The Rainlore Interview: Asaf Sirkis (2013/06/11)

Edited 2013/07/04


Asaf Sirkis is recognised as the premier drummer / percussionist of our time and is in constant demand. His third album with his Asaf Sirkis Trio, ‘Shepherd’s Stories,’ will go on release on 17th July this year. Here, in an exclusive interview for Rainlore’s World, Sirkis talks about the album and what is behind it, his music in general, some of the things that are important to him in music, some of his early formative influences, and much besides. It proved to be a fascinating chat!

Asaf Sirkis
Asaf Sirkis

Rainlore’s World: Asaf Sirkis, your latest album with your Asaf Sirkis Trio, Shepherd's Stories,  will go on release next month. This is your third album with this electric trio. Going back to the albums before this, even right back with your Inner Noise organ trio, there seems to be a linear progression going right through these and on to the two previous Asaf Sirkis Trio ones, and leading up to Shepherd's Stories?

Asaf Sirkis: Definitely a straight line with the development of the trio, yes.

I formed this trio in 2007 with a certain sound in mind. A sound that was connected very much with the electric guitar and electric bass playing as one single instrument and the drums weaving in between somehow. I think that Shepherd's Stories is a culmination or progression in that direction of this sound. We've all been exploring this aspect of the music and playing a lot together in different ways and situations, learning more about the nature of this music and about how to produce this sound.

The other thing that became more prominent in this recording for me is that the music has become more personalised, or built to fit the musicians on board - Yaron Stavi on bass and Tassos Spiliotopoulos on guitar.

There was something very special for me about making this album from the early stages of writing the music all the way to the post production work - it was all happening easily and naturally. There's always something about a third album with a band I find, some kind of magic that is hard to explain.

Funny that you've mentioned the Inner Noise band. The piece Meditation is a kind of homage to the sound and spirit of that band. It has that meditative/repetitive sound. I've actually included this piece in this album because I wanted to take the trio to a musical place we haven't been yet.

RW: Yes, I felt Meditation definitely, purposefully, recalled the meditative sound of the Inner Noise trio with its mantra-like repetitiveness. However, overall Tassos and Yaron play much more in their own style on Shepherd's Stories than before, and at the same time sound much more like a single instrument than before, with your drums almost literally singing in between. I think singing is the right expression here, as the whole album seems to emphasise melody much more strongly than before, with very strong melodies?

AS: Yes, I've been drawn to the melodic aspect of music more and more throughout the years. For me, a melody will tell a story and deliver emotional content better than any other aspect of music. I guess that's why it was important for me to ask singer Sylwia Bialas to sing on this album.

The name of the album has to do with that too. Shepherd’s Stories - for me that symbolises a deep aspect of melody. That's when a melody that you're hearing for the first time reminds you of something you already know from somewhere, not necessarily another tune, but still there is a mysterious 'familiarity’ about it. Call it 'collective past consciousness' - I believe that music can connect us with that.

RW: That phenomenon of the feeling of déjà vu when we sometimes hear a melody and are reminded of something we already know somehow, from somewhere, is a very curious yet common experience. Sometimes, it happens that, unconsciously and unintentionally, the composer has quoted or 're-written' an already existing melody - I have even come across this in reviewing very occasionally - and, when this is pointed out they realise this with utmost surprise. Would you say that this quoting or re-writing of an existing melody can itself be an effect of this 'collective past consciousness,' as you call it?

More often than not though, it is just that we feel we know this from somewhere somehow, even if not necessarily another melody, but we are reminded of something, no matter how vaguely, I agree. Often, a scent can have similar effects. As scent and hearing as senses evolved well before vision, they can and do often have very powerful effects on our memories and emotions, and I wonder if you think that this is perhaps the explanation for why a new melody can evoke such memories Asaf, memories that have been lost in our unconscious long ago perhaps?

AS: The Shepherd's Stories effect is when a certain colour, a certain combination of notes, will strike something familiar. Its not to say that a particular tune is re-written which sometimes does happen and it’s quite an interesting phenomenon by itself but what I meant is that it’s more the atmosphere, the 'vibe' or the intention of the composer that provokes Shepherd's Stories effects.

When you look at folk literature - fantasies and fairy tales - you'll find many themes and symbols that repeat themselves in many shapes, forms, different times and places around the world. And same in music; there are elements such as melodies, certain tempos, rhythms, sounds, etc. that when they are played they strike some kind of collective memory or some mysterious familiarity.

