Audio Descriptive. The title of Shammi Pithia's first full length CD says it all. There are times when words fail us, or simply aren't enough to convey all of the things we so desperately need to communicate. Most of us who cannot paint and fill the world with colour and line brought up from our unconscious, or who cannot sing and play an instrument to fill the void with sound are left to brood - with no option but to grumble and suffer in silence. Or, perhaps we try to put words to an emotion, and give up at the futility and opt for a kiss or a punch instead. When it comes to the swirling complexity and the ineffable chaos of life, we are often left mute and misunderstood.
We cannot touch music any more than we can directly see into the soul of another human being. Yet, for all of its ephemeral qualities, music often eloquently communicates what words cannot. This is the central fascination of 'Audio Descriptive,' and together the sixteen seemingly disparate pieces that make up the album function as a kind of Gray's Anatomy of an individual's responses to life's challenges. It's not neat and tidy, and often the individual tracks threaten to fly away from the delicate structure that Pithia's faith and vision have woven the project together with. Listened to in isolation, some of the tracks threaten to escape notice or cease to exist. They are little more than gestures, small melodic ideas that play with culture, preconception and connection. Taken out of context, some of Pithia's lovely flute and piano excursions may sound like simple exercises in New Age aesthetics. But, that would be a mistake and a mishearing of all that Pithia has accomplished here. 'Audio Descriptive' needs to be taken in as a whole, and understood from that vantage point, each of the compositions becomes an essential part of Pithia's exploration of self and purpose in today's unravelling world.
Like many people alive today, Shammi Pithia grew up straddling two cultures. This London based Anglo Indian composer clearly revels in the possibilities and the philosophical dilemmas posed by this and many of his compositions explore how initial cultural dissonances can eventually resolve themselves into a synthesis that is more than the sum of their disparate parts. 'Pacifist' —the opening track of 'Audio Descriptive' rests on a lovely Middle Eastern melody that is picked up by the bansuri and punctuated by Indian percussions and a plucked piano before it dissolves into a dissonant aural sculpture. Lone voices and calls to prayer are lost in a cluster of sound as the martial beats of the drums suggest the inevitability of conflict. If the track ended there, it would have been a chilling beginning to the album, but just as the last drum fades, a lovely keyboard melody drifts through the silence to be picked up by an otherworldly choir that reminds listeners that the human spirit has the capability to survive and endure the hatred and lack of vision that has plagued the world's population since religions first began.
The tracks that follow are equally enveloping. Pithia is a composer of the first order who clearly enjoys juxtaposing eastern and western classical ideas in the same song. When he adds beats — as he does on 'Forthcoming' — the track which should have been torn apart by conflicting musical demands, miraculously lifts and shimmers before resolving itself into 'Until I hit the Ground' — a trip hop track that wouldn't sound out of place on a late nineties Massive Attack record. Shammi Pithia is clearly not a musical purist. As a London native, he acknowledges his love for soul, hip hop and pop music with radio friendly numbers such as 'Last Train to London' and 'Pivot Point' that surprisingly nestle in comfortably with the more challenging compositions that form the majority of this disc.
As I kept listening to 'Audio Descriptive,' I told myself over and over again, 'this shouldn't work,' but Pithia mixes soul, disco, techno, baroque and classical Indian sounds not as the product of wild abandon or the outcome of an attention deficit disorder, but rather to say ' Hey, this is who I am. I am a contradiction, but, so are we all!' In the same way that we don't want to eat the same kind of food or wear the same clothes every day, we probably don't want to be restricted to the same music all of the time.
This split, this dichotomy is most clearly expressed in Pithia's three 'purging duets.' In these short set pieces, a western or an eastern classical instrument plays a theme that is then joined by an instrument from an opposing musical tradition. A phrase that could be in the fourth Brandenbourg Concerto has to find a place to breathe alongside an Indian flute couplet. When they first meet, the two disparate melodies sometimes jostle to find a place in each other's aural space, flex muscle and express ego before resolving into thoughtful meditations on the unified nature of sound and the human soul. Of these pieces, 'Purging Duet 2' is the most successful, and is every bit as engrossing as the East meets West summits undertaken by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menhuin almost forty years ago.
Like his fellow musicians Niraj Chag, Nitin Sawhney, and Karsh Kale Shammi Pithia is making music that challenges preconceptions about country, culture and personal disposition. And, like them, he is creating music that is truly new, challenging and worth spending time with. I know that we've all heard it before, but it truly is a new world out there and things are changing faster than we think, and listening to music such as Pithia's, I often I feel a little like T. E. Lawrence did a century after ago. After spending years in Arabia, the veteran soldier realized he wasn't the person he was back in Britain, and that the exposure to another culture vastly different, yet as intricate and logical as his own, had somehow driven him mad. For a person to develop two ways of seeing as Lawrence did could be a frightening experience as "these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it (must) be near the man who... sees things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments."
Truly, the exoticism of the last century is today's commonplace experience. So, if Lawrence was right, the images and clatter we take in every day is driving us mad. How exciting! Welcome to the twenty first century! Thankfully, we have artists like Shammi Pithia to help us smooth out the rough edges as we descend.