Sandeep Bhagwati

andeep Bhagwati is a composer and intermedia artist. He was born in Bombay, India, and has been living also in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Canada. His compositions have been performed at leading festivals worldwide, such as the World New Music Festival and the Venice and München Biennales; his five music theater/operas have been staged at venues such as: Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Munich and Darmstadt State Operas. Bhagwati has founded and directed interdisciplinary festivals and he has also directed and participated in long-term intercultural music exchange projects between Indian/Chinese musicians and leading Western musicians. He was Professor of Composition and Multimedia at Karlsruhe Music University and a Research Fellow at IRCAM in Paris, ZKM in Karlsruhe and IEM in Graz. Currently, Sandeep Bhagwati lives in Montreal. He is a Canada Research Chair at Concordia University, where he directs matralab (, a research institute dedicated to the analysis and creation of interdisciplinary, intermedia, intercultural and interactive works. The following interview was developed through an email exchange between Ricardo Dal Farra and Sandeep Bhagwati on January, 2008.

What is Art Research for you ?

It is a way of making art that is not interested in novelty, virtuosity, expression or tradition – in short, not in the things we have learned (virtuosity, tradition) or that are of egocentrical interest (expression, novelty) – but in the discovery and invention of a deeper understanding of how and why humans use art to relate to their society and their universe. I like – and like to create – works of art that encompass complex emotions, intellectual analyses, social awareness and playful detachment at the same time – if this seems to you like a self-contradictory task, then welcome to the world of art research ! Karl Valentin, an iconic Bavarian social critic-cum-clown, once remarked during World War I: «Art is beautiful, but it is a lot of work!» As a musician and a composer, I believe the reason music exists in every society is because music can afford any attentive listener an anti-ideological, detached way to understand, bear and resolve tensions – and do so in experiencing the beauty of unresolved things, not just their problems; the other, beautiful side of difference, disparity, loss, and conflict – the fact, that these emotions can be «modelled» by sounds and thus «listened to», «bathed in» – rather than only «looked at». The hope that music evokes is the hope that, just as music can make us enjoy and understand the tensions in its structure, their evolution and eventual resolution, we ourselves can understand and perhaps even live a meaningful life by accepting and using the tensions and stresses in our own life.

Art Research, then is a way of creating art that is conscious of all these aspects, the cultural, sociological, technological, formal, physical and psychological factors that make art what it is and tries to find new ways to re-combine, explore them –and render these combinations into intelligible, interesting and…moving art. Thus, Art Research is by nature trans-disciplinary, meta-stylistic, trans-cultural and media-independent.

How has your multi-cultural heritage influenced your artistic practice ?

The most important factor was that I could never believe the kind of absolutist statements that people in the art world like to make (i.e. «painting is dead», «tonal music is stupid», «affirmative art is bad art», «western music has no idea of melody», etc.) I always listened to two different streams of art traditions at the same time, seeing their differences, and experiencing the way they lied to themselves. Claims like «traditional music is less interesting than written music» or «Indian music has the most complicated rhythmic system in the world» (all frequently used by my instructors in the different cultures) were immediately exposed as erroneous ideology.

Thus, I became no follower of anything in art, no movement, no concept, no school – not because I was against these things, but because I could not take people seriously who believed in erroneous «truths». If you listen to my music closely, you will find all kinds of multicultural influences. But you will also find many intra-cultural influences, from other art forms, from the humanities, from the sciences, from popular expressions. Encountering the different modes of art making in different art systems is always exciting and inspiring to me. I have no fixed point of view, no point of departure and no goal I want to achieve. Unlike the rebel heroes of 20th century western art movements I have no desire to become a leader, a deflowerer, a definer of art. This is perhaps the most precious – and sometimes the most scary – influence of my multiple heritage.

Is there a difference in composing new music in Canada, Germany, France or India ?

I suppose you are asking this because I have lived and worked as a composer in all these countries. Yes, there is a difference, and it lies in the role of new music in society.

