Joel Bell writes an exclusive blog for The Sampler, looking at the ghosts who live in our musical lives.


At a small gathering at the Amsterdam Conservatoire, Dhruba Ghosh, master of the Hindustani sarangi, spoke about ghosts. These were the ghosts of musical heroes, influences and teachers. Each of these were lodged in his musical subconsciousness, only showing their face after a period of experimentation with a new meditation method, allowing himself to be free and aware of any influence they may have had.

This was three years ago, and last month I found myself in concert with Dhruba, plagued by my own ghosts. One of whom was sitting across from me playing the sarangi. How seductive it was to allow his sublime (and subliminal) phrasing to enter the ear and try to absorb the nuance, while the head analyses and tries to reduce the unfathomable. If only one could get a little closer to his methods, which reduce his audiences to tears and speechlessness.

Of course, as part of Peter Wiegold’s ‘house band’ at Club Inegales, I get to play with musicians/guests from vastly different backgrounds (Indian, jazz, classical, Persian, Maori to name a few), and have often transcribed select ones before the concert (one of the more interesting ones was Will Self, spending an hour of so working in a Frank Zappa ‘Dangerous Kitchen’ mode before the rehearsal). It is always interesting to explore new ways of phrasing and making music, and some guests leave a mark. But rarely do they hover in the ear for future performances, unlike those musical influences who have shaped my sound world and musical outlook. But how deep should we allow these influences to penetrate? When I improvise with a musician, are they playing with me or my idea of me?

‘You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.’ – Miles Davis

The endless layers of improvisational rules and favoured textures, all governed by my idea of quality. Which are in turn sat in judgement by my musical heroes, ghostly apparitions hovering on the edge of the conscious. Most of my pre-gig routine is spent disengaging from this (and sometimes the first set too).

During an artists’ formative years, musical influences form an important part of lighting the way. Contained within them are elements which draw the artist in, fingers pointing to the moon. But how often do we spend too much time concentrating on the finger, whilst missing all the heavenly glory? (An old Zen proverb, paraphrased by the late Bruce Lee for the masses). Much of this influence may stem from the musicians’ pursuit of ‘craft’. In jazz, a large amount of time is spent on craft, learning the repertoire and the language of jazz improvisation, all necessary to converse with other jazz musicians. Many artists choose to remain within those confines, even disparaging those who dare to push at the walls, never mind knock them down. One could argue that ones’ voice could be found within those walls, even disregarding jazz’s pioneering spirit, hoping for a transcendence of the art. Certainly the search for the new can lead to disingenuousness.

‘Just try to draw a perfect circle’ – Picasso

Of course, Dhruba worked with a tradition, and it is sometimes hard to see (or hear) how he is breaking down his own walls, challenging established expectations on aesthetics in traditional Hindustani music. During a discussion on phrasing, he explained to me that he left some phrases unfinished, allowing the listener to finish them in their own inner ear, and how this made the audience member a collaborator in the music (Miles Davis also talked about the same tactic).

The problem with consciously pushing down walls is that it is now very difficult to work without encountering one tradition or another, be it ancient or contemporary. With the vast amount of musical terrain already explored, it is often difficult to venture out compositionally without encountering at least an aspect of an already established medium. One can see this as a freeing; no more is there a need to venture outward, we can explore the landscape, make new connections. Perhaps there is something to be discovered in processes? Perhaps we need to look at the way we make music? For me this is far away from the traditional western classical model of the soul residing in the score, with the conductor acting as gatekeeper.

Whilst mulling over collaborators for an upcoming project, I find myself disregarding the usual instrumentation considerations, rather thinking about who I want to make music with as the primary consideration.

‘Think not of music, but of musicians’ – Kiya Tabbasian (contemporary Persian setarist/composer)

 Whose voice do I want to hear? And to hear that voice, I must work in a manner which allows it to be heard. Alongside my present preoccupation with ghost-slaying, is an attempt to compose music that frees the performers. Both things are closely related, both a cutting away to essentials. The less I put in a score the freer the musician, the challenge is in leaving what is essentially myself, something of character which sparks off the performer. Of course, for the past few years I have mostly written for ensembles which I’ve been a part of, so my playing also informs the interaction. Interaction is the key here, not just any form of meeting, but one that happens in the moment. I once overheard a composer complaining that a creative musician was unpredictable in performance. To me this points to a huge misunderstanding of what it means to be a performer, as the musician in question is not the same person in the performance as he is in rehearsal. You are not dealing with a reproducer. When I write, I am hoping to write for the performer, not the rehearser. The rehearser is the craftsman, nuts and bolts with an eye for where the fire might be lit.

The backbone is a common solution to these problems, often used by Peter Wiegold at Club Inegales. A central line is written (not necessarily melodic), with layers springing off of it. Giving shape, form and a central core to spring away from, this technique is itself, very old. You will encounter it in Persian, Indonesian, Dixieland Jazz, and Indian music, to name a few. It’s even been remarked that Monteverdi worked in similar ways (by someone who knows a lot more about Monteverdi than me). With this method, the composition is alive, a central core which can hold together or ignite it’s own splintering, unique to each performance. And at it’s heart is the relationship between the composer and the performer. As I’ve worked with Peter for many years, I play for peter as much as he writes for me. I’m aware of his compositional voice as much as he’s aware of my instrumental voice, though we still manage to surprise each other every now and again.

Dhruba’s methods were all about gaining a stronger relationship with the one’s inner impulse. There was no finality in this, only a deepening connection. My own compositions and performances vary in success, sometimes feeling a step forward, sometimes not so much (a rule of thumb I use in performances is whether I can hold a coherent conversation afterwards; the better the conversation, the worse the gig).

Letting go of the ghosts is a risk; no past contrivances or safety nets. Beginning the methods Dhruba passed can be unnerving, you never know what you’ll find in there.