Dual Identity as a Composer: Naresh Sohal interview
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. 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.
Naresh Sohal died on 30 April 2018, aged 78 and the interview below between Sohal and Suddhaseel Sen is a transcript compilation from interviews that took place in 2012 and 2014. 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.
Suddhaseel Sen Interviews Naresh Sohal about his Dual Identity as a Composer
In connection with his Tagore (No.1 and No.2) settings for Cheek, Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, Sohal told music critic, John Rockwell, of the New York Times that he saw himself as ‘an amalgam of two civilisations’, and that his music reflected that fact. Since Sohal’s approach in creating that personal amalgam differed considerably from those taken by crossover musicians, it is helpful to hear what he had to say about the aesthetic decisions he took as a musician. Here, then, are excerpts from an interview with me in which Sohal spoke about this aspect of his art, one that makes him a pioneer in the history of both Indian and Western music in the years following World War II.
Suddhaseel Sen: You have composed a wide variety of works, from chamber music pieces employing quarter tones, through large-scale orchestral works, to vocal-orchestral pieces that make use of Indian melodic styles and lyrics. Could you tell us something about your stylistic and technical choices, and some of your pieces that are representative in this regard?
Naresh Sohal: Because I was not trained in music at a conservatoire and learnt music — primarily Indian film music — by ear on my harmonica, I got used to the pure scale and not the twelve-tone one. I heard the interval of the pure fifth but there was none on the piano. This led me to divide the octave into twenty-four intervals or quartertones. There are quartertones in my first commissioned piece, Kavita, as well as in pieces that I wrote immediately afterwards, namely: Aalaykhyam I & Aalaykhyam II, Dhyan I, etc. I developed elaborate theories about the use of quartertones, but the purpose was to make the music sound natural.
SS: Large-scale orchestral music seems to dominate your output. Do you find writing for the orchestra more interesting than other forms of music?
NS: Yes. I was fascinated by the sound of the orchestra. If I had wanted to be a soloist, there were ample opportunities in Indian classical music for that, but the range of sound and colour presented by the orchestra is unique.
SS: Personally speaking, I have found the wide range of colours in your orchestral music extremely rewarding to listen to. Could you tell us something about your orchestral technique?
NS: I have a natural gift for orchestration. I put down what I hear in my head. Of course, one has to be conversant with the strengths and weaknesses of various instruments, but the rest is intuitive.
SS: Your music is both very difficult to perform and very well written for the instruments. How do performers react to the challenges you present through your music?
NS: I have never had any difficulty with the performers. There are, indeed, challenges, but they are not insurmountable, and players have risen to the occasion. And there are instances when the performers have themselves requested me to use techniques that reveal their virtuosity: my first Brass Quintet, Chiaroscuro I, written for Elgar Howarth, is one such example.
SS: I know of no other composer of Western music who has set texts in a wider variety of Indian languages than you have. Have you found this a challenging task? How have Western singers responded in this regard?
NS: Yes, using various languages has challenged me, as it is necessary to be totally conversant with a language to set it to music. Sanskrit posed less of a challenge, but Bengali was more challenging, because I couldn’t understand it fully. Punjabi posed no problems as it is my mother tongue.
SS: Your works are often influenced by Indian poetry, religion, and philosophy. Could you tell us more about this side of your work?
NS: Professor Alexander Goehr once remarked that there are two kinds of composers: one, from whom the music oozes out from every pore; the other, who uses music to express all kinds of philosophical ideas. I fall in the latter category. I am fascinated by the ultimate human questions of who I am, where I come from, and therefore most of my music is dominated by philosophical answers that are nearest to Vedantic thought.
SS: Do you count any composer or musical tradition, from the West and/or from India, as having exerted a special influence on your work?
NS: I have found individual works of individual composers inspiring, rather than traditions.
SS: Could you give us some examples of pieces that you liked, and what you liked in those pieces? Are there any pieces or composers that you initially liked but not anymore, or ones that you like now but did not earlier?
NS: I was bowled over by the following when I first heard them and continue to be impressed by them: The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky); La mer (Debussy); Daphnis et Chloé (Ravel); Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (Bartók); Symphony No. 40 (Mozart); Symphony No. 5 (Beethoven); and Symphony No. 4 (Brahms).
