Name: Purbayan Chatterjee
Occupation: Sitar player, improviser, composer
Current release: Purbayan Chatterjee's Unbounded (Abaad) will be released by UK label Sufiscore and can be pre-ordered on bandcamp. For the recordings, Chatterjee assembled a fascinating ensemble of like-minded performers, from vocalist Thana Alexa to tabla legend Ustad Zakir Hussain, from drummer and Pat Metheny collaborator Antonio Sánchez to Dream Theater keyboard virtuoso Jordan Rudess, from banjo player Béla Fleck via drummer Gary Husband to flutist Paras Nath – this truly is a project beyond borders. The global outreach of the musicians is mirrored by the music. As with Chatterjee's previous work, it fuses Indian classical music with elements of jazz and electronic studio magic to create an ingenious, organic and, above all, poetic galaxy of exciting tensions and creative resolutions.
1) “Always Forever” from Pat Metheny’s “Secret Story”
2) “Jalsaghar - The Music Room” by Satyajit Ray
If you enjoyed this interview with Purbayan Chatterjee, stay up to date on his work via his offical website, as well as his accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My first foray into producing music was in the year 2007 when I formed my first band Shastriya Syndicate.
Prior to that I was mostly a live performer. Also up until that time my bringing up was in a pretty rigid environment of Indian Classical music. Having said that I was always in love with Jazz and one of the early influences was “Weather Report” and the “Zawinul Syndicate” hence the name of the band. In the coming years I was also deeply inspired by Pat Metheny. In both these instances I was drawn to the intelligence in layering sound.
Of course in my Indian Classical Music listening Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib, Pt Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Ustad Amir Khansahib, Pt Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khansahib were very influential.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I grew up aspiring towards the sound of Pt Nikhil Banerjee. So much so that I would often conjure up situations where he were advising me on sound and tonality … These were just a figment of my imagination as he passed away when I was only 9.
My teenage years were an amalgamation of the depth of Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib, the dexterity of Ustad Vilayat Khansahib and the lyricism and grandeur of Ustad Amir Khansahib. In my earlier twenties I had a sense of caving in when it came to phrasing and artistic expression. I was hearing a lot of jazz and I knew I wanted to be able to play with harmonic context but I think my classical training held me from venturing in that direction.
Then a very memorable meeting with Pat Metheny lead to an epiphany and I started trying to solo on his arrangements. Unconsciously I think this influenced my phrasing in Indian Classical music.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I think what you are today is always a sum total of what you’ve taken in and oftentimes a sprinkling of what you’ve rejected, too. All of us spend a lot of time trying to be other people till we learn to take comfort in who we actually are.
We keep absorbing influences along the way. Often what you try to resist sticks the most. The end result is a sense of acceptance of who you are as a person which leads to a great deal of clarity about the creative statement(s) you want to make.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think the person who stood between me and being able to unleash the full extent of my creativity was me, myself.
Accepting the need to open up new vistas was difficult for me. The classification of what was traditional and what wasn’t often led to a lot of confusion. I feel my marriage to Gayatri had a very positive influence on my creative identity. She nurtured the traditionalist in me and cracked the shell so to speak by opening up my listening to contemporary pop, Hip hop R&B …
Today I realise that tradition itself is very dynamic and is almost like an independent axis in the space time warp, wrapping itself around newly discovered modes of expression.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made over the years?
I was always a major tech geek, so I had no trouble in adapting to new tools at my disposal. In fact I took great joy in discovering my first transducer microphone, my first effects processor and the like.
The interesting thing is how the understanding of technology often influences your creative flow. In the current months I have been trying to compose and write music which is going to be made for a Dolby Atmos environment.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you? Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I think the single most transformable thing for me, coming from a background of Indian Classical Music (which is predominantly modal) is to make embellishments and ornaments which are quintessentially Indian, fit intelligent and often complex harmonic arrangements. The scope and purpose of each note in the ornament often expand and transform almost infinitely. To find a phrase or an ornament that works with a particular harmony is, for me, very stimulating.
