Confluence Of Elders
(Partial Music)


Ann 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 returned in late 2015 with a solo album, Confluence Of EldersNew Sitar Music For The 21st Century. The 79 minute CD is divided into three parts - “Leaving Varansai” (recorded in 2014), “Ocean Fire, Quiet Stone” (recorded in 2010) and “In The Grace Of Suspension” (a 40 minute opus recorded in 2007). Newcomb’s 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 “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 Newcomb’s technique and understanding of the sitar is flawless, it’s 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. presents an interview with

mwe3: Is Confluence Of Elders a kind of tribute to your long time studies and performance of Indian music? You’ve 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? It’s 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 both Undiscovered (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 karmic instrument?

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. Beautiful!

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?

Robert 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 Steve’s 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 way.

mwe3: For the readers, can you tell us how many albums you’ve 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.

Robert 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 as context.

Legendary sitarists who have most influenced me are Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee.

mwe3: 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 it’s so dramatic but it’s 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.

mwe3: 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? It’s 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 one’s 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 Bua’s 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.

The 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 one’s life in each passing moment. These are precisely the precepts of a yogic existence.

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 CD To 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 aesthetic.

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!

I 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 Schaefer’s seminal WNYC New Sounds radio show.


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