Trio interview: Let the violins sing! Making new music with Florian Willeitner and Ganesh-Kumaresh
Last week, as the streets and the night sky of Chennai erupted through every day — and through every night — of the festival of Diwali, Florian Willeitner remained in his hotel room, practicing on his violin.
Finding a few moments of quiet was never going to be easy — and he did almost suffer a few heart attacks, says the award-winning German violinist, composer, arranger and founder of the artistic collective, Pool of Invention.
Florian’s in the city for a very special performance — conceptualised and hosted by the Goethe-Institut along with Rotary Club of Madras East — titled, Classical Strings Violinkonzert, along with the renowned duo of Ganesh and Kumaresh.
The medium of exchange will be the violin — though, the language of music will transcend boundaries of Western and Carnatic classical music.
In a lengthy interaction, the artistes spoke about common points — and differences in their style, and schooling — that they will look to bridge and unify into something truly harmonious. Excerpts from the interview:
We got to see a video posted on social media of a recent rehearsal. Give us a sense of how intimate, and homely things can get as you practice. Does anyone get to disturb you? Most importantly, how have you been keeping out the sounds of firecrackers during rehearsals?
Ganesh & Kumaresh: Our motherland reflects in a life of celebration. We celebrate life more internally than externally. In that process, we have been able to resolve many complexities both within and outside. We deal with various kinds of sounds in our day to day life at the most critical junctures so dealing with the sounds of the festival is a joy.
We believe in the concept of internal silence while the rest of the world is still alien to that concept. So, the sound of firecrackers is musical to us and can be a very noisy proposition to the other minds. Music is more of an expression from within and so one cannot get more intimate than that as we express our musical ideas to each other. It has been a pleasure working with Florian. He is a very free-spirited musician and a bundle of joy.
Florian Willeitner: Kumaresh and myself had a couple of rehearsal sessions at a wonderful studio before Ganesh was joining. It is, of course, necessary to rehearse in a space where we can fully concentrate on the music. Also, the Goethe Institut’s hall is a very good room to rehearse. There weren’t any rehearsals taking place over Deepawali, so no firecrackers came our way. Actually, I was practicing at my hotel room on these days, and almost died of several heart attacks as there were detonations all over the place… but luckily, I survived!
Tell us a little about how difficult, or easy at the same time - it has been, for you to bring together your personal styles, and schools of Indian and Western classical music, to work together? Could you describe the sound that you are making now, in a few words?
G&K: Communication in itself is an art. Music is by far the only natural element that can bring people together. When two personalities from different cultures meet, there are bound to be differences, but the joy is in finding the common way of expressing our differences.
Music by default is an indivisible medium - it is the human mind and the society that has divided the sound of music as this and that. So, we have found a way in which there is a musical synergy in what we are presenting, and we can promise that the audience is in for a musical treat, listening to a very new, dynamic and traditional sound of music.
FW: It is a bit early for me to give a full answer on this, since we are still discovering and developing the format, but I can surely share some thoughts I had so far... Cross-cultural collaboration is always a very delicate task, since it happens too often that these cultures actually get in the way of each other rather than creating an artistically interesting transcultural style. Indian and Western classical music styles are both very old and elaborate musical styles that actually do not share much of a common ground if we talk about the pure tradition of both cultures.
A few examples would be the very different organisation of the musical DNA (scales, modes and so on), the different ways of phrasing and building musical compositions, or also the complete absence of improvisation in the more written out Western classical tradition.
A collaboration including both cultures is therefore by definition already a step towards new shores for both musical languages. It is something that takes lots of time and has to evolve over several steps, which is why this first working phase and concert can be only a first step towards a promising, long-term collaboration.
A question for Ganesh and Kumaresh: Could you give us a sense of how it is to bring Forian into your world of classical music. How fluid, comfortable and effortless are your interactions when it comes to the actual making and fusion of music?
G&K: Making music is a great way of living. In our musical journey of 47 years of performances, we had the privilege of performing with some of the most refined and most expanded musical minds, and it has been a great learning experience.
