Talvin Singh is widely considered the godfather of Asian underground, and modern Asian electronic music in Britain in general. His work pushes genre boundaries and blends cultural influences, taking a traditionally Indian classical approach to composition and infusing it with western highlights. For three decades, Talvin has been at the forefront of the genre. He’s worked with Madonna, Brian Eno, Bjork and Blondie, is a tabla virtuoso and noted percussionist, and in recent years has gone on to score a number of films.
After winning the Mercury Prize in 1999 for his debut album Ok and receiving an OBE in the 2014 Queen’s birthday honours, Talvin can now add yet another accolade to his resume. At this year’s Ivors Composer Awards, he received the Innovation Award in recognition for his contribution to British music. Presenting his award, the Ivors Academy called him, ‘a major creative and cultural influence, an innovator in every sense of the word, who continues to leave a unique footprint on our musical landscape.’
Being awarded for innovation is the kind of accolade that prompts reflection. ‘First you ask; do I deserve this award? And then you ask yourself, well okay, but why this particular award? Why innovation in composition? And thirdly, you start thinking, “What can I do better?” If I’m being recognised for that, then I should have the confidence, the focus and the resources needed to continue that journey,’ says Talvin.
‘If you look at different cultural genres of music, and you’re trying to put these pieces together to celebrate the sounds of London, I think you have to be innovative in every sense.'
Innovation is hard to define. It can seem like an impossible quality to take hold of, slipping out of reach the more you consciously try to pursue it. For Talvin, innovation comes from knowing what has come before you and understanding the context, then taking it in your own direction.
‘It’s something I just naturally do, I suppose,’ he says. ‘If you look at different cultural genres of music, and you’re trying to put these pieces together to celebrate the sounds of London, I think you have to be innovative in every sense. Constantly pushing the boundaries, acknowledging the sounds – especially the sounds that emerge from the underground – being influenced by them and trying to take it further in your own personality.’
Perhaps even more so than other composers, Talvin’s work is very much shaped by personal style. Where other writers might add elements of Indian composition for ‘spice’, he says, for him the opposite is true. The foundation of his music is the Indian classical context, and the ‘spice and colouring ‘ comes from western pop and electronica. ‘I’m not a conventional composer, if we look at it from a European or western music perspective. I don’t have the ability and the resources, or the education possibly, to hear a certain sound, composition, rhythm, and then be able to write that in manuscript form,’ he says. ‘I don’t come from that foundation. Learning music in the Indian context, in the oral tradition, using raags and tablas, and also practising the idea of having a strong form and how to create freedom within form – I’m coming from that side.’
Not being confined by the western perspective or formal European music education has allowed him to dig deep into the humanity behind the work. ‘I’m not coming from a European contemporary classical education, but I’ve listened to a lot of music. My early education was just buying records and listening to labels like ECM Records, which shaped me not only as a musician but as a composer,’ says Talvin. ‘I listened to contemporary music, electronic music, and then tried to understand the anthropology of it, where it’s taken its influences from.’
‘Once you understand the rules, you can break them, and you can be very subtle about where and how you want to break them.'
This solid foundation has proven crucial for his practise. Knowing where the existing forms have come from allows you to reshape them, turning them inside out and making something new.
‘Once you understand the rules, you can break them, and you can be very subtle about where and how you want to break them,’ he says. ‘And what it gives you is something really quite special, and quite different.’
The connection between composer and listener changes shape, too.
‘It opens the imagination for the listener, because it’s nothing you’ve heard before. You might not get used to it straight away. It may take time. If you hear something that has a strong reference, you kind of like it immediately. Then you kind of move on – it has a tick box. But when you’re doing something different, not for the sake of it but just naturally, it takes time,’ he says.
Time is something Talvin is comfortable with. He’s not in a hurry to be understood. He has ‘a whole catalogue’ of music recorded throughout his career that is yet to be released, because he hadn’t yet come to a decision about the best way to share it. He wants it to be bespoke, the right music for the right listeners. In a serendipitous bit of timing, it’s all just about ready to be released.
The prospect of having new works out in the world has made the Innovation Award all the more resonant. Rather than feel like recognition of his work in retrospect – as much of an honour as that would be – instead the Innovation Award coincides with Talvin continuing to push the boundaries of composition and release.
‘If I was at a sabbatical in my career right now, I don’t know how I would have felt,’ he says. ‘So it’s just perfect timing. I don’t see it as a tick-box or anything, but it’s actually really good for me. It encourages me to make sure that what I’m doing is highly innovative. I’m very honoured and yet very humbled by it.’