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Robert Vijay Gupta & Badal Roy

Robert Vijay Gupta & Badal Roy

Robert brings "humanity to places humanity has abandoned. The music has an authenticity that cannot be faked, and that engenders everyday interactions that open the door for healing."

Complimentarily, Badal's performance on tabla blends his free jazz improvisational history with the Indian classical tradition to give us a fresh take on a deeply beloved iconic style.


Suryodaya is personal music and a tremendously personal recording. Robert invites us inside his world as he plays and bares his soul to you, in the magnificent temple that is Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is not flash, not technical bravura, but rather a testament to the deeply personal, a meditation.  As we listen to and live through this recording, let us imagine that we are Robert; that we stand in this almost holy acoustic space, playing Nathan Milstein's prized Stradivarius.[1] Please enjoy this recording and feel at home in Walt Disney Concert Hall, just as we did when making this album. I am intensely grateful to Robert Gupta and Badal Roy for giving us this music, and to Deborah Borda, President of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for inviting us in and making it possible to produce this recording in her concert hall.  


Robert has become a beacon for the City of Los Angeles. He serves as the youngest and one of most vibrant members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Robert won his audition and joined the orchestra when he was 19 years old).  And as a TED Senior Fellow, Robert speaks internationally on his work with Nathaniel Ayers (the formerly homeless musician whose story is told in the book and movie "The Soloist."  Robert continues to be Nathaniel's real-life violin teacher). Inspired by his relationship with Nathaniel, Robert founded Street Symphony,[2] which brings music to mentally ill people on skid row, men in high security prisons and veterans: human beings in situations many of us would prefer to ignore. 

Robert brings "humanity to places humanity has abandoned. The music has an authenticity that cannot be faked, and that engenders everyday interactions that open the door for healing." [3]


The famous tabla player Badal Roy, Robert's illustrious cousin, joins us for many of the works on this album. This record is Badal's umpteenth disc.  We follow in the footsteps of the performances and recordings Badal made with Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. Yet in his typical funny and humble fashion, with a grin he tried to suppress for effect, Badal told me "Bob... you are in the presence of the most important free jazz tabla player in the world! Of course there is only one of us."  Then followed his fabulous laugh and bear hug. Badal does not offer us free jazz on this album.  Rather he offers a combination of East and West, per the theme of our album's title (more about that later), in ways that channel centuries of Indian and specifically Hindustani musical tradition. Badal blends this inheritance comfortably with new music written in the West in the 21st Century.  Badal opens our album with Calcutta Sunrise, a work for solo tabla commissioned by Yarlung Artists and underwritten by our friend Linda Joyce Hodge. I invited percussionist and friend Jose Angel Gurria-Cardenas to this session. Gurri and I had worked together on an album with Ciaramella Ensemble the month before. Gurri told me "This man is a Living Legend! I must have seventeen of his recordings. Sitting here in this recording session with you, in this hall, is like being in the presence of a deity."


"Suryodaya" means "sunrise," or the "coming of light," almost the "grace of light" in Sanskrit. Our album title works for us on many levels. Robert and Badal bring musical illumination to us as listeners, from rich musical traditions that may be fresh and new to many of us. I like to think of the music Robert and his friends bring to the homeless and unfortunate through Street Symphony as a gift of illumination and grace.  Additionally, this album traces one version of the story of the origins and development of the violin in the western world.  In truth, the "modern" violin (such as our example made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona Italy in 1716) came from several parts of the world over centuries to become what we know as the modern concert violin of today.  One of these stories, however, tells the tale of the violin as an instrument with antecedents in India which later developed into the sitar, esraj, dilruba and sarangi.  The instrument migrated out of India on the Silk Road, and eventually found a following in the Roma communities (the Roma, or Gypsies, originated in India) who brought it among other places into Europe via Iran, North Africa and the Balkans. I love to imagine the great ancestors of the Stradivari, Guarneri Amati and Guadanini violins played around Gypsie campfires along their caravan routes. 