Florian is a very skilled, energetic and sharp-minded musician, who has made a wonderful name for himself as a very thinking and exploring musician in the Western classical violin arena, and that is a very, very rare and exclusive club. It is fun working with him, and he has a very open mind in exploring Indian musical ideas. This is another new experience for us to work with somebody of that age group, and we see a bit of ourselves in that.
A question for Florian: Could you give us a sense of your musical journey so far, from the fusion of Western classical traditions with pop, rock, jazz and folk music elements to now, working with Ganesh and Kumaresh. How do you see this newest collaboration opening up new sounds, and possibilities, in the world of music?
FW: The first years of my musical education were strictly in the tradition of Western classical music. So, this is where I come from as a musician. Nevertheless, since a very young age, I have been very much interested in improvisation, jazz and other musical cultures, and I was lucky enough to have great, open-minded, creative teachers, and to make great encounters at this very early phase of my musical journey, which grew in me the interest for a transcultural musical language.
Now that I have finished my Master’s Degree as a Performing Artist in Western Classical Music, and have started to work as a composer and violinist in many innovative and multi-cultural projects, I have made this interest in transcultural art the centre of my artistic activity. For this purpose, I founded the ‘Pool of Invention’ this year, which is an artistic collective and a platform working in the field of transcultural art that has been collaborating with many great artists of different European folk music styles, jazz, as well as musicians from Brazil. Every collaboration opens an entire new world of music, and I never stop being amazed by the worldwide diversity of (musical) cultures.
With Ganesh and Kumaresh, I experienced two absolute masters of the Carnatic music tradition, which I only started to get to know, through them. I have the deepest respect for their mastership of their musical style and I am very grateful for their openness and curiosity to explore the possibilities of collaboration.
Give us an idea of how you have approached and planned this performance, especially in terms of accompanying artistes? Do you have larger arrangements in mind, involving other instruments?
G&K: We have planned the musical movements in such a way that the flamboyance of the West meets the aesthetics of the Indian music melodies, and the intensity of the Indian music meets the skilful dynamics of the West. Every musician has a definitive role to play in the context of any musical program.
FW: For me, it is both a difficult and interesting aspect that it is a very small group of musicians in this performance - me being the only 'representative' of Western culture. Interesting, because it forces me to think about ways of how a single violin can dive into this collaboration, and also because it gives me a lot of freedom and spontaneity. Difficult, because a big part of my work is based on arrangements for ensembles, where I can also focus more on harmony, more complex forms, and so on. Definitely something to think about for the future!
As classical musicians - from both the Western and Indian classical worlds - how do you compare the experience of performing with full-sized orchestra arrangements to smaller experimental ensembles, with a handful of musicians, percussion, woodwinds and so on? How would you like to innovate in the future, when it comes to envisioning dream cross-cultural projects?
G&K: We have not yet performed with any full-fledged musical orchestra and hence cannot comment on that. Music is a beautiful language, and to express oneself through that medium is a blessing. For musicians in general, there are no boundaries. We think in terms of ragas and the Western musicians think in terms of modes, we suppose.
We get into a comfortable conversation, and most times, these are without conflicts and hence they come out very well. Sometimes, there are conflicts, and then that eventually gets to where it has to go. We create music, and hence, we are called musicians. There is nothing to innovate. Everything is there. We need to have the mind, and the skill to discover that.
FW: Smaller ensembles allow more individuality and spontaneity. Nevertheless, I am a lover of big, colourful ensembles, and I am always, also thinking of ways to translate or arrange transcultural music for bigger ensembles like a symphony orchestra. This is not an easy task.
I have written my Master’s thesis on this topic, and it requires a lot of time and dedication on a different level. I have developed an orchestra model that allows any small chamber musical group - with any cultural background - to become a ‘Plug-In’ for the orchestra, that makes it possible to add symphonic colours, without disturbing distinct musical elements such as ‘groove’, for instance, and very individual musical flow and phrasing. It’s a dream I am always dreaming to bring a collaboration also to such a symphonic level.
All three of you have been music scholars at a very young age. Could you give us a sense of how similar, or different, your study routines were? How strict were your learning years, and how much freedom were you given to improvise with your music?
G&K: The journey is the same for most musicians, the path may be different. Every artiste wants to explore and contribute something from his side to the art form. In doing that, each of us aspires for recognition in different forms and ways.
