Shammi Pithia

Shammi Pithia
(Photo: Amanda Rose)

I’m a composer, producer and collaborator with two albums reaching number one in the iTunes World Music chart. I perform my music across the world with having appearances at Glastonbury Festival, Wembley Stadium and solo shows at venues such as the Southbank Centre in London. Much of my work is for audio release, but over the past few years I have written music for dance in kathak and contemporary fields that I have also performed in the UK and India. I’m currently starting to write music for film and plan to write music for other digital formats. My best catalogue of work would be my second solo album COSMIC.

Why do you make music?

I make music because it feels like the naturalist thing for me to do. Creating and performing music brings me joy, but it also goes onto to be part of other people’s lives and it creates its own stories with them. I love that I can communicate with people anywhere in the world remotely and unknowingly. One of my greatest passions is learning and music offers a continuous learning experience. The more you do the deeper you find the field is. As you work across other disciplines you are often challenged to work in completely different way which forces you to learn, adapt and grow. I love this challenging, sometimes intimidating nature of my work, but once you overcome it it’s very enriching and fulfilling. I believe that music also has a spiritual aspect to it, for the creator and the receiver. I believe that music enables us to access and experience deeper parts of ourselves if we choose to, kind of like a gateway.

What music do you make?

I guess it depends on the reason I am making the music. When producing my own albums I pretty much do what I like, which tends to lean towards instrumental music both acoustic and electronic reflecting the Indian tinted sound of London. I love Indian classical music and I love the urban and worldly sound that comes out of London, my music carries shades of all of these. I stay away from words like ‘fusion’ as for me I’m not intentionally fusing anything, I’m just creating the music that comes most naturally to me. I’m a product of my environment and experience, and the music I produce reflects this. Themes and stories also play a big part in the music I create as I feel they help create a sound-world for that particular album. If doing collaborative work with another discipline the music is led and colored by the brief. My own character will still be present in the music, but the overall direction would be set by the collaborative outcome goals.

How do you make music?

I make music in lots of different ways, it generally depends on what the reason for the music is. For album material, I tend to work with themes and stories and then create music to represent them. I do this both acoustically and electronically, depending on the idea I hear. My sequencer is central to everything, a space to lay down ideas, manipulate them and arrange them. A typical work flow would be something like: composition using software instruments and instruments I play / production and arrangement / recording of any live instruments & voice to replace software instruments / editing and further production / mix / master (outsourced). I also like to experiment and create music live within a solo setting and settings outside the album context. Using tools such as Ableton I like to see how musical ideas turn out when produced differently. With concerts I take my songs and rearrange them for my band, which is something I really love doing. You get to hear the song in a way you never thought of before, just because there a more limitations on what tools you have to produce it. When I make music I can go from making beats from single shot samples to recording a chamber string ensemble to manipulating and processing sounds recorded from my environment. I like to be free in this choice and generally use the techniques I need to deliver that particular piece. My goal in making music is to generally communicate an emotion, mood or theme to my audience, so I use whatever techniques and tools I need to to do this.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

If by music we mean sound organised into rhythmic, tonal and harmonic patterns then occasionally it is, but generally these pieces are integrated into larger structures that you could class as ‘music’. Personally, if it communicates and idea, emotion or mood then it’s music, I don’t get too tied down with formalities. I find creating sound that is not traditionally classed as ‘music’ serves as a great way to create texture. Some people like to class this as soundscape, but again I don’t often get tied down with semantics, my primary concern is creating the sounds that communicate my thoughts. Sometimes I feel there is too much emphasis given to what is and what isn’t. I understand this in terms of conserving culture and developing a genre further, but often it is use to criticize in a way that isn’t very constructive. When the criticism focuses on labels rather than the art I find it pretentious and time unworthy as it doesn’t help develop the work in a productive way.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I describe myself as a composer, producer, performer and collaborator. I certainly wear other hats throughout the process, such as engineer, but I don’t actively work as one. Engineering plays a part in fulfilling my primary roles. As a composer I write music for musicians to perform, as a producer I take a composition and bring it to life as recording, as a performer I directly communicate my work to audiences and as a collaborator I work with artists of other disciplines to create performances or recordings. I don’t often have clear defined lines in my work, I rarely just work as one thing. I actually prefer this, it gives me more control on what the outcome will be and also stretches me to learn, adapt and grow.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

I believe that music is a reflection of our experiences, emotions and our desires. I believe that the presentation of these things are shaped by our exposure to culture, arts and education. When creating an album you have the opportunity to create whatever you like, and often here is where you actually find out what your influences are. I believe my musical sound is a reflection of all the sounds and experiences I have been exposed to, starting with the music at home that would be the choice of my parents (typically popular Indian music) and the music I heard at school which was presented by popular culture (pop, hip-hop, garage, jungle, reggae). As I got older I made more musical friends who exposed to me other forms of music including the classical music’s of the west and India. Since this point, I’ve taking upon myself to learn about the music that interests me so that I use it in my own work. I strongly believe that if I were born elsewhere I wouldn’t necessarily be making music that sounds the way it does, or is made in the way it is. Being born and raised in London exposed me to a literal world of sound, giving me options to explore whatever I resonated with most. University was also an ear opening experience, especially when it comes to sound VS music. Until university I thought I knew what music was, but I soon learned that it was so much bigger than I assumed. I learned that art can be found in the process, regardless of the outcome. I learned how to ‘not think’ rather than placing my preconceived assumption upon the music I was hearing. I learned how to take sound for what it is, rather than what I had been taught to think it should be. This kind of thinking revolutionised my work and practice, and I take that mentality on to every new project I work on. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and talk with some of the finest musicians in the world in the fields that I’m most inspired by such as Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Nitin Sawhney, these kind of experiences inspire you incredibly to learn more and to do more. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting and working with incredibly talented and accomplished artists in other disciplines who shined a whole new light onto my practice and what I thought I knew about it. For example, my appreciation and understanding of rhythm was completely transformed after working with kathak dancer and choreographer Sujata Banerjee and after meeting Pandit Birju Maharaj. Visual art has also impacted on me a lot. I tend to see stories and images when I create music, so it is only natural that good visuals stimulate and inspire me. Again, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with some incredibly talented visual artists such as J.Sol who take you to a whole new level of appreciating detail. For me the more people I work with across the spectrum of the arts the rounder and better I become. It will always be my choice what I should adopt into my own work, but the knowledge and understanding gained from each experience is deeply enriching.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