I have closely studied many guitar players and I think extrapolating some of the information I’ve been able to decode onto the sitar, has been very transformative. I hear some of my recordings from years back and realise how much this has enriched my understanding of phrasing. I think I am searching for phrasing that will be both intelligible and appealing to every musical culture.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I think collaborations are a great exchange of creative energy. I am very fond of finding myself in the midst of this creative flux. In most of my collaborative spaces, I try to bring on board collaborators who will challenge my pre-existing ideas so that I may be the richer as a result of the collaboration.
I am quite focused and selfish about the end product and often suffer from paranoia of missing out on a single musical idea. This is why I often make my collaborators discuss every possible option with me, even if they may have rejected this idea internally. I find that we can learn a great deal from ideas that we reject.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
In my younger days I tended to be more regimented. My dad (and my Guru) taught me the value of discipline and because I was trying to juggle between my music and my academic life I feel like I missed out on a little chunk of my teenage, adolescent life.
Then I went through a phase of great rebellion and discarded all routine. My wife leads by example with her discipline especially in terms of my practice and my practise schedule now is often a result of an automatic sense of pressure I feel seeing her dedication. Having said that I saw an interview of Ustad Zakir Hussain where he said that compulsive regimenting may often diminish attraction to one’s creative medium.
These days I practice when I want to and that may be anytime during the day. I spend a great deal of time listening to music and watching movies as these provide me with much needed creative fuel.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I think the process of making this album UNBOUNDED (Abaad) has been a very special time in my life. I have learnt a great deal, much of it about myself, who I am, what I am looking to express etc. The main motivation was to spread my wings onto a more global stage.
For this, I realised, I needed more global modes of expression. I will be forever grateful to all the masters on this album who instilled in me a sense of confidence in my own abilities and in the label “Sufiscore” for putting their faith in my creative vision.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Creativity is mostly about making good decisions. On the creative path, choices appear … and the success of the artist is the ability in making the best choice in that moment. It’s not a right or a wrong choice, it’s simply the comfort with your own self in making a choice which is subjective, in the most objective manner possible. In that moment you are your composer, listener and critic all in one.
This is only possible if you are able to juice the moment to its best. Meditation is a constant process of focussing … I see it almost like the autofocus of a DSLR camera. To get your mind from a blur to sharp focus … that’s the ideal state of mind.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think there are too many stereotypes attached to music that heals. In my mind, hurting without resistivity is often the best process of healing.
The response to sound is very primal. If you associate a certain kind of music with a deep sense of hurt, often embracing that can lead to a cathartic process of healing. So I don’t associate just chimes and bells with healing … It depends on what you are trying to heal from.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Again we tend to adhere to many stereotypes especially when it comes to traditional music.
For instance the subject matter of much of Carnatic (South Indian) classical music is devotion or that of “thumri” (semi-classical love ballad) is romantic love and pangs of separation. I feel that while it’s important to retain the essence and ethos of a certain kind of musical culture, it’s very important to keep reinventing the imagery and iconography around it. Often the answer is looking for modern sounds.
For instance “Shanmupkhapriya” is a devotional Carnatic raga but I have interpreted this as a call from nature to restore balance as it were - perhaps try to reverse climate change. On the surface “Sukoon (Catharsis)” talks about the ending of a relationship- but are all ends sad? Some are just a celebration of the beauty that was and an anticipation of better things to come ...
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
If I were to hear lush pads, behind a deep voice singing of an evening impregnated with the fragrance of jasmine - or a frantic “power chord” over a rocker crying out for the need to break free from shackles, I just might smell the fragrance or feel the chains. The human mind is limitless when it comes to connecting the dots …
Often music is very tactile and often reading a descriptive paragraph from a book can be a far more rewarding visual experience ...
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
We’ve all heard the saying “Art Imitates Life and Life Imitates Art”. Many times I feel like the outward universe itself is, in its entirety, a manifestation of our individual minds. Hence my projection of it is different from yours … My reality is different from yours. I look at art continually through the lens of my mind …adjusting to the objective-correlative of each moment.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music takes you right there. It can make you see things and feel things. It’s a combination of sensory perception ... In the history of human expression, it predates language and syntax. The sounds of nature evoked in us a great sense of awe and I feel some of our emotive responses are inextricable bound the auditory way to our DNA.