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Five Minutes With Simon Thacker

Ahead of the official launch performance of the GemArts supported double album Trikala by Simon Thacker and his gifted ensemble Svara-Kanti on Friday 9 November, we caught up with Simon about the making of the album, his eclectic musical influences and why he’s looking forward to returning to Sage Gateshead.

Can you tell us about Trikala – what was the process for making the album?
An extremely long and demanding one! Trikala (Sankrit for the three tenses of time, past, present and future) contains two hours and 18 minutes of the most forward looking Indo-Western music ever released, featuring 13 of the greatest performers from their respective traditions, written and recorded over 3 years. With different lineups I focus on innovating on four different aspects of the vast musical macrocosm that exists on the Indian subcontinent: Hindustani classical (north), Carnatic classical (south), Punjabi folk (west) and the Bengali mystical folk Baul tradition of both India and Bangladesh (east). It was recorded in East Lothian, Scotland, and Chennai and Kolkata in India. Some of the performers I have played with over many years and others I tracked down specifically for Trikala. Getting so many lineups together was very difficult and took a lot of perseverance after some setbacks. For example I brought Raju Das Baul to Scotland and flew Bangladesh based Farida Yesmin to Kolkata, and at one point had a recording session with mridangam virtuoso Neyveli B. Venkatesh scheduled in the UK in 2016 before bureaucracy got in the way, finally making that happen in Chennai in 2018 (also adding two other incredible Carnatic percussionists). In the end the determination to fully realise the vision I had for Trikala has more than matched that of my dreams. I believe it is a spectacular release and a seminal moment for intercultural collaboration. Let’s see if everyone else agrees!

What can people expect from the concert? We will be exploring the instrumental part of Trikala, in a trio with violinist and Britten Sinfonia leader Jacqueline Shave and Sukhvinder Singh “Pinky”, one of the great originals of the tabla world who is a a master of both the Punjab and Benares repertoires. The nucleus of the concert repositions the extremities of what has been done compositionally with an intercultural ensemble. It is neither Indian nor Western but now genuinely a third direction of itself, that takes my personal supra raga approach and rhythmic language to new heights. Improvisation is also central to the music so the most breathtakingly intricate composition can suddenly lead into ferocious and intuitive improvisation. I imagine the music I want to hear sometimes in terms of exact notes and rhythms, but ALWAYS in terms of the emotional effect I want it to have and the journey I want it to take the listener on. This music epitomises that philosophy. There will also be an epic guitar solo that I finally recorded on Trikala after many years of experimenting.

Where did your love of Indo-Western music begin? I wouldn’t say I love Indo-Western music. Actually, a lot of what would be termed Indo-Western “fusion” I really don’t like. I don’t see my music as fusion at all but the propulsion of traditions into the future and the development of a distinctive musical language that has something fundamental to express. I always go to the roots of any tradition. These inspire me and serve as examples of how musical ideas, forms and genres gestate, mutate and gain layers of cultural wealth. I am obviously “Western” and I work with Indian musicians so my music is, strictly speaking, “Indo-Western”. I’ll explain in the pre concert about why this journey and aspect of my work has been so important but basically connecting with traditions of the Indian sub continent has been a lightning rod for my own creativity and led me to work with performers who I have a symbiotic relationship with. Through this I have created a huge, unprecedented body of work that finds its most advanced form yet in Trikala.

You’ve performed at Sage Gateshead with GemArts many times, what is your experience of playing in this venue?
GemArts has been behind all of my many Indian explorations, stretching back unbroken to 2009’s Nava Rasa Ensemble, my first Indian based group. It is rare, especially at this time of economic belt tightening and near pathological programmatic risk aversion, to find a promoter and champion so fully supportive of an artist and music overtly at the very sharpest edge of developing new soundworlds, revelling in taking the untrodden path and which requires a significant development phase. All of my performances for GemArts have been at Sage Gateshead so it very much feels like returning to our spiritual home and it will be very special to both premiere a lot of material and launch the Trikala album, my biggest ever, on November 9th.

Who are your musical influences?
I suppose my first “guitar hero” was Angus Young from AC/DC in early primary school, then Jimi Hendrix was an obsession for many years. But I was lucky in that I musically brought myself up in the right way, constantly searching out new sounds from a very young age, so Indian music, flamenco, pre war Blues, jazz, Egyptian song, Latin American music, and so on, were part of me from early on. I was also lucky in being gifted the occasional tape or CD from my mother or family friends that happened to be, looking back, remarkably prescient (fate?) and important in my development. Obviously I went on to study classical music up to MMus postgrad level so the sense of being part of that tradition and having a grasp of a millennium of musical development that has always sought to surge forward has been fundamental. Again, we’ll no doubt discuss this more in the pre concert talk as musical influences is a vast subject to sum up briefly, not just what but how it has influenced and shaped my work and me as a person. Nowadays I’d say observance of the natural world, dance, visual art, and many other things that aren’t simply just “music” are becoming more important inspirations.

What’s next for Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti?
Trikala is being launched as part of GemArts highly acclaimed Riverside Ragas concert series at Sage Gateshead so in the immediate future there will be lots of promotion and media getting the word out, and a remarkable number of new videos coming online over the next few weeks to accompany the four different strands to the album, all of which were recorded at video sessions in great locations in Scotland and India immediately before or after the studio sessions with the different lineups. I’ll be promoting Trikala in India on TV, radio and with performances in December and January, recording another couple of big spectacular videos there, including with Gujarat based Priya Varunesh Kumar’s dance ensemble.

See Riverside Ragas: Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti: Trikala on Friday 9 November