Among the different strands in harpist Lucy Nolan's career is a continuing collaboration with South Asian arts organisation Manasamitra, based in Dewsbury, Yorkshire. It was founded by Supriya Nagarajan, a singer in the Carnatic tradition of southern India. The two women have appeared together at a number of venues, including the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and The Sage (now re-named The Glasshouse), Gateshead.
Their recital – St Paul's Church, Derby, UK, 16 September 2023 – was part of Sonic Threads, a project which takes traditional fabrics as a metaphor for the way they combine Carnatic vocal tradition and Western contemporary harp music, absorbing the influence of Alice Coltrane and her love of Indian philosophy. Throughout, live video of the performers was intercut with close-ups of various fabrics.
Much of the programme comprised joint compositions by Nolan and Nagarajan, based on traditional ragas, beginning with Charukesi, in which Nolan sets up a rustling, flickering backdrop to Nagarajan's gentle crooning. The suppleness of Nagarajan's voice was heard to good advantage, too, in the following number, Jari, with Nolan tapping the upper strings with what seemed to be a short metal rod, the resulting sounds sustained throughout the piece electronically, and patting the lower strings with her open left hand. In a later piece, three clothes pegs made an unexpected appearance, attached to some of the lower strings to create a buzzy sound, inevitably inviting comparison with John Cage's prepared pianos.
Following Jari, the scene switched to Bollywood – India's hugely popular contribution to the heritage of world cinema – for a medley that began with a song Nagarajan disarmingly described as 'jazzy by Bollywood standards'. She certainly brought to it a real feeling of easy swing. Sung in a mixture of Hindi and Tamil, with Nolan contributing short interludes, the medley all sounded nicely laid-back.
The raga-based Kalyvansantam, highlighting Nagarajan's control of expressive intensity, was followed by Monsoon Rains by H Baskar and Nagarajan, in Nolan's transcription for harp – a chain of dances full of bouncy rhythms.
Finally came Madhuvanti, based on a night-time raga (even though it was, by then, only about four o'clock in the afternoon), expressing joy and peace, as Nagarajan explained, with Nolan's opening harp figure, again, sustained by electronic looping.
For a relative Indian music novice like me, it was a fascinating hour or so, as Nolan and Nagarajan explored the mixture of tradition and new techniques at their disposal, and made it all hang together so convincingly.
Copyright © 21 September 2023