Were someone to play you the first few seconds of each track on Prasanna’s All Terrain Guitar [Susila], you might reasonably draw the conclusion you were listening to a compilation CD from a label that specialized in broad-ranging modern jazz and world music: “Springtime in New York” playfully dances around Pat Metheny-inflected post-bop lyricism, “Lava” surges like a free-flowing Indian raga run through a cranked Marshall stack, and “The Keyword Is Love” juxtaposes melodic scat-singing against a gently pulsing reggae structure. Certainly, the album’s nine tracks are a delightful carousel ride through nine varied and eclectic musical landscapes.
A more in-depth listen, however, makes it readily apparent that the connecting thread organically weaving this circumnavigation of world music together is the signature guitar style of Prasanna. With a passport stamped by Carnatic Indian classical music, Frank Zappa, Rush, Wes Montgomery, Bach, Bob Marley, bebop, and all stops in between, the guitarist is well-equipped to adroitly navigate any musical environment. “I gave this record its name, because I felt that all I had to do was stay humble toward the music and let the guitar travel where it needed to go,” he explains. “I wanted it to be an empathic journey that the listener can connect with from any vantage point.”
And although Prasanna is passionate about incorporating the traditions of Indian classical music into the harmonic structures of the West, the India-born Berklee grad, who is also an award-winning film composer, is able to see past genre and try to capture the big picture.
“Ultimately, music communicates as an expression of feeling,” he says. “When I use that as my guiding concept, it liberates me from worrying about whether different scales and harmonic systems are going to work together.”
Your playing and composing are heavily influenced by Carnatic Indian music. Can you explain a little bit more about it, and how it fits into your style?
Carnatic and Hindustani are the two main subgenres of Indian classical music that have been around for most of human history. Mainly because of the Beatles, most Westerners are familiar with Hindustani music and the sitar. Carnatic music is the classical music from Southern India, and its main stringed instrument is called the veena. It tends to be very song-oriented, and there is a strong emphasis on vocals. Several tracks on the album have Natalie John and my wife, Shalini Lakshmi, singing melodies on scat syllables. I think this gels really well with my playing, because I approach the guitar as a vocal instrument. In the tradition I come from, we learned to sing and then play what we sing. Having both the guitar and voice state melodies provides a subtle yin-yang to the record.
The division of the octave in Indian classical music is different than in Western music, though. Isn’t having to work around the precise dissection of 12 equal half-steps imposed by the frets limiting?
Not really. In Carnatic music, we divide the octave into 16 pitches—the familiar 12 from the Western chromatic scale, and four other pitches that are essentially microtonal ornamentations or “gamaka” around seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths. They can’t be played on a piano, but they can be articulated with the voice, and also on a guitar through precise slides, slurs, and bends.
Do you see a conne tion between the phrasing of melody in Carnatic music and the phrasing of melody in early blues music—which also incorporated a comparable approach to pitch ornamentation?
Absolutely! I love the fact that you made that connection. Too often people talk about the forms of Eastern music as if they’re all one, when they’re actually very different. Like the blues, Carnatic music is simple to approach because the architecture of it is clearly laid out. Like the blues, you can take its straightforward structure and use it as a medium for expression. I just look at the guitar as my vehicle for that expression. I don’t get too caught up in the different tonic systems and tuning systems. To me, it’s all just music.
That said, do you generally play in standard tuning?
I do play in standard tuning quite a bit, but I also use a tuning conducive to the Carnatic style. In Indian classical music, a stringed instrument called the tambura provides a droning of the root and fifth. In order to emulate that, I’ll tune my guitar to all roots and fifths. It’s B, E, B, E, B, E, low to high, and use that on certain songs.
So on a song like “Springtime in New York,” are you thinking about a Carnatic raga, western harmony, or a combination of both?
It’s really a little bit of everything. It starts with a passage based on a Carnatic raga, but there’s also a section built around arpeggios of specific chords. Because the guitar and bass are playing in unison, though, you don’t hear the chord changes as traditional Western block-style harmony. The improvisation is centered around an Ab minor tonality and incorporates gamaka and more traditional elements of the raga.
