Arbor, Michigan-based Robert Spalding Newcomb is a renaissance
man of 21st century music. Renowned in select music circles as an
innovative guitarist, keyboardist / programmer and sitarist, Newcomb
late 2015 with
a solo album, Confluence Of EldersNew
Sitar Music For The 21st Century. The 79 minute CD
is divided into three parts
Varansai (recorded in 2014), Ocean Fire, Quiet Stone
(recorded in 2010) and In The Grace Of Suspension (a 40
minute opus recorded in 2007). Newcombs liner notes are truly
historic and provide everything you need to know about the background
of this unique album. Throughout Confluence Of Elders, Newcomb
sonically details his life-long devotion to Indian music with the
artist telling mwe3.com I have listened to Indian Classical
Music since childhood, and to be honest, was always most attracted
to sarod more than sitar. I spent some time trying out a sarod, but
almost immediately realized I could never play it without giving up
guitar, my core instrument. The left hand technique requires growing
the fingernails and using them for the fretting on the fretless metal
fingerboard. That would never do. So, sitar became my second choice,
and 15 years later, I would have it no other way. Essential
listening for World Music fans and students of the sitar, Confluence
Of Elders features illuminating liner notes that are revealing
and sometimes quite detailed about the tunings and the terminologies
of sitar study. Although Newcombs technique and understanding
of the sitar is flawless, its really his compositions and uniquely
melodic approaches that separate him from less adventurous artists.
On his 2015 CD, Confluence Of Elders, Robert Spalding Newcomb
brings the ancient sounds of the sitar to the forefront again in the
early 21st century. www.PartialMusic.com
mwe3.com presents an
ROBERT SPALDING NEWCOMB
Of Elders a kind of tribute to your long time studies and
performance of Indian music? Youve made several sitar albums
in the past, would you say this is your ultimate sitar album yet?
What were some of the key events that led to the release of Confluence
Of Elders and how do you compare it with your earlier albums?
Its clearly one of your finest statements yet.
Robert Spalding Newcomb: Exactly. I have intentionally selected
three extended improvisations recorded over a period of several years
so as to illustrate my technical and aesthetic journey with the sitar.
The sitar piece, Light Of Life which appears on
(2007) as a solo, and on the trio DVD/CD/Blu-Ray, Light
Of Life A Summer Solstice Concert (2013), is on the
same level as these three pieces. The sitar work that appears on Native
Planting (2004) was less mature, relatively brief in duration,
and placed in settings that relied on electronic background support.
These three pieces are naked, exposing both the unexpected miracles
and the occasional slip-ups that come while playing this complex instrument.
mwe3: Why do you call your new solo album Confluence Of
Elders and what can you tell us about the cover art? Sounds like
a very metaphysical title for a very astral sounding album! Would
you describe the sitar as being a metaphysical or a kind of musically
Robert Spalding Newcomb: The title has been with me for many
years, waiting for the right musical content and concept. During the
past few years I have had the honor of knowing several elder seekers
and purveyors of intricate practical knowledge and deep spiritual
wisdom. The alignment of my engagement with the sitar and recognition
of the impact these people, and animal companions, have had on me
seems a perfect merging of aesthetics and as you say, metaphysics.
My colleague, Mike Halerz, designed the artwork and captured the up-close
photography of the sitar. We have worked together on several projects.
He has done a wonderful job here of illustrating the physical beauty
of the sitar itself, along with the mystery of its interior world.
mwe3: As you speak about in the Confluence Of Elders
liner notes, how did you end up traveling with the US Embassy to India
in August 2005? Was that your first visit to India? Speaking about
the first track on Confluence Of Elders, called Leaving
Varanasi, you mentioned meeting with sitar master Saju in India.
What did Saju impart to you most about the sitar and how did going
to India impact your musical outlook and sitar playing? How many times
have you been to India and can you recall when you become so fascinated
by the sound of the sitar?
Spalding Newcomb: Speaking of confluences, my colleague at the
University of Michigan, Stephen Rush, and I had mutual contacts with
the embassy. We were able to put together a month long visit tied
in with one of Steves music classes, bringing a dozen students
to Varanasi to study Indian music traditions, techniques and the historical
influence on western improvisational and avant garde music.
Meeting with Saju validated my primal instincts regarding improvisation
and musical structure, in that what practice really is,
is constantly relearning the ability to achieve a certain holistic
state of absolute readiness for whatever emotional gesture should
require expression while improvising. He was very generous and encouraging
and, given that we only had a handful of sessions together, made the
most of the time by respecting my existing knowledge and skills, and
starting where we are and moving forward from there; this,
rather than rewinding to zero and attempting to retrain my playing
or thinking. I felt he was a true artist and a gifted teacher as well.
