What would happen if Steve Jobs had built a time machine and, with MacBook in stow, sent The Chemical Brothers back about 3,000 years into the past and on a collision course with the origins of Indian classical music? Quelled were such fantastical curiosities in spending one of two evenings taking in the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra’s presentation of Samsara at the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater (REDCAT). It was here at the resident theatre of Downtown Los Angeles's Walt Disney Concert Hall where the synergies of twenty-first century Electronica and the intricacies of Indus percussions and winds melded into a unified whole. Add a dash of Bharat Natyam, a hint of Ballet, a pinch of Bhangra, some breakdancing, and a smattering of contemporary Western dance, what was experienced was a futuristic approach of presenting an ancient past art form updated with modern flair.
Brought to Downtown Los Angeles on April 12 and 13 by music director Ajay Kapur and production director Michael Darling, KarmetiK put on full display its “digital renaissance” in bringing together some unlikely bedfellows. Indeed, for thousands of years, Indian classical music had created quite the legacy – both in the motherland and abroad – armed with nothing more than the Vedas and a series of millennia-old percussions, strings, and winds. The arrival of the twenty-first century, of course, allowed the boundaries of Indian classical music to be challengef like never before.
And challenged its borders were - all in the span of about 70 minutes. Questioning those peripheral edges of Indian classical music before pushing them a little further was KarmetiK, the think tank of artists and engineers who pride questioning and redefining “the boundaries between music, the visual arts, and technology.” Case-in-point: Samsara, a forward-looking production that looked back on one of India’s most fabled stories and retold it with seamless intertwining of music, the visual arts, and technology.
Yes, Samsara had it all: the bansuri, the bass, the tabla, and the sitar co-mingling with the Chronome, the computer, the e-Sitar, and the e-Dilruba. Each of the instruments attracted six stunningly beautiful – and talented – dancers to the stage like a flute serenading the most lethal of cobra in a charmed bop. And what is a classical music form retold in twenty-first century fashion without an on-screen visual display completing the collective stories told by the musicians and dancers alike.
Oh, and there were also robots. As in a few instruments performed live – not by humans but instead artificial intelligence.
The Machine Orchestra’s presentation of Samsara saw music director Kapur joining on-stage talents such as Curtis Bhan, Jeff Bryant, Neelamjit Dhillon, Jordan Hochenbaum, Colin Honigman, David Howe, Owen Vallis, Meason Wiley, and Mohammad Zareei. These musicians offered a future of what could be: Indian classical music harmoniously blending with computer operations and electronica medleys. Adding visual splendor through dance were performers Rebecka Jackson, Donna Simone Johnson, Raakhi Kapur, Monisha Manhas, Aarti Shah, and Kiran Mander Sooch.
Together, the Machine Orchestra told the story of “the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.” Samsara relied on the brief retelling of five ancient Indian fables from Jataka and Panchatantra Tales. The evening’s program explained the production as a bit of experiment by the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, the think tank collective exploring “a marriage of tradition and technology” with the performing artists embracing “technology as a performance technique.”
Such experimental performance techniques – which is both welcomed and encouraged here at the REDCAT – was on full display in three of Samsara’s seven acts, where music, technology, and the visual arts connected on an orgasmic level, the dancers perfectly expressing themselves to the ancient sounds of Indian classical music and the upbeat tempo of ambient electronica.
With modern technology allowing the artistic world to reach heights even it never realized possible, the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra demonstrated through Samsara a glimpse into the future. That future is as bright as ever as, thanks to an artistic think tank and the REDCAT, one of the world’s most ancient art form with an extravagantly rich history is anything but ancient history.
Special guests included Trimpin and Tomie Hahn; Canadian actress Agam Darshi (Sanctuary) provided the narration.