Tucked away amongst the constant hubbub of central London, Bush Hall provides somewhat of a reprieve from the general din. A DJ provides the background music as people settle into their seats. To begin the night, Natalia Milanezi and Arthur Navarro explain to their audience that their new album, "Polyphonic Omnipresence", aims to ‘bring together various musical elements from different cultural backgrounds’ and to ‘explore new horizons through sound experiments to create innovative and exciting textures’ in a fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions. Immediately, the atmosphere is set as we are surrounded by the sounds of a monsoon and jungle in their first piece. Lit up by a solo spotlight, Dheeraj Mishra plays the table drums, the soft percussive sound produced by the timbre a nice contrast to the complexity of the accompaniment. The tempo is relaxed, his rhythms slow and somewhat lethargic until the final climax. A remarkable introductory piece that stuns the audience.
Next is ‘Gypsy Caravan,’ my favourite track of the night. Alberto Cenci (piano), Violeta Vicci (violin), and Lucas Franco (flute) and Navarro on electric bass join Dheeraj on stage. After a minute or two of technical difficulties regarding the piano, the piece begins with the violin playing a tango-esque melody and is soon joined by a flute counter-melody. With the piano and bass playing fairly simple accompaniment, the tabla is subtle but provides an added depth to the predominantly Western-sounding music. The recurring motifs on the violin intertwine perfectly with the flute in such a way that the music feels alive and constantly moving. The musicians are definitely listening to and responding off each other, and the result is a joy to hear.
The other three pieces of the night are similar mixes of melodies and timbres, creating a true sense of ‘polyphonic omnipresence’. The audience feels surrounded by the drones of the sitar, the soft beats of the tabla drums and interweaving melodies of the violin and flute. It is everywhere, even with the high ceilings of Bush Hall. I went to this performance, without knowing what to expect as the arrangements differed significantly from the album recordings. Nevertheless, I was more than impressed. Navarro and Milanezi managed to successfully navigate through and combine different musical genres to create a series of tracks that are genuinely unlike that of their peers in the ‘world music’ category. The majority of their performance was mostly characterised by Western musical styles, however the Eastern influences in both instrumentation and harmony enhanced it all.
After the concert, I got to talk to Arthur and Natalia, as well as a quick conversation with their vocalist, Rahul.
So where are you all from?
Natalia Milanezi: We are both from Brazil.
Arthur Navarro: Lucas Franco on flute is also from Brazil. Alberto Cenci (piano) is Italian. Rahul (vocals) and Dheeraj Mishra (tabla) are Indian. And Violeta Vicci on violin is Spanish [and Swiss].
How did you meet?
Milanezi: We met at the [Abbey Road] institute. We actually are from towns very close together, about 1 hour 30 apart, but we never met each other in Brazil. We actually met here. I did the Abbey Road Institute course [in sound engineering] and I graduated last year. So when I was finishing the course, he was starting, so that’s when we met.
What inspired you to make this album as diverse as possible?
Navarro: We wanted to bring many cultural backgrounds together to create something different. I wanted to go as far as I could from any genre or influence it ended up being what it is and there's lots of Brazil influences especially from the natives, there are native chants from natives from the North of Brazil. It's like a journey from South America passing through Europe, and all this way it feeds itself with different musical backgrounds. It's a mix of all these elements
Milanezi: People label it as ‘World Music’ but we were trying to do something that was not labelled or put into a genre. And instead [we wanted to] create a landscape of sound and textures. Sound is like a painting except you don't see it. So that’s what we were trying to do: paint a different landscape.
What went into the making of ‘Gypsy Caravan’?
Navarro: I wrote this track but Natalia [Milanezi] is the musical director for the show and she rearranged the piece for violin, piano and bass.
Milanezi: The live arrangement of this track is a bit different from on the album. The main melodies are still the same but the album has a guitar and doesn't have piano so I changed the instruments.
And how did you navigate the differences in styles, especially for ‘Prana’s Talisman’?
Milanezi: The vocals were improvised in the Indian classical tradition. Arthur [Navarro] and I were very curious and eager to learn about Indian music but, obviously, we don't know all the knowledge about their musical theory because it's completely different from Western music so we needed their input and rehearsed it three times before the performance. The singer on the album is not an Indian singer; it is in more of a classical European style but for the performance, we brought Rahul on stage.
Navarro: The whole concept is really to bring together diverse musical backgrounds into music so we ended up doing quite well. I really liked Rahul’s singing, with classical piano melodies intertwined. It's very powerful, spiritually. You listen and it really raises you somewhere.
Milanezi: It's amazing the control they have over their voice; they practice a lot, 12 hours a day. Rahul has been practicing since he was five and he has a lot of control over his voice. But they do not follow a Western, chromatic scale; they have tones in between the semitones.
How did you manage to fit in those tones with the Western-style backing?
Milanezi: That is what we did during rehearsals. We listen to it all together and adjust the music, based on their feedback
Rahul Mishra: you just find one or two notes and then stick to those in the ragas [a melodic framework for improvisation, prominent in the Indian classical tradition]. We have different scales in western music you have 12 notes but in Indian music we have 24.
And how do you prepare your voice?
Mishra: Every year, since I have a busy life with concerts, recordings and travelling, I take a 2-month break and go to the mountains, as near to Everest as I can get, and I practice for 12 hours to 10 hours a day. You use your chakras and you have to feel them. There are breathing exercises and they help with control. Music is a spiritual thing for me and I see the mountains, I see the trees and how they flow. I've actually done research on that; that's what I do when I go to the mountains… The best thing about music is if you can't satisfy yourself then you're not going be able to satisfy anyone else.
Polyphonic Omnipresence by Arthur Navarro is available to stream on Spotify now.
Album Cover: Instagram @sixdegreesrecordsofficial