This was my first and only visit to India. I would love to go again
and stay much longer, 3-4 months, if the opportunity arises. I also
have a deep involvement with yoga, having taught classes the past
three and a half years in Ann Arbor, so a second trip to India might
include both music and yoga activities.
I have listened to Indian Classical Music since childhood, and to
be honest, was always most attracted to sarod more than sitar. Sometime
during 2000-2001, I chanced upon a sitar teacher, Dr. Rajan Sachdeva,
in Ann Arbor, and spoke with him about my interest in finally learning
a traditional Indian stringed instrument. I spent some time trying
out a sarod, but almost immediately realized I could never play it
without giving up guitar, my core instrument. The left hand technique
requires growing the fingernails and using them for the fretting
on the fretless metal fingerboard. That would never do. So, sitar
became my second choice, and 15 years later I would have it no other
mwe3: For the readers, can you tell us how many albums youve
recorded and released and how many have featured the sitar as main
instrument? How is Confluence Of Elders different and an evolution
from your earlier sitar-related albums and your other albums? I know
at least one of the tracks on Confluence Of Elders has appeared
in live versions on your other albums.
Spalding Newcomb: I have released nine albums of original music,
seven as solo artist. This is the first all sitar album
I have released. I believe the level of playing and improvisational
complexity and clarity exceeds my previous published efforts and can
stand on its own.
mwe3: The sitar must be a thousand years old so what did you
set out to achieve by making an album of New Sitar Music For
The 21st Century as subtitle the album? Are other artists making
new music for the sitar in your estimation? You have met Ravi Shankar
as well? Who are the other true sitar masters that have transformed
the sitar in your estimation?
Robert Spalding Newcomb: I realized early on that adding that
subtitle to the album carried a lot of responsibility and possibly
some risk. Though I have immense admiration and respect for the deep
traditions of Indian Classical Music (ICM), both Carnatic and Hindustani,
I have never intended to master the styles and forms these traditions
have spawned. I have always adhered to my own artistic compass, whether
using acoustic guitars, banjos, sitar, hammered dulcimer, voice, MIDI
equipment, electronic sound generators, commercial software, or code
that I write. I have studied briefly with three sitarists, and have
researched ICM techniques, structures and theory quite extensively
on my own. Still, when I sit down to play sitar, I immediately tap
into the same creative stream as I do with guitar, and that is the
path I must follow.
I have written an essay yet to be published focused
on the ongoing academic discussion about the highly sensitive topic
of the impact of western appropriation of ethnically distinct
sounds, instruments and compositional structures from non-western
cultures. This topic can become densely myopic very quickly. I see
myself as a latter-day emissary of the Abstract Expressionist artistic
paradigm, working with music and sound in search of a language of
communication that spans numerous cultural lineages. So, new
music in the sense of the album, refers to a simultaneous stepping
outside of the relatively constrained expectations listeners
may have for sitar music, while also mining or exploring
the extensive gestural and timbral language that lives within the
instrument itself, regardless of the musical architecture serving
Legendary sitarists who have most influenced me are Ustad Vilayat
Khan and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee.
Track 2 on Confluence Of Elders is called Ocean Fire,
Quiet Stone. How did you decide on that title and how did the
passing of your two cats impact your composing and approach to that
track? I always thought the sitar was kind of a karmic musical instrument
that brought the ancient into the present.
Robert Spalding Newcomb: Two very different cats: one an orange
cat who was an outdoor hunter in New England when I adopted him as
a 1-2 year old, before becoming a house cat in Ann Arbor. I named
one of my most successful software generated compositions after him,
Daydreams Of An Orange Cat, which appears on my 2008 double
CD album, Anastasia
Of The Gardens. He was with me when I was writing that code,
and seemed to love the electronic music that resulted; the other,
a dignified elderly female, spent her last three plus years with me,
and loved wood fires, something we shared. The title? Both felines
now rest in our backyard, one under a quiet stone. Ocean
Fire seems to be the antithesis of Quiet Stone,
and could easily apply to both kitties occasional fits of wildness.
Yep, a bit whimsical!
mwe3: You get very technical in the liner notes on track 3
In The Grace Of Suspension which is over 40 minutes long.
What is involved in playing a track that is so long and what can you
tell us about the title? I know your wife is named Grace too and suspension
is a very interesting word, as its so dramatic but its
also a musical term as well.
