Full of eastern promise: Jonathan Mayer and cultural intersections

Interesting discussion with Jonathan Mayer yesterday about combining musical cultures. Jonathan is active as a sitarist and a composer, having recently written his Young Person’s Guide to Indian Music for the LPO; and next week, the Docklands Sinfonia will give the UK premiere of his Sitar Concerto, with Jonathan himself as soloist

Exploring the intersection between Western and non-Western culture is a key concept for Tokaido Road, as well as for Okeanos Ensemble in its combination of Western and Japanese instruments. As someone with a foot in both Western and Indian musical cultures, I asked Jonathan about the challenges faced in writing a traditional concerto for an Indian instrument; is the piece even a traditional concerto?

jonathan_mayer‘Yes; it’s very much a Western concerto. Notation is the key; it’s difficult to find sitar-players who are familiar with traditional musical notation, as of course Indian music is an oral tradition.’

Bringing the two cultures together in an effective manner is also a key issue; there’s no sense in simply bringing Indian musicians in to improvise over a piece – that kind of cultural shorthand has been around since the 60’s. (Jonathan’s father, the late sitarist John Mayer, was exploring the combination of Indian music with Western jazz with the Indo-Jazz Fusion Group, including British saxophonist Joe Harriott.) ‘In the concerto, the solo instrumentalist’s part needs to be notated; without written material shared by the sitar and the orchestra, there’s no thematic development – there’s no dialogue.’

It’ll be fascinating to hear Jonathan’s resolution of the challenge when his sitar concerto is performed next week; details online here.