I guess that this will be a rather scientific way of explaining this although, in my opinion, it is the intention of the composer that can set this tone naturally.

RW: Yes, that's much how I saw the Shepherd's Stories effect, too. But for now I would like to return to the melodic aspect and Sylwia Bialas for a moment. The human voice is, in most cultures, considered to be the ultimate melody carrier, and so it's easy to see why Sylwia makes such a wonderful contribution to Shepherd's Stories, as well as Gareth Lockrane's richly flowing and very lyrical flute, which is, together with the violin and similar bowed instruments, the nearest imitation of the human voice in instrumental terms. The modern keyboard can also come fairly close, so I suppose this is one of the points where John Turville also enters the picture here?

AS: I've been playing with John Turville for a while now and always liked his special lyrical quality and liquidity on the keyboard. I came to know him when we were both playing together in Gilad Atzmon's band about seven years ago. He is one of the most dedicated and creative musicians I know. It was great to have him on this recording, and it was great to have master flautist Gareth Lockrane whom I also met a few years back and was lucky to be playing with in different settings.

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RW: I would like to explore something that may not be entirely unrelated to the Shepherd’s Stories effect Asaf. You have been quoted as saying in the past, 'For me, music begins where ideas finish.' This instantly became one of my favourite quotations relating to music, as it seemed to sum up pretty much how I always felt myself. Sometimes, for example, I would come across an album, or a live performance, where the music seemed to me to be about the musician having had a  clever idea, but precious little else, there seemed no real inspiration, nothing that told me something about the musician other than that he/she had a 'clever idea.' On the other hand, e.g., your music always seems to me to come from deep down inside, as it were, from inspiration, the unconscious even. Perhaps you could elaborate a little on your quotation here?

AS: It’s an interesting point actually.

In the past I used to be very extreme about music being totally a non-intellectual process and I used to passionately object to any hint of having 'a concept' prior to writing or making music, especially when it had to do with my own.

These days, when I think about what music means to me, I still feel that very strongly but I don't exclude other ways of doing it. Having a story or a concept is only an initial invitation to the essence of art which is, I believe, far beyond words, and any intellectual attempt to describe and formulate it will, to some extent, diminish it and leave it empty. But I guess that over the years I've learned to accept that although a concept is peripheral to the music, it helps the listener and sometimes the musician himself to get away from day to day life and get into the right mode.

In Shepherd's Stories I've used the analogy of the shepherd as something that reminds us of a time when we were closer to earth and nature so in a way, I've used this concept as a pointer, a signpost to something that hopefully will go beyond that.

RW: A concept doesn't necessarily imply a 'clever ideas' kind of music, it still leaves things wide open to the music coming from inspiration, from 'the within' as it were, right? Shepherd's Stories has a very loose concept, as you say, but it is still, I feel, deeply inspired, intuitive, something that is beyond any intellectual way to describe or formulate it? That is certainly how I perceive the album. It is interesting that you speak of music that is left empty - that is exactly how I would describe music that is entirely based on a 'clever idea' that I referred to before, music that is intellectualised so to speak and never gets beyond that. Would that be how you see it?

Shepherd's Stories gives us this rough pointer in the analogy of the shepherd, and it does remind of the past, at an intuitive level. Has the process of composition for Shepherd's Stories been significantly different in any way to previous albums? And perhaps you might like to elaborate a little on how you go about composing?

AS: Exactly, a loose concept that is just like a little pointer to what's beyond it rather then a concept that points to itself.

About the writing, I guess that the music I've written reflects who I am at the moment. A lot of things have happened in my life since writing the music for our previous album Letting Go and I feel this is reflected in the new music.

The other difference was that it was much more of a joyful journey. I've written about 25 tunes for this project, only 8 of them got onto the album. It was a very inspiring process for me and because I'd written so much I could choose the tunes that I knew will fit the sound of the band or the ones that will take us to a place we haven't been before, like Meditation.

When I was writing the music I could also hear the specific personalities of the guys in the trio. The tunes 1801 and especially Eyes Tell were directly inspired by Tassos' huge guitar chordal sound.

On the other hand tunes such as Two Part Melody where inspired by Yaron's unique melodic simplicity and ability to deliver a lot of emotion with only very few notes. While writing I could actually see in my mind the guys physically playing the music and when we got to the rehearsal stage before recording the album everything seemed to fit. I have modified only a few little things after writing the material for the album. The guys, as usual, suggested some great arrangements ideas.

I guess its a luxury to work with a band on a third album, this is when a band's sound is usually fully matured and everything seems to have a very easy and natural flow.

