A few days ago I had an enjoyable hour of chatting and playing on Yugi Sethu’s talkshow, in the company of friend & multi-talented singer Yogeswaran Manickam, also known as Yoga. The show is scheduled to be broadcast next Saturday, 21 January, and will be available online too. We talked about music, about India, about motorcycles, and of course about how all those things and more combine in my upcoming trip. We also discussed the origins of the name Elephant Songs and what that phrase means to me.
When afterwards I switched my phone back on, I found an urgent message: if I’d be interested in a recording session the next day? Yes please thank you very much – and then of course the question what to do there forced itself on me. I had’t planned to start the Elephant Songs adventure till mid Feb, but I guess this trip will be all about grabbing opportunities when it presents themselves, and there’s already a few more exciting things coming up before riding to Bangalore to play at the Fireflies festival on 19 February as my first post-Chennai stop. Call it an extended prologue.
On the evening (night, on the Indian schedule) of Friday 13 January, Maarten and yours truly took drums and saxophones to the beautiful VGP Studios on Mount Road, where we met Yoga and organiser Jai Shankar Iyer and studio magician Greg Simmons with his team of eager Australian sound engineers. The spaces looked like bank safes, with big heavy doors. The recording room doubled as home to a number of unmatching parts of filmsets and whatever was hidden beneath its wonderful red carpet redefined the term “sprung floor”.
I’d called Yoga after the talkshow, and he agreed to join the evening. I knew a few of the things he does, but also realised there is a lot I don’t know about him and I had no idea how he would approach this session. I’ve been playing with Maarten since he invited me to join oto.3 on my last visit to India, about a year ago, working with him in that group and in other combinations, including a weekly duo gig at a mediterranean restaurant near the Harley showroom. I don’t think Maarten and Yoga ever played together, though they’ve know each other for a long time and have both often worked with Paul Jacob. The latter, in an article in The Hindu, said something that very well describes part of my motivation for Elephant Songs: “What we create together is far more powerful than what I or any single musician can achieve on his own. We live in dark, difficult times of ethnic violence and power struggles. Music can do much to educate us, bring people together, make us feel our common humanity.”
We took our places in three corners of the studio, facing each other, and after Greg finished setting up the mics, the first elephant songs were recorded.
Maarten brought a graphic score that he titled rolmops: with dots, lines, and squiggles he instructed us how to play our ways through a somewhat defined structure. We did three takes, getting more and more into it; Shane Choi filmed the largest part of the third take with his phone.
Yoga came with a beautiful lullaby that started with soft call and response phrases and then went into a gently rocking waltz. It was great to feel how we all played comfortably, in our own ways with our own instruments and backgrounds, at the same time listening to one another and creating music together.
I’d worked all day on an idea that ended up being called date shake, in honour of the fantastically refreshing frozen-milk-drink they serve in the juice parlours on Triplicane High Road.
When looking for information on Armenian music a few days ago, I’d learnt about their tetrachord system (or understood the information that way, I will never hold Wikipedia responsible for my haphazard interpretations). The system seemed to be about the intervals between the first four notes of a major scale, which are repeated from the fifth note up. Then treat that top half as the bottom half of a new scale, and you’ve modulated a fifth up. Playing with this I constructed a piece that keeps jumping around different major scales, in constant ambiguity as to whether the four notes start or end on the tonic.
In the studio, it turned out that elaborate structures and large collections of notes don’t necessarily lead to enjoyable listening. We ended up playing only the first two sections of my piece, the ones that consisted of an idea, an instruction, rather than a detailed score. Yoga’s melody had worked very well, because he just sang it and Maarten and I joined in. I, on the other hand, couldn’t sing my melody very well (having constructed it only hours ago). A good lesson: next time I’ll bring stuff I know well, that I can explain well, and that I have a clear idea for. Take it from there, make it our own once we get the basic thing. The project is called Elephant Songs after all, so let’s bring songs indeed. Also Maarten’s more workshop-like approach had worked well, that’s also a way to treat (part of) a session.
However, despite the insecurities originating with the feeling I wasn’t prepared well enough, I am very happy with this session. A good start to an intriguing project, with great musicians in a beautiful space. I’ll try and make this chapter complete by organising a show that will also launch the tour, updates will follow. Then the next stop: Bangalore! Two or three shows in the second weekend of Feb, including the B-Flat on Friday 10, and then Fireflies on 19. To be continued!