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DateLine Sunday, 5 August 2007

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'Music maketh a man'

Lakshman Joseph de Saram :

Up - close and personal - by Ranga Chandrarathne Lakshman Joseph de Saram, generally regarded as Sri Lanka's foremost violinist, is also creating a name for himself in the film industry. Best known for his ground breaking music for Boodee Keerthisena's film Mille Soya, the score went on to win the countries most prestigious awards and the international SIGNIS award for that year.

Currently signed up to write the music for three major internationally produced films, he has also been chosen by Sri Lanka Tourism along with six other major artistes to represent the country at this years UNESCO concert in Paris in September, showcasing the 'Best of Sri Lanka'.

RC: We are here to talk about the newly formed Chamber Music Society of Colombo, but first, how did your involvement in Sri Lankan music come about after your stint in New York City?

LJDES: It all started when my brother called and said that President Premadasa wanted to start a professional orchestra in Colombo, and if I would like to lead it. I must say, the 5 or 6 years the orchestra lasted, were incandescent.

The music making was at a very visceral level. Rohan truly had a rare gift of passion that he was able to transmit to both the musician and the audience. And his incredible charisma obliterated the many fundamental flaws the orchestra had.

There were valuable lessons learnt too, the kind of intensity the orchestra generated was not readily understood and accepted by the typical Colombo concert goer, as was the programming. Plus we performed way too many concerts to be financially viable over the long term. It was too much too soon. But it was an exhilarating experience while it lasted. RC: Did you get into composing film music in that period?

LJDES: Well, in 1991, I met Boodee Keerthisena in the East Village in Manhattan while he was studying there.

I suppose that was the seed of our many collaborations. Almost 12 years later at a mutual friends roof top party, he asked me very casually to try writing some music for his film Mille Soya. I reluctantly accepted the challenge and was constantly second guessing my every move. I was fortunate though, to have in Boodee a director who was very flexible and spontaneous in the studio, and he knew how to pace it.

Plus my apprenticeship with Maestro Khemadasa for 9 odd years helped greatly too. It made it that much less impossible a task.

RC: Anyway, the critics loved what you did and showed their appreciation by awarding you two significant citations.

LJDES: The film has soul and won all the important awards that year, I was quite flattered and immensely encouraged.

RC: As a purely classically trained musician, how are you able to deal with the different demands that writing film music requires, and especially, Sri Lankan film music?

LJDES: Firstly, I think it is possible with a sound classical technique and understanding, be it eastern or western, to be able to slide into other forms of music making.

The playing or writing of big band, crunk, anything really, other than perhaps pure folk, is not too difficult to get into if you have an ironclad classical background. As for my understanding of Sri Lanka's sounds, it is an on going learning experience enhanced considerably by my very close artistic association with Maestro Khemadasa. He is a constant inspiration and the bedrock that serious modern music of Sri Lanka is built on. Like it or not.

RC: You have also worked with the internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage, tell us something about his particular style of film making.

LJDES: Ira Madiyama was the film I did; it has been brilliantly reviewed and awarded all over the world, as is most everything that Prasanna does. Working with him is easy because he knows exactly what he does not want, so it's a question of elimination, not this, not that, till we ultimately come up with what the visual needs.

RC: Any personnel ideas on how one can improve the effectiveness of Sri Lankan film music?

LJDES: I have ideas on how to improve my approach to writing film music. That is about it really.

RC: Now tell us about this new Chamber Music Society you have founded.

LJDES: Well, I have been asked to do this for the last 15 odd years, and that is to get involved in some way with the tiny so called western music sub-culture of the country. A sub-culture that by circumstance, I happened to be born into.

RC: How much credibility and relevance is there in this sub-culture you say you belong to?

LJDES: (Laughing) Nasty question! But you hit a word I am very interested in, and that is relevance. There is no relevance in the big picture when we perform Mozart here, other than it being fleeting entertainment to a few people in the rarefied environment of a concert hall, there is no lasting value to the countries cultural well being.