Yarlung Artists commissioned Raga Jaunpuri with generous underwriting from David and Margie Barry.  Robert plays this raga using his heart even more than his violin. Raga Jaunpuri is a salutation to the late morning. The roots of Hindustani music stretch back four millennia in history and this particular melody originated in the 15th century. Despite its antiquity, it is not the melody which is important. The melody is the framework, the skeleton, upon which Robert Gupta and Badal Roy build this creation.  When you listen to this raga, focus not on the melody but feel instead the rise and fall of energy, the beat, the variations, the humor and the sheer joy. Feel the slow burn as it begins quietly, builds incrementally to its ecstatic climax, and then ends just as quietly and serenely as it began. This is what "Suryodaya," the coming of light in the late morning, is all about. Robert felt strongly that we should record this raga at the time it should be heard, in the late morning.  And so we did.  We began our takes at 10:15 in the morning on July 6th, 2011, and we were finished before noon.


Robert and I very much enjoyed thinking about this raga before he wrote it. Robert is, after all, completely American. Robert was born in the United States and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, Juilliard, and Yale.  Yet his parents are Bengali, from Calcutta. Robert's raga is not a "classical" raga, such as one might hear in a concert performance in India (Robert never studied at the foot of a great Indian music master). But neither is Raga Jaunpuri "new age Western."  Instead, Raga Jaunpuri is a synthesis of Robert's American and Indian inheritance.  Complimentarily, Badal's performance on tabla blends his free jazz improvisational history with the Indian classical tradition to give us a fresh take on a deeply beloved iconic style. A raga is a series of pitches, a tone row.  This raga takes its name from the city of Jaunpur, in Uttar Pradesh, about an hour's drive northwest of Varanasi. 


Robert discusses his raga, its inspiration and its movements:

Although I have never formally studied the vast musical genre of Indian classical music, this is the first music I heard. I grew up in a traditional Bengali household, one in which my mother always sang while cooking, the strains of a sitar or a voice accompanying most daily activities. I discovered this particular raga when I heard New Dawn Mind, an album which includes two morning ragas,  Jaunpuri and Bhairavi, by the famous Bengali sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee. After hearing many other interpretations of Jaunpuri, including the voices of masters Bhimsen Joshi and Mallikarjun Mansoor, the sitar of Nikhil Banerjee and sarod of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and countless other pundits of the Hindustani tradition, I knew that raga Jaunpuri was the framework for the first raga I wanted to write. The composed Jaunpuri you hear on this album is an amalgam of various instrumental and vocal elements from the great masters. I use the violin - maverick emulator that it is - to express a wide range, from the sultry lyricism of the voice to the percussive twang of the sitar.

Jaunpuri is a raga for the late morning.  Although the pitches of this particular raga are identical to a D Minor scale in Western music, the character is more pentatonic, leaning on a flattened 6th tone (B Flat), and cadencing just a half-step below at the 5th degree (A), never quite returning us to the defined resolution of the tonic. Instead, this melody leaves us with an open-ended, sensuous question, as if gently and evocatively imploring us to create yet another variation, another form.

The raga's intensely improvisational style is anchored by several distinct forms, such as the Alap, Khyal and Teental. These forms develop the nature of this raga in various ways, some gently explore the melodic line, others play with rhythm, leading to some fun virtuosic fireworks. The first movement of Jaunpuri is the Alap - literally the meeting or encounter, where the musician slowly reveals the raga, note by note. Our Alap gradually develops the character of our yearning melody. Our tune then evolves, accompanied by tabla, into the Khyal - or ‘play' section of this first movement.

This playful mood establishes a "taal"(or "groove") in the next movement called Intermezzo in Shikartaal.  The violin repeats melodies from the Alap as the tabla improvises on an off-kilter beat pattern of 17 (or 8-and-a-half) beats.  We explore the Shikar for a time before mixing in a bit of musical mathematics: Badal adds a 15-beat segment to the 17-beat section, extending the phrase to 32 beats. After a short interlude, this rhythmic frenzy reaches its climax in the 16-beat third movement, Rondo in Teental, where a melodic memory from the Alap is spun successively into longer variations. "Teental" literally means "three claps."  In the sixteen beets of the Teental the stresses (what would be hand claps) come on the 1st, 5th and 13th beats.

A raga is not about the resolution of harmonic tension and accompanying sense of release and arrival, as we would expect in a piece of western music.  Instead, a raga develops continuously as it builds toward an internal goal, the Raga Jaunpuri melody itself, which compels us to rediscover these notes in an ever more complex and novel light.


The third work on our album is Istanpitta, a 14th Century Italian tune with antecedents from Iran and further east. I first heard this music as a choral work, Chominciamento di gioia, sung in Italian.[4]  Robert and Badal interpret this song for violin and tabla. Once again, I like to think of the Persian kamanjah (or kamanche) as one of the great ancestors of the violin.


