Musician Warwick Blair discusses the Indian traditions behind his latest electronic work, Stars, with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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AUCKLANDER Warwick Blair was once called the enfant terrible of New Zealand music, and he has been working with and manipulating electronic equipment since the ’80s. Given his reputation for innovation and wandering, it’s no surprise that his latest electronic work, the album Stars, references millennia old Indian traditions. He’s also worked with multimedia in the last decade, his musical creations frequently complimented live by museum installations and video projection. A live version of his Stars show will be played at the Auckland Fringe Festival in February-March, and recently played at the Wellington Film Archive, showcasing Blair’s fusion of Western electronic music with older traditional forms of music.

Blair has always been interested in writing and creating music, and his early background was in electroacoustic music, a branch of electronic music which is heavily influenced by classical and technological traditions. Blair moved to Europe, and his love of 4AD bands like This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance helped influence his musical trajectory. Blair says that he “got involved in more pop-cultural things and through that, I discovered this whole lineage of electronic or electronica music, and found that there was a link between electro-acoustic – the purist classical side – and the pop or dance culture side of electronica.” However, in recent years, his music has explored some different boundaries, including gandharva music, a type of classical music from India.

Blair has maintained his interest in Vedic traditions since the ’80s. “Since the late 1980s, I’ve practiced transcendental meditation.” He’s also maintained a strong interest in Hindu culture, from health to architecture, based on different parts of the Veda. “One of those bits is Gandharva music which should probably be number one on the list, though meditation is number one. That’s how I got into it. I was practising elements of that culture myself, so it’s a natural thing for me. It’s not a passing fad.” Ancient Vedic theories discuss the subtle relationship between sound modulations and the human body for example, which would appear to have a natural fit with a practitioner of electronic or ambient music. “I think probably more ambient music, in the sense of ambient music in its purist form is quite a subtle thing where it goes back to this thing called furniture music way back in the 19th Century. It’s music that’s there, but not to be focused on. There is an element on that in this Vedic tradition where music has another role, apart from it being enjoyable to listen to, the other role is that there is a deeper level where it can actually influence a person listening to it, the society, and the environment – it can actually have an effect on those things.”

In Stars, Blair doesn’t play the sitar or tabla, nor does he sing (instead vocals are provided by Sandhya Rao Badekere), but he uses the theoretical framework (such as the breaking down the day into particular time periods) of gandharva music to create the album. Blair has broken down the album into three hour time periods. “I’ve used the concept of each having a different emotional quality, that when the music reflects that quality it can have an influence on the individual, society or environment, and it’s purely my take on that concept. It doesn’t use any ragas or scales, it does use an Indian singer, but it’s just an appreciation or an awareness of the different emotional states that are almost prescribed for those time periods.” This will result in “an effect on the listener. If you’re talking specifically about my work, Stars, when it was performed in the Dunedin Public Art gallery in October – this is the performance not the record, although that should have an influence as well – for instance there was a wee child who must have been one year old with his parents, and he was screaming before he came into the auditorium, and upon listening to the music and viewing the images as well – there were six screens as well of the heavens, he settled down completely. That’s an example of the effect that this work and the tradition can have on people. It’s really a settling thing and a way of creating a blissful state, if you want to coin a phrase, a ‘happy place’ for listeners to be in.”

Blair emphasised that he’s been “very, very mindful” of showing due deference to the ancient traditions. “I’ve used those time periods as a basis for their emotional qualities so I’ve actually followed the description of what those qualities are. For instance, ten o’clock [pm] to one o’clock in the morning is the most restful period and ten o’clock [am] to one o’clock in the afternoon is the most active period on a very basic level, and there are other emotional qualities that go with those periods. I’ve been respectful of that. I’ve also been respectful by working with an authentic Indian singer from this tradition and trying to create a fusion work between West and East and using her talents in my own work.”