That is why the primary tenet of the Society is all about Sri Lanka. It's about the music created by Sri Lankan composers, and by others, using Sri Lanka as a reference point.

Of course, being the beneficiaries of 500 years of crippling atrophy of the fine arts, we pretty much have to start from scratch; we don't have a great body of serious music to perform, so our concerts will feature music of other lands. Something we are immensely grateful for, but the main focus will be a work of original content that has cultural significance to the country we live in. It is not going to be an after thought.

RC: This sounds very exciting and timely. Why has it taken you 15 years?

LJDES: I really don't know the answer; I suppose it has been a blending of disenchantment and apathy. And I think the only credible way forward to me at least, without compromising the composer's intentions, was to produce something of value to the audience, is to take the chamber music route.

We have the right number of excellent musicians for that. I always like saying this, but it's very much like a chef and a recipe. If the recipe calls for 10 eggs and you got one, forget it. Look at something else. I would rather not cook, than dish out something mystifying. I think the audience deserves better.

There are a few ensembles in Colombo that have the same agenda, and their concerts are an immense breath of fresh air. Anyway, to get back to the Society, things just clicked this year. I felt compelled, driven if you will. And it is looking good.

We have some wonderfully dedicated musicians who are all like-minded; the rehearsals are time well spent.

And we enjoy tremendous moral support from the most eminent cultural icons of the country, to further encourage our efforts, we were given the singular honour of performing our inaugural concert at "Temple Trees" for President Rajapaksa, where he felicitated Dr. Khemadasa.

That concert was received very favourably. We intend to further prune our sound before making it available to the general public, this is done by our on-going pre-view concert program for carefully invited audiences, it's almost like a tasting room for new wines.

We take very seriously the feed-back the audience gives us on all aspects of the experience. It's a slow evolving process of experimentation and distillation. We are in no hurry.

RC: Let us look at classical music again if you will, how do you perceive classical music and its audiences in Sri Lanka?

LJDES: Having some experience in the biz over the last 30 odd years, and having been involved in many forms of broad basing music across the country. I have sadly realized that although our population and access to information have greatly increased, the classically minded audience, both eastern and western has not kept pace. You can say that it has actually declined over the last 15 years or so.

This trend seems strangely inevitable and not just a Sri Lankan phenomenon, it is being felt all over the world, other than perhaps Venezuela, where they have the best school based classical music program by far, and the dividends are astonishing.

RC: You are probably one of the best people in this country to answer this question; do you think there can be ways of reversing this trend in Sri Lanka?

LJDES: I do not think I am in anyway qualified to answer that monster of a question, but on a superficial level, I have come to believe, that any meaningful association with high culture is the sad but true preserve of a tiny minority.

It has been that way forever really. And I don't think it has anything to do with cultural elitism or finances. It has been shown that no matter how persistent you may be on broadcasting classical music across to the masses, you are not going to see a quantum leap of the number of people clamouring for Bruckner's late symphonies or the Raga shree.

The music is most likely falling on deaf years. The only silver lining in dishing out great music liberally is that there could be a few people out there who may find some bewildering solace in what they have just heard, and would like to know more about that particular piece of music and so on. That is where my advocating a designated classical radio channel comes in.

Radio is probably the easiest and cheapest way of getting it across. It has to be freely and constantly available. But then again, we are a country that looks like it's perfecting the art of self destruction, and I would think, have more important priorities.

RC: What are you currently professionally involved in?

LJDES: It's all about music. Sadly, I do not enjoy the refuge of a day job!

RC: Is there anyone you would care to talk about, who has had a pivotal roll in your musical life?

LJDES: Celibidache. 24 years ago, a defining now point of blinding clarity that I feel to this very day. That is how I am able to feebly describe my debt to him.

RC: Thank you.

LJDES: Thank you.

rangac@sundayobserver.lk

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