Towards the end of last year, film composer and classical musician Lakshman Joseph De Saram, a regular at Poetry P’lau gatherings, turned up early for one with his violin in tow – a breathtakingly beautiful late 17th century instrument. There were just a few of us present and the poetry session had not started yet, so he told us about the violin’s story and how it became his. And then, for a few minutes, he played for us – the first violin part of ‘Quando m’en vo’ from La Boheme. Having Lakshman play such a moving piece in that small space on that beautiful instrument was an experience I will never forget. It filled the room and filled our hearts completely. I was completely enthralled and count the experience among my most valued memories. This is a man who has not only brought us some incredible and deeply-moving music, but one who has also focused the international spotlight on Sri Lanka as an international award-winning film composer and classical musician. And as the Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo, Lakshman is working tirelessly to spearhead change in the classical music scene in Sri Lanka and make the profession of classical music making a financially-viable endeavour, which he asserts is the only way classical music for public consumption in Sri Lanka can improve. Here he speaks about art, inspiration, the creative process and music:
Q: How important is art?
A: I do feel that art can represent and mirror our highest human ideals, a most tangible expression of empathy and emotion. I have always believed that society, civilisation, uses art as its yardstick for human development, both individual and collectively, and the art we leave behind, be it the Gal Vihara or Bruckner’s 9th, gives us hope, however naively, that we are capable of actions other than slaughtering each other.
Q: How has music shaped your life?
A: Music has been integral to my life from day one; from my father making out a careful playlist of the first music I would hear as a newborn, to various other important benchmarks in life, music has been a constant.
Q: When creating, what inspires you?
A: For film and video, inspiration usually comes from the content provided, the story, the visual. I do not have the courage yet, to compose music inspired by my personal feelings towards life, love, death or whatever. Besides, I’m really not interested in hearing it, even if I found the courage.
Q: How do you keep yourself open to new ideas creatively?
A: I consciously listen to the world around me. It can be anything, like now for instance, a dog barking, a kid screaming, call to prayer, a bus horn, the white noise of a ceiling fan, a cup being stirred, Rossini on iTunes. My mind delineates, taking in as much as I can and layering it. It helps me.
Q: What is your work process?
A: I don’t have a strict routine, of the 14 films I’ve scored so far, they all had different entry points and requirements. If there are a few things in common, it would be blank manuscript paper, upright piano, 5B pencil and a coffee machine.
Q: Did you always know you would be a musician; was there a defining point?
A: I had no choice, the decision was made for me when I was around 12, and that’s considered old these days.
Q: If not for music, what career path do you think you would have chosen and why?
A: I don’t know why, but as a kid, I always wanted to be a film producer, later, a surgeon. No reasons really.
Q: What’s your most memorable and cherished musical experience?
A: The most ‘memorable’ usually happen to be the most embarrassing for me, best left alone. The most cherished musical experience, hard to say really, other than I can still find myself crying irrationally listening to random pieces of music or being pleasantly startled at certain live performances. I cherish those moments, I suppose.
Q: What’s your favourite instrument?
A: If you were to abandon me on that proverbial desert island with just one instrument, I think I would like to have a classical guitar, an instrument that you can spend hours doodling around with making pleasant-ish enough sounds, harmonically self-contained too.
And the fundamental sound, it’s almost designed only for your ears, the intimacy is tangible, you find yourself hugging it. It’s also an instrument that you can literally take to bed, play it lying down. Try playing a violin in bed, you’ll end up gouging out an eye. .
Q: What’s your take on the classical music scene in Sri Lanka and how can it be improved?
A: My take on the classical scene here is the same as everyone else’s, the scene has been nurtured mostly by altruistic amateurs for as long as we know. The only way classical music for public consumption in Sri Lanka can improve is by making the profession of classical music making a financially-viable endeavour.
Talented musicians either leave the country to further educate themselves in the art or they go into entirely different fields. Private sector investment, well-managed, with some Government in-kind support, can make a significant difference. It is my mission to help spearhead this change. It’s a long and many-faceted process.