The live performance of Stars has been designed for twenty-hours, and so it would prove a bit of a challenge condensing the music down to a standard CD length. For his previous album, the well-regarded Accordion, “for radio play – there were six tracks ten minutes long – we’d do single edits. And it’s the same with the Stars project. Obviously this is a 24 hour work, it’s a bit like having a magnifying glass or scientists looking at little petrie dishes with microscopes. We just edited a portion, we’ve scanned the work and looked for a good place to cut. We haven’t done a remix in a sense, we haven’t added anything or beats or any other musical elements. We’ve really zoned on whereabouts is the best place to make a cut and placed that on CD. I don’t have any problems with that, I’m all for works of art to be adaptable and presentable so that the most people can listen to it and hear the work.”

For Blair, transforming the music into a recorded work doesn’t necessarily come at a cost of the physical reaction that gandharva music is meant to evoke. “I do believe that, although in the performance there is a visual element, so that’s another bit of extra stimuli that can increase that feeling of blissful states or happy places to coin a euphemism. It can accent that more, simply because it’s another form of stimuli. You could apply that to more bits of stimuli – taste, touch.” The visuals were created by Paul Moss, a Wellington astronomer and video artist, who has collaborated with the likes of Rhian Sheehan. “We’ve designed an approach whereby there’ll be six screen projections on for instance the roof, the floor and the four walls, so that the viewer is completely immersed in the visuals. It’s based on a poem, it references a poem called ‘Evening’ by a Polish poet called Staff – ‘I lie on a boat in the evening stillness/ Stars above me, stars below me and stars within me.’”

The music has a strong meditative quality, simultaneously relaxing and exciting, and there’s a constant flow both in its construction and intended effect. “Yes, there is a flow both on the macro level and the micro level. So the macro level is these periods of time, these three hour periods of time. And there’s a natural progression between each of those, there’s a flow in that sense, the grand architecture of it all. And within each section you’ve got on the CD and in the live performance, there’s a flow between that, where it’s based on a very small snippet of audio which is repeated organically and randomly using a computer programme. I don’t like a strict loop, so if things are looped exactly the same, I don’t like that. But when things are repeated, they are slightly different, a little drum pattern of four hits [for example]. Every-time it comes back, and it probably comes back once every two minutes, it’s different. It’d do three hits, and the next time it comes back, it might be five hits. So it’s really organically changing, so that’s where flow organically comes from. The computer has been programmed by me to have that organic flow, so it’s been quite a lot of work in structuring Stars from me.”

India has had considerable influence in popular music shifts, particularly in the ’60s, when everyone from the Beatles to Philip Glass were referencing the transcendental nature of Indian culture (though obviously the cross-cultural flow had been occurring for some time prior to this). “I think music in general, even if you’re talking about, I don’t know, Nine Inch Nails – for some reason that came to mind – music has the ability to transcend. In other words, to bring people out of their daily grind, and we all have a daily grind. It has the ability to transport people to another place. And probably the reason that India was picked up on was because it’s such an important part of society in general, and there’s also an awareness of the power of music I think from India. Also there was other kind of aspects of drug use in the ‘60s, altered consciousness, and it might have been a tie in with that, and this cultural phenomenon of transcending. And that goes through the whole thing. Basically taking drugs is an attempt to remove ourselves from our daily existence and alter our daily existence. And that kind of feeling in India, there’s an awareness of a possibility, the potential for that to be possible in our daily existence, and maybe there’s a truth that’s deeper. I think that’s a cultural aspect of India that’s been picked up by musicians because they do that naturally through music – through the culture of the time if you’re talking about the ‘60s, the experimentation and drugs and awareness of philosophy, where things aren’t necessarily goal directed from A to B, they don’t necessarily travel that way and there are many different ways. It makes sense, that India would be a major influence.” Blair’s take on these long-established traditions, and his fusion of gandharva music and electronic music is challenging and thought-provoking, and ultimately, Stars immerses his listeners in a subtle and distinctive way.