Although Through the Gagged Silence, composer and multi-instrumentalist Neelamjit Dhillon’s new concerto for bansuri and strings, is rooted in suffering, it’s not all about pain. The work, a musical meditation on 1919’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre of hundreds of Indian civilians by British troops, also considers how that horrific event ignited the push for Indian independence—and how, in the broader picture, its Canadian-born composer owes his very existence to the events set in motion in Amritsar on that terrible day.
In a considerably happier vein, it also marks Dhillon’s return to the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, which is presenting Through the Gagged Silence’s world premiere as part of its annual Global Soundscapes Festival.
In a telephone interview from his parents’ Coquitlam home, Dhillon explains how his teenage introduction to VICO shaped his sonic world-view and prepared him for his adult life in Los Angeles, where he works as a session musician and composer for television. “I’ve been associated with VICO going back 20 years at this point. It was amazing to grow up in this environment, Vancouver being such a multicultural place, and making music that also reflects the place,” he says, fondly recalling early collaborations with erhu virtuoso Lan Tung and sitarist Jamie Hamilton. “And then we were all playing in the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra. This was never something that I thought was extraordinary while I was in it—but when I started to travel and went away to Los Angeles to go to grad school, I carried this intercultural ethos with me, and it was surprising to see how it affected other people in a new and exciting way.”
Vancouver is unique, he adds, in how easily musicians from various global cultures can meet and interact—a case in point being how he took up the bansuri, the Indian flute that’s the focal point of his new piece. Trained in the North Indian tradition as a tabla player and in jazz as a saxophonist, Dhillon only got serious about his third instrument when VICO founder Moshe Denburg gave him a matched pair as encouragement.
The bansuri’s vocal qualities and deep roots in South Asian folk tradition will be highlighted in Through the Gagged Silence, which takes its name from a letter that the great poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, renouncing the British knighthood he’d been granted in 1915. The work balances mourning and transformation—and, like Dhillon’s acclaimed 2014 release Komagata Maru, uses historical events as a lens through which to examine more recent historical struggles such as the Tiananmen Square and Standing Rock protests of 1989 and 2016, respectively.
Music, Dhillon says, “can be a way that people can have empathy for one another and reflect on these different events that have happened, and help inform the way that we interact to shape our present and our future.” That might as well be VICO’s mandate, too, and in these unsettled times it’s a good one to adopt.
The Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra presents Raga-tala-Malika! A Garland of Ragas and Talas at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre next Wednesday (June 12).