Rohan de Saram

Rohan de Saram was until 2005 a member of the Arditti string quartet, who have an international reputation performing contemporary-composed music, having worked, for example, with composers such as Geörgy Ligeti, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and Witold Lutoslawski. In 1985 he became a member of the improvising group AMM. He has also maintained close contact with Sri Lankan music and is thus in the unusual position of being able to interpret the practice, historical condition and spiritual significance of these different music’s from the point of view of practical involvement. I spoke to him in his family flat in Islington.


From my childhood in Sri Lanka I was taught the piano, maybe the quintessence of western music. There were good teachers of piano but very few teachers of other instruments. My parents, who were keen amateur musicians, heard that there was a very good cellist nearby, a refugee from Warsaw. I was eight at the time and it was he who insisted I should take up western music. I had never heard of the cello before that. It could have been a drum for all I knew!

So that is how I started the western music and the eastern music I have done more or less parallel with it. I play Sri Lankan music, mainly drum music – whose rhythms are absolutely extraordinary – I have been interested in those since being a child. Ceylon has been ruled by Western powers for three, four hundred years, with the Portugese, Dutch and British invasions. So it has been a part of our life to have both east and west. It may not be the best of east and west but it has been both!

The fact of improvisation is something that has been fundamental to eastern music, and to western music right up to the early 20th century when writing became such an important thing and improvisation just fell out, it was dropped. And now the written symbol has become all important in so-called classical music. So the player has become merely an observer of extremely difficult and often very minutely notated scores. But I think the improvisational tradition that was prevalent in old Europe is something that is a vital part of music. It is an intrinsic part of music, a basic form of composition really. A way of knowing how to build a piece, but you do it on the spur of the moment.

When I am doing improvisation with AMM it really is a form of composition because to be successful the parts have got to have a meaningful relation, the whole has got to have a certain sense of direction, even in so-called free improvisation. In AMM I think we have discovered that free does nor mean free in the sense that we can do anything at all, but free in the sense that we do not have preconceived rules to guide us. We don’t have any preconceived 16-bar harmonic material like jazz, or a mode like the Raga system, or even a harmonic system like Bach, that is all that the freedom consists of. But nevertheless, even though we don’t have these preconceived things in the free improvisation, the fact remains that to create an intelligible and meaningful piece we have got to take motivic structures, whether they be melodic, whether they be harmonic, whether they be rhythmic, and be able to build something from them like a composer does. That is how we work I think.

Of course there are differences too. Doubtless there must in a free improvisation be more of what I would call the Dionysian aspect of art, as opposed to the Apollonian. In free improvisation there must be more of the element of the unpremeditated and of course the range of colour is infinitely wider than one would get in the classical media. That makes it in a way all the harder. When one has such an immense material to draw on I think there is the danger that it becomes a sprawling mess of uncoordinated sound. The difficult thing is to restrict oneself so that one is able to build something that is intelligible. Stravinsky said that real freedom comes from discipline and restriction, you can’t be free with just any old thing, it has got to be within given laws.

But you just said that there were no rules for free improvising, and now you are saying there are laws. What is the difference?

Each improvisation will make its own laws. To create an intelligible improvisation one has got to make one’s own laws as one goes along. One player might give a small motif of three notes; that might become a focus for attention to development in various forms so that it becomes meaningful to have it as a centre, a pivot from which to develop, that’s what I mean by a law. In that particular improvisation, for that small period of time, maybe it would be those three notes.