In Germany, where I emerged as a composer and spend the greatest part of my career, new music is part of a giant social re-engineering project, one way of atonement for the collective guilt of bureaucratically and methodically murdering millions of people in a highly organised way. Funded by abundant state-subsidies, institutionalised to a very high degree, new music is seen both as a continuation of the great German tradition – and as an obligation to constantly re-affirm the break with this great tradition, by fostering music that aims to eternally avoid conventional concepts of beauty. Composing new music in Germany also means being constantly surrounded of the most iconoclastic music makers on this planet, as the respect and the possibilities of living off their music afforded to them in Germany are unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Because of Germany’s xenophobic history, no subsidy-giving institution there can seriously limit its alms only to Germans – most of them sponsor anyone they have determined to be of interest, regardless of nationality or residence. Many prominent music composers and makers have settled in Germany and audiences are eager to hear their work: which means that being a composer in Germany is somewhat like being an actor in Hollywood – great opportunities, but also very strong competition…

France has a similar taste and subsidy-culture for the new in music, but it seems to be limited only to music made by people who speak French (just for the record, I speak, read and write French fluently) and live in France, preferably in Paris. Whereas new music funding in Germany is an expression of contrition and thus prefers rigorous music that has the power to hurt deeply, French state money goes more towards futurist, elegant showcase projects that underline France’s cultural alternative in a Anglo-dominated world. Moreover, other than in Germany, music in all its incarnations is not the most important art form in the public conscience – literature is. There are good and knowledgeable music critics in France, but can never influence careers as much as their German counterparts do – in France, a budding composer needs to be well connected to the composers that rule his sector of the new music scene, or else…

I have been in Quebec only for little more than a year, thus do not profess to have penetrated its secrets yet – at this time it only seems clear to me that the composition of new music is not an activity anyone outside of academia seems to care about. The arts in general do not seem to constitute as intimate a part of an university-educated person’s life in Canada as they do in Europe, and among the arts, music certainly has the least «hip» image. In Quebec, technology-oriented media arts are all the rage, but even there music, arguably one of the most abstract and technological of all the arts, plays only a subsidiary role. Also, public funding structures in Canada fund Canadian artists who export their work, but it seems almost impossible to get public or private funding for incoming international artists…which, in effect, works like a trade tariff, sheltering local artists from external competition – and inspiration. Add to this that the Montreal scene is very much turned upon itself, being further isolated by distance, language, pride and funding bias (e.g. it is much harder to get funding for a Canadian than for an international tour!) – this is a mixture that is hard to swallow and difficult to penetrate. Time will tell me whether I can thrive here.

In India, the situation is different. It is one of the few musically highly developed countries that has rejected the Western art music system to such an extent that there are no professional music schools, no professional orchestras and ensembles that play western-style music, be it old or new. The odd festival here and there, a few embassy concerts, a touring chamber music group now and then, one or two amateur orchestras – these hardly make their existence felt in an environment that emphatically vibrates to Indian music in all its facets. So composing in India means composing Indian music, which is a very different approach and craft from anything in Western art music. The handful of Indian-born composers who write western-oriented new or experimental concert music all had to move abroad. For if western art music is a rarity, «new music» is virtually non-existent. One can safely say that only a very small number of Indian musicians are even aware of the fact that anything new happened in Western art music after, say, early Debussy. Since 2001, I lead a long-term project that brings together Indian musicians and the Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt) in an attempt to cross this divide in an equal exchange. The fact that, after 7 years, this project still interests a few Indian musicians at all already is seen by many people in India as a huge success.

How do new technologies affect your approach to creating music ?

I had a wild love affair with new music technologies between 1995 and ca. 2000. I took to them easily because I had been thinking music in terms of algorithms even before that, and now was happy to run my models on machines instead of in my head. The endless listening sessions refined my hearing – which always had had difficulties with the conventional tempered scale, and now found its domain. I used algorithmic software applications like MAX, Patchwork, or Open Music, some Csound etc., and of course all kinds of sound editing software. After some years of working with these softwares and testing their limits I became disenchanted with their promises: I found that my thinking and my intuition was still ahead of what I could get from them. At this time, I often adopted a composition mode that was a mixture between both approaches: I would program a patch in Patchwork, and let it run, changing parameters every time, again and again listening to the results – until I got a «feel» for the way the program processed my datasets. I then put the computer aside and applied this sometimes quite unique and unconventional «feel» intuitively, composing music with pencil on paper without any explicit use of the patch – just «letting it come» after this quasi-meditative conditioning of my musical sensibility to the rules implicit in my own programs.

