Balancing “The Resonance Between”

Alam Khan, Arjun K. Verma, & Del Sol Quartet recently released a unique Indo-European Album

“The Resonance Between” (TRB), a new album featuring a groundbreaking fusion of Indian and European classical music styles. On the eve of the premiere of the album at the Presidio Theatre on Oct. 13 & 14, they spoke with Anuj Chakrapani for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of TRB. 

Q: You have described the fusion of European and Indian classical music in TRB as “more than simply the sum of its parts”. Can you elaborate and tell us why?

A: As simple as it may be to imagine the concept of making a fusion of two distinct forms of music, the artistic risk is always that the resulting combination is nothing more than an awkward juxtaposition of the two. With TRB, we wanted to go so deep into the integration process that the various musical genres, influences, textures, and instruments would blend together seamlessly into an unbroken whole. And the resulting music has a character that feels like something that has taken on its own independent life, beyond its constituent parts. It doesn’t feel like only one or the other.

You might even consider it a different subgenre of music. Some listeners of this project have described it as a feeling that all the instruments and musical styles sound perfectly natural together as if they were all “meant to be.” This was our goal, and to achieve it we needed very courageous musical partners, willing to step outside of the box, and thankfully Del Sol Quartet has been able to do that in great measure with us. We hope the result is something refreshingly impactful for listeners.

Musicans playing their instruments on a hill top
The musicians on the new Indo-European album ‘The Resonance Between’ (image courtesy: Mark Gorney

Ingredients of a musical process

Q: In an album that is as diverse as this one, it must have been a challenge to ensure one artist or one style does not overshadow the other. It’s a fine line you have to toe. How did you accomplish it?

A: Yes it was certainly a challenge. Out of all the styles incorporated, the project is most grounded in Hindustani classical music, so that of course is, in many ways, the “base” of the whole album. But beyond that, we did work very carefully to showcase the beauty of each instrument, as well as to balance the power of Western harmony, the lyricism and dynamism of Indian melody & rhythm, the modern patterns of minimalist loops, and the richness of lush sonic textures–across the whole album as well as within each piece. Overall we did this by approaching the combinations with subtlety, tending to use less of any one given musical “ingredient” rather than overdo it, and working closely together–Alam, myself, and Jack Perla–to negotiate these sensitive combinations during the composing process.

I would say the most critical choices around these delicate points of balance came during the mixing process, which happens after a recording session is complete. It is during mixing that the tone and volume of each instrument is set and subtly adjusted throughout each moment of the music. In many of the pieces, all of the artists play at times as soloists, so we wanted them all to feel reasonably “up front” to the ear. And yet, there had to be some degree of layering and depth–having some instruments step back at times to allow others to shine.

With the fantastic help of engineer Neil Godbole, we discovered that almost microscopic changes in volume would sometimes have enormous effects on the balance of the instruments, for example, correcting situations where one instrument is perceived to dominate all the others–after a tiny adjustment, it suddenly feels on par and well balanced.

I feel that this degree of sensitivity we were able to employ is really due to the example of the legendary Ali Akbar Khan, who taught Alam and me (and so many others) the importance and power of extreme subtlety and nuance, guided by an overarching emotional aesthetic, and how such seemingly small choices can add up to a remarkable overall effect in the music.

A man holds a sitar in front of his face
Sitarist Arjun K. Varma (image courtesy: Mark Gorney

Immersive audio

Q: The song, Ascent, is one of the first Indian classical-based tracks ever produced in the new technology of “immersive audio”. Can you tell us more about the technology, and what inspired you to produce this song on this new technology?

A: While the technology of audio recording and playback has been growing over so many decades, with so many stages over the years, like going from mono to stereo, and the introduction of “surround sound,” it’s recently had another breakthrough with the emergence of immersive audio, and especially the particular technology of the “Dolby Atmos” system. In summary, the main innovation is that, instead of just having the ability to create a circle of sound around the listener’s ears like with surround sound (imagine a typical multi-speaker home theater sound system), we can now also place sounds at various heights above the listener, effectively resulting in a 3D virtual “dome” of sound around the listener’s head.  

Aside from the obvious ability to place instruments virtually in various points along this “dome” of sound, we can also now create the sensation of being in a particular space — like a church, a forest, or a studio– to a degree of realism never before experienced, and this was exactly what we did for the Dolby Atmos version of “Ascent” — engineer Todd Boston created a virtual resonant space that feels very real to the ears while applying it in a subtle manner so that it’s not distracting from the musical composition.

This is one of the first ever tracks based on Indian classical music that has been released in Dolby Atmos. We wanted to embrace this new technology as part of the ethos of The Resonance Between — finding the balance between supposed opposites. In this case, it combines the ancient (our classical music traditions), with the modern (cutting-edge music production and playback technology).

Exploring human emotion

Q: The album, it appears, is described as an “exploration of the many facets of human emotion”. Can you tell us what it is about human emotion that you found intriguing enough to create an album around it?

A: As Indian-American musicians and composers, and genetically both Indian and Euro-American, Alam and I both grew up feeling the tension between being a part of two completely different cultures, often feeling like we didn’t fully belong in either American or Indian cultures, and yet knowing that our identities incorporate both and are ultimately beyond both. It took a long journey of self-discovery to discover and find a sense of peace with our multifaceted identities, and the tracks in TRB express, in some ways, the emotional arc of that journey.

As we’ve discussed this similar life experience over the years, we realized it’s more of a universal experience than just for those of us who are considered “mixed race.” It’s also an experience shared by millions of children of immigrants, and even more broadly, I would guess that most people, regardless of cultural backgrounds, feel at some point in their lives torn between opposing “boxes” that their society or their situation seems to force them into.

All of us as diverse artists involved in this project have our own versions of this experience. And yet, for us, we feel that there is a vast emotional space we can all find for ourselves where we can truly feel free, fully ourselves, and that is between the opposites, that connects the poles and is also ultimately beyond all the labels and boxes. There is an emotional resonance that creates and sustains this space. This music is an expression of the feeling of that space, and hence we call it, “The Resonance Between”.

Anuj Chakrapani loves music and cinema among all art forms. He believes their beauty lies in their interpretation, and that the parts is more than the sum. Anuj lives in the SF Bay Area and works for a...