So, the journey is more or less the same. The discipline in formative years is of paramount importance for a free-spirited exploration in the romance with musical days. Freedom without discipline is an open recipe for disaster in any walk of life, and it is the same with music as well. So, one should really work very hard during the formative years.
FW: I am grateful for the strictness of the Western classical education, because I see it as one of the best ways to actually really get to know your instrument in every technical aspect. I dislike the absence of creativity in this tradition though, since the main focus is on interpreting written music by composers.
Therefore, I have always been looking for creativity through other musical styles and approaches, and I am now fighting very much to bring creativity back to Western classical education. The educational aspect is also an important part of Pool of Invention.
As composers, how would you describe the violin as the most versatile of all musical instruments? How is the violin placed as the best sound, to bring together completely different worlds of classical music together?
G&K: As one great musician said, there is nothing good or bad about any instrument - it is in the performer. The limitations are in the mind. All instruments are beautiful in their original sound. For each musician with a chosen instrument, that becomes very special and he or she will always sing in praise of that as the best instrument for musical expression. Since the violin is used extensively in both the systems of music, it becomes a very good medium of musical expression, and hence in a way, is the perfect instrument for this kind of musical collaboration.
FW: In terms of colours, soundscapes, virtuosity, agility and flexibility, the violin is without a doubt one of the most versatile musical instruments. It’s interesting that we find forms of it in almost any worldwide musical culture. Its relatively thin and fragile sound - compared to brass instruments for instance - makes it, on the other hand, very weak in combination with louder instruments, which is why the ideal environment for the violin is definitely a small chamber musical setting, just like in this concert.
Have you ever listened to electronic music? Would you ever, even in a dream, consider collaborating with a DJ? Give us your ideas about how you see music evolving around you, and how you'd like to play your part in keeping the best of all worlds, for listeners of the future?
G&K: Music has adapted beautifully with the changing and evolving technology discoveries. With the right kind of ideas and projects, we would love to work with any musical dimension. It is not that we have not worked with electronic samples in our musical journey, in one of our albums, Spark, based on the concept of Navarasa, we did use electronic samples in one of our track.
Music is already a completely evolved phenomenon, it is just that different aspects of the same are grasped by an artiste and that is being expressed. We always think that we are the makers, but in reality, everything is already made and available. We would like to say that embrace music and make one’s life musical and the world will be a beautiful place as it is for living... without differences.
FW: I think electronic music is a very interesting art field, although I do think that there is only little with an interesting artistic approach. Knower is doing great stuff, for instance, and I totally think that the violin is flexible enough to contribute also to this musical style. I have collaborated with a few DJs so far, but it hasn’t been the main focus of my work, though since I am at the moment more interested in translating different musical styles on the violin itself, without using any musical equipment.
Could you share with us your top bands, musicians or simply music that you like to play on a holiday when you are by yourself? What music do you enjoy most at festivals, celebrations or parties, and gatherings with friends?
Ganesh: For me, it is impossible to be away from music. I listen to all kinds of music on the go. There is no particular dislike. All music has something to offer. Life is a celebration. I am in the midst of people all the time, and those moments are all party time!
Kumaresh: My vacation and holiday times are mostly non-musical times. But when I drive - I do that a lot - I listen to Ilayaraja Sir's music with specific songs of S Janaki Amma, a true Bharath Ratna - I am a very big fan of her singing. She was a fantastic singer - one of the best ever in India. And, of course, SPB Sir and Yesudas Sir. I also listen to old film songs, specifically G Ramanathan Ki”s music and MSV Sir’s music. On festival days, we will have the divine voice of MS Amma ringing all over our house - that’s a truly divine experience.
FW: My daily plate of music changes constantly. I usually listen to the kinds of music that I am working with. At the moment, this is Ganesh-Kumaresh’s work. Bands, musicians and composers I love are Snarky Puppy, Knower, Chris Thile, John Butler, Brahms, Bach, Bartok, Egberto Gismonte, Hamilton de Holanda, Yamandu Costa and many many more.
The Indo-German Trio will perform at The Music Academy, Chennai on November 1, 7 pm onwards.
— Jaideep Sen