Robert Spalding Newcomb: Interestingly, the title of this piece
was set years before my wife and I reconnected and married, many decades
after we had known each other as childhood playmates. During the several
years I spent exploring the profound inner workings of Rag Marwa,
I was at the same time passing through personal transformations that
seemed to somehow be suspended in time, giving me moving deadlines
for decisions about my path ahead. This felt like a gift, a grace
extended to me from a universal energy. I realized that this is exactly
what playing this piece feels like, and so the title simply fit the
time and space from which the piece evolved.
The construction of an extended composition like this is a lengthy
iterative process, where each pass through yields new insights into
which emotional territories can be most effectively linked together,
and how to best signal and execute those transitions. I have done
10, 20, 30 and 40 minute takes of this piece. Each variant can be
done well or done poorly. I chose this take for the album because
when listened to alongside the other two more aggressive
and stable pieces on the album, the length seemed to add
to the desired affect - a contrasting suspension and sense of floating
toward some eventual near-resolution.
Also as part of the liner notes of the track, In The Grace Of
Suspension, I enjoyed your story about studying Hatha Yoga in
the upper West Side of Manhattan in the late 1980s? You were also
pioneering the use of computer coding in NYC at that time right? Its
rather interesting that you were pioneering the concept of futuristic
technologies while studying ancient Yoga practices with a 99 year
old Swami! What did you get mostly out of your Yoga studies with Swami
Bua and do you still practice Yoga today? Amazing to think that Swami
Bua lived to be 123? Is that possible?
Robert Spalding Newcomb: Swami Bua taught me above all that
anything is possible, by living the simple, sincere, faithful, yet
intensely miracle filled life that he did. The yoga, and attendant
physical and mental wellness that comes with regular practice, transformed
me, and healed me deeply after 10 years of running myself ragged surviving
in the city. In a sense, the intense mindfulness of body and breath
awareness taught by yoga frees one from the body and allows ones
identity to blossom, integrating mind, body, soul, into something
greater than the sum of the parts. Yoga and meditation have been undercurrents
in my life ever since I left the city in 1990.
In 2004, I began attending classes at the RussaYog (Rope Yoga) Studio
here in Ann Arbor with the founders of the discipline, Jasprit and
Teresa Singh. In 2011-2012 I completed a 200 hour teacher training
certification, and taught classes in the studio until its closing
in May 2015, when the Singhs relocated to Santa Barbara. I practice
as often as I can, and am always thankful for Swami Buas appearance
in my life, as well as the Singhs, of course. Yoga, the Path, the
Way, the Light
it is constantly amazing how plentiful the universe
is when we are open to it.
seeming dichotomy of my deep engagement with ancient yoga disciplines,
concurrent with my exploration of new technologies and strategies
for modeling musical structures, is really not a dichotomy at all,
but more of - here we go again - a confluence of profoundly
compatible perspectives on the nature of energy. Much of my music
software programming and compositional theory relies heavily on the
pursuit of a sonic expression of the human search for balance, symmetry,
strength, stamina, flexibility and a unique meaning to ones
life in each passing moment. These are precisely the precepts of a
mwe3: What were your recent concerts like in Ann Arbor? Are
you planning any new recordings, writing and concerts and how are
you planning to balance your time between the sitar, the guitar and
the electronic keyboards as far as your new musical ideas go? What
are your hopes and dreams for 2016?
Robert Spalding Newcomb: I published two albums in 2013, the
The Passage Of Time with James Aikman (keyboards), and the
DVD/CD/Blu-ray Light of Life A Summer Solstice Concert
with James, Ken Kozora (percussion, flutes), my wife Grace Chung (actor),
and Mike Halerz (video, audio). After that, I did two more solstice
concerts with James and Ken, then I took a few months off to rest
and ponder my direction. In November 2015, I performed my first solo
concert in nearly four years, at my favorite space, Kerrytown Concert
House, in Ann Arbor. That concert was entitled Grammars in Progress,
and is somewhat of a template for solo concerts in the near future.
I did three pieces, one on guitar, with laptop, one on amplified sitar,
and one entirely on laptop working with an interactive custom Max/MSP
patch. Years ago I did computer software generated electronic music
almost exclusively. What I see myself doing now is folding my time
with sitar improvisation back into a software mediated platform, and
maintaining my guitar playing as the underpinnings of gesture and
I am in the final stages of negotiating a guest artist role as sitarist
in the orchestral/choral/multimedia premiere of a major composition
by James Aikman, to be presented this April in Indianapolis. More
on that soon!
am also planning to re-master my first album, Dreams On Queue,
released as an LP when I was living in Brooklyn, NY in 1986, and offer
it as a download. This album received initial airplay on New Sounds,
John Schaefers seminal WNYC New Sounds radio show.