BBC World has been re-airing the dance piece that I created with Bollywood star Shakti Mohan, and I've been thinking about the multilayered dimensions of that unique collaboration as well as the impact of creating a work of art to be premiered on TV.
The concept of composing a piece of music for television premiere is not a new one. Gian Carlo Menotti wrote his famous opera Amahl and the Night Visitors for premiere on NBC all the way back in 1951. But even though the concept is not new, the technology and forms of getting the performance out there have changed dramatically. Everyone with Internet access, a smart phone, a tablet, a laptop (the list goes on) can now be the audience for the unveiling of a new work of art. The idea that access to a high quality premiere performance is reserved for the elites of the world's cultural capitals is as obsolete as the notion that only a select few people can own mobile phones (I remember reading with great amusement Martin Cooper's description of sophisticated New Yorkers gaping at the sight of a man making a call while walking down the street in the 1970s).
When the BBC reached out to me, one of the producers posed a daunting question: "What sort of work would you like to create and who would you like to collaborate with? Anyone in the world..." I thought about this long and hard. I knew that I wanted to do something I'd never done before since every new piece of music that I compose is also a great opportunity for me to delve into every subject and discipline on the face of the earth. I have to admit that my mind immediately shot in the direction of poetry since I've set text to music quite a bit. I thought that perhaps the BBC could hook me up with, say, a great Chinese poet or a Liberian writer (after all, I'd never engaged those poetic traditions). But then again, I thought it would be fun to work with a visual artist... the possibilities were infinite.
A couple of days later the most obvious pairing struck me. I needed to work with a Bollywood dancer and when the BBC suggested Shakti Mohan, I was immediately entranced. I'd never worked with a Bollywood dancer before and this was going to prove to be one of the most fulfilling artistic partnerships I've had yet.
The terms of the commission were simple: the work was to be no longer than four minutes (they wanted to broadcast it in its entirety together with in-depth profiles of me and Shakti), I could choose the instrumentation and instrumentalists and, most importantly, I had a week to write this thing. Once the terms were settled, the BBC went over to Mumbai to fetch Shakti and bring her over to New York to meet me and work with me. Shakti had never been to New York before and it was electrifying to see her soak up the creative history and energy of the city. I was similarly electrified by her unique creative energy.
When I write for a singer or instrumentalist, I study their "voice," their approach to their instrument and the genres of music that they feel most connected to before writing a single note of music. With Shakti, I watched videos of her dance and I felt increasingly connected to this girl. She was a little less than a month older than me, we were both born in 1985 in vastly different parts of the world and here she had traveled thousands of miles to create something with me.
Hardly over her jet-lag, we started sharing ideas. We had a little less than a week to put this whole thing together. As far as instrumentalists, I selected my old friend and collaborator David Krakauer and the American String Quartet. I wanted the project to encompass the Jewish Klezmer idiom that David has mastered as well as the "straight-laced" classical combination of a string quartet. The piece immediately contained a traditional "Western" ensemble (the string quartet), an Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jewish idiom of clarinet playing, the dance of India and the music of an Arab-American composer. What a melting pot!
It was also not lost to me that many of these cultures are seen as being "in conflict" with one another. Simplistically: Jewish vs. Arab, Western vs Eastern, Hindu vs Muslim etc. And here, for once, I was grateful that this project did not involve poetry or text. It was in the universal languages of dance and music that the expression of all these cultures came together in the most natural way possible. In less than a week, the music, performance and choreography coalesced without conflict in the most natural counterpoint possible. Nothing about it was contrived. This was almost a sort of scientific proof that the arts could melt away all our conflicts and allow us to celebrate our differences.
Of course, there were differences but in an artistic context, these are opportunities for learning rather than conflict. Shakti taught me the basic gestures of Indian dance (how to tell the difference between Mayura, Pataka and Kartarimukha) and I showed her the difference between a viola and a violin.
Another crucial difference was that Shakti had never performed with live musicians before. This surprised me but I suppose that I take for granted my endless interactions with living, breathing musicians since it's so much a part of the fabric of my day-to-day life. Most music on the Bollywood dance scene is prerecorded and the dance routines are carefully choreographed to time cues. "What if", Shakti asked nervously, "the musicians don't play the same way in our performance that they are playing in the rehearsal?" It didn't help matters much when I explained to her that there are always subtle differences between rehearsal and performance and that my tempo indication (a brisk "tempo di Bollywood") had room for interpretation.
Shakti developed a natural chemistry of collaboration with the musicians very quickly. They moved with her and she responded intrinsically to their cues. Her choreography was sublime. It was a wonderful gift for me to be able to see my music through her gestures in addition to just hearing it. The performance was going to be a triumph.
One of the last decisions we had to make was what to call our new piece. We settled on a title a few hours before the premiere! I wanted to give it a Hindi title since that would be a first for one of my works. Shakti wanted to give it an Arabic title since the music drew from the influence of the Dabkeh (Arabic round dance). We ended up calling it Hindustani Dabkeh, combining the Hindi and Arabic languages in the title. The concept on an Indian Dabkeh was an entirely new cross-cultural art form and it delighted me.
We were so elated by the energy of the performance that Shakti and I forgot our extreme exhaustion at the end of this long week of work. At the end of it we had brought Hindustani Dabkeh into the world to an audience of tens of millions of people.
I've been fortunate to have my music performed often in the worlds great concert halls and I must say that I cherish the experience of the concert premiere. Hearing a new work of mine in a setting like Carnegie Hall will never get old for me. Its virtues (among them the beauty of the acoustic, the legacy of its history, the wonder of hearing talented musicians live) make the great concert experiences irreplaceable. But we would have had to fill all three auditoriums of Carnegie Hall for over 17,000 consecutive nights to accommodate the 70 million or so people who watched the premiere of Hindustani Dabkeh on its first run. This media doesn't replace the concert hall experience but it can help us to amplify the reach of works of art to the many people who can't make it to Carnegie Hall or any of the other halls.
I've received countless messages from people all over the world saying that being a part of the audience for the premiere of Hindustani Dabkeh uplifted and inspired them. And with so much bad news and destruction in the world, why not give some more airtime to new works of art with the potential to raise our spirits?