredibly deep, thick bass drum sound. I use that as a kick with my left hand, much like Trilok. I've also have a snare and all sorts of other paraphernalia that keeps changing. I go through phases of finding new instruments that I want to put in the mix, and then I either don't have enough hands or enough space, so something has to fall away!

AAJ: You say "tapestry." One thing that is striking about a project the duo Tonik is its generative layering of sound and tonal painting. How did that emerge, and how did you start merging live performance with looping techniques?

RS: With Tonik, as a duo we quickly realized that we wanted to either use our sounds by layering them and making the sound tapestry thicker and denser, or to blend in loops and blend them out again. With that idea in mind, we stumbled upon a distinct sound. A lot of the samples we ended up using were sounds from India that I recorded during my travels, and a lot of them were just incorporated naturally. But there is a large element in Tonik that is momentary, so every gig was always unique. We literally used whatever we had and made [it up] on the spot.

We used to play what we called "silent gigs" with headphones. We would often also use atmospheric sounds. When you layer that, it's a weird thing for people to experience the frequency that they're sitting in, but in an amplified way. I always felt Tonik was a really nice mixture of not being enslaved by the loops. Once you're in a rhythmic pattern with the loop, you can get stuck. You have to stay there. Jann Krynauw, the pianist and the guy who operated all the looping and all the electronic parts, had that kind of brain. It was very beautifully executed in a way in which most audience members had no idea what was being looped or not. It was just sound, you know.

AAJ: Can we talk a bit more about the silent gigs? This is similar to your more recent work with the Intone project. In both cases, the performance space itself is an active part of the performance.

RS: The silent gig concept came about because Tonik used to rehearse at Jann's apartment in town. He lived in this one-bedroom flat with neighbors and paper-thin walls. We always rehearsed with headphones. He had a nine-to-five job, so we generally met after five in the evening. We really enjoyed the idea of being so close to the music. The detail was so clear. Every time we played, it was like jamming along to an album. It was really intense listening. At one point during a rehearsal, we both had the same idea in a sort of telepathic euphoria: why don't we try and do this live, but where everybody has headphones? Immediately after that, we realized that this meant we could play pretty much anywhere. Jann used a Nord keyboard so you wouldn't hear him acoustically, except for a little clickety-clackety. My instruments were fairly acoustically manageable in a silent space, meaning we could closely mic everything and really explore what our instruments were supposed to sound like. Both of us had experiences in other live music situations were we were misrepresented or had a horrible experience because of sound issues. For example, I'd try and play a bunch of different tablas and a didgeridoo or something and the sound engineers didn't even know what those instruments were.

Our first gig we did was on Jann's roof. We invited a bunch of friends, got an access key from the landlord, and went onto the roof of this tall building in the center of Cape Town around sunset to set up 40 chairs. We had wired headphones at the time. Eventually we switched to wireless ones, which was really cool, and so much easier to manage. Then we got a silent generator from Japan, which meant that we were able to take this into a forest or into a weird canyon. We could have a picnic with everyone and then play music for them in this incredibly open but isolated environment. It was quite something. Using two Neumann condenser microphones, placed in a space that is wide open, you're going to hear more of the birds, you're going to hear more of the elements and the space you are in. Just feeling that was unique in itself.
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