Simon Thacker is a musician and guitarist from Scotland who has led several international ensembles and performed at major venues around the world. He speaks to Rishitia Roy Chowdhury about his interest in Hindustani classical music, his India-inspired ensemble Svara-Kanti, and his latest award-winning album Trikala.
Scottish composer and guitarist, Simon Thacker wants to create a musical system in which the sounds, rhythms and techniques from diverse cultures around the world converge. In his attempt to turning this vision into reality, Thacker has led several intercultural ensembles featuring global artistes.
His inclination towards Indian classical music made Thacker set out on an Indo-Western collaborative project and put together an ensemble called Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti. It comprises 13 expert musicians from India, Bangladesh and parts of Europe. Their recent album—a rich blend of various musical styles—is entitled Trikala and it has already won a couple major awards. Thacker will be touring India in December this year.
Q. Tell us about your beginnings in music. What made you choose the guitar over all the other musical instruments?
A. I grew up an only child in a fairly isolated part of rural Scotland. The nearest village was over two miles away. For as long as I can remember, music was my obsession and a means to travel in my imagination, even before I took up guitar, aged 11. One of the earliest Christmas presents I remember, maybe when I was four, was a tiny little bedside tape player, which I used to play constantly, even though I only had two tapes. Then I got into heavy rock and metal and seemed to go through a teenage rebellion phase. By the time I got to high school, I was seriously exploring music from around the world and it was clear I needed to have a direct contact with making music. Jimi Hendrix was my hero, so guitar was the natural choice. But I took up classical as well as rock, and eventually the greater possibilities of the classical guitar won.
Q. How was the ensemble, Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti, formed?
A. Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti started out in 2011 as a quartet after my first Indian-based ensemble, the nine-member Nava Rasa, had been very successful. But it almost drove me to a nervous breakdown. Touring with nine performers and crew, organising everything was pretty crazy.
However, I saw massive possibilities artistically, working with great performers from the Indian subcontinent. And there were so many directions I wanted to explore. So Svara-Kanti started as a vehicle to do just that. Our Rakshasa album in 2013 was acclaimed in over 50 glowing reviews around the world and included in several critics’ best-of-year lists. For the new Trikala album, the group has grown into a community of different lineups, where each focuses on expanding upon the different inspirations from the subcontinent: Hindustani, Carnatic, Baul spiritual and Punjabi folk music. Each lineup features leading exponents who embody these traditions. I write or re-imagine all the music, and together, whether in the most hyper-intricate composition or ecstatic and intuitive improvisation, we explore new sound worlds and create our musical future. The response around the world, in India and Bangladesh especially, has been truly incredible. We also won a Scottish Award for New Music last month.
Q. What serves as an inspiration for you to create cross-cultural music? What are the challenges involved in blending different musical forms?
A.I don’t see what I do as “fusion”. Fusion, to me, is often a bland middle ground (with some noble exceptions!). To fuse means to put together what already exists. I’m most excited by what “doesn’t yet exist”—the extremities, not the middle ground. More unique, not more homogenised. Imagining what you could become, no matter how fantastical and outlandish that vision, then putting everything you’ve got into becoming it. You may or may not get all the way there but you’ll have travelled a lot further than you would have if you hadn’t tried. My whole musical life has been a continual process of discovery and immersion followed by reformation and renewal. So the inspiration for my collaborations is to grow, to light the fuse of my imagination and to connect on the deepest level with great musicians across the world.
Q. You have included musical styles from various parts of India in your latest album, Trikala. What fascinates you about Indian music?
A. I had no direct connection to India early in my life. The profound symbiosis I found with these musical forms and brilliant performers, so beautifully documented by the Trikala album, surely shows that the root energy within us, that music taps into, transcends background or language.
I first heard the Varanasi-born singer Girija Devi when I was about 12 years old. I’d heard Indian classical music before but I was suddenly conscious of this whole other world where the raw materials of music were used in totally different ways to the music I knew. Of course, the limitless expression of the raga system fascinates me, the mix of intense order and freedom in Carnatic rhythm, the incredible songs of Punjabi legends like Surinder Kaur and Narinder Biba, and the visceral energy of Baul musicians who express life’s mysteries through their music. I’ve been very lucky to explore and expand on these influences with some of India’s and Bangladesh’s greatest performers on Trikala.
Q. What was the vision behind Trikala?
A. For me an album is the ultimate expression, testimony and statement of who you are, what you are, what you have achieved and where you are going. So the journey to creating and releasing one of my albums is very obsessive. Trikala (a Sanksrit word representing the three tenses of time: past, present and future) took three years to create. I wanted to make an album that would be among the most advanced statements ever made for the possibilities of intercultural collaboration; to go beyond East and West and create a third direction genuinely of itself by propelling musical forms and genres forward, or creating new ones. As I said before, if you think not just big but stratospheric, then you achieve more than you even considered was possible. Such was the case with Trikala, which is a dream turned into reality.
Q. Was it difficult for you to bridge the gap between Scottish and Indian music?
A.Well, there are similarities between some Rajasthani and Punjabi folk melodies and Scot and Gaelic tunes. Some of the characteristic ornamentation and use of sympathetic drone strings on bowed instruments bear a resemblance. The rhythms of both have a certain “swing” that is infectious.
Q. Tell us about your process of composing music.
A. It varies, but the most common thing is just sitting down with my guitar and when I’m least expecting it, in that deep “no-conscious-thought” zone, my hands suddenly play something that moves me, that didn’t exist a second before. At that point I’m an observer. I then improvise on the idea and record what I have. Often I’d then experiment with this further and it becomes a related but different idea, so I record that. Before I know it, I have enough material for a piece and start composing, the next stage after the initial improvising, to form a journey. At other times I’d be listening to music and what I hear in my mind suddenly diverges from reality, as my creative brain illuminates where else the music could, should or wants to go. It is either a vision of how to re-imagine what I’m listening to, or sometimes a whole new piece. Then the hard part is rendering that externally.
Q. Any Indian classical musicians whose work you admire?
A. I saw several performances by the mridangam legend Dr Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, whose DVDs I have spent a lot of time with, in the Chennai music season in December. I was moved by his invention and artistry, at 83 years young! Of course, Ustad Zakir Hussain continues to amaze me and was very inspiring in the couple of times I have had a chance to talk to him. The same goes for the wonderful vocal artists, Padma Shri Aruna Sairam and Pandit Venkatesh Kumar.
Q. What are your upcoming projects?
A. I’m just finishing Tàradh, a new album by one of my other groups, Ritmata, which will come out in September. The lineup is classical guitar, piano, bass and drums, so it’s my loudest ensemble. There is plenty of Indian influence (musically and philosophically), as well as inspirations from Native America, Sephardic (Judeo Spanish) music, flamenco and 13th-century miracle songs. I’ll be collaborating with the Gujarat-based dancer Priya Varunesh Kumar on a new video and for Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti. I’m planning the follow up to Trikala already.