Naresh Sohal

1939 - 2018

British

Summary

Naresh Sohal was born and educated in India, and from an early age displayed an interest in western music. He arrived in England in 1962 to study at the City Literary Institute and then the London College of Music. 

An Arts Council bursary enabled him to research the compositional aspects of micro-tonal intervals, under the supervision of Alexander Goehr. In 1965 Sohal completed his first orchestral score Asht Prahar (1965); a tone poem based on the Indian concept of the eight periods of day and night. This was immediately followed by Surya (1965) for chorus, percussion and solo flute, which was broadcast on the BBC by the Ambrosian singers. 

Both Zubin Mehta and Andrew Davis have commissioned two pieces each from Sohal; the former for the New York Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra and the latter for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Since the mid-1970s, Sohal became increasingly well-known both in the UK and overseas; he was the guest of the Van Beinum Foundation in the Netherlands, attended the ‘East Meets West’ conference in the Far East, and his work Hexad (1971) was included in a major international tour by the Norddeutscher Rundfunk Ensemble, receiving eighteen performances in 11 countries. 

Running parallel to his classical music was Sohal’s success as a writer of film and television music, and he also completed three courses in television direction. He composed and directed music for Sir William in search of Xanadu directed by Barrie Gavin; three episodes of the acclaimed End of Empire and four episodes of Apartheid both directed for Granada Television by Alan Segal. 

The Wanderer (1981), a major commission from the BBC was premiered at a Proms Concert with the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim. The Wanderer is only one in a series of large-scale works that demonstrates Sohal’s ear for orchestral colour and From Gitanjali (1984), commissioned for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and performed under Zubin Mehta, is another outstanding example from Sohal’s extensive catalogue. 

Naresh Sohal was one of the few Indian-born composers to make his mark in western classical music, a fact acknowledged on 26th January 1987 when the President of India awarded him the Padma Shri - the Order of the Lotus - for services to Western Music. His music is continuously acknowledged internationally with performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic among others. 

The composer died on 30 April 2018, aged 78.

Biography

Naresh Sohal was the first Indian who made a full-time, successful career as a composer of Western music in the Western world. While his works are often based on Indian poetry, philosophical ideas, and texts, the influence of Indian music on his own work was very different from that normally found in ‘fusion’ music as developed by, for example, his contemporary, John Mayer. That Indian musical influence is to be discerned more in Sohal’s willingness to question some of the foundational aspects of compositional practice, such as the ways of subdivision of the octave, and in his choice of pitch classes provided by certain ragas to create original works, rather than in easily identified juxtapositions of Western and Indian elements.

Sohal was born on 18 September 1939 in Harsipind, in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, to a family influenced by the teachings of the Arya Samaj, a group devoted to reforms within Hinduism. Over the centuries, the Punjab region has witnessed the confluence of multiple cultures, but Western classical music has never been an important component, since the important centres of European music in India in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries were places like Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Goa. Moreover, Sohal’s family was devoted to literature – his father, Des Raj Sohal, was a civil servant and an Urdu poet – but there were no professional musicians among his relatives. Sohal, therefore, grew up interested in a wide range of music played by All India Radio and Radio Ceylon.

Like many young Indians of his generation who were encouraged to study the sciences, Sohal studied physics and mathematics at DAV College, Jalandhar, where one of his friends was the singer Jagjit Singh (1941-2011) who shared Sohal’s interest in music and later achieved renown as a highly accomplished composer and performer of ghazals.

Shortly before he graduated, Sohal made the decision to devote himself fully to music. He was already playing popular music on the harmonica, composing for the local military band, and performing to distinguished audiences, among them the then-President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. He decided to travel to Bombay with his friend, Inder Sipehia, who played the guitar, to try his luck in the Bombay film industry. He stayed in Bombay for a few months, where he had his first experience of hearing a piece of Western classical music. This was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which he heard in a broadcast on All India Radio. This had a profound effect on him and provided the inspiration for further developments.

The two friends returned to Delhi to audition for a government-sponsored scholarship to study at the Calcutta School of Music. Sohal played Jacob Gade’s Jalousie before a panel that included India’s doyen of Western art music at that time, Vanraj Bhatia. After this, both Sohal and Sipehia returned to Punjab, where Sipehia abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in music. Sohal, however, was undeterred, and persuaded his father to allow him to leave for England in 1962 in order to study music.

