“….and that to produce and receive sound is to be involved in connections that make privacy intensely public and public experience distinctly personal”
– Brandon LaBelle in Auditory Relations
Theophilus Benjamin (ATCL/LTCL), one of the renowned classical guitarists of India, spoke about the music repertoire that he had chosen for his audience in New Delhi on the 1st of June 2016. He chose to perform select pieces from his fellowship Diploma examination, which was scheduled on the 3rd of June, this year, and a few more he personally enjoys. A warm up for the examination or an outlet for performance anxiety, whatever it might have meant for Theophilus personally, the audience had a different feeling about it altogether. The soft, soothing sound of the classical guitar gradually filled up the basement of the Instituto Cervantes.
The light tone of classical guitar makes it an instrument quite distinct from any other classical instruments associated with the Western classical genre. It demands some kind of intimate dialogue between the listeners and the performer in the given moment. This is not to say that intimate dialogue is associated only with the classical guitar. Rather, it goes on to say that the sound art ordered around classical guitar has intimacy as its starting point.
By focusing on sound art through the ideas of John Cage to the works of artists in the 80’s like Achim Wollschied and recent creations like networked performance spaces by Apo 33, Brandon LaBelle talks about the co-habitation of sound and space traversing through the notions of ‘multiplicity of acoustical viewpoints’ and the ‘radiophonic’ implications directed towards the interiority of sound. This concert particularly made me reflect upon the dialogue between the spatiality, sociality and the acoustic milieu that the author talks about.
“The acoustics here work really well”, said Theophilus Benjamin. “My association with Instituto Cervantes goes back a long way. I remember a concert in the year 2013 where Eugenia Carrillo, a Mohiniyattam Dancer and I were interpreting “Spanish Dance No 5”. This was followed by a half an hour set by Thu Le, another classical guitarist and me. Another time, I had given music for an English-Hindi play called ‘Quixotewala’, based on Don Quixote, which too happened in 2013. This was in collaboration with Yellow Cat Theatre Company and a graphic art specialist Harsh Raman.
When asked to elaborate on his instrument and the comfort of performing, Theophilus came up with the following responses. “I am using the Michael Thames (New Mexico, USA) custom made guitar as the concert instrument. I quite like its sound. For 9 years now, I have been using Savarez strings on the guitar. To keep my nails supple, I use the crystal glass file and finer and micromesh. The intimate setting and the closed space of the basement hall, at Instituto Cervantes make the acoustics ideal. It could even work without a microphone”.
This quiet and focused musician is looking forward to newer ventures as of now. He was a faculty at the Delhi School of Music and Performers’ Collective School of Music in Gurgaon for quite a few years and a performer too, during that time. Thereafter, his association in various capacities, with the Calcutta Classical Guitar Society, and his role as the Director of the Asian Guitar Federation exposed him to newer opportunities and interests. All of these expanded his area of expertise, both musically as well as socially.
Now, he is all set to join the Good Shepherd International School in Ooty as a Faculty in Music Theory, Guitar and Ensemble. He had a short stint in True school of music, Mumbai for about three months, before he embarked on this concert series across Calcutta, Pune and Delhi, alongside preparing for his examinations.
The concert repertoire that he brought to the Delhi audience comprised Mysterious Habitats by Dusan Bogdanovic, Trez Piezas by Joaquim Rodrigo, Sergio Assad’s Aquarelle, BWV996 Suite by Bach and Recuerdos de la Alahmbra by Francisco Tarrega. For encore, he played Issac Albeniz’s Asturias as an immediate response to the largely Spanish-speaking, both native as well as Indian, audience. The sound of the classical guitar depends a lot on the tonality and temperament put forth by the Classical guitarist. Theophilus was quite often found to be engrossed in a silent dialogue with his instrument. He explained that to be his momentary reaction to any event during a performance.
The Serbian composer’s Mysterious Habitats was a wonderful way to introduce the classical guitar especially because of the casual stroll-like feeling that the piece initiates, wandering off to unusual lanes, only to return to the familiar zone, ending with eerie harmonics. For me, the high point of the evening was demonstrated during Rodrigo’s Tres Piezas. I found the rendition stirring up small episodes of torment, grief but a distant playfulness lurked somewhere. Bach Suite BWV996 took us back to the combination of serious and blithe zone of the Baroque era. Although the take off wasn’t the best one for the evening. Soon, the tone colours were appropriately incorporated. Assad’s aquarelle touched upon the dark aspect, ‘exploring the edge of sound’ as Theophilus remarked. A section of the piece is based on Raag Bhairav, although presented in a very different way. It starts with a whole tone scale section based on a three note motif on which he expands. The motif returns, sometimes in a manifest and the other times in a latent manner. The interspersing of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas makes Assad’s tribute to his Brazilian heritage prominent. This music was much more modern and experimental than the rest of the repertoire. Finally, ‘Recuerdos’, hinting at the sweet- nostalgic mood was the ideal way to take a bow. Asturias with its subtle yet detailed melody leaves an imprint and was quite the appropriate encore.