Matthew Barley

Nicki Wells on vocals, Sanju Sahai on tabla and myself on cello embarked on a 5-day quest to create new music at Hawkwood in October 2021. It was a leap into the unknown as we had never made music together before and had no idea if this was going to work or not.

Sanju is an Indian classical tabla player trained in India and the UK, and Nicki lived in India as a child and has studied Indian music and assimilated the spirit of the music as well as many techniques. I have played with many Indian musicians over the last 20 years and so between us we brought a lot of different experiences to the table, Indian as well as European in tradition.

I wanted to know if we could create new music together as a trio and we began with improvisation – which is, of course, the oldest way of music making known. The common ground of improvisation allowed us to be creative whilst learning about each other as musicians. Typically we would improvise a piece and then discuss what we had enjoyed and what worked, musically, so as the days passed we grew to understand how we liked to sing and play…soon, we were developing pieces that had all started as improvisations and had a form that we could follow, while the exact content would be different each time.

One of the musical objectives I had was to try and find music where the cello and voice were equal partners and we spent a lot of time experimenting with the blend of sounds, trying to create moments where it was hard to tell if there were two sounds or one – moments of perfect unison.

What was striking during the week was just how free we felt without the pressing deadline of a performance or recording – the need to deliver can certainly stimulate sometimes, but a different kind of space opens up when you know that the only objective is to create.

We came up with three new pieces lasting around 25′ that we were able to present in an informal concert at the end of the week to an audience who had no idea what they were to hear.

The unusual amount of space and time allowed us to find a musical vocabulary that we didn’t know we had and we all felt very excited by the possibilities that lay ahead. Ideally we would like to undertake another 5 days and then to record some of the music we have made to send to promoters to begin to put some touring together.

Full credit to Matthew Barley, Nicki Wells, and Sanju Sahai. With thanks to the DCMS & Arts Council England for their funding.


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