Classical Music: Listen without prejudice

From drum'n'bass to Debussy and Bach, Nitin Sawhney's music is as expansive as it is extraordinary. Michael Church meets him
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The Independent Culture

Nitin Sawhney's music hangs in the air like a joyful babel of sounds, in which Asian and European voices sweetly mingle. Sometimes - as on his last album, Human - that babel is underpinned by chugging drum'n'bass; sometimes it's set in a classical frame. A track may open with a crackly newscast about the Twin Towers or Iraq, but that's only the prelude to a musical flight whose course is oblique and fanciful; just as you're starting to think it's all too saccharine, he'll bring you up short with a burst of virtuosity in which he takes the lead. A singular musician? Sure, and - as profilers repeat with wearying regularity - the nearest thing in contemporary performing arts to a Renaissance man.

Nitin Sawhney's music hangs in the air like a joyful babel of sounds, in which Asian and European voices sweetly mingle. Sometimes - as on his last album, Human - that babel is underpinned by chugging drum'n'bass; sometimes it's set in a classical frame. A track may open with a crackly newscast about the Twin Towers or Iraq, but that's only the prelude to a musical flight whose course is oblique and fanciful; just as you're starting to think it's all too saccharine, he'll bring you up short with a burst of virtuosity in which he takes the lead. A singular musician? Sure, and - as profilers repeat with wearying regularity - the nearest thing in contemporary performing arts to a Renaissance man.

Consider this 40-year-old British Asian's CV, with its battery of awards - a Mercury prize, a South Bank Show award, a Mobo and a world-music award from Radio 3 (though he resists the "world music" label). Sting, Sir Paul McCartney and Sinead O'Connor have sought him out as a collaborator, and Cirque du Soleil hired him to produce its calling-card album. Last year, the choreographer Akram Khan and the sculptor Anish Kapoor roped him in to fuse their ideas in a touring piece, and the Royal National Theatre has invited him to write, score and stage a show of his own. DJing for the Hollywood Bowl and scoring television ads for Nike is what he does in the interstices of his parallel career as a film composer, while Mira Nair - the director of Vanity Fair and Monsoon Wedding - has asked him to officiate for her next transatlantic opus. And one other thing: Sawhney's first claim to fame came through co-creating and starring in that ground-breaking radio comedy series Goodness Gracious Me.

All that is quite apart from his work in the classical field. The Royal Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have honoured him with commissions: on Wednesday he'll unveil his latest work for the Britten Sinfonia at the Royal Festival Hall. Moreover, in that concert, whose programme he has devised, he will play the piano and guitar, as well as taking the manual lead in Steve Reich's Clapping Music, plus the vocal lead in an earlier scat composition of his own.

The 50-minute work that the Sinfonia has commissioned bears the gnomic title The Classroom, and Sawhney confirms that it's autobiographical. "It grew out of my looking out of the classroom window when I was six," he says, "and seeing this beautiful tree with snow falling on it. I was so captivated by that image that I didn't listen to what the teacher was saying - the classroom became a playground for my imagination, rather than a place where my thinking was regimented. My school was a good one, but I felt quite alienated, because there weren't many other Asians then. This was in Rochester, during the heyday of the National Front, and I had to march in through the school gate past them leafleting us. I think I gravitated to music because it was the best kind of escape - a place without prejudice; a very balanced world."

That speech is well rehearsed but engagingly unpretentious, as is his quick résumé of his unorthodox musical career. He started playing classical piano at five, progressing rapidly through the grades and specialising in Debussy; at 11, he began learning flamenco guitar and also studying tabla with a blind tutor at the local temple; by the time he was 14, he was playing in jazz quartets. "I was really just interested in music as a whole," he says. "I liked the way flamenco deals in extended time-cycles, just as Indian classical music does. I felt at home with jazz because it comes from an oral tradition - another Indian parallel." Yet he went to university to study accountancy. "My brother advised me to do that," he says, "as a way of earning money while doing music, because at that time there was no precedent in Britain for an Asian kid like me to make any kind of living out of music." He did Goodness Gracious Me while making his first album, Spirit Dance.

