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The Musical Evolution of When Mountains Meet

Written by Rick Wilson, Percussionist

I was fortunate to be drafted into the pool of performers for When Mountains Meet at quite an early stage. My first involvement was when I took part in the week-long research and development work at Scourie in the Scottish Highlands. It created much of the groundwork for the show.

The show deals with dual identity and a sense of belonging. It spans two cultures – Scottish and Pakistani. The music was designed to reflect this whilst avoiding any obvious fusion forms. I have plied my professional music life mostly in the UK though I’ve frequently travelled to India to study drumming with my teacher Mattanur Shankaran Marar in Kerala.

Shankaran is generally considered to be the best of his generation of Chenda players. This is a large cylindrical drum, made of jackwood and played with either two curved sticks or one stick and one hand. The chenda is the all-pervasive drum of Kerala. It is found in the pure temple ritual drumming forms of Thayambaka and Mellam, but also in all the dance forms including Kathakali and is used by both Christians and Muslims in various ways. Shankaran, and possibly others, have in more recent years, taken chenda-based groups around the world, taking advantage of the circuit created by the World Music networks. Here, they play both traditional forms and collaborate with other like- minded drummers and musicians.

As this is the Asian drum I know, it seemed obvious to make it the centre of an original drum kit I was fashioning to play in the show. It takes the place usually occupied by the snare drum in the normal drum kit set-up. To play it, in the context of the dynamic range needed in the show, I choose to use bamboo rods, soft mallets, wire brushes and my two hands.

My next featured drum was a tamboor- type drum from Odisha, formerly Orissa, in eastern India. I have never managed to establish its local name but I called it an Orian drum so now perhaps I should call it an Odian drum. It is a shallow drum, 16 inches in diameter and skinned with a thick cowskin. Except for the thickness of that skin, it is similar to many such tamboors found the world over, especially in north Africa and the Irish bodhran. It is a folk instrument, played with the hands but I mounted it on a stand and used the sticks that I mentioned for playing the chenda.

The one downside with non-tuneable drums is that the skins expand with heat and contract with cold. This makes the tuning unpredictable in different room temperatures. When we performed at the Roxy Assembly in Edinburgh, I had to warm the drum with a hair dryer before each show whereas at the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow, the opposite pertained and I had to apply a cold water sponge to it to relax its tension.

The rest of my kit was more predictable. I employed a small bass drum, which is part of a children’s kit that I have, three large cymbals on stands and a hi-hat. For a short period during the show, I used a cello bow, drawn down the side of the cymbals to create unpredictable and unearthly overtones.

I also had a table to the side of me containing some small percussion. This included small Indian hand cymbals (tala), a variety of Indian ankle bells and a decorated north Indian conch shell to blow. I also used a pair of thunder tubes, 8-inch cylinders with 12 inches of round-wound wire hanging loose below. With the benefit of amplification, this creates another deep unearthly tonality.

My uniquely created kit gave me both the option to play rhythms with interesting timbres and also to lay down solid backbeats where necessary. Sympathetic amplification allowed me to explore a huge dynamic range of rhythm and atmospheric sound, which both drove and complemented the narrative of the show.

One large factor determining my own professional development during the varying stages of the making of When Mountains Meet was really being able to manage the very heightened dynamic changes that occur in the course of the show. My own mantra for working with the spoken word is that ‘the music should always serve the narrative’. Perhaps this might sound obvious but it does require a perpetual awareness of the highs and lows of any narrative and making immediate decisions about what level to play at. In the show, there are several voices that often interweave and so it is more complex than just reacting with a single storyteller.

During the rehearsal process, and indeed right up to the late hour when microphones and amplification are introduced, the musicians often struggle to hear and follow the words of the actors. Consequently, the musicians will play extra quietly and perhaps fashion their parts accordingly. I created parts for myself that would work both at low volume and cut through strongly when amplified.

A skilled musician can play with almost any combination of instruments and make his or her contributions count. In our case, initially, our main lineup was electro harp, violin and drums/percussion. This is unusual. Between us, and within the scope of Anne Wood’s compositions, we had to try to ensure that we had a wide enough tonal range to both interest the listener and create the necessary dynamic to serve the changing dramatic movements of the show. The later full addition of the sitar widened our scope and, generally, enabled the other instruments to pull back when it took centre stage.

Apart from my musical part in the show, I drew a lot from working with actors and musicians that carried a strong line of non-European influence. Although I have had a wide experience of this before, this time it was clear that those actors (and musicians) are of a distinctly different generation to me. That is interesting. It must be said that they were all very generous in spirit throughout and I was very happy that they could draw on any useful experience I brought along and that I could draw on their energy and good humour. A good exchange, I feel!

Images: Robin Mitchell


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