I think there’s a difference between being a musician and being musical. Being a musician is a vocation and involves more personal attributes than one would need if they we simply musical. The required attributes are dependent on what sort of musician you want to be, with the evolution of music and technology more and more varieties have emerged that change the spectrum of attributes needed. As a standard you need some sort of resonance and sensitivity with sound. I think everyone has this, but some are far more aware of it than others. I don’t think you necessarily need to training on any particular instrument, but you need to have a desire to understand how instruments (acoustic and electronic/digital) produce sound and how sounds work together. You need to be able to hear with your inner and external ears, by this I mean you should be able to internally hear the sound you wish to create or construct, and you must also be able to appraise the sound that physically comes to you. After these I think the type of musician you want to be effects what musical attributes you need. An instrumentalist would need technical instrumental skills as well as refined listening skills. A composer would need to develop their sense of arrangement, texture and composition. A producer would need to develop technological, listening, organizational and people skills. An engineer would sharpen their technological skills as well as their ability to listen for tone, balance and fidelity. A mastering engineer would need to develop their understanding of physics and tune their ears for sonic listening. Of course these are just some of the skills attributed to each variety of musician, there will be plenty of overlap and further requirements. Outside of musical ability I think a musician needs to be inspired, driven, proactive, creative, organised, sensitive, receptive and humble. I think these things are as important as musical ability itself. Music is a holistic thing, so how you are as a person will affect the type of musician you become. Of the few personal attributes above I think being driven and proactive is one of the most important things. The creative industry is a busy and competitive place. You have to be able to put in the hours and create your own opportunities.

How does your work reflect a global culture?

As times change so do cultures, and with change comes new technologies, opportunities and taste. I love the classical cultures of music, the new global shift in cultures allows me to use elements from these classical cultures and presents them in new ways. Technology gives us access to so much more culture and art than ever before, you can see and hear how artists from countries around the world are now sharing more. As technology expands our reach and our influences, it enables art to reflect an ever expanding global culture. My music is certainly influenced by music across the world, and London as a hotspot brings those cultures to me, but not everyone shares this privilege. Wonderfully, with access to the internet pretty much anyone can now experience this same thing. This expands the potential reach and audience of my music and encourages me to think more globally when I’m writing. I have the opportunity to be more inclusive than ever before.

What are the challenges of working with digital technology in a non-Western tradition?

I think the challenges of technology would be the same in any tradition, western or not. I think that ultimately it comes down to how people access music. If they access it online the challenges would be the same wherever you are in the world. There would always be some sort of technological element to the music, as it’s super rare for something for now to be recorded and mixed directly to tape. In terms of instruments, again I think that the challenges would be the same in any tradition. I find the most limiting thing about virtual instruments is their poor ability to articulate and ornament, but this would be the same for any instrument across the world. Such a large portion of the world’s music now shares basic fundamentals such as equal temperament tuning, so again technological challenges are still pretty even across traditions. With technology designed to help musicians create in real-time I guess there may be some more technological challenges in non-western traditions as things like time often have very different systems. The majority of software and hardware I have come across is set for bars and beats, not cycles and counter beats. Ultimately, I think it all comes down to the musician and the music they are making. Technology suits me and I don’t think I make music that’s either too western or too non-western. My music just reflects me and is a culmination of cultures and traditions because of my heritage and experiences.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

The digital age allows you access to knowledge and helps to balance out the opportunities that one has available to them. I wasn’t fortunate enough to learn music at a young age or have instrumental tuition, but technology and access to information was my gateway into learning music and becoming a musician. It gave me access to the knowledge that I thought was only reserved for those who had formal training. I realised from early on that the digital age is also the information age, and that information was there for me to benefit from. From that I’ve somehow managed to create a career as a musician. But the role of the digital age is not limited to education. It also gave me outlet for my music; my first ever release was digital, not physical. So not only did technology give me the information I needed to grow, but it also gave me the tools and the systems I needed to create and share my music with people across the world. Technology has enabled me, as well as more traditional methods like radio, to expand my audience and grow it. It has been the foremost way that I share my music and in turn attracts incoming work in a multitude of disciplines. Technology still remains a source for me to educate myself but also a place where I can inspire myself and be influenced with art from across the globe. For me the digital age has given me access to music and a career as a musician. I think any musician should seriously think about what technology can offer them, what they can take from it, and how they can exploit it. It is there for everyone to use and for everyone to benefit from, we should use it to our advantage so that we can in turn inspire others.