RW: Like a fine wine, the trio has become better with age, indeed. Or perhaps rather, like a fine cheese, it has matured. But you also made reference elsewhere I believe, to something that also seemed to strike me about Shepherd Stories - that it is a more deliberate kind of music, a more deliberate album than before?

AS: Yes, there was more of a deliberate sense in this album for me because the sound of the band has matured. You see, when a band's sound has matured it means that everyone feels comfortable and familiar with the sound we're making so there is no hesitation in playing the music, neither was there any for me when writing it. I think that's why it was so easy for me to compose this music.

As I said before, when I wrote the music I could really imagine the guys playing it and always had that picture in my mind. The music was born out of that sense of 'Our Sound.’

RW: That makes eminent sense. Now, I'd like to move to another aspect of the music of Shepherd's Stories. Even on first listen, I was struck that Indian influences seemed much more pronounced than before, specifically in the form of your use of konakol. This is fascinating - would you like to go into this in a bit of detail for our readers?

AS: My journey with Konnakol started back when I lived in Israel. A friend of mine who came back from a visit to South India gave me a cassette of some Thavil Thani Avarthanam - a Thavil drum solo. When I heard it for the first time I was completely mesmerised by the rhythmic language and complexity exhibited in these recordings. I knew that this is something I want to get into. I listened to that cassette so much that the tape got stuck one day in my car's cassette player! But it wasn't until I came to London that I actually started learning Konnakol - first on the internet, then later by taking lessons.

(AS:) Konnakol has made a huge impact on my playing and is continuing to shape the way I play these days. There is something magical about these mathematic rhythmic calculations that cannot really be explained. I like to compare South Indian rhythm to geometry - some of those beautiful rhythmic compositions are built on expansion and reduction maintaining this ‘golden ratio' kind of essence. It helped me a lot in achieving the rhythmic focus and definition I'm looking for.

I'm actually planning on writing a book about it when I've gathered enough information in my research.

RW: Konakol really is fascinating, and it's always struck me as a kind of rhythmic analogue of the geometric 'golden ratio' or rule of 'golden thirds' - I wonder sometimes if there might be an actual connection, through the Egyptian and later Arab trade on the Malabar coast of South India, as these cultures regarded it as next to divine – and which also is so prominent in the visual arts. Would that fit with your geometric interpretation?

AS: Yes, I definitely see a connection to geometry, the ‘golden ratio,’ and ‘golden thirds.’ In my opinion (South) Indian music has captured in rhythm what ancient architecture captured in the pyramids of Giza, there are many correlations.

It’s quite shocking to realize that this beautiful geometric-mathematic rhythm approach has been around in India for thousands of years - some people say its 5000 years old - and that its only in recent years that we in the West are starting to scratch the surface. In modern jazz of today there seems to be an emphasis on rhythm; they start to talk about 'metric modulation' and so on - these elements are in the roots of Konnakol.

RW: I'm sure your book on konakol is something to look forward to, and I very much enjoy your practical lessons on the web.

Moving slightly away from the trio and Shepherd's Stories, in recent years you've expanded your arsenal of percussion with the West African udu and the modern hang drum, mainly I think with the Lighthouse Trio with Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock. The hang drum is very tricky to play well it seems - often, I've heard other percussionists make a complete hash of it.

AS: I started playing those two instruments in the Lighthouse Trio. Since we had no bass player in the band and since the music we were writing for the trio was very specific, Tim Garland, Gwilym Simcock  and myself where looking for a sound that will fit the music for the trio. We wanted to create something special, unique.

On one of my journeys to Istanbul, Turkey, I came across this wonderful bass udu drum - it sounded exactly like the sound we needed in the band: percussive, natural, and with a lot of bass frequencies. I got it and used it ever since.

One day I was going to a rehearsal with the Lighthouse Trio when Tim just surprised me with this new UFO shaped drum he’d just bought in Switzerland, that was the hang of course. It has 8 notes on it, just a simple pentatonic African-like scale. I borrowed it and I started noodling around with it. Later, Tim and Gwilym wrote some great tunes to fit the specific notes that the hang could offer, harmonising it in some very original ways.

RW: The udu and the hang drum were very lucky discoveries then, I guess. Those rich bass frequencies of the udu really add something quite amazing to the Lighthouse Trio, and the way you use the hang drum, and its pentatonic, African-like scale, and the way it's harmonised, is just mind-blowing. Especially on the track King Barolo on the last, self-titled Lighthouse album which I feel could serve as an object lesson in how to play and use the hang drum optimally.