Q: You are the Artistic Director for the Chamber Music Society of Colombo. Could you tell us about the CMSC?
A: The CMSC is the laboratory in which our drive to change the perception and reality of performed classical music take place. The set-up, vision and evolving infrastructure is fundamentally the same as with any other professionally-run arts organisation in the world. We are grateful in having as our Chairman Mohan Tissanayagam, who has always shared our vision for a more cultured Colombo.
Equally important, our vision, intent and well-received concerts by the CMSC were largely responsible in garnering the first long-term corporate arts sponsorship worth talking about, and that is the multi-year Premier sponsorship from Hemaka de Alwis and Fairway Holdings. We take pride in being Fairway Holdings’ first endeavour in arts sponsorship and having them as our Premier Sponsor.
Q: You also write musical scores, could you expand on that line of work? What is it like to work with film directors and compose for films?
A: Woah! Now you are talking work, and I don’t like to work! Casting no aspersions on film-making, I love going to the movies. The whole creative process, to me at least, is a painful one. But that’s just me, I know too many people who can’t wait to get up in the morning and hit the set or studio. Bless them. I work with directors I know, we are on the same page, more or less on most issues. That makes it easier to argue a point of style for instance. I have not worked on a movie for over two years, but I feel the sabbatical coming to a grinding halt soon. I must start sharpening the pencil and get the piano tuned!
Q: What do you find unacceptable in music and performing?
A: The tedious, the characterless, the monotonous, I would rather shoot myself. I’ll take rank mediocrity, of the riveting kind, over dullsville any day.
Q: You recently said the position of conductor of an orchestra is the last bastion for women in breaking into male-dominated spheres. Could you expand on that?
A: It’s an important ongoing discussion, the perception, not ability, of a woman on the podium. I, for one, have never, not even in high school, had a female as conductor. So, seeing a woman conducting, even as a member of the audience, requires a certain adjustment. And that annoys me. And I think it is pure conditioning, like the default concept of god being male, and you now have to accept that god can be female too.
I’m not annoyed if the pilot is female, if my financial manager is female, the president is female, but a female conductor of the Ring Cycle in Bayreuth? It’s self-defeating and wholly an issue, I personally, have to sort out. I say that because kids now, who have grown up seeing Alsop, Haïm, Zhang and a host of other fine women conductors, don’t have my simpleminded hang-ups, they talk about the interpretation, not if bra straps were showing. There is hope for me!
Q: How important is it to expose children to classical music at a young age and what does it give them?
A: Being aware and having an appreciation of classical music has never hurt anyone, at the very least, a sketchy understanding can make you sound sophisticated at a cocktail party where the highpoint of the arty part of the conversation may revolve around a long-haired multi-keyboard instrumentalist or a handsome violinist in period garb.
But more seriously, if you are able to introduce classical music to young children, be it Eastern or Western, do it. Any form of cultural appreciation is much more difficult to access if you start out as an adult. I’m forever grateful to my parents for throwing me in the deep-end with Rumi and Shostakovich, and everything in-between and around. It has only enhanced my otherwise silly life.
Q: How would you define an artist or performer’s role in society?
A: As you would any other craft that distracts from life’s tedium.
Q: What are your thoughts on artistes being paid their due/working for money – why is there an impression of hypocrisy when it comes to creating and being paid for it?
A: I don’t think there can be hypocrisy; on what basis, unless the artist is independently wealthy, or has no bills to pay, is taken care of by the community in a utopian world, why do you feel entitled to have art for free? We certainly don’t go to a supermarket expecting the milk to be given to you free. You can argue that the farmer milks his cow for the love of it, blah blah. I think the impression you talk of, the hypocrisy, stems from art in this town in particular, being very much an amateur practice, and that most ‘artistes’ here have well-paying day jobs. That’s a whole different conversation.
Q: What’s your favourite piece of music?
A: It changes, like the weather; right now, I’m listening to the song cycle by Chilly Gonzalez and Jarvis Cocker.
– Pix by Ruwan Walpola
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