The next eight years were ones of struggle and preparation for great things to come. After a few very difficult months soon after his arrival in England, Sohal became a copyist for the music publisher, Boosey and Hawkes. Here he came across avant-garde pieces like Iannis Xenakis’s Eonta. This was a work by a composer who, like Sohal, came from a background in the sciences, and who used mathematical elements as compositional tools. This fact intrigued Sohal, who decided to embark upon a more serious course of study than the evening classes he had been taking after his daytime work as a copyist. He gave up his job at Boosey and Hawkes to become a freelance copyist, started taking lessons from composer Jeremy Dale-Roberts and devoted more time to composition.

In 1965, he completed his first two major scores, Asht Prahar for orchestra, followed by the choral work, Surya, for chorus, percussion, and flute. Asht Prahar is based on the Indian division of the day into eight temporal units, four each for day and night. Its sound world explores further some of the paths explored by works as different from each other as Villa-Lobos’s Genesis, on the one hand, and more astringently modernist works like Varèse’s Amériques, on the other. Some passages from Genesis share the inventiveness and unruly exuberance of Asht Prahar, although the latter is harsher harmonically and, unlike the pieces of Villa-Lobos, decidedly goes beyond a post-Romantic idiom. In terms of orchestral colour (including the use of unusual instruments like the ‘typophone’) and the use of a modernist atonal idiom, Asht Prahar displays few affinities with Schoenberg and his followers and is closer in spirit to a work like Amériques. Indeed, Sohal’s characteristic mastery over orchestral colour was widely praised when the work was first performed and published. Like some other notable French orchestral pieces that strive to portray musically the changing facets of an entire day, such as d’Indy’s Jour d'été à la montagne, Sohal’s piece also ends with the same sonorities with which it began. And even at this early stage of his career, some of the composer’s personal characteristics are already evident, such as the turn towards the macrocosmic aspects of nature for inspiration; the tendency to think in terms of large-scale, single-movement musical structures; the use of a wordless soprano voice over and above the timbral palette of the orchestra, and a reluctance to belong to any particular ‘school’ or easily identifiable coterie.

In 1969, the year Sohal became a British citizen, the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) selected Asht Prahar for a performance (in 1970) at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Norman del Mar. Its success led to a highly productive decade of composition of large-scale works, as well as the receipt of an Arts Council bursary in 1972 that led Sohal to do some important research on quarter-tone music under Alexander Goehr at the University of Leeds. Among Sohal’s predecessors, Alois Hába’s name often comes up in the context of the systematic study of microtones, but Sohal was not influenced by Hába’s work. Nor could he have then known the works of John Foulds, the first British composer to employ them in his works, and who also knew, and took inspiration from, Indian music.

After his studies at Leeds, Sohal returned to London, and the early 1970s saw important performances of vocal, chamber, choral, and orchestral pieces by him practically every year. These include premieres of Aalaykhyam II (1972) in February 1973 by the English Chamber orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis; Kavita III (1972), composed for the virtuoso soprano Jane Manning and Barry Guy (on double bass), which was taken on an Arts Council tour; the chamber piece Hexad, first conducted by Elgar Howarth, and Dhyan 1 (1974), a work for cello and small orchestra. This last work was premiered by the young and tragically short-lived virtuoso cellist Thomas Igloi (1947-1976) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton, in 1975. The same year, Kavita II was one of the BBC’s entries for the International Rostrum of Composers held in Paris. It was chosen as one of the best ten entries and subsequently broadcast on several radio stations throughout Europe. These works are stylistically quite diverse: the austere soundscape of Dhyan 1, in which Sohal made creative use of his systematic study of quarter tones in Leeds, sounds very different from the exuberant Asht Prahar, while the chamber work Octal (1972) makes use of electronic devices.

The late 1970s saw premieres of largely chamber and vocal pieces (with accompaniment by chamber forces). But in 1982, the composer returned to orchestral composition, now with added vocal (and sometimes choral) forces.

The first of these works was a dramatic setting of the Old English poem, The Wanderer, for baritone, symphony orchestra, and chorus. In this piece, one of his most successful large-scale works, Sohal adroitly harnesses his fertile orchestral imagination to provide a dramatic reading of an Anglo-Saxon poem that one would normally read as a ‘personal’ poem. Yet, Sohal’s division of the poem into sections for solo baritone and chorus sounds natural, and the opening motif on tremolo violins returns from time to time with striking effect in the course of the long, 50-plus minute work. The theme thus provides a structural arc connecting the various stanzas that are distinguished from each other by means of a masterly handling of varied choral-orchestral textures allied to an excellent sense of proportion.

Sohal was drawn to the poem on account of its ‘existential bleakness’, to cite the composer’s own words. Additionally, he felt that the poem’s content lent itself to treatment for large musical forces, which brought out the best in him. His ‘bleak’ reading of the poem led him to omit its consolatory Christian ending, a decision that won the approval of Paul Griffiths in his appreciative analysis of the piece. The work was the result of a BBC commission for a work for the 1982 season of the Proms. The premiere of The Wanderer was given by David Wilson-Johnson, baritone, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chorus, and the BBC Singers, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis.

