Pete Yelding on Portfolio with Kuljit Bhamra.
Every year, Sound and Music shine a light on the work of the composers who are currently in residence on our Embedded and Portfolio programmes. These are our New Voices of 2016. They are creating new, exciting and innovative music, across disciplines, all over the UK.
In partnership with Kuljit Bhamra on Portfolio, Pete Yelding is a cello and sitar player who has now begun composing for tabla using Bhamra’s method of notation. After describing what he’s been working on during the programme so far Yelding offers a frank (and familiar!) explanation of how he first became interested in Hindustani music, leading to his compositional and philosophical approach now. From liberating his work from the political and sociological narratives that surround ‘world’ music to decolonising the narratives associated with ‘new music,’ Yelding addresses the implications of ‘exoticism,’ describes his ideal musical world and offers advice for others also interested in the field. He writes with candor and obvious experience, sharing his views around what is really a question of Self and Other…
- What is the sentence that summarises what your music is, and what it’s all about?
Modal, repetitive and textural music that comes from a place of play, shaped by ideas that I feel are worth sharing.
- You’ve been working in partnership with the tabla expert and bhangra pioneer, Kuljit Bhamra, on Portfolio. What’s been the best thing about it?
Meeting Kuljit. He’s a really nice man and I like where he’s coming from in terms of ‘demystifying’ musical systems. Now is the time to be having honest conversations about what goes on in different musical spaces without essentialisms, and Kuljit is definitely a leading voice in that regard. When we met him for the first workshop, we discussed the tabla notation he’d devised. It’s great that it’s so concise and comprehensive. There is scope to do a lot with it, make it your own, but also it completely works for writing using existing Taal structures.
- What kind of things have you been working on so far? What’s your project about?
So my piece is one of those ‘set it up and it takes care of itself’ sorts of pieces. There’s a medium tempo 16 beat cycle that runs all the way through and I use the pitches and some of the melodic movements from Rag Puriya. The piece is about making relationships happen between the members of the trio as shared material moves around their parts. I’m enjoying finding ways for the harp and marimba material to emulate the tabla material, then getting the tabla material to imply the melodic contour of the other parts respectively.
- You’re a sitar player yourself. How did you first become interested in Hindustani music? What was it about it that tempted you?
I could reply to this question with the usual ‘inspired’ aestheticism that is frequently heard from white, European composers/musicians (young and old, present and past) seeking cultural capital through a seemingly noble demonstration of engagement with a musical space from outside their immediate cultural experience. I could talk of how learning the nuance in melodic expression and the character within the Ragas (always in italics) was more interesting for me than functional Harmony (not in italics), or how learning to play within and across the intricate and sometimes extraordinarily slow Taal cycles has changed my rhythmic understanding forever. There would be some truth in it. However, it wouldn’t be an honest or useful response of how I and most likely many other European composers, first became interested in Hindustani music.
In my early teens I had only encountered the sitar as an orientalised decoration providing colour to those 60s pop songs and the swathes of ‘world-beat,’ new age ‘chill-out’ albums that have followed. At 16 I joined as a cellist this highly problematic folk-rock band called ‘Freelove And The Good Plant,’ in which there was a sitar player. The sitar player was good and told me that if I was actually interested I should find a teacher one day. The band as a whole, though, was literally a free-for-all of cultural appropriation, faux-philosophy and white middle class entitlement. At the time, as the youngest member by about 10 years, I just thought it was cool and exciting. So, it was everything I now write about to prevent continuing – the lazy tropes, the essentialism and the exoticism of an unchecked white gaze – that got me first interested in Hindustani music.
When I met my (still-current) teacher, Clem Alford from the Senia Gharana, on the elective module in Raga Sangeet in my first term at Music College, much of that was reframed and put in its place. I wasn’t instantly ennobled and no deep truths about the world and the universe became apparent. I was being taught how to successfully participate in a Hindustani musical space and I enjoyed it. The left-hand technique of the cello transferred quite well onto that of the sitar and I found that I had more of a natural disposition towards learning to base my understanding of melody on the Sargam system. There was also something very nice about learning to attribute the material I was playing to the parameters of the art-form rather than to the supposed genius of single individuals. I tend to be wary of musicians and commentators who, even if they don’t say it out right, allude in their language to Hindustani music as this “magical music of the East” that “drew them in” with its mad rhythms and microtones… For me there was a magic to picking up the sitar, but the sort of personal magic that happens when learning to speak a new language: that of resulting new understandings and relationships formed.
- With influences from both traditional Indian music and the Western experimental scene, you wish to liberate your work from the ‘East meets West narratives’ and work as you. How do you use sound and performance to bring these aspirations into reality?
The ‘East’ was a ‘Western’ concept to help the ‘West’ define itself to itself and its Others as the sole proprietor of individual agency in order to justify colonial violence. So, the ‘East meets West narratives’ in music will only ever be about constructions of ‘Self and Other’. That means that a seemingly benevolent musical interaction on those terms can only really ever be about power and subordination.
The key to overcoming that, as a Caucasian male involved in what are considered to be ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ practices lies in the language of your question. You chose to write ‘work as you’ rather than ‘sound like you’. That is the answer. It isn’t possible to divest from ‘East/West’ binaries in the aesthetic realm of sound and performance because sounds and performance actions don’t mean anything without the social context that defines them.
Franz Fanon said that through the particulars you reach the universal. The particulars of a musical space are defined by their social context. So my ‘universal’ or sense of ‘self’ is determined not by the binary of familiarity versus alterity, but from having an awareness of how I creatively engage with the particulars of already existing musical spaces. In other words Working as me is an embodied experience where the ideas from all the musical spaces I operate within, or have operated within, have equal agency and inform my decision making process regardless of what I’m doing. That is, of course, with the proviso that in none of those spaces am I any less of, or more than, a Caucasian male.