The question arises, have you ever been tempted to use either or both the udu and hang drum in any prominent role with your own trio? Is it something we might perhaps hear in the future?

AS: The hang is a really good fun instrument to play and especially when you get people like Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock to write music for it. King Barolo was written by Gwilym. His approach to writing this piece was to come up with different ways of harmonising with the piano the limited notes of the instrument, suggesting different keys at different points in the tune although the instrument itself is in one key.

I've been tempted to use the udu or the hang with my projects but it never really materialised.

The main reason for that I guess is that the music I write at the moment doesn't seem to require that kind of sound, to my ears, its more the sound of the drums that I hear. The cymbals and the drums seem to work best for me at the moment.


(AS:) Secondly, I'm quite happy to keep the other projects musically sounding different from my own. I also use a different drum kit when I play my own music - usually larger in size and in the number of drums - than when I play with other people say, with a piano trio.

RW: Indeed, I've noted your different rigs in different set-ups for a while, in say the Alex Hutton Trio vs. the Meier Group - the recent dual percussion set up with Demi Garcia's Latin/Spanish outfit was particularly fascinating and exciting - vs. The Lighthouse Trio with its largely frame drum rig plus udu and hang drum vs. the extended rig with your own trio. This makes for fantastic, differentiated soundscapes, and it is obvious that the udu and hang drum wouldn't fit in with your own current music.

But I'd like to take you back much further for a moment and ask, how much was working with a virtually free improvisation, free jazz giant like Harold Rubin, back in the day back in Israel, an influence on your playing and your music generally?

AS: Harold Rubin was one my most important musical influences in the years that I started my career. Collaborating with him and other people such as Albert Beger, The RTZ band, and Romanian keyboardist Gia Ionesco, has really shaped my playing and concept as a musician. Most of these people where free improvisers but not necessarily playing the 'Free Jazz Style' as to do that would probably put them in a very limiting box. What is so inspiring about them is that they are true genuine individuals, creating unique music with great spirit and open mind. People such as Harold developed their own musical language, he sounded like no other musician.

Recently, an opportunity to play with Ionesco again - who lives now in Canada - fell into my hands. We'll be recording in NYC with Bele Beledo on guitar, Jimmy Hasslip on bass and Mauro Pagani on violin. I’m really looking forward to it!

RW: Free improvisation can be a very liberating experience, and for me, Rubin, Beger and so on have always been something special.

If I'm not very much mistaken you use, or used, free improvisation in your compositional process, recording what you play/ed on keyboard and later selecting the bits you liked, to put it in a simplified form perhaps?

Your forthcoming recording with Ionesco later  this year certainly will be something to look forward to also!

AS: I don't have much time to write music due to my touring schedule but yes, when I do write I use improvisation. Often I'd find a fairly quiet work period and start improvising/writing/recording something every day and just leave it there without changing it or tying to develop the ideas I come across. In the first days, those tunes will mostly be un-usable and quite a scramble of random chords, half melodies and vague rhythms but after a few days or weeks, some more coherent tunes will start to emerge slowly. Finally, after a period of doing that, usually in the last few days I'd be writing material for almost a whole album.

Later I'd look at all the material I've got and start editing it, juggling ideas, melodies, grooves, bits, etc.

RW: Thank you for that fascinating insight into your composing process Asaf. Coming right back to the present and indeed future, you'll be launching Shepherd's Stories at the Pizza Express, Soho, on 17th July. Although you have been appearing there with incredible frequency with all kinds of other bands and musicians, we haven’t seen you there very much in your own right with the Asaf Sirkis Trio and Yaron Stavi and Tassos Spiliotopoulos.

AS: Yes, I've been playing a lot at the Pizza Express Jazz Club with so many people over the years. I have played with my trio there a few years ago too as a part of the Letting Go album tour. It’s always a great pleasure to play in one of London's best jazz venues especially with my trio. We're very much looking forward to the concert.

RW: Finally, a big ‘thank you’ for all the insights into your music and Shepherd's Stories and the Shepherd's Effect, and more. Most of all, thank you for your precious time for this chat Asaf, we appreciate how little free time you get with your incredibly busy gigging and recording schedule. I'm sure we all can hardly wait for the launch of Shepherd's Stories at the Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho on the 17th July, and we wish you and Tassos and Yaron all the very best for it. For now, we shall have to leave it at that, so again, thank you very much, Asaf.

AS: A pleasure Rich! Thank you for having me on board.

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