The second important work from this period was composed after Sohal’s move to Scotland in 1983. This was an elegiac setting, in English translation, of the poetry of the Bengali poet and composer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), From Gitanjali, a work for baritone and orchestra. The work was premiered in New York, in the composer’s presence, by John Cheek and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Zubin Mehta. Like Sir Andrew Davis, Mehta championed Sohal’s works, commissioning two other large-scale pieces from him.

The same year, Sohal completed an orchestral work, Tandava Nritya (Dance of Death and Re-Creation), commissioned by the British Council for the London Symphony Orchestra for a planned tour of India. This was followed by a Violin Concerto for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps on account of its subject, Tandava Nritya pulsates with the kind of Dionysian rhythmic energy that is not always present in Sohal’s large-scale works, which often unfold in expansive, Brucknerian arcs of sound. The Violin Concerto premiered in 1986 with the Chinese violinist Xue Wei as the soloist, with Martyn Brabbins conducting.

The following year (1987), the Government of India awarded the prestigious Padma Shri (Order of the Lotus) to Sohal for his services to Western Music.

The dramatic qualities of Sohal’s setting of The Wanderer probably showed signs of the direction his music would take in the period, roughly between the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, during which he devoted himself to works for the stage and for television. These include the ballet Gautama Buddha (1987), based on a scenario devised by Sohal himself and choreographed by Christopher Bruce. The ballet was premiered in Houston, Texas, by Houston Ballet, who then brought it to the Edinburgh Festival in 1989.

That same year, the Paragon Ensemble gave the first performance, in Glasgow, of Madness Lit by Lightning, a music theatre piece about human degradation, for which Trevor Preston, better known for his extensive work in television drama, wrote the libretto. Other projects from this period included the scores for the award-winning programme Sir William in Search of Xanadu, directed by Barrie Gavin, and produced by Scottish Television; and Monarchy–The Enchanted Glass, also for Scottish Television. The principal non-dramatic work from this period was Sohal’s Trio for violin, cello, and piano, commissioned by the Calcutta-born cellist Anup Kumar Biswas, a regular performer of Sohal’s cello works, to mark the composer’s fiftieth birthday. Sohal’s Scottish period ended as he and his partner, Janet Swinney, returned to London in 1993, circumstances having become more adverse with the rise of Scotland nationalism and with a steep decrease in arts funding.

In 1996, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins gave the first performance of Lila, a major orchestral work begun in 1991, but whose initial ideas went back to the summer of 1973 when the composer was visiting the Carpathian Alps. Sohal strove to capture in musical terms the process of enlightenment as described in Hindu philosophy and experienced through meditation. The seven interconnected sections of the work—Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether, Consciousness, and Union—led Sohal to rarefy orchestral textures in the course of the work. The ethereal closing section, in which a wordless soprano voice is combined with the sonorities of the clarinet, flute, and upper strings, is among the most beautiful passages in all of Sohal’s music. Indeed, Lila brings to the fore neo-Romantic elements in Sohal’s work, a feature hinted at in earlier works such as The Wanderer and Tandava Nritya, and the introspective passage towards the close, just before a final explosive passage for full orchestra, seems to evoke the closing measures of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with an added harmonic pungency arising out of the semitone clash between repeated C-sharps in the soaring soprano part and the C-natural in the lower strings. Along with The Wanderer and Tandava NrityaLila is among the most accessible of Sohal’s works, and all three deserve to be better known.

          Both small- and large-scale works followed in the next two decades as Sohal continued to compose well into his seventies. Many of them have more pronounced Indian connections than do his works from the preceding decades. The orchestral piece Satyagraha, commissioned to mark the fiftieth year of Indian independence, and first performed in 1997 at the Barbican by London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta, was followed by a Viola Concerto for Rivka Golani (2002), in which Sohal used Indian drums and tabla among the orchestral instruments. The tabla also featured in Three Songs from Gitanjali, settings of three Tagore poems for soprano and string quartet, commissioned by the Spitalfields Festival, and first performed in 2004.

By now, Sohal had started setting texts in Indian languages. The Three Songs from Gitanjali are settings of Tagore’s texts in the Bengali original. The choral-orchestral Hymn of Creation, based on mantras on the theme of creation from the Rig Veda, is set both in English and Sanskrit; while the Songs of the Five Rivers are settings in Punjabi, Sohal’s mother tongue, of poems by the classical Punjabi poets Bulleh (or Bullay) Shah and Waris Shah. The latter piece is unique among Sohal’s output in its strong hints of Indian folk music.

