In the tradition of East-West musical encounters that goes back to Ravi Shankar’s 1971 Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, celebrated sarod virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan’s Samaagam brings together those seemingly opposed worlds: the open-ended improvisation of Indian classical music and the structures of the symphony orchestra and concerto form. Performed by orchestras across the world since its première in 2008, 16 March sees it aired by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra in a live streamed performance that can be watched via Bachtrack At Home.

Amjad Ali Khan © Suvo Das
Amjad Ali Khan
© Suvo Das

Could you explain the title of Samaagam – which means “confluence” – and how it relates to the music?

For me, a collaboration is a metaphor for the possibilities that can blossom when a community comes together – the power of the many working together. Samaagam carries a similar message. It is a model for what is possible when different musical cultures and genres come together with a purpose. Western classical symphonic form meets Indian classical music to resound as a call for action. In the early movements, we hear aching resonances of Rabindra Sangeet [music by Bengali songwriter Rabindranath Tagore], and to the music of Bollywood in its classic era. We, in Mumbai and Delhi, will recognize this as our music – the music of modern urban India. As the journey of the assembling Samaagam/community continues, we are swept together by the quickening of purpose and the realization of possibilities in an utterly joyous, blazing exchange between the sarod and the orchestra

Improvisation is at the heart of the Indian classical tradition, yet music-making for the Western orchestra is dominated by premeditated composition. How do those two things meet in Samaagam?

Western music in its contrapuntal essence is a music of the “other”, where playing in polyphonic ensembles requires listening to, acceptance and ultimately celebration of the narrative of voices other than one’s own. Whereas Indian music, a profoundly melodic idiom, relies on a deep exploration, understanding and improvisation on the possibilities of a monophonic voice.

How did you go about writing the concerto?

I was very happy and honoured when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra approached me to write a sarod concerto for them. David Murphy conducted the entire concerto and also put my thoughts together. David has great regard for Indian classical music, so he could understand and read my vision. After nearly a year’s work, I decided to name this project Samaagam – A Concerto for Sarod. It soon premiered in the Orkney Islands at the St. Magnus Festival. The idea was to bring the spirit of sharing the great, unique treasures of our own artistic traditions, as well as finding common ground in ragas and medieval modes. By God’s grace, we have achieved a cross-fertilisation at both the cellular and cosmic levels of two classical music traditions, which are often held to be radically different – too different to meet without a bridge of some sort. Through this collaboration, the aim is to preserve the essence of both Indian and Western traditions so they can flow into each other without artistic compromise. The concept is to joyfully explore the common musical DNA of both traditions.

Obviously Indian classical and Western classical traditions are very different. But do you think there are any similarities between them as well?

Music is one of the most important “foods” for the intellect. Each musical note is connected to the most important parts of our minds. Musicians and listeners have been communicating with each other across all barriers through this language from time immemorial. As we use flowers in worship, welcoming, honouring, departure and celebration no matter what our race, origin, religion or language, we similarly arrange musical notes into “bouquets” or compositions which display all our human feelings and emotions.

© Dilip Bhatia
© Dilip Bhatia

You’ve taught courses in the US and the UK. What kind of things do you try to teach the young musicians on these courses, who might be from outside your own musical culture?

I love interacting with students from various musical cultures. My residency at Stanford University was called Indian Classical Music: A Way of Life. This was open to students with experience playing a musical instrument (including voice) from any musical tradition, including Western classical. No previous experience with Indian music was necessary. I also had a long residency in 2016 at Jacob’s School of Music in Bloomington.

The aspects covered in my course include how music can be way of life, the world outside writing or reading music, the importance of oral tradition in Indian classical music and how vocal music is most essential, even for an instrumentalist. There is room for music beyond technical brilliance and fireworks. Appeal, aesthetics and poise are all musical terms for me. I am very happy about the progress of the students who are realizing music and feeling it as a way of life.

Do you have any plans to compose more music for orchestra?

I’d love to première a new piece with an orchestra, and there are some talks on. However, I am so honoured that Samaagam is being performed this year by Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra, Bronx Arts Ensemble and New Jersey Symphony with conductor Xian Jhong.

You’ve previously said that “every musical note is the sound of God.” I wondered if you could talk a little about your ideas of the connection between music and spirituality? Does this philosophy apply to all music or only certain kinds?

To be a musician is in itself a blessing, as you are really not answerable to anyone but yourself. For those few hours when you are onstage, you are in a creative frenzy – it is sometimes supernaturally unreal. There are times when you get off stage only then to realize that something special happened up there on stage that day. It is also a non-debatable factor that music is indeed the best way to connect to that supreme power that we have never seen. Be it any religion, music has always been the pathway to spirituality. Like cosmic divinity, music knows few barriers or boundaries. However, often in the race for cultural superiority we pit one order against the other. The antithesis of this conflict phenomenon is fusion music, a rage among the current generation of music-lovers, which sees the world as a global village.

I have always admired and enjoyed listening to European classical musicians like Beethoven, Bach, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. In fact, the idea to turn my ancestral house in Gwalior into a museum of music came after I went to Bonn to visit the house of Beethoven. Indian classical renditions are often compared with jazz, and this is not misplaced. There is scope for improvisations in both the disciplines, but in a different manner. The message of Indian classical music is freedom within the discipline.