Another insight changed my approach decisively: Working with Max and Max/MSP I felt that their basic «ontology» was alien to the conventional Western idea of composition: both were used by most composers I heard as rather reactive programmes, very refined and flexible «reverb chambers», especially when used with live instruments (the aspect I am still most interested in). But an algorithm is essentially different from a reverb – it does not need to work exclusively in a trigger-response mode, but can work separately from the time scale of its input. In other words, I wanted to go beyond the simplistic musician-computer antiphonies and tropisms I encountered everywhere – into musician-computer-heterophony and perhaps even polyphony (i.e. audible co-dependence in a situation of structural independence – as opposed to simultaneous parallelism such as in happenings or even laptop orchestras, where correlation is either anathema or abstract – and in any case, not intelligible to the listener.)

But this would need formal concepts that could embrace algorithmic music making on both sides – not only the computer, but the musicians, too, needed to be able to make music following elaborate rule systems that determined their playing – neither fixed composition nor conventional improvisation. I needed musicians that could switch from one style of improvising to another in a split-second, from a known way of improvised playing to an newly defined one etc. I realised at that point that I needed to first find feasible algorithmic systems for musicians – and then find and educate the musicians to realize them – in ensembles and orchestras (principally because I wanted both the human and the machine music to be of comparable sonic diversity and flexibility).

This is the compositional path I am still pursuing: something I call comprovisation. I still use music technology, but only as a tool, not as a conceptual aid. But the encounter with technology has decisively changed my trajectory as a composer, and this trajectory will most likely lead me back to music technology as a genuine compositional subject matter. One day in the near future, possibly. For now, I am happy if the top-notch musicians I work with can make sense of (and interesting and touching music from) my hand-fashioned rules and algorithms that I call «comprovisations». Currently, the most fascinating technology for me is the human brain/body-interface.

What do you really like (or are interested in) more: the process of creation or the (sounding) result ?

I like it when the sounding result captivates me as much as the process of working on it. This rare conjunction has indeed happened a few times in my lifetime. But in most pieces it is either the process of creation that is slightly boring even when the sound result maybe interesting and rewarding (these days this happens to me mostly with fixed media work and conventionally written out compositions) – or an exciting process of creation followed by results that make me cringe (mostly in comprovisation works performed by musicians who cannot improvise, or can improvise in only one style). That said, I am mostly a conceptual composer – I sometimes compose works that can have no practical application, or where performance (or diffusion) is irrelevant. Or I wallow in sounds with no idea where they will lead me. Which does not mean I am not obsessive about details of the sounding result – I am. I am interested in producing music that interests me and having a sense of urgency while doing that, a sense that what I do is important for me – and perhaps for others.

What projects joining music/art and new technologies are on your «wish-list» for the future ?

As one might have guessed from my previous answers, I am wary of the «new» in «new technologies». Art is a very old form of understanding our human existence, new technologies are full of bugs. To embrace new technologies is like discovering a new island: the island may be new, unexplored and fresh, but we carry our problems and questions with us. New technologies at their best show us the human condition in new ways and offer new perspectives: but it is still the human condition that interests me more than the technology. That said, I am currently working on projects that marry our perception of duration in «monochromatic» sound with the experience of immersive environments as well as with concepts of individualized net composition. I also want to develop a real-time concert where many musicians and participants mass-influence the mix at a concert venue, as well as in other non-live venues. I am interested in comprovisation works over distance networks and with locative technology. My interest in all this is not the technology as such but the interplay between technology, traditional disciplinary training, sociological context and conceptual music making. In the long run, I am interested in technological approaches that would allow me to work with all the art forms I regularly work in (music, theatre, installation art, poetry, light design) in projects that unite them in a well-worked out and relevant work of art research.

Sandeep Bhagwati. January 29 – 31, 2008.

Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

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