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When Randy Armstrong has to create a specific piece of music that must evoke an Indian feel, he just orders a sitar from India. “Every piece of music has to be original in its creation and cultural fidelity,” he explains. That is how he has over 300 instruments in his collection, including 14 types of guitars, three sets of tablas, and a bansuri flute in every key.
PBS viewers may recognize his name from the primetime mini-series, Dinner on the Diner, following the cooking by celebrity chefs on various trains across Spain, South Africa, Scotland, and Southeast Asia.
In 2014, Armstrong composed for the dance and drama presentation of The Mahabharata at The Philip Exeter Academy’s Fisher Theater in Exeter, New Hampshire. He used classical Indian instruments to create original music, which included an arrangement of Raga Kafi by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and the song “Shanti Om” from his Beyond Borders CD dedicated to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison.
For several months now, Armstrong has been composing for a dance theater adaptation of another epic poem, this time Persian, called The Conference of the Birds. The original was written by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar.
The epic poem is being presented in an epic way: San Francisco Bay Area California audiences will experience it for the first time with actors whose ages range between 8 and 85, along with thirty dancers across ten different dance-forms from around the world. These details assume enormous significance for the musician, who has to get each of them to move to his tune, and move the audience at the same time.
Armstrong expands on this, saying, “The dancers are originally from these cultures, so the music has to be authentic. I have to deliver my highest performance.” Thus, for the Chinese traditional dance, he used the gu sheng; for belly dancing, he used the Darbuka drum and the oud; for hula, he used the ukelele and slide guitar. For extra percussive authenticity, he ordered the ipu heke from Hawaii.
“When Vinita [Belani, of Enacte Arts, co-presenter, along with Sangam Arts] approached me last summer to compose music for The Conference of the Birds, she was familiar with my work; she had worked with Jean Claude Carriere, the playwright of The Mahabharata, and had come to watch the one in Fisher Theater,” says Armstrong. “I was reminded of The Seven Valleys, written by Baha’u’llah; both works have made an impression on me.”
Almost immediately, he started composing the opening piece called “The Awakening.” “It is important for the opening to transport the audience to Persia and it has a personal connection, I had studied the Persian santoor with an Iranian doctor many years ago,” says Armstrong. “It was like coming home in many ways.”
Given the myriad cultures and that he would need to use multitudinous instruments, it was important for Armstrong to find a unifying factor, musically speaking. “I decided to use the note C as the center of this whole orchestration of multicultural music. So the various musical elements relate to that—Indian, Persian, Chinese, Egyptian …,” shares Armstrong. It was a non-trivial task, since each instrument and sub-culture has a sound of its own.
Armstrong travels with Volker Nahrmann—a German bassist he has worked with for several years—to absorb new world sounds. Their 2015 CD, Beyond Borders, was nominated for two awards and “is a global voyage with 35 musicians from around the world,” featuring music from Havana, Rio de Janeiro, India, Middle East, France, Italy, Native America, West Africa, and the Caribbean. A 1988 CD called World Dance reached the top 10 of several national charts including #7 in Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. It also featured a track composed by Armstrong for the 1986 United Nations International Year of Peace.
It is fascinating to hear him speak about music composition for the different mediums. “When you compose for dance, rhythm, duration, speed, beats-per-minute is critical. A beat and here or there can make all the difference. For theater, timing is most important, music becomes a servant to the emotional fabric of the piece, as it is for film too. When it’s live, the musician and listener are feeling it in real-time, it’s completely different, you capture the energy from the audience.”
Armstrong summarizes his musical career: “I am so fortunate that I have been able to play my own music, since my early 20s, and been able to go deep within that pursuit. As a musician, you don’t know if you can sustain yourself in these changing times. Just looking at the technological changes in the music industry, I feel like I have lived three lifetimes!”
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.