SS: Western music has been far more popular in Far Eastern (or what Americans would call Asian) countries than in India. Even Sri Lanka and Iran, close neighbours, so to speak, appear to be more deeply engaged with Western art music than India is. Why do you think this is the case?
NS: In India, there is a very strong tradition of Indian classical music which is soloist-orientated and which does not require an orchestra—the need for an orchestra has, therefore, never been appreciated. The exception is films: the film industry employs ad hoc orchestras from a pool of musicians, but regular orchestras are not part of the Indian scene altogether.
SS: I was thinking more generally about the lack of interest in Western music in India, and not just about the absence of symphony orchestras. Why, in your opinion, has the allegedly ‘universal’ language of music created fewer international figures from India than, say, in the case of literature?
NS: Culturally, in Hinduism at least, religion and music are individual pursuits. Painting and writing are individual pursuits, and therefore Indians have developed them in their own way. But Western classical music arose out of collective worship and the desire to make music together in a religious context. Also in Hinduism, the god is a personal one whereas, in Christianity, the god is externally defined and collectively recognized. Western music has flourished in Goa, where Christianity has prevailed.
SS: Would you like to see, sometime in the future, a good orchestra of Western instruments in India? How, in your opinion, can one be formed?
NS: Yes, of course. I personally feel that I need to have orchestras in India so that my music can receive the necessary exposure. All over India there are many excellent performers. They need to be brought together as an orchestral entity. The Symphony Orchestra of India has been formed in Mumbai at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) with musicians primarily from Kazakhstan, with some additional local musicians. I hope that the number of musicians will increase gradually, and that there will be a good orchestra. It is time for Indians to broaden their tastes, both as listeners and as creators of music. Indian classical music is primarily introspective and contemplative. Western classical music offers something different.
SS: Some Western composers from the nineteenth century onwards have attempted to engage with non-Western traditions through their music. What do you think of their efforts, or the efforts of their Indian counterparts? Have you tried anything along these lines in any of your works?
NS: I feel that growth has to be from within the individual composer and superimposing one tradition upon another will result in only an artificial product.
SS: Your comment seems to suggest that the attempt to bring different musical traditions closer together is something that is usually done without any internal artistic impulse. Yet, someone like Debussy wrote gamelan-inspired pieces for the piano, or used pentatonic themes and harmonies in La mer. Would you consider the ‘exotic’ aspects of Debussy’s work artificial, belonging neither to the Western tradition nor to the non-Western ones from which they draw inspiration?
NS: Composers like Debussy do not appear to me to have been attempting to fuse artificially two different traditions: they have expressed themselves using a musical palette that has become integral to their artistic endeavour. In other words, these resources from various traditions became part of their personal musical language. Others have been less successful. Giving sitar music to the first violins to play will not make for a good symphony.
SS: Do you have an ideal audience in mind when you write your music?
SS: Are there specific performances of your works that you particularly cherish?
NS: The Wanderer at the Royal Albert Hall (Promenade Concert), with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis, with David Wilson-Johnson as soloist (1982); The Divine Song with the Israel Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, with Itay Tiran as narrator, at the Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, 2010; The Cosmic Dance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian, at the Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 2013. But, above all, I cherish the very first performance I ever had, which was of Asht Prahar, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Norman del Mar, with Jane Manning, soprano, at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in January 1970.
SS: Do you have any favourites among your compositions? Which of your works would you like to see recorded and commercially released first?
NS: I would like to see The Wanderer, The Divine Song, The Cosmic Dance, and Tandava Nritya taken on board and actively promoted by a major recording company.
SS: Finally, how have critical responses to your work been? Have you ever been lauded or criticized for the ways in which you have introduced Indian elements in your works (poetry, musical elements, and so on)?
NS: They have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, but, generally speaking, reviews have been favourable, and the audience response has always been positive to tremendous! Not a great deal has been made of the Indian elements by anyone.
Interview written by Suddhaseel Sen in October 2022 using transcripts from interviews that took place in 2012 and 2014.