Last week Johannes Möller made a quick trip to Delhi.
Veda Aggarwal had a chat with him. He spoke about how India and Indian music influenced him, how he composes and what he sees for classical guitar in this country. Before Johannes left the country, he squeezed in a visit to Agra with Yogi Ponappa and sent us this selfie from the Taj!
How has India and Indian music influenced your compositional style and way of playing?
I’ve been attracted to Indian music and Indian culture from an early age. I guess it may have to do with memories from my early childhood, though I can’t say I had a lot of contact with it as a child. I do remember enjoying the colourfulness the sound of the music had. There are Indian elements in Sweden too – there are Indians there. I remember my mom took me once to an Indian festival and there was music and I was thinking: Oh, this is super cool!
And then later, when I was around 20 or so, that’s when it really became an interest. It became a need for something different, perhaps another way of thinking or some kind of depth into life, perhaps. Musically speaking, it really became a source of inspiration for me. When I was younger I wrote a lot but in many different styles and I was never quite sure, I could never quite find a form in which I felt comfortable exploring a personal language in music. Coming in contact with Indian music which is a modal music, harmony is sort of excluded in a way. Of course this depends on how you qualify harmony, but at least functional harmony in the western way is not a part of it. Somehow rhythm and melody can flow uninhibited in a way in a very beautiful balance.
Writing with that, say in a piece like Song to the Mother. Here I’m also imitating the idea of Indian instruments, often playing everything on one string if it’s a stringed instrument. The melody is on one string and other strings are accompaniment strings or back up strings or resonating strings. Of course you can change, but in general it is that kind of imitation of the voice. We have that in classical guitar too. Something like Villa Lobos Prelude #1 is sort of the same concept. Here, I took it a little further and instead of really considering harmonical chords and so on, it’s more about the shape of things and the function of the chord is secondary. That is all on one string, using chords, using harmonics as a kind of resonating world around it. It’s not just the style of music, but also elements of the technical aspects of modal playing or Indian instruments.
(Watch Song to the Mother played by Johannes Moller on YouTube)
Does it work both ways? You just told us about Indian influence in your own music, but are you also looking at a larger collaboration with Western influences in an Indian context?
I’m not trying to play in an Indian style. I’m actually more interested in creating something new, something that has elements of it. That’s a personal interest. But I am also keen on seeing how the classical guitar could fit in Indian music. Indian music, just like Indian culture, is something which is embracive. It’s including, not excluding. There’s an example of course of the slide guitar, a modern instrument that is an adaptation of the Hawaiian guitar, and accepted in Indian classical music. I guess the violin too has had similar history and even the santoor, these are instruments which weren’t originally part the Hindustani classical tradition but has been accepted by it.
So there is this part of me that is wondering if the six string, the classical guitar, be accepted as an Indian instrument. I think what speaks against this is the fact that it doesn’t have a lot of resonating strings, it only has six strings. But at the same time, something like the sarod doesn’t have a lot of strings that way. Of course, it’s fretless so includes that very, very important aspect of Indian music the glissando, we don’t really have it. But what we can do, is we can bend notes. I think as an instrument, there is potential of utilising those things. But I think we’re going to have to do things like the santoor (a non-glissando instrument) does and somehow create a similar effect. And if you tune a string very low, the guitar becomes soft, but it’s not more soft than say a rudra veena.
I’m keen on seeing this go further. Whether I’ll be the person to do it or whether someone else will be the person to adapt it completely… that’s more likely perhaps.
When you write music, do you keep in mind both sets of music principles, the Indian system and the western harmony-based system?
Yes, that’s one of the things that I enjoy about composing – that I can do whatever I want. So from piece to piece, I can decide. I have written a few pieces within a context using its particular metre like a taal and trying to adapt the feeling of that, the function of it. Then using raga patterns. Thanks to retunings, I think we have the potential. I’m putting out the tunings and I’m writing compositions that suggest what can be done with it. The way I’ve tuned is quite similar and sometimes identical to the way an Indian slide guitarist tunes. D B (or Bb) G D G D. It’s a nicely balanced. And with the help of octaves, I can get a bit more of a strong sound.
What I associate a lot with Indian music is a particular kind of magic – it’s very fragile, but it also has elements which are also virtuosic, very lively, very strong. Even something like a bansuri with all the ornaments and everything, gets quite intense.
I think the point is a synthesis with room for me and room for the guitar perhaps. I think it’s pretty exciting in a way, doing things like cross over and world music. There’s always a risk for things to step on each other’s toes, but I think two things can be brought together and treated like a separate third thing, that can really have the potential to create something new.
What’s it like to play for an Indian audience?
I’ve always enjoyed it! I think Indians are music-loving people. And of course what I have particularly enjoyed is to play my Indian music to them. It’s kind of gone in a funny way because originally I did not think about it at all for an Indian audience, but then thanks to the Calcutta Classical Guitar Society, they invited me on the merit of having found YouTube vidoes where I was doing Indian-inspired compositions. First that was quite remarkable. Then having gone there, being invited there, later collaborated with Indian musicians over there, I learnt and I am learning more about it. It’s great that we created something that is more intended for an Indian audience and that is when I am playing with a tabla player and also at times additional musicians. And when I did that, it really felt in a way that it made sense to people. I felt that it communicated in a stronger way the medium.
One of the greatest gratifications has been that it’s been accepted by the Indians. And then now it’s gone the other way. This thing that I did in India is now catching on, I’ve done shows in England and in Switzerland and around Europe with this combination of instruments.
What about the Indian guitar students you see here? Is there any particular advice you have for them?
First of all, I would like to say it’s very exciting. In the way, the classical guitar in India is quite young. We are seeing only second generation of teachers for example. Soon there might be a third generation. But though the history doesn’t go far back, the scene is sort of boiling. There’s enormous interest and there is enormous potential. If you see for example what’s happened in China where it really has caught on, why can’t something similar happen in India? This is a very portable instrument, it’s quite affordable and it could have an enormous popularity.
I’m always very keen on seeing the students here. One thing I have noticed from the first time I came to the festival in 2010 until the last time which was last year in 2014, that there’s been a tremendous change, tremendous development of the students but also of the culture. I think it’s very exciting. I hope that continues to grow. One reason is because we’re going to see is some pretty advanced players coming up soon, but also for the culture: it’s going to create an interest that’s going to transmit and grow into something larger than just the people involved in it. All these players, people doing it, they’re going to have to find their audience and if they do, there’s enormous potential for interesting things to happen.
I also see something else, like I said earlier, can the classical guitar – six strings, a simple guitar purchased easily – can there be also a tradition for it, in say 50 years? I’d also like to see a western classical scene grow, but I’m also keen to see what happens with Indian classical music. I think I’m partly responsible for writing pieces that way. But I’d like to see the students and teachers out there make things like interesting arrangements of folk music for example, bring that in and create something. If there are going to be Indian guitarists, there’s also going to be the need to have a place for the guitar. So they need to create a sort of Indian guitar repertoire too. That’s the vision I have.
Here’s a short list of Johannes’s Indian-inspired guitar music on YouTube
Song to the Mother
Whispered by the Wind
A Star in the Sky, a Universe Within
Ananda (Dedicated to Swami Ramakrishnananda)
Rasa Lila (part 1) with Laura Fraticelli
Rasa Lila (part 2) with Laura Fraticelli