The closest most people come to listening to sitar music is the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
Not to take anything away from former Beatles guitarist George Harrison, but he could have learned a lot from Sanjoy Bandopadhyay, who showcased the instrument in a sitar recital Oct. 2 in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall.
Bandopadhyay, a professor at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, played a piece that lasted about 45 minutes, one he said was almost entirely improvised.
The sitar produces notes that can be stretched and bent, like a slide guitar, though the instrument offers more sustain and range.
Bandopadhyay was accompanied by Abhijit Banerjee on the tabla, a percussion instrument comprising a pair of hand drums.
Banerjee drew more out of his instrument than seemed possible given its simple appearance. Tones ranged from rumbling bass to snapping treble.
The concert was aptly titled “Trance and Verve.” Bandopadhyay and Banerjee put the audience in a trance without the aid of pills or strobe lights.
The 45-minute piece slowed down and sped up organically like human breathing. It featured passages played like frantic hyperventilation, when both men’s hands moved wildly about their instruments, which transitioned into sections of probing, meditative breaths.
The pair played with obvious enjoyment and it seemed like they wanted to impress each other with their playing as much as they did the audience. They exchanged grins with each new idea.
Bandopadhyay’s music is heavy on improvisation, and it is only fitting he and Banerjee were joined at the concert’s opening by six members of the College’s Jazz Band and its director, Gary Fienberg, chair of the music department, on cornet.
The students who joined Fienberg, Bandopadhyay and Banerjee onstage were: Dave Ortiz, sophomore music education major, on bass; Brian Plagge, junior music education major, on trumpet; Al Rigoletto, junior music education major, on guitar; Dave Schuster, junior business major, on piano; and Steve Voelker, junior music education major, on tenor saxophone.
The band played a piece Bandopadhyay wrote primarily the morning before, and which he finished the day of the performance, a challenge for everyone involved, but one they overcame.
The brass elements gave the Indian composition a New-Orleans-meets-New-Delhi feel. Improvisation played a heavy role, and every musician got a chance to solo.
The audience clapped after every such instance, a practice usually reserved for raucous jazz concerts, not recitals.
Bandopadhyay was content to let the students, as well as Fienberg, steal the show, and they were every bit as electric as they are during Jazz Band performances. After each had a solo, they traded improvised phrases until all the music ran together and everyone was playing at once.
Bandopadhyay summed up the spirit of the night best: “Musicians don’t play,” he said. “They just allow music to flow through them.”
Bandopadhyay, Banerjee and the rest of the musicians proved they were more than up to the role of conduits for the evening.