Robert shares his thoughts with us:

When we think of Medieval music, our association draws us into the austere halls of Gregorian chant, monks and heavy incense. But right outside, on the steps of the cathedral, ensembles of troubadours sang bawdy madrigals, a parody of a world at odds with itself. At the courts, the height of chic was music from the Orient - from the trade routes of Persia and Turkey, melismatic Arabian melodies plucked from the strings of a cittern or oud, accompanied by the European viol and pipe.

Istanpitta comes from a set of Italian court dances from the 14th century called "Chominciamento di gioia," or the "Beginning of Joy". Our interpretation attempts to capture the mash of Occident and Orient, with the rhythmic texture provided by tabla under the strains of the fiddle-like violin.


Fourth on our album comes The Guardian Angel, the famous passacaglia for unaccompanied violin by Heinrich I. F. Biber. Robert writes:

Biber left a legacy of screamingly original and notoriously difficult music, from works that had the musicians imitating the calls of domestic and wild animals in his Sonata Representativa, to literally reinventing violin writing by championing innovations like scordatura, a re-tuning of the four open strings of the violin to achieve different resonances. Scordatura is written in tablature form such that the notes played as written on the page bear little resemblance to what one hears.  In many ways, Biber was not dissimilar to a 17th century Paganini.  In fact, it is thought that Paganini may have "acquired" the theme of his famous 24th Caprice from one of Biber's sonatas, a theme that later went on to inspire Lizst, Brahms and Rachmaninov. However, Biber tempered his virtuosic innovations with a spectacular aptitude for counterpoint and polyphony, the art of writing several independent voices in conjunction. Biber harnessed this compositional skill with his magnificent technical prowess on the instrument such that he combined this polyphony on the solo violin for the first time in history. Biber thus inspired a style of unaccompanied violin composition that would later culminate with the sonatas and partitas by the towering Johann Sebastian Bach.

Biber's Passacaglia comes as an unaccompanied finale to his Mystery Sonatas, 15 meditations on the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary.  The sonatas, also known as the Rosary Sonatas, vividly depict episodes such as The Scourging at the Pillar, The Crucifixion, and The Ascension, and all employ different tunings of the violin to achieve a resonance and color peculiar to the theme of the sonata. The final passacaglia is prefaced by an engraving of the Guardian Angel leading a child by the hand. At first glance, the bass line is that of the traditional Italian passacaglia, that of four descending notes - G, F, E Flat, and D - which the violin sustains throughout the piece in 65 iterations, while double and triple stops and arpeggiated and scale figurations dance below and above, decorating and sometime obscuring the essential, ground line.

One can imagine the Biber of the late 1670's, the virtuoso, standing alone at the altar of the Cathedral in Salzburg after a performance of the complete Rosary and playing the nearly 10-minute long passacaglia, which, at that time, was the most expansive and imaginative single-movement work for an unaccompanied violin. Biber's Passacaglia would allow the solo violinist to "comment" on the 15 sonatas, drawing them to a musical climax and close, while displaying Biber's contrapuntal craft. However, this Passacaglia fulfills a mystical significance as well as a musical one: we find the four notes of Biber's ground bass in the first line of a contemporary hymn Einen Engel Gott mir geben, a hymn to the Guardian Angel. So Biber's persistent four-note ground bass theme in his Passacaglia, like the continuous loop in the beads of a rosary itself, like the cyclical recitation of the rosary during the Autumn feast of the Guardian Angel, represents our steady reliable guardian angels, leading us through life by the hand.

Personally, Biber's Passacaglia has been a guardian angel for me in many ways, the subject of much of my undergraduate and graduate study in early music. Deeper than that, however, I must not fail to mention that the act of playing this piece on such an immensely beautiful and important violin (a violin crafted only a few years after the premiere of Biber's creation and a violin played by one of my greatest heroes, Nathan Milstein) and our opportunity to record this piece in Walt Disney Concert Hall feels like a tremendous blessing from my own guardian angel.


Composer and poet John Harbison, born in 1938, wrote his Four Songs of Solitude for solo violin in 1985.  The composer cites Bach's cantatas, Igor Stravinsky (whom he met in Santa Fe in 1963) and American jazz as his most important musical influences.  Harbison's music distinguishes itself with its exceptional resourcefulness and expressive range. Fanfare considers him to be "original, varied, and absorbing - relatively easy for audiences to grasp and yet formal and complex enough to hold our interest through repeated hearings - his style boasts both lucidity and logic." [5]

On Four Songs of Solitude, Harbison writes: 

Four Songs of Solitude was composed during the summer of 1985 as a present for my wife, Rose Mary, who gave the first performance the following winter. They are songs, not sonatas or fugues.

