Had Naresh Sohal stayed in India, he might now be composing for Bollywood. Instead he lives in a modest house in Brockley, southeast London, and draws ideas for his music from cosmology, Sanskrit philosophy and the European classical tradition.
But then Sohal, 74, believes in destiny. “There is a freedom of a minuscule kind that is given to us, but we all have a designated purpose. For some reason, my fingers have been chosen to write this music,” he tells me.
By now, the champions of Sohal’s music include conductors Zubin Mehta and Andrew Davis and the New York Philharmonic. Wanderer, his vast work for chorus, orchestra and baritone soloist, was premiered at the 1982 BBC Proms. This August will see the premiere of his second Proms commission: his 45-minute The Cosmic Dance.
But Sohal’s is not a destiny that many could have predicted. Nobody in his middle-class Punjabi family was musical. His father was a civil servant, and he was expected to pursue a career in the sciences. This was pre-independence India, where a general belief was, as Sohal puts it, that “we should be educated in the sciences so that we could meet the people who ruled us on an equal footing”.
Then, a month before his final engineering exams, he made a resolution: he was going to Mumbai to write music for the movies.
“It was not a popular decision with my father,” he recalls. But from an early age, Sohal had been interested in popular music, teaching himself western music notation and to play the mouth organ. “I just felt that I was meant to be a composer,” he says. Eventually his father relented.
While in Mumbai, Sohal heard Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on the radio. It was his first encounter with a European classical work. “It sounded like it was written in a cold climate, as if it was meant for indoors,” he says. “In the west, music is a form of individual, personal expression, which is an intimate thing. In the Indian classical tradition, you are not expressing anything which is yours to express. You are a guest of God.” He decided to explore this unfamiliar language.
That is why he ended up in London, at the age of 22, working in an aluminium factory. But an opportunity eventually presented itself in the form of a copyist post at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. In his spare time he studied composition, taking instruction from Jeremy Dale Roberts, an English composer and friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams, in the basement of Vaughan Williams’s house. A few years later, Sohal gave up his copyist job and still relies solely on composition for his income.
I’m speaking to Sohal at his home, where he has lived with his partner Janet for the last 18 years. Snugly ensconced on a sofa, he recounts his history as if it were a fairy tale, one about self-reliance and tenacity.
Sohal thinks of himself as being self-taught, “which means that my style is totally my own.” Nevertheless, to claim that Sohal learnt how to compose in a vacuum would be misleading. Years of concert-going and study familiarised him with the western canon. In Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, he admired the sense of “raw power”; in Debussy’s work, a flair for colourful orchestration.
Both these qualities are evident in Sohal’s own music, but it was perhaps from Greek composer Iannis Xenakis that he learnt his biggest lesson: that “music is not about notes, or harmonies, or rhythm. It is about ideas.”
Since then his works have repeatedly drawn on Indian philosophy and astronomy – an interest dating back to his early childhood, when he used to lie on the roof gazing up at the Milky Way. His first major piece, Asht Prahar, paints a portrait of the night sky. His latest work, The Cosmic Dance, describes the universe and its creation in seven sections: Unmanifest, Big Bang and Aftermath, Galaxies Disperse, Milky Way, Sun, Moon and Earth. It draws inspiration from similarities between the Big Bang theory and Sanskrit texts dating back thousands of years, particularly the Rig Veda and the Upanishads.
“Where did this Big Bang come from?” he asks, sounding almost accusatory. “There must have been something there to bang because how could something come from absolute nothing?” It’s a question that concerned Indian philosophers thousands of years before modern science caught up, he points out.
“Passages in the Upanishads describe the universe as cyclical: growing out of next to nothing and going back to next to nothing.”
These metaphysical speculations help to illuminate The Cosmic Dance, as a glance at the score reveals. The opening section describes the lead-up to the Big Bang: it is music peppered with silences, and devices that cloud perceptions of passing time, culminating, perhaps not surprisingly, in a huge crash.
As the minutes add up to hours, Sohal gets into his stride, his dignified, meditative manner giving him the aura of a sage. Amid all this talk of timelessness, it seems crass to mention the time.
What is most striking about the score is its operatic quality. Although the work does not feature voices, there is something almost Wagnerian about Sohal’s predilection for opulent orchestration, musical symbolism and epic narrative: he admits that his greatest ambition now is to write a fully fledged opera. Save for its source of inspiration, The Cosmic Dance, like most of Sohal’s works, seems to be rooted in the European idiom. “I don’t take anything from Indian music,” he says. In fact Sohal objects to any labelling of his music according to geographical categories.
“I am not representing India. I am not representing the west. I am the creator of my work so I should represent me. I am old enough to know what my ideas are,” he says, “and who I am.”
‘The Cosmic Dance’, Royal Albert Hall, London, August 2, www.bbc.co.uk/proms