The more he talks, the more he eludes categorisation: it's not a matter of high seriousness for his classical stuff and a patronising smirk for what he does in the clubs. But the Sinfonia programme puts him in analytical mode. "It incorporates the idea of the tihai - a rhythmic phrase repeated three times, which has to fit precisely and evenly within the context of a time-cycle," he says. "This is an ancient system, but I'll quite often devise new spoken patterns around it." Like scat singing? "No, this is much more complex."

He chose Reich's Clapping Music as a rhythmic prelude to his own piece The Conference, which is a high-spirited exercise in vocal tihais, demanding the glossal nimbleness that Indians seem to have in their blood. "What I'm trying to get across is that Reich's approach to music isn't very far away from that of an Indian classical musician." As it happens, that track by Reich was used by Warners last year to blend the ultra-sophisticated rhythms of Ligeti with the prehistoric rhythms of the Central African pygmies.

Why has Sawhney included Arvo Pärt's Fratres? "Partly because I love it and partly because it's really about extending all the implications of what seems a very simple harmony to create beautiful complexity. You get the same effect in Indian classical music, which is not purely linear, as people often think." So how does Bombay by A R Rahman - the composer of the West End musical Bombay Dreams - fit into this austere framework? "Well, this piece is not taken from Bombay Dreams - thank God, because that was a dreadful work. This is an earlier, hauntingly beautiful piece. But it's difficult for Western classical musicians to play because it has a lot of bending notes - I wanted to challenge the orchestra in several ways with this programme."

So he has brought in Chandru, India's leading Carnatic violinist, to show the Sinfonia players how to bend it. The South Indian Full Harmonic Orchestra - with whom Sawhney has worked - do know how to bend it, but he's insistent the Sinfonia do not clone what they do. "They must remain themselves," he says, "but luckily they're a very open-minded bunch. They put their personal stamp on everything they play."

Indeed, this East-West collaboration is ideal, in that the classical ensemble - chamber musicians rather than orchestral players - are instinctively attuned to Sawhney's explorations. Violinist Miranda Dale says: "It's said that travel broadens the mind. Well, this is the musical equivalent." Meanwhile, the clarinettist Joy Farrall is champing at the bit. "I'm longing to be allowed to improvise along with the Indian players Sawhney has brought in," she says. "Hearing their music is tantalising; it really gets into your system. Our scored contribution is, so far, fairly simple - I just hope he lets us loose on the real thing."

One reason Sawhney is importing these Indian players is to give them a higher profile in the West, to compensate for the fact that - thanks to the encroachments of MTV - their music is under threat back home. The other reason is that he loves their sound. "The Indian voice is about the suspension of ego, the pure expression of emotion; about spontaneous interaction with the mood in the air around you," he says. That's the principle, he adds, that he's tried to bring into Prophesy, which is another of the Sawhney works the Britten Sinfonia will play.

With a man so committed in everything he does - and who regularly pops up among BBC arts opinionators - it's no surprise to find that politics is his mainspring. He's not as angry as he once was about British record labels' cold-shouldering of British-Asian musicians - for a long time, he was the token one - but his anger over Iraq spills out at the drop of a hat. "Kerry and Bush were a non-choice, both stoking racist paranoia. Here we have to choose between Blair and Howard, who are basically the same. Music seems a good and optimistic way of sidestepping such rubbish."

Given Sawhney's ubiquity, it's odd that he's not been Desert Island-ed, so I invite him to give a preview of that event. The question is unexpected, but he doesn't stop to think: "Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Massive Attack's remix of 'Mustt Mustt'. Some film tracks by Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann. No Beethoven, but definitely some Debussy. No Chopin, who's more enjoyable to play than to listen to. A Bach two-part invention. And a lot of Indian classical music - Vilayat Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain. And maybe Shakti, who bring raga and jazz together..." Come on, Sue: this sounds fun.

Britten Sinfonia and Nitin Sawhney, Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday; then touring to Brighton (Thursday), Cambridge (24 November), and Birmingham (27 November)

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