The first song often returns to its initial idea, always to go a different way; the constant lyrical outward flow is balanced by a refrain line that occurs twice.

The second song begins with a folksong-like melody, which is immediately answered by a more athletic idea in a key a half step higher. The dialogue between these ideas eventually fuses them together.

The most intense piece is the third song, its melody carrying large intervals and leading toward increasingly brief and intimate reflections upon itself.

The last song is the most virtuosic and intricate. Starting from a slow emblem, which is often restated, it begins with a dance with an obstinate lower voice as accompaniment. This cycles out of control twice, but manages a fragile reconciliation at the end.

The solitude is the composer's, but even more the performer's. The player's world is like that of the long distance runner, especially in challenging pieces like these, and I wanted our conversation in those hours of preparation to contain subjects of equal interest to both. The listeners can, if they wish, add in their own inner distances.[6]  

Robert Gupta writes:

Harbison's Four Songs of Solitude appear in this album between Biber's Passacaglia and Joseph Pereira's Partita for Solo Violin, pushing the performer and listener from the peaceful guidance of Biber's Guardian Angel into a deep well of thought, reflecting on our dark and insecure thoughts and desires.

Harbison's work captures the power of intimacy and the power of quiet but restless conversations within our own minds.  Yet the composer achieves this with a unique lyricism and fluidity of expression, which he establishes in the first song's haunting opening line. The narrative that flows within the piece is a meditation on a deeply personal, internal question, constantly seeking an answer. Harbison carries this through the nostalgic folk-song of the second movement.  The question's flowing streams, the searching question, reaches a heart-wrenching climax in the third song, with severe contrasts in its dynamic, harmonic and melodic ranges. The opening motive of the last song aims to calm us, nudging us toward a suggestion of concord.  But even in this relative calm, the composer gives us a figure of two eighth notes in the second phrase which build into a wild dance in 5/8 time, whirling out of control twice, recalling an even deeper brutality than encountered in the third song. This tension finally evaporates into the stratosphere of the violin's highest range. 


Following these intensely introspective Harbison songs comes the dance suite by composer and timpanist Joseph Pereira.  Joe wrote this work for Robert in 2010. Pereira's Partita for Solo Violin is a miniature, structured after Bach's famous dance suites.  When he wrote Robert's partita, Pereira built on his earlier ‘cello suite, which Jason Calloway commissioned in 2006. Like this suite, the partita takes inspiration from the solo works by Bach. Joe writes "I was fascinated by Bach's use of illusion and tension, his ability to create harmonies with just a single line. He wrote pages of a fugue using only a few notes on a largely monophonic instrument. Some say that his fugue for violin in A Minor is far more elaborate than most of his fugues from the 48 preludes and fugues in the Well-Tempered Klavier.  The compositional aesthetic of these pieces written almost 300 years ago... seems so modern today."  Bach's structural, melodic and harmonic concepts fascinated Pereira and he wanted to write works based on them in miniature. He wrote his new partita in six movements, played together on one track in this recording. Prelude, Bourree No. I (Ponticello), Allemande, Courante (Presto), Sarabande, and Bourree No. II (Tasto). Joe is a percussionist and the musical world in which he lives focuses on rich timbral variety much more than on pitch. Hence Pereira's "harmonies" use different colors, even noise, to create reference points, transitions and modulations which define the structures. Because Joe wrote his original ‘cello suite specifically for the ‘cello and the timbres of each register, writing this new piece for Robert became intensely collaborative.  Joe writes "The ideas and experiments we traded gave us both a lot of pleasure, and some of what we tried caught on like wild fire in the piece. It was fun to write specifically for the violin, and even more so for a friend and colleague."  This collaboration continued through our recording session, during which Robert and Joe bounced further ideas off each other, playing with the color of the many sounds in this piece. 


Joe's wife is a violinist as well, but this piece took on a unique character, specific to Robert's playing and special talents.  Joe enjoyed the luxury of working this closely with a performer. He told me that Robert's influence on and dedication to this piece were tireless and inspiring.  Pereira's Partita for Solo Violin sounds very different from his suite for ‘cello, and became entirely its own composition, unique both to the violin as an instrument and unique to Robert, who contributed so much to its creation. 


