Saxophonist and composer Aakash Mittal reflects on the creation of Nocturne, which he will perform with his band, Awaz Trio, at the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, September 27.

Looking out of the airplane window I could see the city of Kolkata rising to meet me. Cars and people crowded the winding streets. From this height the roads looked like a vast network of tributaries drawing spidery lines around Kolkata's asperous and weathered architecture. As we descended I became suddenly aware of the new life I was beginning. I was embarking on a fourteen-month journey to Kolkata through a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies. While I had visited India several times before for short music intensives, this would be my longest study abroad and would personally mark the end of my life in Colorado.

The project I proposed was to study evening and night ragas with Hindustani musician and composer Prattyush Banerjee. My studies would be a deep dive into the concept of Samay (pronounced "sum-ai"). Samay translates to English as "time" and is a term that describes the association between Hindustani ragas with specific times of day and seasons. Within some communities, Hindustani musicians adhere to a strict interpretation of samay and will only perform or practice a raga during its allotted timeframe. Drawing from this concept, my fellowship would culminate in the premiere of a work for saxophone, guitar, and mridangam that would offer my own perspective of what night music could be. I titled the series Nocturne.

Living in Kolkata transformed my perception of the night. In contrast to the deep silence of Northern Colorado's arid mountains and plains, which had been my home for fifteen years, Kolkata was an explosion of vibration, density, and momentum as the heat of the day subsided at dusk. For a handful of hours the night harbored a cacophonous pointillism of traffic horns, clamorous tides of people, and the ecstatic drumming of the evening's pooja. The sonification of a million improvised decisions within the bounds of Kolkata's branching architecture was my soundtrack to the city.

In writing Nocturne I wanted to forge a relationship between the night ragas I was studying with Prattyush Banerjee and Kolkata's nocturnal noisescape. After a few months in Kolkata, my exploration of city noise expanded to include a study of sound and environment. Specific locations in the city began to influence the music. I discovered that each alleyway, street corner, and crossroads had its own sonic personality, and that personality changed in character after sunset.

Nocturne: Reimagining the Night
Photo by Aakash Mittal
Durga Pooja, Kolkata's largest annual festival worshiping the goddess Durga

The experience of bodies in motion framed by location and influenced by the time of day are a core element of the music. In performance, the trio's improvisations are propelled through the linear architecture of the score. During the opening section of the second piece, titled "Nocturne II," the music builds gradually as each musician enters and improvises within the same tempo. The trio's simultaneous improvisations are interrupted by cued phrases four times, which temporarily unites the trio with a unison rhythm and harmonized melody. The piece continues by alternating scored melodies and rhythms with clusters of group improvisation. In this way the movement evokes my experiences navigating the Gariahat Crossing and market; a nexus of activity where I lived in the Ballygunge neighborhood of Kolkata. On one memorable occasion six months into my stay, I found myself sandwiched between two moving buses with my saxophone case in hand. As they simultaneously passed in opposite directions mere inches from my face and back I was surprised by my lack of fear. An experience that would have terrified me months before had become part of my commute. The city had changed me, and that change was influencing my music.

The city had changed me, and that change was influencing my music.

Through the imagining and writing process I often recalled a piece of advice that was given to me by pianist Vijay Iyer at the onset of my trip. He encouraged me not to try to become an expert in a genre but to listen for what is actually happening in the sound itself. I worked to bring this mindfulness to everything I was experiencing in Kolkata. The path I found became a process of deconstructing each raga that I had learned into progressions of two-note harmonies called dyads. I discovered that each dyad offered a unique musical color. A series of dyads created a sound that seemed to have its own personality apart from western tonal harmony and raga music, while simultaneously hinting of those traditions.

The final piece in the series, "Nocturne V," began as an abstraction of the raga "Jin Jyoti." The characteristic phrase of this raga ascends and lands on the shudha ga, which western musicians label the major third. After several failed attempts at utilizing the raga's phrases within the piece I found success with creating melodic shapes by moving the major-third dyad around chromatically. My hint of "Jin Jyoti" began traversing through the song form, dodging melodies, changing course, and evolving into the music it is today.

When I play "Nocturne V" I am reminded of a bus ride down Kolkata's Rash Behari Avenue that I will never forget. The bus was packed full of more human bodies than I had ever experienced. As more and more people got on I squeezed my way toward the front. Following behind me, people continued to climb on until the final riders had no option but to hold on by the exterior doorway hand rails. As the mass of bodies became more compact my feet were suddenly lifted off of the ground by the sheer density of people around me. With one hand holding on to a bus rail my body steadily became parallel to the floor. I was touching people on all sides. Then the bus took off, full of pilgrims at the height of Durga Pooja*, and drove through the Kolkata night.

Aakash Mittal is a performing artist and composer who employs colorful dissonance, meditative silence, and angular rhythm to express environments ranging from the American West to the streets of Kolkata. His primary ensemble, the award-winning Aakash Mittal Quartet, has released four critically acclaimed recordings and tours internationally.

*Durga Pooja is Kolkata's largest annual festival worshiping the goddess Durga.