Pushing Sonic Envelopes
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2006 Anil Prasad.
Creating music without borders is Fareed Haque’s specialty. His core desire is to seamlessly weave South Asian classical music, including Indian and Pakistani influences, with jazz, rock, and Western classical forms. His forthcoming album The Flat Earth is an impressive realization of that goal.
The album showcases Haque’s formidable combination of compositional prowess and creative guitar chops that makes this merging of cultures possible. It finds the Pakistani-American musician performing on classical guitar, a sitar-guitar hybrid, as well as electric guitar in both fiery and reflective contexts. His sound—a unique amalgam that owes as much to Grant Green and John McLaughlin as it does to Ravi Shankar—is at the heart of the record, but he leaves plenty of space for his stellar band, The Fareed Haque Group, to shine. The diverse ensemble includes Kala Ramnath on violin; Salar Nader and Kalyan Pathak on tabla and percussion; Rob Clearfield on keyboards; John Paul and John Tate on bass; and Dan Leali and Cory Healy on drums. The team of virtuosos takes Haque’s meticulously constructed compositions and infuses them with exhilarating solos, intricate interplay, and plenty of energy.
Haque is well steeped in pushing sonic envelopes. Since the late ‘80s, he’s recorded several high-caliber jazz-world fusion albums for Blue Note Records and Sting’s Pangaea label. He also recently composed and performed From the Eye of a Hurricane, a Spanish guitar concerto commissioned by Chicago’s Fulcrum Point New Music Ensemble. In addition, he plays acoustic Macedonian guitar music in a duo with guitarist Goran Ivanovich. He’s also routinely breaking boundaries with jam-supergroup Garaj Mahal and saxophonist George Brooks’ Summit, an Indian-fusion act which features the legendary tabla master Zakir Hussain.
Hussain plays a major role in Lahara as well, Haque’s new concerto for sitar-guitar, tabla, and symphony orchestra. In addition to playing on the piece, it is also dedicated to him. Lahara was performed last September with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Allen Miller. Several further concerts and a recording of the work are planned in the near future.
Tell me about your desire to integrate so many varied influences into your music.
My objective is to bring together music that dances, music that is serious, music that is classical, and music that is folklorical. Those four elements represent polarities in the music world that don’t need to exist. The distinctions are like Descartian dualism in that people made an arbitrary decision to keep these things separate long ago and for no good reason things stayed that way.
In the process of combining these things, you run into a real myopia. Typically, virtuoso musicians only work with other virtuosos, so-called serious music critics only see serious music, and listeners that want to jump up and down at shows only go see fun music. I’m trying to break through those barriers with a group of really diverse musicians that enjoy working together and it’s succeeding. At a recent gig, half of the audience was intensely focused on the music and sat with their eyes closed and the rest were up dancing and grooving.
Describe your compositional process.
Typically, compositions pop into my head almost full-blown. A sense of proportion and the basic structure arrive intact and then I’m left to fill in the blanks. It’s similar to an author who comes up with the basic story and then finds the actual words to express it. I usually intuitively know what rhythms and tonalities I’m looking for, as well as what instrumentation will best fit. Sometimes, I’ll try ideas out on the guitar if it’s around, but mostly I put pencil to paper and notate everything I hear in my head.
My big struggle is to avoid having the ego compromise the music. I don’t like music that’s difficult for its own sake, but because the ego likes complexity, it can sometimes be hard to write something really simple. Then you have the problem of musicians looking at what you’ve written and saying “It’s so easy. How can it be any good?” So, another struggle is finding players who can look at something simple and say “Wow, this can have great value, integrity, and be musically significant.” That’s the mark of a great musician.
Does improvisation play a role in your creative process?
I rarely write pieces based on an improvisation, but when I have a piece in my head and write it down, I create an area in it where there is room for improvisation. One of the reasons I sometimes pursue simple structures is so the melody can be embellished through improvisation by myself or the band.
What acoustic guitars did you play on the new record?
I play two classical guitars on it: a spruce Peña Fernandez and a spruce/Brazilian 1971 José David Rubio. When I choose guitars, it's not because of how they sound, but what they let me do. I basically sound the same on any guitar, but on some instruments I have to work really hard to make them sound like me. With both of these guitars, I can just pick them up and they do what I want. They are both responsive to left-hand vibrato and right-hand timbre changes. I can use many different articulations with the right hand and still get a serviceable, usable sound. Some guitars are so loud and bright that all you can do is make one sound on them and everything else sounds painful to the ear. Good instruments like these put a whole range of colors at your fingertips, as well as project really effectively.
Your sitar-guitar is also prominent on the new album. Describe the instrument for me.