Then quite often maybe the single player develops his own lines. But at least for the listener there is something that would be meaningful because one player at least has developed this particular thing. The others might be separate at that time. That is one of the differences in a lot of 20th century art from classical art. For instance in chamber music one of the ideas that has obsessed a lot of composers is the idea of the separateness of the players in a string quartet: We have recently recorded Cage’s Thirty Pieces and in this the four written parts are played quite independently of each other, and we are seated very far apart. I was at the rear of the stage facing the wall, while the others were positioned on a balcony, in the audience and seated on a window ledge! And in Elliot Carter’s Fourth Quartet the separate identities of the instruments are explored to the degree that each instrument plays in its own rhythmic orbit throughout the piece, so there is hardly a note that is ever together – I think there is one synchronised place, though they are held together by the same pulse, so that is a sort of unification. Carter’ s Second Quartet uses the same sort of idea in a much simpler form and I think it is a very successful piece – if one likes that sort of music, and of course not everybody does! (Laughs.)

In an improvisation you also have to be aware to be prepared for all sorts of directions that are unseen and also for taking away your own sense of direction. Maybe you personally would like a certain direction but somebody else does something and the direction alters. So that in itself is very close to life, I think, more so than a written composition. Life is a continual interaction between what one person would like and what is imposed on them from the outside. So one can feel that one is being used to do something, your life is being lived rather that you are living it. That aspect comes across very forcibly in improvisation because one’s sense of direction is often being turned towards other channels and one is forced to think along different lines. You may, to a certain extent, guide it – but only to a certain extent. In a written composition, of course, that is all set out so one knows beforehand exactly who is guiding what.

Yet in many respects I think that the extremely complicated notation that is used in some of the compositions we play in the string quartet, like (Brian) Ferneyhough, like Carter, even Ligeti for that matter, tend towards the effect of an improvisation anyway. If one looks at the score for Ligeti’s Second Quartet, which is now almost a classic in the repertoire, strictly speaking every note he has written is not playable in the given context, and it is not necessarily expected.

I’ll give you a story of how we worked with Ligeti on his first two quartets in the early part of our career. The First Quartet is quite a traditional work extending some of the techniques of Bartok, but the Second has hundreds of little notes and unusual techniques and so on. We had about five days to work with him before the concert and we naturally thought that the major part he would spend on the Second Quartet, as we were still struggling to learn it technically, and that the First Quartet would take us a day or something. But strangely enough it was the Second Quartet which was finished in a day and the First that he spent the rest of the four days on.

That in itself was sufficient to open our eyes to the fact that in the Second Quartet he was as – or more – interested in the dynamics and timbres as in the pitches. He was really interested that we grasped the overall idea of the piece, the way it was constructed, the different juxtapositions of sound masses and so on. The instruments are used conglomerately, they are not individually composed lines like the First Quartet or every other classical quartet. It is the general effect of the different sections and movements that Ligeti is really interested in. So, the overall effect is that of an improvisation. Sometimes, before performances, he comes to us and says, ‘Play like crazy! It does not matter is there are a few wrong notes here and there!’

And similar things happen even with Boulez, whose quartet is very hard to play because of the difficulties with his extremely complex notation! And Ferneyhough continues to write in an extremely difficult style, but from a practical point of view possibly it is overnotated in many aspects and, again, in actual practice a lot of things he writes become simplified.

But Ligeti’s more recent compositions, such as the Horn Trio are very traditionally formed and notated, and he is not the only composer to have backed away from improvisation, or the use of a more open score. One thinks of Cage, Stockhausen…

Absolutely! Almost everyone has! Certainly all the post-Webern Darmstadt composers of the ’50s and ’60s: Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio. They all seem to have reached a certain boundary, as far as the improvising element is concerned. And in returning to more traditional forms the performer is called upon to play in more conventional ways.

Also it is relevant that in our personal experience we find that there are very, very few string players interested in playing avant-garde music, very few. In fact we are the only quartet perhaps in the world doing it on the scale that we do, all the others have withdrawn into a classical or light repertoire now. For example, we have done several masterclasses in different parts of Europe, and no string players are particularly interested in coming to play avant-garde works. It does not seem to attract players.

