Shane Shanahan's percussive innovations hit Harvard

by Victoria Aschheim

As a Harvard student, one of my dearest musical experiences was performing as percussionist at Memorial Church in 2009 with Yo-Yo Ma, Joseph Gramley and the Silk Road Ensemble at Witness, an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So I seized the opportunity to interview Shane Shanahan, noted percussionist and composer with the Silk Road Ensemble, in connection with the workshop he will lead for Harvard student percussionists on March 23, and the concert Yo-Yo Ma and the Ensemble's will perform March 27. An edited version of my conversation with Shanahan follows.

Having been trained as a classical percussionist, did your expertise in the Western tradition of percussion, including elements of jazz and rock music, influence your work currently with the Silk Road Ensemble? What drew you to move beyond the structure of the Western percussion style to the traditions of other cultures?

I still play a lot of traditional Western percussion in the group. It’s really important that all of the members – all of the percussionists, at least – have a background in that stuff because we’re still reading marimba parts and things like that. I don’t think I would have gotten the job if I didn’t have that background. In terms of what inspired me, I think it was just hearing the music from different cultures. The first thing that really grabbed me was African drumming and then Indian drumming, and I think, just in terms of the African stuff, the fact that a lot of the music is just percussion, as a drummer that was very exciting to me. Instead of the drums being in the background as an accompaniment, they’re really at the forefront. In terms of Indian drumming, the complexity of the drumming and the rhythmic concepts was really fascinating. And the sound of the tabla also grabbed and kind of transported me to a different place very quickly.

And can you describe your work with Glen Velez? How has that been?

Oh, that’s been fantastic! [Laughs.] That’s been kind of a dream come true for me, because he was one of the first people I heard when I was doing my undergrad at the Eastman School of Music. I was given a recording of his shortly after I had heard tabla playing, and that, along with Glenn’s recording, was really inspirational to me. I got his video The Fantastic World of Frame Drums, and started to study that and idolized him for a while. When I actually got to play in his band, it was a dream come true for me.

Does a piece such as Salma Har have an American jazz component, or do you think jazz affects any of the work you do in the Silk Road Ensemble?

Yeah, I think it does. The improvisational quality of jazz is an element we incorporate in the Silk Road. There’s a lot of improvised solos, a sort of group improvisation that occurs, and just the idea of listening to each other – it really is a strong element of jazz that comes with the work we do. When I do arranging, I always try to incorporate elements of improvisation.

I know that commissioning new music is a fundamental part of the Silk Road Ensemble’s vision. Would you consider a work like Ascending Bird, to be new music, or is it the fusion Silk Road genre, or is it both? How does it fit into the context of categories of music today that critics may impose?

Yeah, categorizing is always a challenge because Ascending Bird is based on a traditional piece that Colin Jacobsen and Nick Cords heard when they were in Iran, and they worked on arranging. It was for Siamak Aghaei, a santur player who plays with us sometimes. At this point in the music world there is so much access to so many different kinds of music that it’s hard not to let those different things influence you as a writer or a composer or arranger. So I think all of those things that Colin has heard and that he’s played and studied went into that, and it means an interesting mix of classical Western with classical Iranian and elements of improvisation as well. So it’s a hard to categorize.

You have said, "Improvisation is a beautiful way to connect with other people without the need for a shared, spoken language." What does improvisation represent in the context of the Silk Road Ensemble? Tell us more about the spirit of the musicians when you improvise.

I think one of the beautiful things about the craft is that there is so much mutual respect for each other as artists and as people that improvisation gives us a chance to really listen to each other and learn from each other and learn from each other’s traditions. Everybody’s always eager to learn, and everybody also is very eager to share traditions, and teach other people. Improvisation allows that freedom, that sharing: Instead of everybody playing a part that’s written out in front of them, it really allows people a chance to express what they do personally.

The Silk Road Ensemble has a new affiliation with Harvard. Certainly the idea of commissions with a Harvard student component should be immensely exciting to Harvard student composers. Could you talk also about the idea of the intersection between art and academics?

I think we’re all really excited about working at Harvard. We’re happy to share everything that we can and the things that we do that people are interested in, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to work with everybody. We’re also excited to learn from everybody at Harvard. There are different areas of specialization that I think we can really draw on and expand as well, particularly the education department, because we recently started an education program in New York City. The work that we’ve done at Harvard already has been very exciting because the students there are all very eager, so bright, and really a joy to work with. I think it’s going to be a good time.

Can you give us a preview of Wednesday’s class?

We’re going to use one of Sandeep’s compositions as a focal point. A couple of other things we’re going to talk about are the use of vocalizations in Indian music and drumming, in particular, and how we can use that as a tool to play our own improvisation. And then we’re going to talk about the concept of tihai, which is a kind of cadential pattern that occurs a lot in Indian music, a pattern that occurs three times and then resolves on the downbeat of the next cycle. We’re also going to get into trying to use the vocalizations to help us explore some odd time signatures in the Indian context.

What are you listening to right now?

Jordi Savall, who just put out an album of Irish music. I’m interested in getting more into traditional Irish percussion playing – the bodhran – in the traditional way. I’ve been checking out an album called Falak, which combines music from West Africa with Persian drumming. I go through different moods that lead me to listen to different things.

And for those of us who are concentrating in orchestral percussion or orchestral music in general, can you tell us how having a global music perspective will inform us when we play orchestral music – in music of Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, for example? Is there an international influence that can inspire us when we play a snare drum part?

Yeah. I think, a large element of what I got out of my work with music from other cultures was the element of groove, which is so important in a lot of these different musics, that is sometimes overlooked in the Western context – just, sort of, really, the dance-like quality of a lot of the music in different parts of the world and how well integrated the music is in everyday life, how integrated dance and music are together, and trying to bring that sort of feeling to everything that I play, whether it’s Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov – trying to really think about that in the context of playing a groove, playing rhythm in a way that makes people want to dance and makes people just feel good.

[Caption: Shane Shanahan © Todd Rosenberg]

[Caption: Shane Shanahan, with Yo-Yo Ma and Colin Jacobson]