Global Indian pianist-composer Utsav Lal, often known as the 'Raga Pianist', is considered the rarest of pianists, for his ground-breaking work bringing and western style together. His impressive career span of two decades includes solo performances at world-famous venues like Carnegie Hall (New York), Southbank Centre (London), Kennedy Center (Washington DC), and seven solo record releases, including a historic world's first album on the microtonal "Fluid Piano".
His silent film improvisation debut at Silent Film Festival (YSFF) a few years ago deserves a special mention. More so as he returned in Spring this year to enthrall Manchester, Sheffield and York audiences with silent film classics like 'Shiraz: A Romance of India', 'A throw of Dice' and 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'.
iGlobal catches up with the talented and raga pianist, Utsav Lal, on his spellbinding performances blending ancient India and western music with innovation.
Please tell us about your experience in ‘Shiraz: A Romance of India’. Was it special to play a live score for a silent film?
It was a beautiful experience. 'Shiraz' is a film I've played a few times now. The first time at YSFF, when I played for a silent film, I did a ton of prep work leading up to the performance, but on the day, I just let a lot of that go and decided to really be in the moment. I got totally caught up with the feeling of engaging with the film along with a live audience present there, and that felt completely different from trying to write music for the film in my studio. Having a live audience added a lot more as another voice to interact with, and that really changed the way I ended up playing.
This year I played Shiraz at the Stoller Hall in , which was an amazing venue and had a beautiful Steinway Concert Grand piano which gave me so much more power to utilise the expressive capabilities of the piano to add texture and colour to my music for Shiraz. Also, working with Jonny Best and everyone at the festival has been such a rewarding, comfortable and stimulating experience – it's a great supportive community!
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Tell us a little about your India connect.
I was born in New Delhi and spent my growing up years there until the age of 13, living at different points of time in the cities of Mysore, Chennai and New Delhi.
My family moved to Ireland in 2006, and my high school years were in Dublin. I then moved to Glasgow, to do a bachelor's in jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland from 2010-2014. Post my graduation, I based myself in India for two years to consolidate my Indian Classical training with my guru Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar before heading to Boston, USA, to pursue a Masters in Contemporary Improvisation at New England Conservatory of Music and ultimately moving to New York where I've been living since 2018 to work on several music projects.
Despite having lived outside of India for most of my life, my links with the country have always been very deep. My parents are both Indian nationals, and I believe that my music genes came from my maternal grandmother and her side of the family that hails from Allahabad, UP and has an extensive history of being steeped in Indian Classical music and dance forms.
Please give us an overview of your life and career.
My music career began at the age of 9, and it's been nearly two decades of working to adapt the sounds of ragas on the piano. I have performed solo concerts of my music all over the world and at several festivals and cultural events. To understand the full potential of the piano, I trained in diverse genres of music -Western Classical, Indian Classical, Jazz, Scottish, Irish and Contemporary Improvisation. Additionally, having lived for over 9 years in Ireland & Scotland exposed me to the wealth of Celtic and the chance to work/ learn from so many fantastic international musicians, all of which has been the key to laying a solid musical foundation during my formative years.
Coming to America for my Masters at NEC was a milestone turning point in my life. The excellent faculty at the school, peers and all my exposure forced me into a new period of taking everything I thought I knew into pieces, re-evaluating every decision I made and then slowly putting back everything that survived into an extraordinarily fresh perspective. After I moved to New York, I immediately knew that there was no other place that would feed my inspiration better and each day is full of excitement, inspiration growth, learning and a million opportunities.
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What motivates you in your music the most?
Dhrupad style of Hindustani music has been a huge inspiration to me, particularly the Dagar style of Dhrupad.
But apart from Indian Classical Music, my musical life has included obsessively listening to piano inspirations like Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk; analysing the deeply personal improvisational language of the Necks or Ornette Coleman; painstakingly transcribing the unique virtuosity of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night" or Willie Clancy's beautiful pipe lament "Bruachna Carraige Baine." My influences have been diverse, ranging from the Persian piano playing tradition of Morteza Mahjoobi, the genre-bending piano playing of Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and the extended techniques of Helmut Lachenmann.
I feel a natural curiosity towards things around me, especially regarding the varied processes, traditions and relationships with which art communicates with communities. I think it is essential to have a complete musical perspective on whatever you're creating. If you approach a musical style only from within itself, it's almost like looking at the music with a "lens" tinted with the preconceptions of that genre. Expanding your knowledge and experience with other musical styles helps give an unbiased look into what the stands for and how it sits in the incredibly expansive world of music. I think exposure and involvement in diverse styles is one of the most rewarding aspects of music and is the only way to make everything connect. At a deeper level, undistracted from surface aesthetics, I always ask myself, "What do I need to do to make the music alive?" And no matter what style I'm playing, the inspiration can come from everywhere.
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What do you consider the highest point of your career so far?
My entire journey has been pretty amazing. I've gotten a chance to learn and collaborate with some fabulous artists like Martin Hayes, , Mahesh Kale, George Brooks; play all over the world, and to have the opportunity to be exposed to so much different music from hundreds of genres and traditions. It feels like I still need years to digest it all, and more and more keeps coming.
There have been some fabulous high points like having the chance to premiere the piano for the first time ever at India's oldest classical music festival-Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan in 2013; recording the ragas album on the one and only Fluid Piano in existence in the world in 2015; composing and performing a series of shows in Melbourne with the Australian contemporary circus group CIRCA; performing solo piano film score for Shiraz at the iconic Castro Theatre for San Francisco Silent Film festival and so many more that it will take me many lines to pen down. I don't believe I can pinpoint the highest point of my career at this stage, as I know that there's a huge way to go, and it's a very long and exciting journey ahead. I can't wait to keep working and developing.
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Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
There's a lot on my plate for the next three years, but to name a few, I have just completed a commission for the Metropolis Orchestra's Biophony, which premiered in in May and continues to have featured performances in the city through June with some amazing artists. I'm just returning from California having performed at the Stanford Jazz festival with Mahesh Kale, George Brooks, Hindole Mazumdar and Keshav Batish, and then there are a few exciting projects in the pipeline, which include composing and performing for major dance production, 'Invoking the river' for Chitresh Das Dance Institute and Alka Raghuraman and also bringing the American debut of my Indo-Irish collaborative project "Ragas to Reels" at the Irish Arts Center in NYC in November 2022.