Classical complexity

The four members of the Fringe Group—Jonathon Bernard, Martin Fisk, Brian Nesselroad and Daniel Tones—were perched like pigeons over their instruments, hunting and pecking on bongos, congas, snare drums, marimbas, cymbals, triangles and what looked like the head of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Inspired by Balinese Gamelan and South Indian music, the precarious piece was arranged in a 23 beat rhythmic cycle and sounded like a roomful of grandfather clocks set with oddly pitched pendulums, each ticking and tocking. I was confused. Unsure of how to approach this strange music, I looked to my date for advice, but she was asleep. “So this is classical percussion,” I thought.

The program for the February 15th performance at the Capilano Performing Arts Theatre suggested that the Fringe Group draws inspiration from world music, but this roster had a distinctly Indian focus. I scoffed, put off by the Western classical sense of a stage show, with its emotionless posturing and Petri dish approach to music. In defense of classical, Jonathon Gordon, who also performs with the CBC Radio Orchestra, the Orchid Ensemble and the Vancouver Island Symphony, would later explain: “It’s our job to bring them to life with as much passion or fire and sensitivity as required by the piece itself. That’s our job as interpreters… we’re simply the middlemen between the listener and the composer.” So I began to listen—sheepishly aware of my aural ignorance and unfortunate Britney bias—as students from the Capilano Jazz Percussion Ensemble took the stage for Catch 21, a South Indian piece by Trichy Sankaran. The piece featured a cycle of 21 beats in vocal and clapped percussion, nervously delivered. It was an example of Carnatic music, one half of the main sub-genre of Hindu music, done in the gāyaki or singing style.

During intermission, Ian March, one of the seven performing students, would explain that he had also never been exposed to this kind of music before, and though he found it daunting, it showed him the richness of the Indian rhythmic tradition. “You take these rhythms,” said March “fuse them together… it [brings] you right to the source.” I began to imagine the Ghandarvas, divine musicians of ancient India who played classical music for the Gods in their palaces.
Then Neelamjit Dhillon joined the Fringe Group on the stage. A past Capilano Jazz graduate who focused on the saxophone, Dhillon has since gone on to study traditional Tabla drumming with Ustad Zakir Hussain. Hussain is widely considered the most accomplished Tabla musician in the world and has countless awards and accolades, including a Grammy. He is also the founding member of Tabla Beat Science project and a longtime collaborator of Mickey Hart, the legendary drummer from the Grateful Dead.

With the Fringe Group providing a structured backbone in the sound garden, Dhillon shattered all my sensibilities about the austerities of classical music, Indian or otherwise. With furious passion, he played in the Punjab style, sweetly stuttering through several compositions by Bob Becker, Niel Golden and Payton MacDonald, all students of guru Pandit Sharda Sahai of the Benares gharana, or school. The dimensions of the music approached quantum complexity. In “The Rebirth of Hindu Music,” Dane Rudhyar wrote: “Every race or tribe had its own distinctive cry… the resonance of the psychic matrix of the human selves.” The meaning of this was made apparent in the polarization of the two schools of music, Indian and European, joined on the stage in distinct expressions.

Later, Dhillon would say: “It’s reflected back at you… All music really has a spiritual component, it all depends on the aesthetics of the performance… Indian music is more open…it’s ok to show emotions while performing, while in the western classical tradition it’s not…but we can put these things together and try to look at things as a whole, not always trying to separate things but trying to bring them together.”

The performance closed with the famous Marimba Spiritual by Minoru Miki, which contemplates the famines of Africa. With music of such depth, grace and complexity, it is impossible to summarize a performance like this with words, and as with my snoring date, it will prove inaccessible to some, but Bernard sympathizes with us curious neophytes still learning how to listen: “It’s like opening a door…have a little look, have a little smell…the door is opened and they can go as far as they want.” For him, playing with the Fringe is “like we’re playing in the park, in the sandbox.”

Neelamjit Dhillon can be seen with the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra on March 14th at the Chan Centre, and the Fringe Group will perform on March 20th and 24th with Carmina Burana and the Kwantlen Polytechnic University Chorus at Kwantlen U.

-Kevin Murray

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