It’s been my habit each year to pick one or two things that I really want to see at the Edinburgh Festival and make a concerted effort to overcome my aversion to the teeming hordes that engulf the Scottish capital throughout August.
This year, I paired a visit to The Amazing World of M.C. Escher with the latest incarnation of Simon Thacker’s Svara Kanti. The former is an exhibition of visionary graphic art by a twentieth century Dutch Master, the latter is an equally prescient musical exploration by a twentieth century music master from Pentcaitland.
More about Escher later, but the link is nowhere near as tenuous as my trite introduction would suggest. The somewhat reclusive Dutch artist was seen as an oddity in his lifetime, but later came to be revered as a “one man art movement”. Thacker is a classical guitarist and composer of considerable note who also likes to plough a singular artistic furrow. He could usefully be described as a one-man sound movement.
Thacker is Scotland’s highest profile, best-kept secret insofar as he has already established a reputation for taking the cutting edge and sharpening it even further. His work involves immense patience and intense concentration, but he’s consistently been rewarded with five-star reviews and enthusiastic audience responses. Still, you can’t escape the feeling that his free-spirited music really ought to be broadcast from the ramparts of the famous castle. The results of his cross-cultural, investigative mind-set would surely restore faith in Fringe as a hotspot for ambitious music with a truly international outlook.
Svara Kanti is one of several colourful musical personalities Thacker has created alongside his Ritmata project, and his more classically orientated solo/duo work. In this latest line-up at the Sumerhall venue, he was joined by the young Bengali minstrel Raju Das Baul and the wonderful tabla player, Sarvar Sabri. Thacker on classical guitar makes up an extraordinary trio full of power and raw energy using unexpected instrumentation that includes Raju Das Baul on khamak. The overall outcome was extremely percussive with strong interplay in particular between guitar and khamak, a peculiar stringed drum that, to my ear, sounds almost like an acoustic precursor of the theremin.
Sabri on tablas takes on the role of the sublime leveller. Although the music (like all things young and new) was sometimes in a frantic rush to make itself heard, Sarvar Sabri’s wise hands provided a light but necessary touch of worldly experience. On songs like Menokaa Maathaay Dilo Ghomtaa, a traditional Baul song, the sharp shapes thrown by guitar and khamak are somewhat softened by the warmth of the tablas, yet there is the always the feeling of Sabri egging the others on and giving them licence to roam.
As Thacker himself has commented in notes to the setlist, the effect on this song was achieved with, “the playing of extended techniques on all the instruments, particularly guitar, and a spiky harmonic character I developed from expanding the scale to create an anarchic soundworld and unique extension of the Baul tradition.”
Raju Das Baul is one of the most exciting new personalities to emerge from an 800-year old tradition of peripatetic song. The twenty-five year old was born and raised in the Baul heartland of West Bengal, and he infuses a youthful sense of joy into the profound spirituality of Baul song.
A Baul minstrel traditionally wanders from village to village, bringing music with him and leaving behind a sense of continuing relevance between the past and the present, between ancestors and descendants, and more importantly, between faith and existence. Much of lyrical content is about the smallness of humankind in relation to the greatness of spiritual totality.
In order to sing convincingly about such things, you must have belief, and that is the abiding memory I will have of seeing Raju Das Baul for the first time. He is an absorbing performer who has been singing since the age of five, and his maturity is already self-evident. More than that, a song seems to pour out of him, streaming down through his open arms and emanating from his outstretched fingertips.
Simon Thacker plays classical guitar like a man who is determined to push his instrument to the very limits of its tolerances. Sometimes, you can even hear it fighting back, but this is the sound of musicians testing the boundaries of music, not necessarily their own virtuosity. Thacker’s latest Svara Kanti incarnation was built to boldly go out into the unknown, but it’s on a journey to create new forms, not simply seek them out.
In a performance that lasted just over an hour, some highly seductive new soundworlds were visited where the liquidity of Baul balladry gelled marvellously with Thacker’s delicate touch and Sabri’s mellifluous tabla playing. Their version of Tagore’s Ekla Chalo Re, the famous anthem of the Bengali anti-partition movement in 1905, re-instated the stamp of authenticity to the song’s original premise. It’s a tune that has been made over many times to the point of bastardization, but Svara-Kanti not only resuscitated the melody, they gave it a new suit of clothes too. Thacker explains his approach this way, “(It was).. a favourite song of Gandhi’s, (and) this song I would say is the most harmonically sophisticated of my re-imaginings as I actually changed the [perceived] mode of the piece through the progression I came up with.”
As I write this, one of the most interesting sound movements in music today has already recorded in a studio somewhere near the Athens of the north. The results will be as startling aurally as anything that Escher ever imagined visually. For me, the parallels between Escher’s endlessly morphing, yet seamlessly interlocking tessellations, and Thacker’s stretching of eastern and western forms into new patterns are as obvious as they are striking.
However, Svara-Kanti is different in one essential element, and that is the visceral nature of the music they play. Escher’s new worlds of the imagination reflected his rather austere personality. Thacker, Sabri and Raju Das Baul celebrate the esoteric with something approaching wild abandon. Creative Scotland and the Made in Scotland initiative are to be commended for being quick to recognize the relevance of Svara Kanti with financial backing. However, in terms of greater cultural outreach and potent collaboration in the arts, it must be hoped that Thacker gets even more support to develop this project much further. The rewards for all will be very rich indeed.
Michael S. Clark