Jasdeep Singh Degun on his new collaboration with the Scottish Ensemble

Immersed in both Western and Indian musical traditions, for his latest project Jasdeep Singh Degun has written a new piece “in response to” the players of the Scottish Ensemble. Interview by David Kettle

Sitarist and composer Jasdeep Singh Degun is preparing to give a TED Talk the following day when we speak. “I pulled an all-nighter to get it written, but it’s done now,” he says. It’s called ConFUSION – with the ‘fusion’ bit in capitals. My work is all about collaboration, but ‘fusion’ is such a loaded term for Indian musicians. We all hate the word. There’s a running joke that senior Indian musicians say that fusion is confusion.”

Born and based in Leeds, Degun is himself immersed in both Western and Indian traditions – he was a pianist before he took up the sitar, for example. And as a result, he’s acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of bringing the two cultures together. “We’ve all had bad experiences of really tokenistic stuff,” he admits. “But luckily, I’m now in a position where I only agree to projects where I feel the intention is in the right place.” He’s an accomplished performer of Indian classical music – “that’s my main bread and butter,” he explains – but he’s also undertaken major projects across styles. Like shaking hands with Monteverdi down the centuries for Opera North’s pioneering Indian/Italian Orpheus last autumn, or writing his own concerto, Arya, for sitar and orchestra, which he premiered in 2020.

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It’s another such collaboration that Degun embarks on this coming week, in a five-stop tour of Scotland and Manchester with the Scottish Ensemble, for which he’s created a brand new piece. And for Jenny Jamison, Scottish Ensemble CEO, it represents just the latest example of the group’s out-of-the-box thinking. “We’re trying to create as many different ways for as many different people to feel a connection with the music we perform – which means the variety of what we put on stage is quite broad.”

Jasdeep Singh Degun working on his new composition with the Scottish Ensemble PIC: FoxbrushJasdeep Singh Degun working on his new composition with the Scottish Ensemble PIC: Foxbrush
Jasdeep Singh Degun working on his new composition with the Scottish Ensemble PIC: Foxbrush

“We had an initial meeting on Zoom,” Scottish Ensemble artistic director Jonathan Morton continues, “where we were very open about what we could do together. Then we got together for a couple of days in July to try out ideas, when there was room for experimentation.”

“We workshopped the ideas I’d had,” Degun continues, “and then the piece was really written in response to the Scottish Ensemble players.” And it’s focused, he explains, on traditional Indian musical ideas. “It’s for a string quintet, myself on sitar and Harkiret Bahra on tabla, who’s one of my long-time collaborators. It’s based around the Indian idea of rhythm, which works cyclically rather than linearly. What the sitar and tabla are playing is actually very traditional, and I’m finding interesting ways to build string parts around that. The piece is a response to some of the other pieces in the programme – I ended up asking myself: what’s missing?”

Indeed, Morton thought deeply about Indian music, its influences and its parallels in planning the concerts’ broader repertoire, which includes music by 12th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen (“basically a beautiful melody over a drone, so not that different from Indian music,” Morton explains) and minimalist godfather Terry Riley, himself a long-time devotee of Indian classical music. “We’re doing a piece called Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, which Riley wrote for the Kronos Quartet,” Morton explains. “Jasdeep and Harkiret are joining us in that piece – that obviously wasn’t in Riley’s original, but I know Jasdeep Instagrammed him to ask if he’d mind, and he replied saying, no, of course not – do what you like!”

Indian-Western collaborations are nothing new, of course – you could even argue that there’s a decades-long tradition of just those kinds of fusions. “Think of Ravi Shankar and the Beatles,” says Morton, “and the way that that fed into West Coast minimalism – I think there was a first wave of these things happening in the 1960s, which was fascinating, but it kind of went away again. But now you have people like Jasdeep who was born in the UK, and has connections with both musics, so I think the collaboration will be quite different – maybe the start of a new wave, in a different way.”

Jasdeep Singh Degun and the Scottish Ensemble perform in Dundee, Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow and Manchester from 4 to 8 October, see www.scottishensemble.co.uk