The first performances of both the Bengali- and Punjabi-language settings were sung by soprano Sally Silver (1967-2018), another champion of Sohal’s music who died tragically young. Along with Silver, noted ’cellist Rohan de Saram and pianist Ananda Sukarlan also collaborated with Sohal over a number of chamber works for cello and piano. Excerpts from another work from this period, Songs of Desire, to texts by Tagore, were introduced to Indian audiences by Mumbai-born soprano Patricia Rozario, and later performed in its entirety by Sally and Jeremy Silver in the UK.

Sohal’s next large-scale work, The Divine Song, for narrator and orchestra, was based on the first two chapters from the Bhagavad Gita, which itself is a part of the Indian epic The Mahabharata. The chosen text deals with the concepts of Atman (the self), Dharma (duty), and Punarjanma (reincarnation). The piece was commissioned by Zubin Mehta for his seventieth birthday in 2006, and first performed in Tel Aviv by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010, with the narration in Hebrew; there were subsequent performances in the same year in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the performances were recorded on video. The idea of having a narrator rather than a singer was suggested by Mehta himself and this means that, with a little effort on the part of a translator, that the work can be performed in any language. Three basic themes are employed: one associated with war, and the other two with Krishna (using the pitch classes of raga Bhairavi) and Arjuna (using the pitch classes of raga Bhairav). According to the composer’s programme note, the piece is organised as follows:

Structurally, the piece is in the shape of two arches. The conch shell is blown to start the proceedings. Then follows battle music—Arjuna’s dilemma—battle music—Lord Krishna’s discourse and battle music again. The conch shell is blown once more to end the piece.

Sohal’s last large-scale orchestral composition was The Cosmic Dance, commissioned in 2011 and first performed at the 2013 BBC Proms by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Peter Oundjian conducting. In this piece, Sohal returns to the cosmic theme that underpins a number of his major works. According to the composer, The Cosmic Dance is inspired both by modern science and by Hindu philosophy. The work opens with a musical exploration of time before the Big Bang took place; for his inspiration, Sohal goes back to the Rig Veda, in which it is stated that in the beginning, there was the non-being, which remains forever; it forms the idée fixe of this piece. This movement is labelled ‘Unmanifest’, and it is followed by 'Big Bang and Aftermath’, ‘Galaxies Disperse’, ‘Milky Way’, ‘Sun’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Earth’. Although there is a return to the ‘Unmanifest’ theme, the closing section does not echo the opening material as closely as is the case in Asht Prahar.

The Cosmic Dance is stylistically eclectic and incorporates in its later stages elements that are normally not to be found in Sohal’s output. It opens with a haunting theme for a solo saxophone over hushed strings, and gradually unfolds to incorporate harmonically dissonant and rhythmically agitated passages, often scored for brass or strings, both elements that are characteristic components of his large-scale orchestral works. What is less usual is the presence of some more overtly tonal elements, such as a waltz melody, a lyrical duet for violin and cello and a solo violin passage that comes near the end of the piece, all of which are somewhat reminiscent of the closing sections of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

In some ways, then, the trajectory of Sohal’s development from being a composer of microtonal, abstract music with unusual timbres, through a period of neo-Romanticism, to a deeper engagement with non-Western languages and musical idioms, reflects some of the major shifts that have taken place in the latter half of the twentieth century in the world of Western music. Yet, there are underlying features that unify Sohal’s music and make it distinctively, and uniquely, his own. It must also be remembered that, unlike Chinese, Japanese, or Korean composers, Sohal had little institutional support from India, where Western music, unlike Western cinema, film, or the visual arts, has never had any significant popular base, especially in the post-Independence era. In the light of the very considerable limitations within which Sohal had to work, his ability to create a body of large-scale works is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Sohal’s best works, in this writer’s opinion, are in the fields of orchestral music and large-scale choral-orchestral works, categories that dominate his output. The best of his works deserve to be better known, through more performances and commercial recordings. This Indian-born composer of Western music produced a rewarding body of music till the time of his sudden and unexpected death from a massive heart attack in London on 30 April 2018.

Surprisingly, there is no scholarly work and little critical literature on Sohal despite his unique body of work and the fact that his music has been performed by some of the leading orchestras and soloists on both sides of the Atlantic. This article is based on personal interviews with the composer in 2012 and 2014. My assessment of his works, which in some cases differs from the composer’s own, are entirely my own.

– Suddhaseel Sen
October 2022

Suddhaseel Sen holds PhDs in English from the University of Toronto and Musicology from Stanford University. He is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay.

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