Christ Church, Spitalfields, East London
As part of Spitalfields Music Festival 2012
Christ Church, the Hawksmoor masterpiece opposite Spitalfields market, made a fitting venue for Talvin Singh's long-awaited London comeback concert. Its august Athenian portico, the groups of architectural historiansarmed with cameras and clipboards on the steps, and the wood-panelled and whitewashed interior, lend an academic feel. And Singh seemed to relish this. With his scholarly study of his instrument, and his respect and reverence for his musical influences, from traditional Punjabi taal, to the recordings of Ravi Shankar; he projects a sense of pupil turned master. Singh, a mellowed, sage figure, caressing his tablas from a dais at the centre of the stage, felt entirely at home in these unusual surroundings. As part of his Associate Artist performances at the Summer Festival 2012, the musician was performing for the first time with Anne Garner on vocals and flute, cellist Francesca Ter-Berg and violinists Preetha Narayanan and Flora Curzon. It showed once again that he never shies away from challenging the boundaries of music.
The tabla master and electronic musician, is also a music theorist, record producer and DJ, whose success began through his involvement in the Asian Underground of the 1990s. Though he rejects the descriptions of his music as 'fusion', he explains that he prefers instead notions of ‘symbiosis’, or ‘bridging’. Surrounded by instruments “borrowed from many parts of the world”, in an ecumenical space that when not hosting concerts, is holding services in Bengali; Singh had chosen a suitably expansive forum for his international brand of Indian traditional music. He highlighted Ravi Shankar’s album “Inside the Kremlin,” as a major influence and Singh’s perspective is that his music developed naturally with its roots in East London, an innovative and cosmopolitan sound for
all, beautifully reflecting the area. “My soul's always looking to the East, whether it’s East London or India, I can’t help it,” he says.
Singh grew up in nearby Leyton and still lives in Hackney. The forum for his work has shifted from the Anokha club night he once promoted at East London’s Blue Note, to the sober environs of this concert venue; offering what he calls a “different setting in terms of landscape.” But the amazing energy that Singh brings to his music remains the same. For Singh, East London has always been a vibrant and creative place having lived that experience when he was using the old Truman Brewery in the 1980s as a studio space which soon became the creative hub it is today. Setting and working with a space is a central inspiration for Singh, and the Christ Church performance offered an acoustic compliment to the stained glass background.
A diverse crowd, of many ages and different people, filled the venue, paying testament to Singh's universal appeal. Singh, sat surrounded by his tablas, conducting his individual string players with expressions and sounds from his drums. The violins and cello offered simple, elegaic melodies, often haunting Michael Nyman-like solos, designed by Singh to complement his virtuoso tabla skills, and draw out the symbiotic sound of which he spoke.
One of the most rapturously-received pieces in his repertoire was a Sikh wedding taal, full of youthful promise. The absence of harmonic change and chord progression in the piece, reminiscent of classical Indian music, created a meditative trance like state in the listener. Indeed, Singh’s music is living proof that so much can be done in one key. And there’s the rub of his symbioses; a romance between Western classical and Indian classical music producing the potentials of perhaps the first tabla concerto.
In the second half of the concert Singh could not resist the return to the electronic sound that helped make his name all those years ago. In “The Approach” the musician invited the audience to participate by playing a downloadable 'tone' on their smartphones, a low droning sound that he had created from recordings taken in Hackney that morning of birdsong, humming bees and his snuffling dog. This online drone project was intended to recall the sort of vocal interaction that is seen in Indian classical music: “Once the gig is over the individual can imagine their own musicality within that drone which is constant”, Singh says. And after the encores and the adoring applause, as we stepped out into East London, Singh's unique brand of musicality lived long into the night, against the constant drone of Commercial Road, the human traffic, the call of the balti restaurants on Brick Lane, the call of the night.
Gabriel Kemlo and Adam Khan