New Shruti for sarod and electronics


New Shruti for sarod and electronics (fixed tape) – A collaboration between Dr Manuella Blackburn and Dr Rajeeb Chakraborty

Dr Manuella Blackburn is a lecturer in music technology at Liverpool Hope University, and for the last few months she has been collaborating with Milapfest on a project to establish a framework for understanding processes of musical exchange across cultural boundaries, in this case Indian music culture.

As part of the project Manuella has been working with sarod player, Dr Rajeeb Chakraborty to develop a mixed electro-acoustic piece for sarod and tape.

Here, Manuella describes her work and shares an interview between herself and Rajeeb:

New Shruti for sarod and electronics (fixed tape)

In the same way that a shruti box or tampura provides the supporting drone for many Indian Classical music performances, my electroacoustic composition seeks to create a complementary line for the sarod material within the piece. Derived from recordings of sarod, sitar, veena, violin, tanpura, swarmandal and ghungroo ankle bells, New shruti forms a montage from all these sounds while exploring the possibilities of sound transformations common to electroacoustic music. In places New shruti goes beyond just a drone function – it aims to instigate, provoke, and energize the performer through three main sections (i) glitch and crackle (ii) pitch curves and (iii) minor slow section. Through creating this work I have discovered the beauty of both the timbres of Indian instrumental sounds, and also stylistic features commonly associated with the tradition and performance practice such as gamakas (pitch bends) and tihai rhythmic cadences. Interpreting and reworking these features into my own music language has brought me closer to a musical culture previously unknown and unfamiliar.

This work composed in collaboration with Dr Rajeeb Chakraborty is the second of a series of works exploring the transference and translation of cultural sound use to the medium of electroacoustic music, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Interview with Dr Rajeeb Chakraborty  (performer for my mixed work for sarod and tape):

Can you talk about your approach to learning the piece?

It was quite interesting. Actually what happened when I heard the first bit I wasn’t getting the entire idea. I listened to your previous CD and your approach was quite different from that one, because there you were using mostly ambient sounds. I have worked with ambient sounds before, but this one was very special because you used different instruments and their tones and you did some processing of those, and actually whatever was being playing by different ethnic instruments and on top of that the challenge was to fix the scale. Then when I kept listening to it time and again I could start relating to it a much better way with my sarod with your track. The other challenging part was that there was no constant rhythm.  To develop it when you are playing ad lib kind of thing like alaps (long notes) it was not only that as there were climatic points so I had to be very careful with those when I come exactly at the same point with you at those points. It was quite a learning process actually playing for this.

Is this a completely new experience?

Absolutely! This was a new experience because what I was saying – previously I have worked with ambient sounds but not sounds which have been created with different kinds of musical instruments or those that have been processed.  So this is a new experience certainly.

Now that you have heard and played the piece, can you comment on the process of initially recording you (back in January)? Can you comment on how the recording stage has influenced the resulting work?

It helped you in structuring the music. But what I found that because it was bits and pieces taken from different areas [of the recording session] I would have been happy to do it again or re-record it, as sometimes we don’t play one solid note eg. Re Ga – not like that. I wanted to give some kind of Indian embellishments along with your track – it would give it another dimension to it [an added musicality]. Playing it in an Indian way.

 Can you hear how your sound material has been re-worked into this new composition?

Yes – these are like the spices and ingredients – but you did the cooking. I didn’t know why you were recording me [in January] to be frank because I didn’t hear any of your music [previously] I didn’t know what kind of complementing I would be doing on my instrument to your track. Once it was done I kept listening to it from yesterday and it made more sense, and that’s why I wanted to change a couple of things and also keep some things which I thought had been intelligently done. You had a little bit of ingredients; you didn’t have a lot of material, like 3-4 hours of sarod playing, then you could have just made it like you wanted. Now I have more clues about it – it is a new experience. We were totally unknown to each other – I didn’t know much about your music.

I see the project with you as a collaborative process. Was it clear what your contribution would be in the recording stage and in the forthcoming performing stage?

In the performance the easy part about Indian musicians, or what is difficult for other musicians, is if there is a fixed part they can play it exactly, but here there is a problem as there is no particular tempo or rhythm. There is just a guideline [waveform] and no one is conducting. To remember something of 13 minutes is next to impossible because every time we play maybe its the same thing but in a different way. So the theme is the same, topic is the same, but content and stylization is different every time, so once it is formulated it is best to stick to how you are progressing with the music so I can come as close as possible so it will make more sense then we are talking in the same line.

Has the process of collaboration been revelatory? Have you learnt anything from this project?

Certainly! The approach of the music is so very different – you keep learning. As we were discussing, every day doing the same mundane thing for creative people they become a bit sad about that. It is always challenging but at the same time you discover yourself in a new light, in a new idiom of music and you grow with that and grow a taste for it. Later on it tells you what to do. It has been a learning curve. Getting exposed to a completely new style and genre – I love it. You keep an impression of this in your mind.

Can you comment on the aspect of working with technology in this piece?

I am a tech savvy person. As a composer I need to know a little bit as often it is not possible to hire a recordist or in a quite a few sessions we record by ourselves. I have got to know a new approach here.

I view the accompaniment part of this composition as a sort of ‘tampura’ or ‘shruti box’. The role of the drone accompaniment is so central to Indian Classical music and this is something I aimed to transfer to my piece. Although a constant pitch centre is not maintained throughout, do you feel the accompaniment supports your playing style and content?

Certainly. It is taking a role of drone instrument but like the drone keeps us grounded in a scale, but here you are doing more than that. You are instigating me you are giving me clues ‘do this, do that’. So it is not only a drone, it is teasing me to come up with some musical challenges, so I wont confine it only to a drone, it is more than that. It is compelling me us to come and fight with something and initiating activity. You have to come and complement it or compete with it. It is an attractive thing in many places. Especially going out of your comfort zone. Then it becomes more challenging. Music has no barriers and we are quite open – wanting to coming to a podium where we are in a hand-shaking experience. So it is something more than a drone. When you created that a lot of in built flexibility was there.

Listen to New Shruti…

In two parts:

This work was premiered on Saturday 27 April at the Capstone Theatre, Liverpool Hope University as part of Milapfest’s regular Indian music concert series.

For more information about the project and the collaboration, please visit

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