HomeInterviewsArtistsHelen Tierney in conversation with Anoushka Shankar

Helen Tierney in conversation with Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar performs at the BBC Proms 2017

An excited audience filled the Royal Albert Hall last summer for Anoushka Shankar’s spell-binding BBC Proms performance of Passages, her father Ravi Shankar’s 1964 collaboration with Philip Glass.

But the inclusion of her music in both Pearson’s legacy Edexcel GCSE course as a set work, (‘Rag Desh’, recorded in 2001), and its current A Level music syllabus, Breathing Under Water (2007) has ensured she now has a new audience. Thousands of young musicians in the UK and beyond will listen to and learn about her music, and the musical heritage developed under the guidance of her father, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. So how does she feel about her music being studied in a tradition so different to the one in which she was educated?
“I am grateful that I learnt entirely by listening and memorising. It was a process of osmosis, literally sitting at the feet of my father. My six-year-old is now learning piano and guitar with the UK grading system, and I think it’s nice, it’s helpful, but I think I might have struggled and I think it can be rigid and inhibiting.”
And what does she think of the three chosen tracks from the album Breathing Under Water (2007), which A level music students following the Edexcel specification now study?
“That album was really a product of a moment in time. I had key collaborators on board. I think of the three tracks ‘Breathing Under Water’ (the title track) is the clearest for those studying to communicate the traditional Indian musical style of ‘one tonic’ with the central lines of the sitar.”
Even within those three chosen study tracks, there is a real sense of the richness and diversity of the musical traditions she embraces. One of them, ‘Easy, a track performed with half-sister Norah Jones shows its more popular, Western approach to chordal riffs. Karsh Kale, her chief collaborator on Breathing Under Water speaks of her range as an artist:
“Anoushka is on the one hand amazing at her instrument with a great command over Hindustani classical music, yet she is also equally willing to travel far outside that box into uncharted styles.”
The A Level syllabus includes the three songs making up the set work (‘Burn’, ‘Breathing Under Water’ and ‘Easy’) under ‘Fusions’, but Anoushka prefers another term:
“For me, it is not so much like the word ‘fusion’; I prefer to use ‘progressive world music’.”
It is not just in her musicianship that Anoushka looks forward. She is known as a passionate political campaigner, notably for women’s rights. Her 2016 album, Land Of Gold addresses a pressing current world issue: the humanitarian crisis of displaced people.
“Ideally I would prefer it if they (A Level music students) listened to a broader selection of my work. Tracks such as ‘Last Chance’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, (both featured on Land Of Gold) and I would like them to hear the music my father wrote with Philip Glass.”
Anoushka’s inclusion in the A Level music syllabus was not immediate. When Pearson first published the list of proposed set works for the Edexcel specification in 2014, Jessy McCabe, a then A level music student, started a petition to include female composers as none appeared on the original syllabus. The three tracks from Breathing Under Water were subsequently added, alongside works by Kate Bush and Clara Schumann, after an online petition gathered 4000 signatures. Jeffrey Hole, Pearson’s subject advisor for music, said of the result:
“We had a constructive meeting with Jessy McCabe where we proactively engaged with her on the issues raised, updating our new A Level Music specification to include female composers accordingly.” 
How did Anoushka feel about her music being added, along with that of other female artists at this later stage?
“I was shocked when I realised this, and I have mixed feelings. I remember the fuss that was made when I was the first woman to get the World Music Nomination, but it promotes a dialogue. This is everywhere, just look at the numbers of women in some orchestras. That girl did something important.”
Anoushka has recently been touring her live film score to the recently restored classic Shirazin which once again she is charting new territory. Are there any styles of music she has not yet explored, but which interest her?
“I’m always interested. It is important to keep listening and learning. The main thing is, I would like the students to know my music is really about the duality of being from an ancient tradition but remaining current.”
Helen Tierney has authored a selection of resources for Rhinegold Education, including Music Cover Lessons, and lesson plans for the Rhinegold Education Online Music Classroom. She spoke to Anoushka Shankar in November 2017.

Must Read