Getting to know Now with S, I and E

By Smriti Daniel , Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

It’s been a month since Musicmatters opened in Borella, and its two directors and their only full- time teacher have an appointment with us. Dr. Sumudi Suraweera (drums) and Isaac Smith (bass) both have backgrounds in jazz, while Eshantha Peiris (piano) comes from classical background. Each has experimented, playing around with other genres; they are now set to present original compositions that defy the restrictions of a single style.

Their concert ‘Knowing Now’ to be held at the Punchi Theatre today, October 17 at 7 p.m. is an extension of their work at the school – bold, innovative and fun - musicians and audience discovering new music together. Here are excerpts from the conversation they had with us.

The Sunday Times (S.T.): The title of the concert is intriguing – why ‘Knowing Now’?

Sumudi (S): We are here to kind of create an alternative live music scene...

ST : From scratch?

S: (Laughter) As far as we’re concerned there’s not enough happening here.

Eshantha (E): What we find is that even a lot of original music that’s out there is based on older moulds, on older trends...We just want to renew our approaches to music making and expose our audiences to different kinds of music making other than the standard – “here’s a song that’s previously been written, let’s cover it” or “let’s write a song in the style of an established genre”.

Sumudi Suraweera Isaac Smith Eshantha Peiris

Isaac (I): I guess all three of us share a philosophy that music can teach us new ways of going about things and relating to each other...also the way in which we learn music can teach us new ways in which to learn to perceive information.

And so, the three of us are interested in creating music that stimulates that paradigm of thinking, that isn’t just based on the sentiments of old, yonder, instead that is connected to the present moment...As a foreigner it’s very hard to find an objective viewpoint on this country, but I am interested in what it means – musically - to be a Sri Lankan today.

ST : With Sumudi, I was very interested in how your PhD was in ethnomusicology, so there is a link to very traditional music there. How do you see that coming into play here?

S: My drumming over the last few years, my jazz drumming, has taken a lot of influence from the stuff I’ve studied here. So my compositions have a lot of the low country drumming patterns. I think that just to add something to what Isaac said; I don’t think anyone could put down the traditional music that has survived over the centuries. It’s almost like it still exists for a different the’s a different context.

I: To add to what Sumudi is saying, I really agree with it. The traditional music here is beautiful. But it has a different function. And I guess that we are interested in changing the way music can function in Sri Lanka and in society here. And what it can mean for us. Not just as Sri Lankans, but what it can mean for me, what it can mean for us human beings. There is a potential for music to function in so many beautiful ways.

S: It’s hard to be pessimistic. So far we’ve built up a really great little audience, because we put on regular concerts (e.g. Big Ears music series) and we have a lot of younger people coming to it. These are the sorts of people who actually get inspired by seeing something they haven’t seen before.

E: It’s almost like some of the songs are processes...I wouldn’t say that the processes are more important than the music but the processes do bring about the music.

S: Yesterday we tried out one of my compositions and I had two specific sections for the piece. I was quite open as to how...I had a melody but I wasn’t too bothered if that melody was playing. So the one we worked was to feel these two specific sections as a unit. Through that rehearsal the whole piece took on a different form. I don’t think I can claim that piece to be mine by the end.

ST :So there are about ten pieces.

S: All three of my pieces are based on low country rituals. There’s a specific one called the bali ritual. And through studying it over the last few years I’ve transferred some of the essence to a drum kit. My pieces are based on those. There are lots of improvisations. We might get a guest artist. So there will be a vocal element.

I: I’m doing three pieces. I strongly believe that one of the ways in which we all connect is through rhythm. So we’re looking at rhythms that are connected in very obtuse ways, and in some ways rhythms that are seemingly not even connected all and it is up to the player to create the connection. Another thing I’m interested in looking at is form...Specific details? The most specific details I can give are that Sum will play the drums, I will play the Double Bass and that Eshantha will play the piano. My three pieces are intentionally composed to accommodate process. And composition is a process. Could someone help me out here?

S: Something specific could be that most of the music is quite rhythmic and there’s a lot of overlapping of rhythms or poly-rhythms.

I: I suppose, lots of juxtapositions of rhythms...

S: Isaac’s pieces are full of irregular really obscure rhythms.

E: My two pieces, (and I know this is strange for a pianist) but they also seem to be rhythmically based. One example of mine is that I just came up with a tiny melody, (and a melody is usually played by one instrument), but here I split the melody note by note between three instruments. I’m trying to get us to improvise our own thing while still hitting our assigned note. You would, in the middle of potentially chaotic improvisation, you would still hear that melody striking through. I’ve also done a composition where we all play different rhythmic-cycles but it always ends up at the same place.

I: I guess that we rehearse not to get it right, but to get it less wrong. We rehearse to try and figure out the possibilities, not to nail it the same way every time.
S: We rehearse very differently to a pop band.

ST :Clearly. Does that also mean you rehearse less?

I: No. No.

S: Probably more.

S: It’s really challenging music for all of us.

I: It’s not very often that I get to play music that is difficult. Sometimes you want someone to go “I want you do something you can’t do” and suddenly you have to create a whole new set of skills or re-organise the skills you do have to somehow to get it happening. Rehearsal is a process, performing these tunes is a process, listening, as an audience, you’re intensely a part of the process. And at the end of it, it’s not the end of the process, because if you play it again tomorrow, it’s going to be different. In essence, when you’re listening, everyone knows what it means to be now, because it’s not the same as yesterday and it won’t be the same tomorrow.

‘Knowing Now’ is on today at the Punchi Theatre at 7 p.m Tickets priced at Rs. 500 are available at Musicmatters 92/1A, D.S. Senanayake Mawatha, Borella. Tel: 2686615 from 10 a.m.– 7 p. m. Print sponsors: The Sunday Times.

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