Was “Lava,” the extended solo improvisation that leads into “Nap of the Earth,” also based on a raga?
Yes. “Lava” begins and ends in a raga called Saveri, but the middle kind of goes off on its own. I also use Saveri for the melody of “Nap of the Earth.” The driving force compositionally behind “Lava,” however, was my trip to Kilauea. When the lava isn’t flowing, the mountain is serene and beautiful. When it erupts the mountain is deadly. Then, when the lava cools, it creates an otherworldly new landscape. I was fascinated by this juxtaposition, and I tried to express it through the music.
Your guitar sound on “Lava” is probably the heaviest, most distorted tone on the album. What was your signal chain?
It’s my main guitar—a PRS McCarty— through a Marshall plexi, an Ampeg, and a Matchless combo. I usually play with a cleaner tone, but I wanted something very nasty and in your face on this track. As Eddie Van Halen so ably demonstrated, it’s much more effective to “erupt’ with a heavy tone than a clean one.
Do you generally think about an overarching concept when you improvise and compose?
I try to think about what the audience listening to the music is going to feel. Thinking visually helps me get beyond scales and chords. If you put yourself in the head of the listener when you improvise and compose, it’s going to guide you down a very different path. It’s really easy to get sidetracked by theory and mechanics and wind up missing the big picture. I’m most interested in having the music create a continuum and a forward motion that takes people on a journey.
One thing I try to avoid is putting too much emphasis on having an abstract or pretense for what I do. I don’t try to spin it as, “On this project, I will be mixing Carnatic music with African rhythms,” and do a whole publicity game around it. I believe that these things can come together without having to make a point about it or prophesizing about it. If you feel it, just do it.
“31” begins with an unaccompanied piano solo by Vijay Iyer. What, if any, direction did you give him?
To me, that whole song is very theatrical, and I just felt like it needed to have a piano solo set it up and create anticipation and drama. The melody doesn’t actually come in until about four minutes into the song. I had referenced Debussy and Bartok to Vijay as guidelines, but then I just let him do what he wanted. I believe that once people play your music, it becomes theirs too. If you create an environment where people feel they are driving the music as much as the composer, you’ll get magic out of them. All I have to do then is sit back and watch the magic happen.
Do you have a preferred instrumentation format when preforming live, or do you enjoy working with different ensemble configurations?
I explore a lot of different settings. The day after the album is released, I’m playing a gig in New York with a bassist and a flute player, so I’m going to need to reimagine some of these compositions in that particular setting and see where it leads. I’ve never had a steady band, which I used to think was a weakness, but I now realize it’s one of my greatest strengths, because I actually enjoy being in a state of flux. For example, a few years back, I wrote a song called “Garuda” for the Raga Bop Trio album I did with [drummer] Steve Smith and [saxophonist] George Brooks. There was no bass on the original, but when I performed the song live with Victor Wooten in India, I had him play the melody and it sounded fantastic.
Speaking of collaboration, can you talk about your trio with guitarist Alex Skolnick and drummer Anton Fig?
Alex came to see me at a show in New York and we connected immediately. Two days later, we were playing together. Obviously, I knew about him and his background way before he knew about me, but when we played together, it became obvious that neither of us had anything to prove to the other. We played a few shows in New York City, but so far our schedules haven’t allowed us to do any recording. Hopefully, next year we will have that chance.
Aside from composing and performing, you are also very passionate about teaching.
Yes. If you look on my website, guitarprassana.com, you’ll see a page about Guru-Shishya which is the traditional mentor- student relationship from India. I’ve been fortunate to study with two amazing gurus—Tiruvarur S. Balasubramaniam and A. Kanyakumari—and now have the opportunity to teach some amazing young prodigies. I believe a strong Guru-Shishya relationship, where there is a deep spiritual connection and energy transfer, is important for passing on knowledge and tradition. I also feel that as a teacher you really have to customize the path for each student, because while there is a general base of information, each student will process it in their own unique and personal way. Teaching really grounds me and keeps me in an empathetic state that I carry onto the bandstand. I try to put myself in the shoes of both the other musicians and of the audience, and become very aware of how they are experiencing my music.