Audiences also are limited. Undoubtedly. There are small pockets of interest all over Europe, but undoubtedly small. Though we must not forget there are places like the Paris Autumn and Strasburg festivals which attract large audiences, and recently we have given three concerts of contemporary music in Vienna which completely sold out. But I believe the reason for the dwindling audience is connected with certain definite aspects of the very language of this music, that probably have narrowed it down into an end-of-an-era type of development…

That’s a strong phrase to use. Are you talking about end of the whole…

...yes! I think so, the whole development of the mainstream of western music, an arc starting from, say, Haydn or CPE Bach, through Strauss and Mahler, right up until Schoenberg’s 12 tones, and Webern and post-Webern.

The 12 tones were crucial to this. This equalisation of tones is an interesting phenomenon, because almost all music in all parts of the world has had a tonal centre of one sort or another, modal, pentatonic, certainly all ragas have a central tone. I can’t think of any music that does not have some tonal pull, that has complete equality in the way that Schoenberg or Webern proposed. And with the coming of the complete equality of the notes, this departure from tonality, came this problem into western music. Comprehensibility.

I think the sense of tonality is inborn in the nature of the sounding tone. The tone has an immutable series of overtones, the fifth and the fourth come from the overtone series which is rooted in nature. Nature doesn’t have anything like a complete communism of music, where every note is equally important. Tonality is something that the human organism responds to. It is a given law.

It strikes me as extraordinary that you should say such a thing. The dozens of new pieces the quartet commissions every year, surely virtually none of these employs a traditional sense of tonality?

Yes, absolutely true.

But how would you respond to those improvisers, such as Derek Bailey who seem completely opposed to composition per se, seeing it as a dead form producing ossified objects? Would you go that far?

Yes, I suppose there is something in that. You know, Indian music has different ragas for different times of the day and there is something very profound in that I think. These ragas are one of the aspects in which the human being is sensitive to the changing characteristics of a single day, let alone a month or a year – a single day, which is a kind of microcosm of a life; birth, growth and decay. In that same sense, in an improvisation one is more naturally a part of the exact time in which one is working or playing. And Indian music has never been written down, it is still in that liquid state, a vast material from which to draw for improvisation.

That might possibly be a very important aspect of the future development of western music, precisely that of freeing oneself of the shackles of the written word. Because the written word is a very dominant force in western music, and in western life, in the ways people become labelled, have certain attributes attached to them and so on. It is all fixed on the word, ignoring the inner spirit of the person. And the whole point of Indian music is that you get close to the inner spirit and that the actual music one hears is a thing that is then and there.

So are you telling me that perhaps European concert music is just not relevant any more?

Well, perhaps it isn’t. But it is wonderful to be involved in the decline of an age! (Laughs.) It is a historic process we are involved in, and it is a pity that more players are not involved in the same thing; but it is a natural thing in the growth of any art that one has an infancy and a maturity and I death. I personally see that the decline of a certain direction of development is only one facet of this age. There are so many other things going on at the same time. We are now living a global life and there are so many other factors coming in.

But how the future is going to develop it is very difficult to know. I think it is also a fundamental social question as to what people get out of music; after all, music like Bach’s, even Beethoven’s, were forms, ways of life really. They were essential, they were like food for the people. Now often music has become a very peripheral thing.

So it is a decline in a certain set direction, according to certain set values. But that does not mean it is not ascending in terms of other values. I think it is a mistake to say that something is declining overall; there are lots of other standards. And I think this is an age, a transitional stage, where very fundamental standards have to be re-evaluated and changed.

And do you see music as having some role to play in these social changes?

It could be a reflection of certain patterns. For example, an extraordinary characteristic of so many contemporary concerto works is that the solo is immersed, or engulfed, in the surrounding orchestra. For instance in Berio’s cello concerto it is remarkable that the soloist is heard at all! And the first time I heard Ligeti’s cello concerto on the radio, well, it could have been an oboe concerto, or a trumpet or trombone concerto, because you can’t really hear it as a solo instrument, practically never!