It’s a fascinating instrument because it integrates the modal concepts of Indian music and the harmonic concepts of 12 keys, which you can’t play on most traditional Indian instruments. A regular sitar is usually fretted diatonically, not chromatically, so you have seven frets per octave rather than 12. When you play one, it’s not like you’re limiting yourself to seven notes, but rather there are no other notes there, period. However, I wanted to have some of the sitar’s properties at my disposal, so Kim Schwartz and I collaborated on a guitar that has a standard six-string neck, a sitar bridge, 13 sympathetic drone and bass drone strings, and a Bill Lawrence pickup.
The sitar bridge is made of a piece of bone tapered away from the strings that purposefully create a rattling and buzzing sound. The harder you play it, the louder it buzzes. It’s an expressive device that lets you find a richness in harmonic overtones that’s not unlike the distortion created when you take a Fender Deluxe guitar amp and turn it up to 10. The buzz gives you an acoustic property, but with electric guitar-isms in that you can bend notes and have great sustain. The drone strings are wonderful because they provide their own reverb. I can tune them to whatever key I’m in and they’ll resonate beautifully when I play. The instrument also amplifies well. Any effect I use on an electric guitar works on it. It’s a real workhorse. I can use it in any context and it flies.
Tell me about the studio setup you used for The Flat Earth.
We used large diaphragm Neumann mics on the guitars and sitar-guitar. On the guitars, we had one placed over the fingerboard and another slightly above the sound hole. That setup lets you project well and avoid any wolf tones from the sound hole. On the sitar-guitar, there was one over the sound hole and one over the drone strings. We also use a Bill Moll DI on the sitar-guitar to fill out the sound.
For the album’s acoustic pieces, we recorded with everyone sitting in the same room staring at each other with all the mics bleeding into each other. There’s a lot to be said for capturing the aural complexity of sounds interacting with each other in a really natural way. When you put close mics on everything and have the musicians in separate rooms, subtle time alignment differences occur. For instance, mics on acoustic instruments, bass cabinets, and guitar amps are all going to hit the tape at slightly different times and that can create a skewed rhythmic feeling. When everybody is in the same room, the mics hear everything and capture all of the sonic reflections. You get a really complete picture of the rhythm and things groove much harder. Making that situation work really depends on having a band that knows the music, so you don’t have to replace notes after the fact. The truth is, separating musicians is often done for technical reasons more than musical ones. People say “Let’s see if we can record this quickly. If anyone makes a mistake, we don’t have to do another take. We can just fix the part.” I’m not a fan of that approach. There are no overdubs on the record. Every solo you hear is a complete take. I also don’t believe in doing multiple takes and stringing parts of them together. It can create a very impressive-sounding finished product, but I think the realness of a great recording is what makes it timeless.
You work with Zakir Hussain in several contexts. Describe the chemistry you two share.
When I first worked with Zakir on George Brooks’ Summit record, I was really concerned about trying not to do something incorrect out of respect. Indian music, as with Western classical music, has so many layers of pseudo-historical correctness, and I was trying to abide by those guidelines. Zakir sensed my concerns. In response, he pushed a button and announced on talkback to all the musicians “There’s somebody here who’s really worried about playing and he should just shut-up and play the damn guitar.” [laughs] I really needed to hear that to get past the fact that I was in the presence of one of my idols. I grew up listening to his albums with John McLaughlin and Shakti. Zakir isn’t concerned with what’s right or wrong, but with following his instincts and going for something that feels and sounds good. He and I share a real openness and levity which makes working together a pleasure.
What were some of the key challenges inherent in writing a concerto for sitar-guitar, tabla, and orchestra?
Most of the East-West collaborations up to this point have not been that rich from a harmonic perspective. That's because they are more about Western musicians learning about South Asian music as opposed to South Asian musicians embracing the complexities of Western harmony. I endeavored to redress the balance by keeping that in mind when writing Lahara. I also spent a great deal of time asking myself a lot of questions. One of them was "Does the sound of the sitar-guitar work with the sound of a violin section or do they cancel each other out?" I found that the violins fought the sitar-guitar, so I used them as pads or chordally, rather than doubling the sitar-guitar. Another question was "What kind of percussion works underneath the tablas?" Probably not bongos, congas, or snare drums because they share similar sonic territory. Cymbals, marimbas, harp, gongs, and celesta worked much better. So, I had to find combinations of instruments with registers and timbres that would complement the sitar-guitar and tabla. In particular, clarinet, celesta, and sitar-guitar worked together to produce a beautiful sound.
How have you evolved as a musician across your career?
I think I've gone from being more of a technician to more of a musician. I forgive myself for taking so much time to do it because there was a big chunk of stuff to put together as part of the journey. It's a real challenge to figure out how to integrate Indian music, classical forms, jazz, funk, and blues together. I feel my progression towards that goal has been very natural, but it's been an uphill struggle. Really understanding all of these forms requires years and years of practice and there's simply no way around it, even if it's very natural for you. I think the tendency in the West is to confuse "natural" with "easy." However, if you get to witness childbirth, you realize that nature never said that if it was natural that it would be easy. [laughs]