- You write that your current work is also focused on ‘decolonising many of the fixed Western narratives around ‘new music’. Can you elaborate, and describe how your work achieves this, too?
Kay Dickinson points out in ‘The Arab Avant Garde’ that the majority of the literature on the history of the avant-garde (much of which was in my Composition Bachelor core reading list) is made up of “capacious cast-lists of Largely Western (and male) heroes,” the journey of ideas rebounding between “Europe and North-America exclusively and, while there are sporadic allusions to “African” and “Asian” colours and textures, their histories and inheritances, their passages along colonial trade routes, are never plotted out”.
That sums it up really. ‘New music,’ with a capital ‘N,’ aligns itself with the linear and ring-fenced history of European Art Music. It is as reliant on the aesthetic spectacle, the idea of the autonomous musical work, and the supposed individual genius of the composer as its predecessor. It’s a problem because it is totally invested in the notion of a singular, universal modernity. This trait is central to the colonial imagination as ‘modernity’ has been the term used most to justify theft of resources, culture and life from most places in the fix of the ‘Western’ gaze. To destabilise this and so to celebrate more widely new music making, it’s necessary to acknowledge that at any point in history including the present there are many alternative modernities occurring at once – all of them defined by the local context in which they arise.
My work has been an ideal location for me to try and navigate the musical landscape with a sense of embodied decoloniality. How successful I am at this can only be determined retrospectively and most probably not by myself, as there are a number of lived privileges and oppressions that I will be blind to, even with the best of intentions. However, the paradigm I use is to think of musicking as something that first and foremost involves human bodies in spaces and as such is both always and never new. If writing a score, I am writing new instructions for some bodies to perform musical actions that other bodies will receive, or in the case of an electronic or sculptural project, just for bodies to receive. If playing, I am performing new musical actions for other bodies, some who may also be playing, some who may not be, to receive. The nature of how these bodies behave is pretty-much out of my control, as they are defined by the already existing local context. By attributing the knowledge I have gained to instruct bodies, or my body, to wider flows of musical and social information seems to be a helpful way of destabilising the residual underlying colonial mechanisms at play in contemporary musicking. Also, incidentally, this is part in parcel with moving away from those ‘East/West’ binaries.
- The notion of ‘exoticism’ is a concept that can be observed internationally across the globe. How do you react and respond to such ideas, in general?
Exotic is a loaded word. It combines otherness with a sense of desire and fantasy. It’s something I find quite frustrating actually, and I haven't even been systematically oppressed as a result of it. I tell someone I play the cello and they say “OK cool”. I then tell them I play sitar and they say “oh, wow,” as though playing the sitar carries greater cultural capital because it involves the conquest of exotic knowledge. It’s frustrating because, while it is an integral part of my musical experience, I am not an authority on the art-form, but a participant. I’ve been playing 9 years and this is a practice that takes decades to master. The most telling example of this kind of thing was when I was on my way, running a bit late, to a Gurdwara to play at a wedding. This white guy with dreads comes across the road to me and says “dude, is that a sitar?” I nodded. He wanted to give me a high five and congratulate me, as though he had some investment in the fact that another white person was infiltrating the cool unknown. While his enthusiasm was seemingly innocent, I found it embarrassing. It also indicated something still at play in the dominant white European/American consciousness, where the role of the exotic is to exist only for its gaze, not as a self-determined entity for its participants to enjoy and define from within.
At this point in history, what’s ‘Eastern’? What’s ‘Western’? Is an ‘Eastern’ person playing ‘Western’ music ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’? And vice versa. Martin Stokes explains that “Musics are invariably communal activities, that bring people together in specific alignments, whether as musicians, dancers or listening audiences.” So in response to Eastern music fitting into Western society, I would be inclined to first ask how accommodating is Western society to ‘Eastern’ people that music? You only have to look as far as Calais to know the answer to that. There needs to be a de-elevating of supposed “Western” values as naturalised, self-determined, norms via the disentanglement of reductive definitions such as ‘East’ and ‘West’ before musical spaces, and those who participate within them, can operate safely in and around each other, without someone being exploited.
- So, what’d be your ideal musical world?
One where a musicking self can form dialogic musical relationships. One where the majority of the global music market isn’t directed towards Western-Europe and the USA. One where audiences are consciously considered as much the active agents in the process of musicking as the players and/or authors.
- Do you have any words-of-wisdom that you can offer to other composers working within a musical field that’s also considered to have many sociocultural implications?
Yes: if you’re a good musician, you have a pre-disposed heightened ability of listening. Don’t just use that ability on the quality of the sounds coming from people or instruments. Listen to what people say with the same level of attentiveness. The two-ears:one-mouth ratio is a very helpful one when navigating anything with sociocultural implications. Not only that, but the aural consciousness is one that can redefine the visual, so for someone coming from a position of privilege, ears can be more helpful than eyes.
Also, it’s never “just academic” and it’s certainly never “just material”. Music plays a huge role in all of our lives as we look to form identities and a place in this world so to trivialise musical identities, especially those that form outside the dominant culture, as such, is to trivialise people’s lived experience.
- Do you have any recommendations of composers/artists to look out for in the next year?
I’m going to interpret this as, ‘who do I think is brilliant at the moment?’ because these people are already established in their own right, but they’re about my age and doing super creative things in their respective musical spaces: Theon Cross. La Leif. David Stockard. Lady Vendredi.
Interview by Emma Sugarman (Communications Intern – Sound and Music)