Featuring Ash Prema
Tony Mills reports on Ash Prema - cross culture synthesist.
Eastern music has always been one of the greatest influences on electronic composers - just listen to the music of Terry Riley, for instance - but it's very rare for a musician playing Indian music to be influenced by the synthesiser greats such as Tangerine Dream.
Ash Prema is a young Indian musician living in North London who's done just that - combined the melodrama of Eastern film music with the synthetic styles of the German bands of the seventies. As he explains, "there's no pop music as such in India. All the music comes from films, with actors being overdubbed by just half-a-dozen singers, the same people all the time, so there's no chance for new talent to come up at all".
Ash's early interest in Tangerine Dream led to him to buy his first synthesiser - "a Korg Micro Preset, to which I added a Jen SX1000 and an Elka Rhapsody string machine. At the time I seriously thought that I would be happy with that setup, and had no thoughts of updating at all!"
But Ash did get caught up in the spiral of new musical technology, and scouring the secondhand ads, came up with his first polyphonic synth - "a Korg Trident Mk.1, to which I added a modular synth which had been custom built and which included two analogue sequencers and a 100-note digital sequencer. That setup was prehistoric compared to my present gear, but I still miss the analogue sequencers because of their ability to switch notes in and out while playing. Plus the fact that they looked good!"
Deciding to go for the music in a slightly bigger way, Ash played with a couple of soul-influenced bands, but found that one-man synthesiser music was best for him. For live playing this involved another update to the equipment, and so (partly on the advice of Jive artist Mark Shreeve) a Roland Jupiter 6 and MSQ700 Digital keyboard recorder were added to the equipment roster. Eventually a Drumtraks digital drum machine from Sequential Circuits was brought into drive the system.
"The MSQ linked to the Jupiter 6 is infinitely superior to my old setup due to the polyphonic capabilities. The JP6 itself I think is fabulous, because of the split keyboard and patch preset feature (which allows you to call up any preprogrammed pair of patches), and enables me to produce professional-sounding and very complex polyphonic patterns with just one synthesiser.
"For a leadline monophonic I decided to hang onto a Korg MS20 which I've had for a while, because it has one or two nice sounds and it looks good on stage in an old-fashioned way. In any case, I can't really improve on it without spending a lot of money.
"In the future I intend to get another polyphonic synth, and I've been impressed with the very stable digital oscillator sounds of the Juno 106, although I'd really like a Yamaha DX7 despite the fact that everybody seems to have one nowadays".
How does Ash feel the Indian music which influenced his early days has been integrated into his use of synthesisers?
"Undoubtedly being Indian has given me a slightly different angle in the music I produce. The "Eastern Touch" seems inherent in my music, although the greatest influence still comes from Tangerine Dream and I'd like to thank Chris Franke for all his help. I want to get some tabla (Indian conga) chips for the Drumtraks and see what can be done with it, as Indian rhythms are far more complex than Western rhythms. Most of my new compositions are rhythm-orientated: it's all very well doing "alien landscapes" all the time, but it's a little like living in the late 'Sixties or early Seventies'. Perhaps it's too experimental - I think that era has really passed now, although Stockhausen and others would no doubt disagree".
Although Ash plans more recording in the future, his main musical effort so far has been towards live performance, during which the instruments face a real test. "I've discovered how little designers of musical instruments collaborate with musicians. Even at my relatively simple level I'm finding slight drawbacks - for instance with the way the MSQ700 works, such as not being able to reallocate a sequence's MIDI channel once you've written it. Now I can understand why Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze use so much custom-built equipment.
"I've done half-a-dozen one-man gigs at various colleges,and also played at the festival of Mind, Body and Spirit at Olympia with Mark Jenkins and another north London synthesist, Pete Beasley. Sometimes when it goes badly I wonder why I do it - but at the end of the day, most of my concerts have turned out to be both encouraging and personally satisfying".
Most musicians come to the point where they want to put something out on vinyl, and Ash has recently put plans underway to do this in conjunction with the aforementioned Messrs. Jenkins and Beasley. Their new label, which lacks a title at the time of going to press, will begin by issuing a compilation album featuring all three artists before going on to put out individual albums by each. While the other two concentrate on better-explored areas of synths music Ash Prema is determined to open up territory previously only visited by Monsoon, Sheila Chanda and the Indipop label. And, as he's found, some quite wonderful things happen when you combine the best of the East with the best of the West.
Feature by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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