Given the sometimes percussive nature of Joe's partita, Robert decided to play his violin made in 2003 by the talented Kansas City luthier Anton Krutz. Robert plays the Milstein Strad in all other tracks. 


Last on our album comes Raga Redux, one of our takes of Raga Jaunpuri which begins with an extended improvised solo by Badal Roy. 


Yarlung could not make these recordings without generous support. We especially want to thank David and Margie Barry and Linda Joyce Hodge for commissioning the two new works on our recording, Raga Jaunpuri and Calcutta Sunrise. Major underwriting came from Gary and Marcia Hollander and also Ira Ehrenpreis whose support formed the backbone of this album. Robert wants additionally to thank Bhupesh Patel and Ronnie Rubin.

Bob and I owe a great debt of thanks to the many behind-the-scenes partners on this project, for their presence at every stage of the process. To my collaborator and cousin, Badal Roy, for his flexible virtuosity; Jerry and Terri Kohl for their generous loan of the Milstein Strad; The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deborah Borda and Walt Disney Concert Hall; Joe Pereira for his presence during the recording of his Partita for Solo Violin; Perry Chen at Kickstarter, and the TED Fellows team for their advice before and during our funding campaign; Yana Reznik for her friendship and for donating her fantastic album as part of our Kickstarter rewards, and the indomitable Cooper Bates, for his constant presence, guidance, photography and great eye. -Robert Vijay Gupta


Producing an album in Walt Disney Concert Hall is always a treat. The quality of the acoustics presents an exciting challenge: one wants to do them justice, both with the performance of the music and with the sound recording itself. My assistant producer and fellow recording engineer Jacob Horowitz and I spent many hours on stage with Robert and his violin in advance of our recording sessions finding "the spot" in which we wanted Robert to stand, as well as our approximate microphone position. This planning saved us much time on our first real recording day.  Jon Fisher loaned us his prized AKG C-24 microphone from Gearworks Pro Audio.  This is my favorite microphone for recordings of this intimacy. We chose the Messenger Microphone preamp by Elliot Midwood, and ran Yarlung interconnects into our analog tape recorder and high resolution digital system. For this recording we used RMGI 468 tape with analog recorder electronics designed by Bob Hovland and Len Horowitz. 

-Bob Attiyeh, producer

[1] Suryodaya is the third Yarlung recording which celebrates Jerry and Terri Kohl's 1716 golden-era Stradivarius, the "ex-Goldmann," which used to belong to Nathan Milstein.  We are grateful to Jerry and Terri for their generosity, and for their joy in sharing the sound of this magnificent violin with the world.  Playing this violin during rehearsals and recording sessions for this album gave Robert one of his life's peak experiences.


[2]2 Street Symphony is a 501(c)3 California nonprofit corporation,  Robert has donated his royalties from this CD to Street Symphony so the organization can grow and continue to give free on-site classical music outreach concerts of the highest artistic quality.  His generosity reminds me of one of Robert's favorite quotations by Robert Schumann: "To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the Artist."  Before joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Robert planned to be a medical doctor.  Indeed had Robert not won his Los Angeles Philharmonic audition he might be a neurology or neurosurgery intern today.  Robert's work with Street Symphony combines these two areas of interest: Street Symphony has seen music act transformatively for people with various psychoses (people like Nathaniel Ayers), people with post traumatic stress disorder, and so forth.  You will find more discussion and several videos on this topic on the Street Symphony website and on Robert's TED talks on the internet.  Search "Robert Gupta music as medicine" on Youtube. 


[3] From the TED-India (INK) blog. Nina Gannes, 2012.


[4] When planning this recording I wanted to find a Persian piece for violin, linking our raga from India with Europe, from a place geographically in-between the two.  I asked our friend Adam Gilbert, director of Ciaramella Ensemble and professor of music at USC's Thornton School.  "It's a stretch, Bob, this is only one of the many musical and instrumental antecedents to the 17th and 18th century European violin, and many scholars will disagree with you."  Adam played me several pieces that "bridged this gap," and Istanpitta stuck in my mind.  It tells a fun story of the violin as it moves westward over the centuries, and I like to imagine it is true.    


[5] Fanfare magazine


[6] Program note by the composer, G. Schirmer, Inc., 2010