Very many works now have that characteristic, and I think that is understandable. After all, the concert as we think of it, emerging from Beethoven, is the concerto of the hero; the single person is the virtuoso and the orchestra is the mass, so you are conscious of one person being above another. Now in our social way of thinking, that notion is no longer applicable, as it probably wasn’t in Bach’s time. We are again in an age in which the mass formations are of particular interest. There are big mass movements where each individual is just a small bubble that comes up for a while and then disappears. For generation after generation the individual is submerged in the overall sweep of the ages.

And I think this is linked to improvisation. I think that the result of the sort of improvising that we do in AMM is rather similar, in that very often there are overall effects and types of lines that one is a part of, but there is not a single line that attracts attention. There is an overall sweep of direction in the improvisation, and it has often crossed my mind that there is something similar to the age we live in. Also composers such as Ligeti and Xenakis very often think in masses; even when writing for solo instruments or small groups, it is thought of in a mass conglomerate way, not in details or sections. The detail is less important than the overall direction of the particular mass.

AMM took part in one of our Sri Lankan concerts in which we used the concept of Sam Sara. Sam Sara is a concept peculiar to Buddhism and Hinduism, of being tied to the wheel of existence; that the ideal of human existence is to cease to exist, to cut yourself off from the wheel to which one is tied through attraction or desire for living. So this was a music and dance representation of Sam Sara and we did an improvisation, just entitled Sam Sara. I don’t know if we got as far as Nirvana, I don’t think we did!

I thought that AMM improvisation lent itself ideally to the characteristics of Sam Sara. There is something in some our improvisations that does seem to characterise it. It is music which does not delineate individuals but is to do with conglomerate mass movements. Sam Sara is the wheel of existence and when one thinks of the existence one is not thinking of individuals but of mass movements, the overall movement in which individuals are absorbed into an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. So one is thinking along those cosmic principles which are central to Buddhism and Hinduism.

I think Bach is somebody who I’ve always been very attracted to because in many respects he seems to be the closest of western composers to that aspect. I’m referring to the cosmic outlook, where the musician himself, I mean his personal life, is absorbed into a bigger thing. That is how our musicians live in Ceylon. We have the most wonderful drummers and dancers, but the are not interested in personal glory as such, they are there for the service of their religion basically. They live for their music. It is a way of life similar to Bach’s. There is a fundamental difference between that way of life and the form of life that comes after the French revolution, where the individual is a hero.

But improvisation surely has no tradition to rely in this way, and it is atheistic, having no religious, ritual or social basis.

Yes. But we might also talk about a revolution in religion. Until now religion has meant a body of people, a church or temple, but maybe we are coming to a point in human civilization where it is the essence of a man, or human being, or any being, that is seen to be identical. As the Hindus have preached, we are all one, inwardly the same. So maybe the realisation of that particular aspect might mean that the human species have come to a point where it is no longer necessary to think in terms of a set religion with so many rituals and so on. Maybe there are times when that falls away and one gets onto another sphere of spiritual experience. So religion might become a personal thing for each individual, but through that personal thing it becomes universal, because through it one realises in a way the similarity in the essence of each. That is the biggest bind that there could be!

And these ideas are implied in improvising. There is a very deep thing when one is improvising… one does go to the very fundamental things which can hardly be put into words. They are extraordinary, what Jung calls the collective unconscious. There may be certain layers of consciousness so that when we use certain musical figures they may have universal meaning for all nations at all times. Bartok in his collections came across many things that pointed in those directions. He collected things in North Africa that tallied with things in Turkey very closely and one couldn’t explain it necessarily by migration.

I think… I’m sure the future of music must lie along those lines and that is why I think a group like AMM is for me very important in many respects. It may lie in the very distant future but I’m sure it has something to do with that part in music which addresses itself to the basic similarities underlying all human beings. There are deep seated things that will always come out. Like tonality I think is one of those things that is fundamental to the human organism. It is part of a given law…

(8th October 1989)

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